Alabama’s top academic and nonprofit inventors have produced significant patents, primarily in biomedical fields. They are among the 4, 000 fellows of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI).
Founded in 2010, the NAI honors and fosters inventors with patents issued from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The organization works to give academic innovation and intellectual property a higher profile, encourage real-world use of new technologies, and develop a new generation of inventors.
Here’s a look at what Alabama’s NAI fellows are working on these days and highlights of significant research they have done during their careers.
UAB medical researcher
Work includes: Treating immune weakness that kills half a million children a year
David Briles, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and pediatrics at UAB, has focused much of his research on helping create vaccine antigens that combat diseases caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium, also known as pneumococcus.
While pneumococcal bacteria are often present and tolerated by the human body, they can lead — when a person’s immune system is compromised or overwhelmed — to pneumonia, infection of the blood, middle-ear infection and bacterial meningitis, notes Briles, who holds in association with other researchers a number of patents on pneumococcal vaccine antigens. “A certain percentage of children, for example, have chronic ear infections while others do not, ” he says. “If we could find a way to tweak their immune system potentially that could be avoided.”
Briles’ current work is on protein virulence factors of pneumococci, their mechanisms of action and potential use in vaccines, especially for children. He and his colleagues have identified a cell wall protein of pneumococci, PspA, and are studying that and other pneumococcal virulence factors including pneumolysin, PspC, PsaA, PcpA and NanA.
He points to the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that pneumococcal diseases kill close to half a million children younger than 5 years old annually across the globe, primarily in developing countries. “The vaccine currently being used is based on polysaccharides and is expensive to manufacture, ” Briles says. “A protein-based vaccine would be less expensive and more likely to be used, especially in developing countries.”
Chair of Chemical Engineering, Auburn
Work includes: Microfibrous surfaces that enhance conductivity
Bruce Tatarchuk, Ph.D., holds the Charles E. Gavin III Endowed Chair of Chemical Engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University. He also serves as director of Auburn’s Microfibrous Materials Manufacturing Center.
In addition to a focus on engineering education, Tatarchuk has long focused on economic development through the commercialization of his engineering research. For instance, in 2001, he co-founded IntraMicron Inc., an Auburn-based manufacturer of the microfibrous technology that Tatarchuk discovered and developed at Auburn University.
Tatarchuk’s research focuses on chemical interactions occurring at solid surfaces. He pioneered the design and development of microfibrous entrapped sorbents, catalysts and electrocatalysts, which facilitate extremely high levels of chemical reactivity. With 12 U.S. patents to his name, Tatarchuk’s work has led to the commercialization of numerous products, including double layer capacitors, advanced batteries, polishing sorbents, heterogeneous catalysts, filters, and thermal and electrical conduction aids.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1976 and a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1981, Tatarchuk began his career at Auburn in 1982. He was recognized with Auburn’s Creative Research Award in 2003 and named an NAI Fellow in 2014.
Chemical researcher, Auburn
Work includes: A better bandage for burn victims
After graduating from Auburn University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1964 and then earning a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Texas, Davis Worley, Ph.D., returned to Auburn as a professor in 1974. Although Worley retired from teaching organic chemistry at Auburn in 2009, he continues to conduct the chemical research he has been drawn to for more than 40 years.
Recently, Worley developed a better bandage to fight infections such as staph and pseudomonas, which often affect burn victims. His bandage kills the infectious organisms much more quickly than the anti-microbial bandages currently on the market with a solution of alcohol and an N-halamine compound containing chlorine. That compound holds the chlorine in place until it contacts — and kills — a bacteria cell. Worley and his co-researchers are in the process of commercializing the bandages.
While Worley continues to make discoveries, he was named an NAI Fellow in 2014 for previous work. In particular, he developed a filter that disinfects water, providing safer drinking water for people all over the world. In the course of discovering his advanced, longer-lasting water filtering process, Worley received 40 patents. The filters are commercialized by Seattle-based HaloSource Inc.
UAB medical researcher
Work includes: Immune system therapy for the toughest cancers
Donald Buchsbaum, Ph.D., director of the Division of Radiation Biology at UAB’s Wallace Tumor Institute, has spent his career working to develop treatments for some of the toughest cancers to cure, including brain, pancreatic, ovarian and triple negative breast cancer, he says. “Those cancers tend to recur at some point after initial treatment, metastasize, and then not respond to additional treatments, ” says Buchsbaum, known for his research in and patents related to monoclonal antibodies and their use for cancer therapy alone, or in combination with chemotherapy or radiation.
He has looked at the role of inflammation in the genesis of cancer, how the immune system responds to cancers, gene therapy cancer treatments, targeted immunotherapy and antibody specificity, and the potential use of vaccines to combat cancer. Having served on study sections for the NIH, Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, Buchsbaum is considered to be a leading investigator in the field of radioimmunotherapy. During his career Buchsbaum’s research has led to several FDA-approved cancer treatment regimens.
Buchsbaum currently is working on methods to target and neutralize cancer stem cells, which are believed to cause normal cells to grow cancerous and spread to other locations. Some promising research he has done recently in collaboration with Southern Research scientists is looking at a Wnt signaling inhibitor in combination with other treatments to combat pancreatic and triple negative breast cancer. “Unfortunately our funding for the Wnt-related research has dried up in the current federal funding environment, so some critical research is being put on hold, ” Buchsbaum says.
Physiology professor, Auburn
Work includes: Microscope that confirmed a new anatomical system — the primo-vascular system
As a professor of physiology in the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, Vitaly Vodyanoy, M.S., Ph.D., has long been interested in the vascular system. He developed and patented a light microscopy system that he used to confirm the existence of a primo-vascular system — a translucent system of vessels, subvessels and stem cell-filled nodes that run throughout a rat’s body, appearing in and on blood vessels, organ tissue and the lymphatic system.
“The primo vascular system promises the unlimited source of stem cells, ” he says.
As a lifelong scientist and researcher, Vodyanoy has 10 U.S. patents that have been commercialized and currently has two commercial products on the market. He says he is especially proud of his patented light super-resolution microscopic system. He was named an NAI Fellow in 2014.
In addition to studying the primo vascular system, Vodyanoy has a number of other research interests including light microscopy, sensory physiology, receptors, biosensors, cell membranes, chemically-gated ion channels, transport models, monolayers and bilayers, molecular recognition, olfactory receptor neurons, nanoparticles, biopolymers, bacteriophages and probiotics.
Retired UAB V.P. Research
Work includes: Protein modifications to protect heart tissue
Named an NAI Fellow in 2012, Richard Marchase, Ph.D., spent more than 30 years conducting research and fostering innovation in the health and life sciences sector. He is retired from UAB, where he served as vice president for research and economic development from 2004 until 2017. In 2012-2013, he served as interim president of UAB.
In his research and development role, Marchase oversaw the university’s tech transfer operation, the UAB Research Foundation.
While advocating for increased innovation and entrepreneurship in the UAB scientific community, Marchase also found time for his own research. With colleague John Chatham, Marchase studied how the addition of a particular modification to selected proteins can allow cells to remain viable through periods of stress, for instance, due to lack of oxygen. “When levels of this modification are elevated, heart tissue that otherwise would become damaged during a heart attack remains healthy, ” Marchase says.
While there are no FDA-approved drugs aimed at manipulating the modification Marchase and Chatham discovered, several companies are currently exploring this pathway in pre-clinical investigations.
Marchase believes his selection as an NAI Fellow was “in part because of our discoveries but, more importantly, it recognized the atmosphere at UAB leading up to and stemming from the then-recent creation of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (now named the Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and led by Kathy Nugent), ” he says. “UAB has a proud history for fostering breakthrough science that often leads to commercial successes.”
ABOVE “My calling is to mitigate the effects of high-speed impact on the human body, ” says Professor Dean Sicking.
UAB Engineering Professor
Work includes: Safer roads, safer helmets
For Professor Dean Sicking, Ph.D., of Birmingham, his work to make drivers and athletes safer is more of a mission than an academic pursuit.
“I firmly believe that everyone has a calling, ” he says. “My calling is to mitigate the effects of high-speed impact on the human body.”
Back in the 1990s, Sicking designed the Sequential Kinking Terminal and the Slotted Rail Terminal. Both devices sit on the end of highway guardrails to slow vehicles down safely in a crash. Sicking later designed the Steel and Foam Emergency Reduction (SAFER) barriers seen on the sides of NASCAR and Indy Racing League tracks to protect drivers.
Today a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he is on to new projects. He recently won an Innovation Deserving Exploratory Analysis Award from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, for his proposal to design stronger interstate crash cushions.
Besides highway safety, the UAB engineering professor also wants to help protect athletes from concussions, he says. Sicking and his team have been analyzing video from football games and using the data to determine how head injuries occur. The goal is to provide the data needed to one day to improve helmet technology.
In January, UAB and VICIS, a Seattle-based company that creates helmet technology, announced a partnership to share research and intellectual property toward making safer football helmets.
But in the meantime, Sicking is continuing with his mission. He says he is now seeking more funding for his research on head injuries.
“We will initiate the basic research needed to identify the appropriate indicator for the onset of concussions.”
V.P. at Southern Research
Work includes: Treatments for Lou Gehrig’s disease
Mark Suto is vice president of Southern Research’s Drug Discovery Division, where scientists are working to discover new therapies for treating cancer and other life-threatening conditions like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and cystic fibrosis.
One of their most exciting projects, he says, involves the creation of drugs to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“There are drugs now that can alleviate some of the conditions, ” says Suto, “but we think that we have somewhat of a different approach that may be successful.”
The hope, he says, is to find drugs that doctors could use to treat ALS patients at earlier stages of the disease to at least prevent some of the debilitating conditions such as muscle wasting.
Suto’s own career in drug discovery began after earning his doctorate in medicinal chemistry from the University at Buffalo. He worked for a number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, before joining Southern Research in 2011.
Five years later, in 2016, Suto became the second scientist at Southern Research named to the prestigious National Academy of Inventors. By then, he had 45 U.S. patents in chemistry and drug discovery. Arthur Tipton, Ph.D., Southern Research’s current president and CEO, won the designation in 2013.
“I’ve worked in industry prior to this, ” says Suto, “but what we’re able to do here is exciting in that we can work in areas that perhaps other people won’t work on. We have more of a time frame to work on really hard projects, and what excites me is the diversity of the projects that we’re working on.”
President, CEO Southern Research
Work includes: Drug delivery systems
Researcher Arthur Tipton, Ph.D., spends almost all of his time these days in an office instead of a laboratory.
As president and CEO of the Birmingham-based Southern Research, Tipton leads the 75-year-old nonprofit that today employs nearly 500 scientists and engineers engaged in basic and applied research to discover and develop new drug therapies, provide engineering services and create innovations for a cleaner environment.
Tipton, who has a doctorate in polymer sciences and engineering from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, worked as a researcher in drug development for several biotech and pharmaceutical companies.
Over the years, much of his research has centered on developing new oral drug delivery systems, he says. He also worked on projects to create implantable drug delivery systems that would release medicines under the skin over weeks or months to save patients from enduring multiple injections.
He currently has more than 40 patents.
Outside of the laboratory, Tipton co-founded the drug delivery company Brookwood Pharmaceuticals, a Southern Research-spinoff, in 2005, and served as its CEO. SurModics later acquired Brookwood in 2007 before the German chemical company Evonik purchased SurModics in 2011.
In 2013, the National Academy of Inventors tapped him as a fellow. The same year, he became CEO at Southern Research.
“We’ve discovered seven cancer drugs that are on the market, ” says Tipton, “and in those cases, we’ve developed the intellectual property around the drugs and then out-licensed them to an existing company.”
Retired UAB optometry professor
Work includes: Research of proteins at UAB, microgravity on Space Shuttle
Former UAB Professor of Optometry Lawrence DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D., has been recognized as a pioneer of proteomic research, the large-scale study of proteins. Now retired from UAB, DeLucas not only taught in the optometry school but he also served as director of the Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering and as director and a senior scientist at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center X-ray Crystallography Shared Facility.
Throughout his career, DeLucas was an inventor on 32 patents involving protein crystal growth, protein formulations and protein-based therapeutics developed with structure-based drug discovery.
“My career has involved the development of novel technologies that enable or enhance biotechnology research, ” DeLucas said upon his appointment as an NAI Fellow in 2013. “It is gratifying to know that my past discoveries and patents have been recognized.”
DeLucas served as a flight payload specialist on board the NASA space shuttle Columbia on a two-week space mission that launched on June 25, 1992. During his mission on the shuttle, DeLucas was involved in more than 31 biophysical and fluid dynamic experiments. DeLucas also served as the NASA chief scientist for the International Space Station at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., from 1994 to 1995. As chief scientist, DeLucas was responsible for focusing a large co-investigator group consisting of scientists and engineers from universities, pharmaceutical companies and government laboratories from around the globe in collaboration with NASA. DeLucas received NASA’s Public Service Medal for exemplary performance in support of the Microgravity Projects Office in 1997.
Chief of Drug Discovery, USA Mitchell Cancer Institute
Work includes: Drug Discovery Research Center, cancer treatments
Earlier this year, Gary Piazza, Ph.D., became the first NAI Fellow from the University of South Alabama (USA). He serves as chief of the Drug Discovery Research Center at USA’s Mitchell Cancer Institute, as well as Professor of Oncologic Sciences and Pharmacology and program director of Experimental Therapeutics and Chemoprevention.
Piazza has spent 23 years studying cancer treatments, and specifically why some cancers are resistant to certain treatments — and developing novel compounds that will inhibit the mutant cells that resist conventional radiation and chemotherapy. He holds 66 patents that have been licensed or assigned to various companies and universities. One of those companies is ADT Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Baldwin County-based biotech company that Piazza co-founded to commercialize drug discovery research.
A number of Piazza’s patented compounds are currently in the pre-clinical drug development stage and are promising for the potential treatment of aggressive cancers that are resistant to radiation and chemotherapy. The compounds currently being tested could be effective in treating pancreatic, lung and colorectal cancers.
Piazza has received multiple grants from the National Cancer Institute to fund his research.
Associate Dean for Research, Auburn
Work includes: Emulsifiers derived from soybean gum
John Weete, Ph.D., is emeritus professor in the Auburn University Department of Botany and Microbiology (now known as Biological Sciences) and associate dean for research in the College of Sciences and Mathematics. After retiring from his academic appointments, Weete returned to Auburn for several years as acting assistant vice president for technology transfer and executive director of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation. He was named a fellow of NAI in 2016.
Weete holds four U.S. patents, all related to processes for obtaining emulsifiers from soybean gum. He was selected as an NAI Fellow because of his own success as an inventor and for facilitating the advancement of inventions by faculty at Auburn University and West Virginia University, where he served as vice president for research and economic development and president of the West Virginia University Research Corp. from 1998 to 2007.
Physics researcher, UAB
Work includes: Advanced lasers and commercial laser applications
From his laboratory in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences, scientist Sergey Mirov, Ph.D., looks for ways to make lasers better and more powerful.
Mirov, a native of the former USSR, and his team at UAB have focused much of their effort on finding ways to improve three major components of lasers: gain media such as crystals, glass and gases which amplify the power of light; the laser’s cavity or resonator, and the external energy source, which the medium absorbs, causing its atoms to become stimulated. In additional, Mirov’s research interests include identifying new applications for laser technologies and studying tunable lasers, which have adjustable wavelengths.
In 2007, he commercialized his laser research by launching the start-up company Photonics Innovations Inc. He and other UAB researchers co-founded the company to create middle-infrared lasers. Just three years later, in 2010, IPG Photonics Corp., an international laser systems maker based in Massachusetts, announced its acquisition of the start-up. It also licensed Mirov’s patents for middle-infrared laser technology.
He has more than 20 patents and has been a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors since 2014. In addition, he directs the UAB Center for Optical Sensors and Spectroscopies.
Kathy Hagood, Gail Short and Nancy Jackson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama.
TEXT By KATHY HAGOOD, GAIL ALLYN SHORT and NANCY MANN JACKSON