UNC Inventors Honored for Patents

In the past two decades, UNC has become one of the top U.S. public universities in research support, with $577.6 million in sponsored research funding for the fiscal year ending in June 2004.

That support – from federal government, other government and private sources – has funded research leading to patented discoveries. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued 26 patents in 2004 that were assigned to UNC.

“These patents, in turn, often are developed into products by companies partnering with the University,” said Mark Crowell, associate vice chancellor for economic development and technology transfer at UNC.

Of the 26 UNC patents, 108 individuals were named as inventors, and 25 currently work at UNC. For the most part, the others represent undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students who have left the University after receiving their degrees or who were collaborators at other institutions.

The 25 current UNC inventors received a plaque – a replica in brass of the front page of their patents – at a recent campus ceremony honoring their achievement.

Among those receiving plaques, four faculty members were named as inventors on more than one of the patents issued in 2004:

  • Joseph DeSimone, William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, was named on seven patents;
  • Richard Tidwell, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, was named on three patents; and
  • Kuo-Hsiung Lee, Kenan Professor of pharmacy and director of the School of Pharmacy’s Natural Products Laboratory; and Ronald I. Swanstrom, professor of biochemistry and biophysics, each were named on two patents.

Ten of the patents have been licensed to six UNC startup companies (AlphaVax, Asklepios BioPharmaceutical Inc., Immtech International, Micell Technologies, Qualyst and Xintek), and seven have been licensed to eight companies not related to UNC. One patent is the subject of a negotiation for a University startup.

“UNC faculty members conduct research that creates knowledge and useful technologies,” Crowell said. “Through startups and spin-offs, our faculty’s inventions are also creating jobs for the state’s economy.”

The emerging field of genome sciences, which is unraveling the mysteries of DNA, is among the challenges that Carolina scientists are tackling.

Jude Samulski, associate professor of pharmacology, conducts research on the dependent parvovirus adeno-associated virus (AAV), focusing on the use of AAV as an alternative viral vector for gene delivery. Samulski, who directs the Gene Therapy Center in UNC’s School of Medicine, has established long-term gene expression with his vector, facilitating the transition of gene therapy out of the laboratory and into clinical trial.

Inventions arising from Samulski’s work have been licensed to several companies, including Asklepios BioPharmaceutical Inc., a company he started. The Muscular Dystrophy Association has awarded a $1.6 million grant to Asklepios to develop gene therapy strategies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal, childhood-onset disease.

The grant funding is the largest awarded to a private company in Muscular Dystrophy Association’s 54-year history and will fund a phase I clinical trial expected to begin this summer.

Robert Johnston, UNC professor of microbiology and immunology and director of the Carolina Vaccine Institute, and Nancy L. Davis, UNC research professor in the Carolina Vaccine Institute, have collaborated with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in studying Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEE).

The group first developed candidate vaccines against the virus and subsequently modified the virus for use as a safe delivery system for a variety of vaccines.

Further collaboration with Swanstrom led to the development of a VEE-vectored HIV vaccine directed against the prevalent subtype of HIV found in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Clinical trials testing the vaccine are now under way. AlphaVax, a UNC biotechnology spin-off, holds the commercial license for the VEE technology and has contributed to the development and manufacture of the trial vaccine.

Tidwell’s research focuses on the design and synthesis of new drugs for the treatment of infectious disease. Tidwell and his collaborators demonstrated that certain drugs synthesized to fight AIDS-related infections were effective against African sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis, two diseases that kill millions of people in developing nations.

This work is being further developed by a consortium of researchers led by Tidwell and funded by a $15.1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Immtech International Inc. has acquired the commercial rights to the compounds and is working with the consortium to conduct clinical trials.

Kim Brouwer, a professor in UNC’s School of Pharmacy, developed a method for using cultured cells to evaluate the susceptibility of drug candidates to excretion by the liver. This technology has been licensed to Qualyst, founded in 2001 on research conducted by Brouwer and two of her School of Pharmacy colleagues: Dhiren Thakker, Ferguson Distinguished Professor and associate dean for graduate education and scholarship, and Gary Pollack, professor and executive associate dean.

Brouwer, Davis, DeSimone, Johnson, Lee, Samulski, Swanstrom and Tidwell were among those receiving recognition for their 2004 patents.

Also recognized for their accomplishments were:

  • Stephen Aylward, associate professor of radiology;
  • Albert S. Baldwin, professor of biology;
  • Elizabeth Bullitt, professor in the department of surgery;
  • Elodia Cole, research associate in the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center;
  • Hiawatha Demby, systems programmer for UNC Information Technology Services;
  • Channing J. Der, professor of pharmacology and UNC Lineberger member;
  • Frank S. French, professor of pediatrics and director of the UNC Laboratories for Reproductive Biology;
  • Daniel S. Fritsch, research assistant professor of radiation oncology;
  • Gary L. Glish, professor of chemistry;
  • Beverly H. Koller, associate professor of genetics;
  • Robert P. Kusy, professor of orthodontics and dental research;
  • Anselmo A. Lastra, associate professor of computer science;
  • Steven Offenbacher, professor of dental research;
  • Stephen M. Pizer, Kenan Professor of computer science;
  • Leandra Vicci, lecturer and director of the UNC Microelectronic Systems Laboratory;
  • Elizabeth M. Wilson, professor of pediatrics; and
  • Otto Zhou, Lyle Jones Professor of materials science in the department of physics and astronomy.

The UNC Office of Technology Development manages the University’s patenting process, including the filing, prosecution and maintenance. When University inventors express interest in forming startup companies to develop and commercialize their inventions, the office works with the local entrepreneurial and venture capital communities to facilitate the process of forming the company.

Where commercialization is best accomplished by partnering with existing companies, the office works with the inventors to identify potential corporate partners to develop and commercialize inventions and to negotiate license agreement. The office also negotiates confidential agreements for the purpose of protecting intellectual property.

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