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New program invites scientists to protect patentable ideas

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) is urging its faculty members to share their research abstracts with a campus panel during a key "window of opportunity" for protecting ideas — the days immediately after the faculty submit the abstracts for scientific meetings but before the abstracts are published.

The new Intellectual Property Screening Program is called the "Texas Plan" in the halls of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Washington. The VA considers it a possible model for shared campuses of university and VA systems nationwide, and recently funded the UTHSCSA program to the tune of $250,000. Many Health Science Center faculty physicians conduct research and provide care at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System's Audie Murphy Division.

The program is the brainchild of faculty inventor William E. Sponsel, M.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at UTHSCSA. "Most of the useful intellectual property in this country is lost as people submit abstracts for congresses and meetings," he said. "In our zeal to report breakthroughs, we often overlook the commercial potential of the work. Most people don't understand the greatness of their ideas. We are creating a careful pathway to review abstracts during that key time when the patentable concepts are to be published."

The program encourages faculty members to bring abstracts to the dean's office of the school in which they teach and conduct research. Dr. Sponsel and his team review the abstracts. "The Board of Regents, President Cigarroa (Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., president of UTHSCSA) and the deans have approved this program," Dr. Sponsel said. "It is voluntary, but all the department chairmen we've spoken to have subscribed to the concept. They see the value to their faculty members and to the public."

A 1950 law requires inventors to fill out the Invention Report Form, but many university professors are unaware of the requirement today, Dr. Sponsel said. "A successful new biochemistry assay could yield substantial income each year in royalties, but we have serious weaknesses in universities and VA systems nationwide in terms of protecting intellectual property related to such breakthroughs," he said. "Even in sponsored research agreements, federal law contains provisions that give universities and researchers the right to protect ideas."

"This is a very innovative program with high potential payoff for a very modest overall investment," said Anthony J. Infante, M.D., Ph.D., associate dean for research in the UTHSCSA School of Medicine and professor in the departments of pediatrics and microbiology and immunology. "I'm especially proud of the fact that the idea came from one of our faculty members. Investigators often don't realize the potential commercial value of what they have because some of the best university inventions in terms of royalty revenue have been rather simple ideas that were timely and well executed — ideas such as Gatorade®."

Mindy Aisen, M.D., director of the technology transfer program for the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Service in Washington, said the new program fits right in with the R&D Service's stated priorities: funding scientific research in VA medical facilities, tracking discoveries made by VA-supported investigators to ensure translation to the bedside occurs, and disseminating VA-supported discovery through the commercial sector. "The Department of Veterans Affairs is proud to have signed a cooperative technology administration agreement with The University of Texas System," Dr. Aisen said. "Dr. Sponsel's work may provide a model for the nation to enhance intellectual property opportunities for the VA and our academic partners."

Dr. Sponsel said an institution as large and dynamic as the Health Science Center should, in due course, expect to realize millions in added income annually if its full yield of intellectual property is routinely protected. "Added licensing income would fuel the San Antonio economy," he said, "resulting in new startup companies and jobs and attracting and keeping researchers who are rewarded for their research breakthroughs and who are willing to step into the biotechnology sector."

Contact: Will Sansom