To treat two clusters of diabetic ulcers on her feet and shins, Victoria Harris' doctor in Stuarts Draft sent her 45 minutes east to the University of Virginia Medical Center.
At the Medical Center, Harris' physician told her, the doctors treat chronic wounds and serious burns with an amazing gooey yellow antimicrobial cream that isn't available at any other hospital in the nation.
"He sent me over here primarily because of this stuff," said Harris, as a nurse applied it to her open wounds. "He said you can't get it anywhere else and that it works great. I said, 'OK,
The topical ointment - known as Pluronic F-68 - is a concoction invented by Dr. George T. Rodeheaver and his colleagues in UVa's department of plastic surgery in the 1970s.
For the past decade, the gel has been in use at UVa's burn ward and chronic wound care clinic. It helps heal open wounds such as ulcers, as well as second- and third-degree burns.
At UVa, Rodeheaver's gel has taken the place of popular antibacterial creams like Silvadene. Because Pluronic is water-soluble, it washes out of wounds easily and is less painful when removing bandages.
More than 2,000 jars of Pluronic were emptied last year at UVa, coming to about six jars of ointment per day.
"It's taken off," said Dr. Catherine Ratliff, who has helped run the chronic wound center for 14 years. "I get calls from across the country from people asking for our black gold. They've all heard about our magic salve."
Now, Rodeheaver and Dr. Adam Katz, also in the department of plastic surgery, have founded a company called PluroGen Therapeutics Inc. to sell the renowned yellow goo to other hospitals and clinics.
"We realized that this stuff ought to be available outside of UVa," Katz said.
The company is seeking regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration for Pluronic's use as a burn gel. The FDA allows hospitals to treat patients with homemade mixes, but does not permit them to be used elsewhere without clinical trials.
"We've got some difficult hurdles ahead of us, but we're trudging along and making progress," Katz said.
On Katz's first day at UVa's chronic wound care clinic six years ago, he asked for a jar of the topical drug Silvadene to treat a patient's injuries. Instead, he was handed a jar of Pluronic.
"Initially, I was incredibly skeptical and cynical about it. I was like, 'What is this mom-and-pop thing-'" Katz said. "But eventually I came around and started to believe that this stuff works really, really well."
Earlier this month, PluroGen finished its initial start-up fundraising phase, collecting $1.6 million in investments.
The Virginia Active Angel Network, a Charlottesville investment club, chipped in the campaign's final $50,000, the company said.
Neal G. Koller, the company's president and chief executive officer, said his goal is to obtain FDA approval for the gel by next April, in time for the 2008 annual meeting of the American Burn Association in Chicago.
"We're getting the job done," he said. "We're moving right along."
Koller said the gel's target markets - burn and chronic wound care - are experiencing annual growth rates of 10 percent to 12 percent.
With the coming wave of retiring baby boomers, Koller added, the need for antimicrobial ointment will increase as more seniors experience health problems like Harris' diabetic ulcers.
"The market is huge - and it's going to get bigger," Koller said.