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Inventors of the Year Transforming Medical Field

[Video] One created tamper-proof technology for drug tablets, the other is developing a more targeted way to kill cancer cells. Learn about James McGinity and George Georgiou.

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This story is part of our “Eyes on Innovation” series, which explores UT’s world-changing ideas, fascinating discoveries and new ways of doing things.

Both George Georgiou and James McGinity constantly chase new knowledge, work collaboratively with other bright minds and relentlessly search for problems facing our world with an eye toward creating better solutions.

One is a chemical and biomedical engineer; the other is pharmaceutical scientist. Both are professors at The University of Texas at Austin who have made indelible marks on the medical field with new technologies.

And now, Georgiou and McGinity are also both recipients of the 2014 Inventor of the Year award presented by the Office of Technology Commercialization.

The award recognizes both men for commercializing industry-changing technologies, preparing students to follow in their footsteps and proving that What Starts Here Changes the World.

“If necessity is the mother of invention, then surely education is its father,” says UT President Bill Powers. “When the two come together in a place like The University of Texas at Austin, magnificent things happen.”

[Read about five great inventions to come from the Forty Acres, including three from past Inventors of the Year.]

Past Inventor of the Year recipients stand behind profound inventions, such as the revolutionary lithium-ion battery used to power an array of consumer electronics and a less-painful blood-sugar monitor used across the world to continuously and accurately monitor glucose levels in diabetics.

George Georgiou: Rethinking Cancer Treatment

Professor George Georgiou

George Georgiou, the Cockrell Family Regents Chair in Engineering. Photo by Marsha Miller. 

In 2013, Nature Biotechnology named Georgiou one of the world’s top 20 translational researchers, and his far-reaching body of work backs up that honor.

His inventions account for 15 distinct technologies, and more than half of his 75 issued and pending patents have been licensed or optioned. By comparison, only about 5 percent of patent applications from academic institutions are licensed.

I think of problems where I can have an impact.” —George Georgiou

“George is an amazing person, and he really straddles the fence between doing great basic science and great applied science,” says Everett Stone, a research scientist who works with Georgiou. “He’s an engineer by background, but he delves into every area. He’s not afraid to change direction he just goes for it. The work over his career spans hundreds of different avenues, and he’s been highly successful in all of them.”

After working with an antibody being developed for the treatment and prophylaxis of inhalational anthrax disease, Georgiou co-founded Aeglea Biotherapeutics with Stone to pursue clinical evaluation of protein therapeutics he discovered at the university.

“The main advantage of protein therapeutics,” Georgiou says, “is they are very precise in the way they act to treat a disease. As opposed to chemotherapeutic agents and other small molecule drugs that are usually taken orally and are more likely to have a number of side effects, because their mode of action is much broader.”

Georgiou creates those protein therapeutics to target specific amino acids, taking advantage of a cancerous cell’s metabolic vulnerability and, in turn, selectively killing only the tumor.

“We take human enzymes and re-design them so that they can destroy the metabolite the cancer cells need,” Georgiou explains. “Then we inject them into the patient, and the enzyme circulates in the blood. It destroys the metabolite, and then the patient is depleted from that particular metabolite. The cancer cells cannot grow, but the normal cells are unaffected.”

Georgiou’s students and colleagues agree he’s one of the busiest people on campus, but he always finds the time and energy to offer guidance and keep projects on track. That persona, say those who know him well, drives other industry and academic leaders to want to collaborate with Georgiou.

“Whenever he’s looking at taking on a new project, he does this check to see if it’s worthwhile and if somebody would want to use it,” says Brandon DeKosky, one of Georgiou’s graduate research assistants. “That’s the driving force behind why so much of his work gets out there he makes sure whatever he’s working on is going to be useful.”

[Learn about Georgiou’s former student Jennifer Maynard and how she’s working on a better way to treat whooping cough.]

Georgiou, who is among the “Top 100 Eminent Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era,” according to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, arrived on the Forty Acres in 1987 as an assistant professor of chemical engineering, and he’s spent his entire career here. Universities, Georgiou says, are the best “engines of innovation,” where ideas that impact our society are first developed.

“I think of problems where I can have an impact,” Georgiou says. “The motivation is not really to be considered an inventor. The motivation is primarily to be able to do something that is meaningful.”

James McGinity: Preventing Drug Abuse

Professor James McGinity

James McGinity, the Johnson and Johnson Centennial Chair Emeritus in Pharmacy. Photo by Marsha Miller. 

McGinity’s work centers around making sure medicines are effectively administered to patients. He has focused his research on material science, pharmacy processing and the design and development of novel drug delivery systems.

If there’s a Mount Rushmore for drug delivery scientists, his face is definitely up there.” —Dave Miller

Medical experts say McGinity’s work, which led to the creation of the first tamper-proof oral formulation of Oxycontin, is not only promoting appropriate use of the powerful painkiller but also saving “countless lives” by cutting down the potential for abuse.

“If there’s a Mount Rushmore for drug delivery scientists, his face is definitely up there,” says Dave Miller, who studied under McGinity and is now vice president of research and development for DisperSol Technologies. “He has influenced almost every major facet of drug delivery in the oral space I can think of over the past four decades of research.”

To manufacture the tamper-proof painkillers, the medicine is subjected to a unique combination of pressure and temperature during the extrusion process, giving the final dosage form a remarkably strong physical strength. Though that external strength prevents crushing with even a hammer, patients are still able to adequately absorb the medication internally.

“The new and improved Oxycontin formulation has saved countless lives because it’s so difficult to abuse,” McGinity says. “The tablet cannot be broken with a hammer, so it cannot be snorted, and the drug cannot be really extracted such that it can be injected into the bloodstream.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration touted the invention in a 2010 news release, saying the technology McGinity invented and that was then applied to Oxycontin is an “improvement that may result in less risk of overdose.”

“The FDA is very impressed with that particular technology,” McGinity says.

McGinity trains his students to “think of themselves an inventors.” He writes patents with his graduate students and helps students find problems and then determine which ones are worth trying to solve.

McGinity’s colleagues and students describe him as a humble man with an insatiable desire to learn new things. They say he is a father figure, always willing to put aside his own work to lend a hand.

“He always wants what’s best for his students,” says Feng Zhang, an assistant pharmaceutics professor who worked with McGinity to invent the tamper-proof pain-pill technology when he was a graduate student. “When I first came over here, he really emphasized to me the importance of language skills, and he paid a private tutor to work with me.”

McGinity came to the university nearly 40 year ago, and he says he quickly became a “true believer” that What Starts Here Changes the World.

“The dean showed great confidence in me when he hired me,” McGinity says, “because back in those days, my accomplishments could be summarized on a napkin with plenty of space left over.

“Now, we are very happy and excited that we’re contributing in some small way to American society,” he adds.

Learn more about past Inventors of the Year:

Thomas Milner (2013)

Grant Willson and S.V. Sreenivasan (2012)

John Goodenough and Adam Heller (2011)