One of Ohio State University’s most prolific inventors, with six active commercial licenses from her work in livestock vaccines, believes bringing innovation to the market is part of her job as a scientist.
Linda Saif, a Wooster-based professor in both OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and its College of Veterinary Medicine, has isolated strains of viruses and antibodies that counteract them, contributing to a safer and more sustainable food supply. Also, her research dating back to the 1970s on methods of vaccination – although it can’t be patented or licensed – could someday change human medicine.
Over the past few years the university’s greater emphasis on technology commercialization has been evident, Saif told me. There are, for example, more people in the licensing office. I’ve been covering the efforts for several years.
“The university has become aware this is a higher priority,” she said. “We have gotten a lot of support from our technology licensing office. They’ve really had a major impact in terms of the communication between the researcher and the company and the university.”
Based on Saif’s research, the university has licensed to animal pharmaceutical makers specific strains of viruses that cause epidemic diarrhea in pigs, for use in vaccine development. This new strain showed up in the U.S. in 2013, killing half to all piglets at hundreds of farms, including in Ohio, OSU said. (Yes, researchers can patent and license living organisms.) Two different strains are licensed, including a one-year joint deal with the University of Minnesota. The pharma companies use them to develop vaccines.
Saif also has licenses on three types of antibodies to respiratory viruses in pigs and cattle, and for gene sequences in a virus that causes cow diarrhea. The genetic signatures are used for quality control and drug testing.
“At an early age … I was really interested in discovery and being able to publish my research,” Saif said. “It’s the companies that have contacted me that spurred me to think about developing these discoveries.”
In spring Saif will be inducted as one of 175 fellows to the National Academy of Inventors, for “prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions and innovations that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.” That award applies to her earlier published research that can’t be patented.
Since her doctoral research, Saif has worked on vaccines and techniques for administering them to prevent widespread death in piglets and calves. She found the best way to protect them is to vaccinate the mothers with live attenuated virus – meaning a virus that’s been altered so it no longer causes disease but is still fought by the immune system. That way, the mothers develop antibodies and pass them on in their milk.
The technique is now widespread in livestock but in 40 years has not been applied in humans.
“It’s one thing to give a live attenuated virus in a vaccine to a pregnant animal,” Saif said. “It’s another magnitude of order to give a live attenuated vaccine to a pregnant woman.”
Even though Saif and the university as a whole are putting more emphasis on discoveries that actually make a difference in everyday life, she said basic research that stays in the lab is just as important. For example, a vaccine can’t be developed unless researchers first figure out the way to grow viruses in a dish and find their vulnerabilities.
“These are all basic discoveries that someday could lead to products,” Saif said.