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Home > News > A First at F&M: College Celebrates Patent

A First at F&M: College Celebrates Patent

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Source:  Lancaster - 10/31/10 - By Paula Wolf, Staff Writer

Franklin & Marshall College has been around for 223 years, but one milestone it hadn't achieved was owning a patent.

Until June, when associate chemistry professor Ryan Mehl learned that the technique he invented for viewing proteins was approved — after seven long years.

The experience spurred F&M to rewrite its outdated patent policy, so the process will be more streamlined. And that revamped policy already is being used as Mehl begins his quest for patent No. 2.

The patent not only brings the college prestige, but Mehl's technology should be marketable to biotech companies as well.

An F&M faculty member since 2002, Mehl, 36, is a biochemist whose area of expertise is re-engineering living organisms.

He grew up in the Poconos and graduated from Moravian College before earning a doctorate from Cornell University and doing postdoctoral work at The Scripps Research Institute.

Mehl's patented process is a way for proteins to be seen in living cells using fluorinated amino acids.

Before, they almost always had to be removed from the cells to be examined in a solution — which was problematic because proteins wouldn't necessarily act the same way, Mehl said.

"It's analogous to children being on their best behavior during the holidays," he said.

Richard Fluck, associate dean of the faculty at F&M, said he doesn't believe the college's previous patent policy was ever used before Mehl came along.

"To our knowledge, this is the first patent in F&M history," he said.

The new policy has two parts. First, a faculty member with an invention submits the idea to the college's patent committee.

If the committee decides F&M has a real stake or interest in the invention, the next step is going ahead with a patent application.

In addition, the policy spells out how ownership of a patent is divided — between faculty members and the college, for example — and how any profits will be distributed, Fluck said.

The patent process isn't just time-consuming, it's expensive. Fluck, who's also a professor of biology, said F&M has spent at least $30,000 to secure the patent, of which Mehl is the author and F&M is the owner.

That money is just for U.S. coverage, he said. If the patent were to apply globally, Fluck said, the cost would be closer to $100,000.

Initially, he said, Mehl and the college got a one-year provisional patent, which meant they were "stakeholders" in the invention.

What can happen during this period is that companies seeing potential benefit from the invention may come forward to help with patent-related fees, Mehl said. A standard patent application then must be filed within the year.

Early in the process, patent attorneys were brought in, Fluck said. F&M used Barley Snyder LLC and then McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC.

The Innovation Transfer Network — which counts several area colleges and medical schools as members — also provided advice, he said.

Patents take at least three years to be approved, Fluck said, and a seven-year timetable "is not terribly uncommon."

Mehl said one reason the patent application was drawn out is because his invention involved a genetic component.

In an effort to spur innovation that will boost the economy, President Barack Obama has made reducing the backlog at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office a priority.

David Kappos, director of the Patent Office, told Bloomberg News that patent applications were up about 4 percent last fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30), led by the medical, computer, biotechnology and nanotechnology fields.

Early last month, the Patent Office reported the backlog had declined from more than 750,000 applications to about 708,000.

Kappos said in the Bloomberg interview that he wants to see the inventory of pending applications drop to 325,000 by 2015.

Second time is easier
Mehl said he's still refining the technology around his invention.

The patent will have two basic applications. First, as a diagnostic and imaging tool, and second, as kits for scientists, he said.

Waiting years for approval wasn't a pleasant experience, Mehl said.

"While I was going through it, it was pretty

painful," he said. "This process wore you down."

But Mehl isn't shying away from trying again.

He and F&M are pursuing a patent that involves the ability to grow polymers from proteins in a controlled fashion.

This process "is proceeding much more effectively," said Fluck, who chairs F&M's patent committee.

Mehl said the new invention has a wider range of applications than his first one, because proteins — which are used as drugs — need to be modified with polymers to ensure stability.

Attaching a polymer to the protein also can keep the drug from being rejected by the body's immune system, he said.

Franklin & Marshall is collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University on the project.

Having Carnegie Mellon on board, he said, "gives us a great deal of power in moving it forward."

Paula Wolf is a staff writer for the Sunday News. She can be reached by e-mail at

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