Success Stories

Protector: Q&A with Manjula Donepudi

The Ludwig Institute’s senior director of intellectual property on patenting the innovative and creative ideas that spring from breakthrough science.

Most people recognize the term intellectual property, but what exactly does it mean?
It is imagination made real. It is unique. It is Coca-Cola, Lipitor, Spiderman, Netflix.

Intellectual property or IP is an umbrella term referring to commercially valuable creations of the mind. These creations include inventions, artwork, symbols, names and designs. IP protection options include copyrights, trademarks and patents. The appropriate option depends on the work itself. For example, the Institute is mainly concerned with patents which may protect new technological innovations arising from its research.

Ludwig’s researchers are potential creators of intellectual property. The rewards provided by the patent system encourage the investment required to test and develop discoveries, producing better and more effective products for consumers.

How did you become interested in this particular field?
Michael Jackson’s anti-gravity shoes. Seriously, IP is very exciting. Innovative and creative ideas are at the heart of most successful businesses. Ideas by themselves, however, have little value. They need to be developed, turned into novel products or services and commercialized successfully to reap the benefits of innovation and creativity. In the case of Michael Jackson, music entertainers and dancers are constantly searching for new and interesting elements that can be incorporated into their performances. A patent for his invention gave him an edge in his music videos that made him unique.

A number of celebrities have gone beyond their job description and come up with some truly unique innovations or inventions. Besides Michael Jackson’s famous shoes, Walt Disney, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Van Halen and Prince hold patents for some really cool inventions. Intellectual property patents were crucial for turning these innovative ideas and inventions into economic powerhouses. Consider the Walt Disney Company. Founded in 1923, it has evolved into a global leader in family entertainment. This feat wouldn’t be possible without patents, trademarks and copyrights.

When I was doing my post doc at MSKCC, I had a lot of interaction with the Office of Technology Transfer, which was responsible for identifying research with potential commercial interest. I learned about the different stages of commercializing a scientific discovery and what it means to take something ‘from the bench to the bedside.’

Why is IP important?
Think of IP as a ‘power tool’ for economic growth. In 2011, the value of intellectual capital in the U.S. economy was estimated at approximately US $8.1 trillion to $9.2 trillion.

U.S. President Barack Obama summed it up best in a speech last year: “We’re going to aggressively protect our intellectual property. Our single greatest asset is the innovation and the ingenuity and creativity of the American people.”

The patent system remains a powerful innovation engine for economies around the world. Patents are intended to better society in the long run by motivating companies and individuals to innovate; after the patent expires, society will have free access to the technology. Technologies and creations that have changed millions of lives would probably not exist today if inventors were not given patent protection as an incentive to create things that spur economic growth. Patent protection spurred the development of products and services we couldn’t imagine living without—Facebook, microwaves, Google, cell phones, Amazon, smoke detectors.

Why does the Institute patent its intellectual property?
It’s critical to our mission. We’re committed to what we call translating or advancing our research into experimental cancer therapies to benefit patients. The Institute patents its intellectual property to ensure that Ludwig discoveries have a chance to make their way through testing and attract interest from commercial partners willing to invest in the successful development of these discoveries. Their returns allow us to fund further research. Without patent protection, investment in the development of technological innovation would not be forthcoming, and it’s very unlikely that an innovation would ever make its way to patients.

Can you give a description of your typical work day?
Every day is different. We deal with issues related to science, business and law. An investigator might call to let us know that she has a paper on a new discovery ready, or she’s going to give a presentation or poster session. Publication is essential for Institute scientists and must not be impeded, but a patent is only valid if filed before public disclosure of the patented invention. Therefore, we need to act fast to review the proposed disclosure to determine if there’s something that might be commercially useful. If it is and there’s something new that requires patenting, we research other potential uses to ensure the new discovery is broadly protected.

To drive innovation, patents must be used and we seek to license them to a commercial entity that will invest the resources to translate and move it into the clinic. An example is Ludwig’s MAGE-A3, a tumor-specific antigen expressed in a variety of cancers that was in-licensed to GlaxoSmithKline for further development. The company is in the midst of phase 3 trials testing its vaccine candidate against metastatic melanoma (DERMA study) and non-small cell lung cancer (MAGRIT study). Clinical design details of the studies that will ultimately involve thousands of patients were reported at the 2011 meeting of ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology).

IP is exciting because we’re privy to cutting-edge science and our work has a direct impact on making a discovery available to ultimately benefit patients. An ongoing challenge is making an assessment of the true scale and importance of new discoveries and subsequently moving the research from the laboratory into practice. At the end of the day, knowing that we are contributing to the scientific mission of the Institute and that Ludwig scientists get the best out of their discoveries is the ultimate reward.

You have a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Illinois. As a graduate student, did you ever seriously consider another career?
No. Science hooked me at a young age. My father was a chemist and I loved spending Saturdays in the lab with him. A chemistry lab is a very cool place for a kid. He had a unique talent for putting a ‘human touch’ on chemistry, showing me why helium balloons float, salt melts ice and every snowflake is unique.

When not working, what do you do?
I have two young children who keep me pretty busy. When I’m not spending time with them I’m at my neighborhood yoga studio trying to advance my yoga practice. I’ve also started to learn Spanish.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers?
I’m a classically trained singer and dancer and studied the flute. My sister and I performed professionally and had a half-hour radio segment on All India Radio. It’s pretty heady stuff when you’re young. We became well known in the Indian community in Canada and the U.S., which led to a two year gig in college hosting a TV show called Sounds of India. A future dream is to channel my inner coffeehouse chanteuse, learn to play the guitar and sing in small cafés.


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