Jordan Despanie adheres to the Jewish concept of Tikkun olam – literally to “repair the world” through acts of kindness that help alleviate suffering.

The Pharmaceutical Sciences PhD candidate, who will receive his degree from the USC School of Pharmacy on May 11, has put this lofty ideal to practical use both as a budding entrepreneur and in the lab of J. Andrew MacKay, PhD, the Gavin Herbert Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“I’ve always been interested in virology, especially gene therapy – using a virus to bring therapeutics into the human body,” Despanie said.

A native of Louisiana, Despanie earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Louisiana State University, allowing him to pursue research topics such as oncolytic virotherapy and RNA interference. He went on to work in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins, where he did research that focused on molecular trafficking in relation to cystic fibrosis.

After joining MacKay’s lab, Despanie researched nanomedicines to combat triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive disease that disproportionately affects those of African and Hispanic descent and currently has no targeted treatment. His dissertation proposal, “Tubulin-based fusion proteins as multifunctional intracellular tools,” built on the same research, received funding from both the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.


Dreaming of big ideas

Three years ago, an attack of bacterial endocarditis nearly derailed his professional journey, as two open-heart surgeries and his recovery required a semester-long leave of absence. More recently, he has been diagnosed with upper-extremity deep vein thrombosis.

MacKay describes Despanie as a person of resilience who has persisted in the face of adversity. “During graduate school, he has experienced more major life events than most people three times his age. He’s always come through these challenges with a new perspective.”

In 2014, Despanie founded S-aima Biopharmaceutics, an early-stage biotech company focused on commercializing an artificial blood nanomedicine.  Though the company closed due to lack of funding, Despanie calls the experience “challenging yet very rewarding,” and describes entrepreneurship as both his “true passion in life” and “a difficult path.”

Recently, Despanie has set his focus on a new venture, Rubedo Pharmaceuticals. Under new leadership, the company continues to develop onsite emergency blood substitute with power to save lives, prevent the high costs of blood transfusions, and eliminates the refrigeration process.

MacKay predicts Despanie’s career will continue on the path to business entrepreneurship.  “He dreams of big ideas,” MacKay said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him running a biotech company in the years to come.”

Despanie, who will represent the master’s and PhD graduates of the USC School of Pharmacy as commencement speaker, said the health challenges he has faced motivate him to redouble his efforts as an entrepreneur.

“When you survive and you know the value of the medicine and therapeutics you’re having a hand in developing, the onus is on you to further fix the world,” he said.

— Divya Yerwa Mary