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UW-Eau Claire Chemistry Faculty Patenting Fluorescent Probes

RELEASED: June 9, 2005

live human fibroblast cells stained with fluoresence microscopy probe
This real-color photomicrograph shows a newly developed probe staining the Golgi apparatus (which serves as a cell's packaging and delivery center) in a live human fibroblast cell. (UW-Eau Claire photo by Lori Scardino)

EAU CLAIRE — If all goes as planned, work in the medical science and diagnostic industries will advance because of the research of two University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire chemistry professors.

Dr. David Lewis, an organic chemist, and Dr. Scott Hartsel, a biochemist, have developed a new class of probes (or dyes) for fluorescence microscopy of live cells. The probes can potentially be used for a variety of medical and diagnostic purposes, ranging from mass screening of cholesterol-lowering drugs to stem cell or cancer research to studying metabolic diseases of lysosomes such as Tay-Sachs disease, Lewis and Hartsel said.

"The potential uses are many and they are significant," Hartsel said of the fluorescence probes. "If used by medical and diagnostic industries, it's going to be good for a whole bunch of people."

A number of techniques have been developed to look at cells under microscopes, Lewis said, explaining that fluorescence microscopy allows scientists to look at specific parts of the cell by using fluorescent compounds to make only the target parts of the cell visible. But none of the existing techniques were efficient or easy to work with, and few allowed scientists to work with living cells, he said.

In contrast, the probes developed by Lewis and Hartsel provide the quality, ease and efficiency scientists crave, Hartsel said.

"The first time I used these probes it was like looking at the Milky Way — it was just so beautiful," Hartsel said. "I was so used to using bad probes that I could barely believe what I was seeing. They lit up beautifully and stayed on. The probes I'd been using would literally disappear as you watched them. By the time you could focus and take a photo, they were gone."

"All of our dyes share the properties of being chemically stable, easy to prepare and easy to deliver to the cells," Lewis said. "For example, our protocol for examining cholesterol in cells takes 10 minutes. Competing protocols using commercially available dyes require from 30 minutes to more than six hours for the same observation. And they require the use of highly toxic reagents."

Lewis oversees a team of student researchers who prepare the dyes used by Hartsel and his students.

"The chemistry is clean and easy, and does not result in the generation of large quantities of hazardous waste," Lewis said. "The compounds have the added advantage of being quite stable, giving them long shelf lives, unlike many of the commercially available dyes, which must be stored at very low temperature and used within a short time frame."

Hartsel and Lewis are working with WiSys Technology Foundation, an organization that offers UW System faculty free patenting and licensing services. The organization helps faculty determine what is patentable and assists them with preparing a disclosure that describes their invention. If the invention has market potential, WiSys patents the invention and markets it to companies in Wisconsin and beyond.

After WiSys determined the probes had marketing potential, it entered into a patenting agreement with Hartsel and Lewis and is already working with several companies on licensing agreements, Hartsel said, noting that the complex patenting process will likely be completed in a year or so.

"The patenting process and securing FDA approvals are lengthy and costly processes," Lewis said. "But securing a patent is the only way that a company will invest the money to obtain FDA approval, because they need to be assured of a return on their investment. If they spend the millions to get the FDA approval and don't have a patent, another company could use the probes without investing a penny. No company is going to do that, so a patent is the only way we can get this into practical use."

Once the patent is in place, WiSys will receive 80 percent of any earnings from the sale of the probes, and Hartsel and Lewis will receive 20 percent of the earnings. Patents currently grant exclusivity rights for 20 years.

"WiSys is an excellent organization," Lewis said. "There is no way we could do this on our own. They are doing all the work and trying to sell it, which is not a cheap or easy process."

Being involved in research that is being patented is extremely valuable to the student researchers involved in the project, Hartsel said.

"The students love this," Hartsel said. "It gives their work an extra level of meaning. They're part of inventing a product that will hopefully be on the market — a product that can have enormous benefits to drug research and medical science. It'd be unusual for a graduate student at a large school to be involved in this kind of work. So doing this as a sophomore at a mid-size public university is extraordinary."

The lessons students are learning extend far beyond basic science, Hartsel said. "They'll leave here savvy about how things are done," he said. "They'll know about patents and licenses and how to keep good records. They'll be smarter about the process than many of their peers."

And students are learning that while science is fun, it's also a serious business that can yield many rewards if done correctly, Hartsel said.

"These lessons are very important because we are training the next generation of scientists," Lewis said. "We're giving them real-world experiences, which will make them better scientists in the future. They're seeing firsthand that real science is the most fascinating thing in the world to do. You can't simulate real science; you need to let them experience it."

That philosophy is paying big dividends for UW-Eau Claire's chemistry graduates, Lewis said, noting that students are routinely accepted into the country's most prestigious chemistry graduate programs and medical schools. And often, he said, it's their research experience — not their grades — that are getting them in.

Hartsel said he'll donate any earnings he receives from the patent to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation so the money can support additional research.



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