David Webb (BA ’66; MA ’68) has had a remarkable career in the biopharmaceutical industry since graduating from the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics (NSM) at Cal State Fullerton. He serves on the board of a biopharmaceutical company, Synbal, Inc., and is a founder of Agragene, an agricultural technology company developing novel biological pest protection for crops. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led research efforts focused on developing new ways to treat and protect against the virus.
Pioneering COVID-19 Research
Synbal was already developing sophisticated processes to aid medical research studies – led by Kurt Jarnagin, CSO of the company – when COVID-19 surfaced. These processes allow researchers to study human illness and disease in controlled environments. By April 2020, Webb and his team knew that SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) used two specific cell proteins to take root in cells and spread, and they began replicating these proteins in their controlled models to facilitate the study of COVID-19, with grant support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
By late fall 2021, the models were ready for study, and they proved to be one of a kind. No other efforts to produce models that replicated the way the virus behaves in humans had been successful. In partnership with one of the world’s leading COVID-19 research centers, the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, Webb and his team began utilizing the models to study how the immune system responds to the virus, providing a deep inside look that complements observations made in COVID-19 patients.
By the end of 2022, these models will be available to SARS-CoV-2 researchers worldwide.
“When we started our program, we had no idea that COVID-19 would be a multiyear pandemic. But we suspected, based on what was known by the summer of 2020, that this disease might be around for a long time,” Webb says. “It is now clear that models like ours will be used extensively to study the disease and to become a platform for the discovery of new vaccines and drugs for treating it.”
A Career Defined by Success
Other models created by Webb and his team at Synbal are fueling critical medical research studies, too. With support from Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), a global biopharmaceutical company, they’ve developed models that will aid in drug discovery for autoimmune disease, COVID-19, and cancer treatments, as well as vaccine development.
“It is likely that we will continue to need models like ours to help develop the next generation of vaccines and antiviral drugs,” Webb says.
NIH is also supporting Synbal’s efforts to enhance the process for creating new models, allowing them to be developed much faster and more efficiently. This will speed up the study of human diseases and allow for more rapid treatment discoveries.
Throughout his career, Webb has published more than 200 papers and abstracts, and he’s been involved in numerous medical triumphs, including the development of medications to treat lung cancer, Type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and organ transplant rejection. Branching out from immunology, he is also one of the founders of Agragene, a biocontrol platform that’s developing sterile insects to control pest populations and reduce the need for chemical pesticides on crops.
“I have been very fortunate throughout my career to work with some remarkable scientists, and it all began at CSUF,” Webb says.
Forging a Strong Foundation at CSUF and Beyond
In his senior year at CSUF, Webb studied under the late Jack Bradshaw, an esteemed immunologist and emeritus professor of biology. Webb says Bradshaw’s immunology course changed his life.
“I became fascinated by it, and that fascination and enjoyment continue to this day,” Webb says.
Bradshaw was Webb’s mentor and friend as Webb pursued his master’s degree. Together, they authored Webb’s first paper, published in 1969, which solidified his path to becoming an immunologist.
Webb went on to complete his Ph.D. at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, under the late Werner Braun, a professor of microbiology and a pioneer in cellular immunology. Webb says Braun was also a significant influence, noting, “He was interested not only in fundamental immunology questions, but in their application to human health. This ultimately led to my career in the biopharmaceutical industry.”
“I realized when I left CSUF and went to Rutgers that my CSUF education was equivalent to – if not better than – that of the students I met from top Ivy League universities. My experience shows it is second to none.”
David Webb (BA ’66; MA ’68), CEO of Synbal, Inc.
Webb has held positions and academic appointments at notable institutions like the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, Columbia University, Stanford University, and now at Scripps Research. “Everywhere, I have benefited from gifted colleagues who were generous in sharing their skills, knowledge, and expertise, with whom I found great satisfaction and joy over the years.”
The value of sharing knowledge has influenced Webb’s pursuits. “One of the most important lessons I learned along the way was to always be ready and willing to help develop future generations of scientists,” he says.
To this end, he’s trained graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. He’s also currently a member of the CSTEM Advisory Council at Cal State San Marcos and is on the NSM Dean’s Philanthropic Board at CSUF.
“With both, the focus is on helping undergraduate students figure out a career path that will lead to a productive and enjoyable life,” he says. He does his part by visiting both campuses and connecting with undergraduate students to share his experiences.
Webb emphasizes the role CSUF has played in his career. He says, “I realized when I left CSUF and went to Rutgers that my CSUF education was equivalent to – if not better than – that of the students I met from top Ivy League universities.”
He credits this to the emphasis CSUF places on providing exceptional undergraduate education. “My experience shows it is second to none.”