Dr. Ajay Maghodia and Dr. Christoph Geisler collaborate on a project.
Working from a lab at the University of Wyoming, molecular biology Professor Don Jarvis and his team are genetically engineering insect cells to mimic human cells and create better vaccines and treatments for diseases.
They do it by changing a key pathway in the insect cells, which enables them to produce vaccines and other protein-based drugs, or “biologics,” with more human-like structures. Without the correct structures, these medications won’t work.
“It seems like a minor tweak. It’s not rocket science,” Jarvis joked.
Maybe it’s not rocket science, but it is biochemistry and genetic engineering.
Jarvis uses synthetic insulin as an example of the type of work his spin-off company, GlycoBac, is doing.
“Back in the day, insulin for diabetics was produced in pig pancreases,” he said. “It took two tons of pig pancreas to produce just eight ounces of insulin. And there were a lot of uncertainties in the process, including potential contamination with infectious disease and potential limits in the supply chain.”
Now, thanks to biotechnology, insulin can be manufactured in bacteria, which can be cultured in huge vats, much like fermentation tanks used to produce beer. It’s safer and more reliable, Jarvis said. If all goes according to plan, his team could contribute to the manufacturing of inexpensive, safe and reliable flu vaccines using insect cells cultured in huge vats, as well.
Currently, the most common flu vaccines are grown in chicken eggs, he explained, which presents many of the same problems posed by producing insulin from pig organs.
“To make enough vaccine to serve the whole world, we need tens of millions of eggs produced in specialized facilities under specialized conditions. It’s crazy,” he said. “In 2004, there was a serious flu vaccine shortage in the U.S. because some of the 50 million flu vaccine doses produced using eggs from a major factory in England were contaminated with bacteria. Plus, growing viruses in these huge facilities poses a serious biohazard.”
An alternative approach is to use biotechnology to produce flu vaccines without producing the influenza virus itself, Jarvis explained. The process has the same clinical effect as egg-grown vaccines, but with better reliability and safety – and, right now, a higher price tag.
“Our preliminary data suggest if we can use genetically engineered insect cells to make a more authentic vaccine, we can drop the effective dose by a significant amount; maybe 100-fold,” Jarvis said.
Jarvis started GlycoBac in 2011 after he and Dr. Christoph Geisler, one of his graduate students and now Chief Scientific Officer for the company, won the 2010 John P. Ellbogen 10K Entrepreneurship Competition at the University of Wyoming. It is just one example of the 25 spin-off companies born out of the University of Wyoming since 2009. There are currently two more in negotiations.
Henry Nowak, the former director of the university’s Technology Transfer Office and Business Resources – a partner of the Wyoming Business Council – explained the process: When professors want to start spin-off companies, they partner with the university to do so, as intellectual property developed buy university belongs to the school. They meet with his office to discuss the idea and options, and the office decides whether and when to file patents applications. If successful, the patent application process can take up to five years and $50,000 just for the U.S. patent; a lot more for international patents.
Then, if the spin-off is patented, the university works out licensing agreements with the company and asks for standard royalty rates based on several factors.
“Any royalties we receive are distributed to the inventors and UW,” Nowak said. “The percentage of the royalties that go to the inventors is one of the most generous in the country.”
The royalties the university receives can help offset the patent costs for the successful companies. In rare cases, the financial upside can be huge.
“If there is a very successful company, it can be a windfall for the university,” Nowak said. “For example, Gatorade, which is a trademark, now brings in tens of millions of dollars for the University of Florida every year. An artificial egg-white substitute discovered at North Carolina State University brings in millions of dollars a year. Some drugs that are discovered at universities and developed at pharmaceutical companies can bring in billions of dollars to the university over the life of a patent.”
However, most universities only bring in enough royalties to operate the patent office itself. Instead, the primary benefit for a university like UW is the entrepreneurial culture and self-perpetuating cycle of startups a few successful spinouts can encourage in a community.
Jarvis is an inventor on 14 U.S. patents and has another four pending, most of which were earned while working at the University of Wyoming. He said the university’s support made it possible for him to start the company.
In addition to its intellectual property license with UW, GlycoBac leases lab space in the Wyoming Technology Business Center on the UW campus, which is also a partner of the Business Council. The WTBC is focused on developing early stage, technology-based companies with high growth potential. Clients receive one-on-one business counseling and coaching that is designed to help them grow bigger and faster than they might on their own.
“I could never have started this company without the university’s support,” Jarvis said.