Vermont has one of the highest rates of patents per capita in the country. Every year, the state produces dozens of inventions and innovations that get certified by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The “Patent Files” is a new Tech Jam News series that profiles those inventors.
Many of Vermont’s patent seekers work for companies such as IBM and Husky Injection Molding Systems, or for educational institutions such as the University of Vermont.
UVM recognizes its new patent holders every spring at its Invention2Venture conference, which draws students, researchers, entrepreneurs and business leaders for a day of education and networking. The 2013 event took place on April 4 at the Dudley H. Davis Student Center; Rich Tarrant, CEO and founder of Winooski-based MyWebGrocer, was the keynote speaker.
Before Tarrant took the stage, officials from the Vermont Technology Council and UVM’s Office of Technology Commercialization recognized the nine UVM-affiliated scientists and inventors whose patents had been granted in the last year. Mercedes Rincon was one of them. Rincon is a professor in the medical school’s immunobiology program.
Name: Mercedes Rincon
Number of patents: Two, with amendments pending on both noting additional discoveries
Most recent patent: Anti-methylation-controlled J protein (MCJ) antibodies and uses thereof
How did she get the idea for that patent? Rincon, 49, refers to her work on the MCJ protein as a “Thanksgiving experiment.” The gregarious Burlington scientist is single, so she receives multiple invitations to spend holidays with colleagues and friends. She prefers, however, to spend those days in her lab. “I used to devote the day of Thanksgiving to special experiments,” she explains.
On Thanksgiving Day 2001, she spent the day comparing two types of T-cells, to see if there were proteins found in one that were not found in the other. That’s when she discovered MCJ. One type of T-cell contains it; the other type does not. She researched MCJ and found that no one else had studied it. “When we started with it,” she says, “there was no single study looking at this protein.”
Through her research, she found that the presence of MCJ can indicate whether cancer cells will respond to chemotherapy. “If cancer cells have MCJ, they will likely respond,” she says. “If the cancer cells don’t have MCJ, they won’t respond to a number of chemotherapies.”
She and a graduate student, Wendy Neveu, developed an antibody that tests for the presence of MCJ. They filed for a patent in February of 2007; it was granted in January 2013.
What’s important about this discovery: Patients who undergo chemotherapy experience a long list of side effects. The treatments are expensive, too. It’s possible that clinicians could use this antibody to figure out whether a tumor would be likely to respond to chemotherapy, saving patients the hardship and expense of a treatment that might not work.
Did the discovery make it to market? Yes — Burlington-based BioMosaics licensed the patent from the university, and is currently selling the antibody. BioMosaics president and chief scientific officer Mark Allegretta cautions that the company is still in the early stages of figuring out whether the MCJ antibody will be useful. “It’s not determined yet if it has clinical utility,” he says. BioMosaics will market the antibody, and make connections with hospitals, labs and researchers who can further prove its effectiveness and generate demand for it.
How did Rincon and BioMosaics connect? Rincon and Allegretta met at a Vermont Biosciences Alliance mixer at the Albany College of Pharmacology in Colchester, which is where the licensing conversation began. “Those meetings, they are very useful,” Rincon observes.
Why did BioMosaics license the patent?: Allegretta says he sees market potential in the antibody. And, he adds, Rincon is “a brilliant, dedicated, hard-working scientist.” Says Allegretta, “She has the ability to see applications of her work beyond her primary area of focus.”
Will the discovery benefit UVM? “Absolutely,” says Allegretto. UVM receives a percentage of the antibody’s sales, though Allegretto explains that he can’t comment on the size of the percentage, or the revenue generated through sales of the antibody. Rincon can’t comment on the dollar amount, either, and claims it doesn't really matter to her, anyway. “To me, it was like, I don’t care about the money,” she says. “I know that [Allegretta] is going to try to make this work… I think that, through commercialization, there's more of a chance that this will get to clinics, and to patients."
But Rincon appreciates the importance of effective salesmanship, which was a theme of Rich Tarrant's talk at the Invention2Venture conference. “You can have a good idea," she warns, "but if you don’t know how to sell your idea, you won’t go too far."
How did she get to Vermont? Rincon is from the small village of Cenegro, Spain. She moved to Madrid at age 14, lived with her older sister, and eventually enrolled at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, where she studied biochemistry and molecular biology. She got a Ph.D. in immunology there in 1990. The following year, she came to the U.S. for a post-doctoral fellowship at the Yale University School of Medicine. In 1996, she accepted a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at UVM.
She says she didn't know much about Vermont before she came to visit for her interview. "I just liked it," she says. "It's close to the mountains, it's close to the lake." She arrived in 1996, before renovations transformed the hospital and much of UVM's campus. Back then, she says, "I thought it was a place with potential."