Dr. Lynne Opperman pauses to reflect on her colleagues’ recent recognition for securing two patents last year, which she describes as “very unusual.” She has spent years laying the groundwork for this day.
“Prior to 2006, we actually didn’t have any intellectual property associated with the College of Dentistry at all just because we didn’t have a culture that encouraged it,” she says.
But all of that is changing. This has been Opperman’s goal since becoming director of technology development in 2006.
Through her own struggles to gain support in moving disclosures to patents, she recognized the dental-science disconnect between Dallas and College Station. The Texas A&M College of Dentistry needed an advocate for dental technology and research to spearhead and guide its innovative researchers, she says, while simultaneously working with the university to recognize ground-breaking research and even patents.
Texas A&M University, a known leader in agriculture and engineering intellectual property, often misunderstood dental researchers’ work, she says. Opperman’s pitch to fill that void was met with positive affirmation as Dr. James Cole, dean at the time, suggested she take the reins as technology development leader, a position created specifically to close the gap. Since then, about two dozen research projects have led to disclosures, she says, and the program has made great strides under her guidance. Current dean Dr. Lawrence Wolinsky is equally supportive of the college’s entrepreneurial enterprise, she says.
In June 2017, Dr. Kathy Svoboda’s “Use of the Anti-Inflammatory Protein TSG-6 and the Anti-Apoptotic Protein STC-1 to Treat Excessive Inflammation in Conditions Such as Periodontal Diseases and Smoke Inhalation” research was issued the first patent (9,675,665) in the College of Dentistry’s history.
Based on the discovery of the anti-inflammatory TSG-6 protein by Dr. Darwin Prockop, director of the Texas A&M Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and worked on by periodontics resident Dr. Stacy Beltran, the College of Dentistry research into periodontal surgery applications proved that a one-time injection helped lab rats recover more quickly. However, it has not been FDA approved for use in humans, says Svoboda, Regents Professor in biomedical sciences.
“It works in animals. We know that,” she says. “Even though we did show evidence that it counteracted some pretty nasty things, like nicotine, you can’t make health claims. More clinical trials are needed.”
That first patent is just one of numerous projects Opperman has been following as she keeps a running list of the latest research in the works, from initial mentoring to disclosures to patents and beyond.
With that support, Dr. Jay Groppe and Dr. Xiaohua Liu’s separate research projects took center stage this spring when the biomedical sciences associate professors both received a 2019 Texas A&M Annual Patent & Innovation Award, presented by the Texas A&M Office of Technology Commercialization, for their innovative research and 2018 patents.
Groppe’s “Inhibitors of Activin Receptor-like Kinases” patent (9,974,784), issued in May 2018, is the culmination of “seven years of basic protein structure function research on the effects of a mutation. It’s a bone morphogenetic protein receptor,” he says. The goal is to uncover treatment for fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive (FOP), a genetic disorder that turns soft tissue into bone, forming a second skeleton.
“It’s extremely rare, but it’s also horrific,” Groppe says. He plans to continue advancing his research, hoping to apply for a second patent within two years.
Liu’s “Method of Producing a Polymer Matrix” patent (9,913,700), with assistance from Chi Ma, postdoctoral research associate, showcases the invention of regenerating dentin and pulp by using a biodegradable, biomimetic matrix to build scaffolding and structural support. The matrix material biodegrades as it is replaced by regenerated dental tissue. This patent is groundbreaking in its potential impact on dental decay, periodontal disease and root canals.
Opperman says there’s more where that came from as the school has grown its efforts to foster an entrepreneurial research environment.
“Those who show an interest, those who would like to be involved in the process, and those who come up with an idea need to be encouraged and supported in the same way we would do with anybody who wants to do research. It develops a culture,” says Opperman, department head of biomedical sciences.
Support for researchers also includes financial, including seed grants and some discretionary money set aside for research. Usually, faculty members invest 50%, the department kicks in 25% and the associate dean of research’s office picks up the last 25%, she says. For the departments that simply don’t have the funding, backing is negotiable. If another department picks up the risk, they also would pick up any potential revenues generated.
“It helps the faculty member still move forward and get patent protection for their technology,” she says, even if their own department has to defer to another.
Although Opperman says the chances for generating revenue are slim, she remains optimistic.
“But I see way more benefit because Texas A&M is very strong on intellectual property and commercialization, and they really believe that as a land-grant institution, it’s part of our mission that we do this. So faculties can build their careers and reputations based on being involved in the process, even if it doesn’t end up being a revenue-generating enterprise.”