Bellur Prabhakar, PhD

Discoveries

(Left: Bellur Prabhakar, PhD., prefessor and head of the department of microbiology and immunology.)

A scientist’s work shouldn’t end when the research is completed, says Bellur S. Prabhakar.

A lot of scientists don’t understand that unless they protect their intellectual property, their discovery cannot be commercialized for the benefit of the society,” said Prabhakar, professor and head of the department of microbiology and immunology.

“No company will pick up a technology, as fabulous as it may be, unless the intellectual property is protected through patenting. Scientists need to appreciate that it’s terribly important to protect their technology.”

Prabhakar has patents on two of his discoveries, with two more technology disclosures under review with the UIC Office of Technology Management.

His first discovery, patented in 2009, is a method of treatment for autoimmune diseases. The second, patented last March, focuses on suppressing the function of a protein to improve cancer treatment.

The patent on Prabhakar’s autoimmune disease research was licensed to Illinois Ventures, a technology investment firm launched by the university, through Tolerogenics, a company Prabhakar founded. To continue its work, the company has received funding from investors and the National Institutes of Health.

Prabhakar recently submitted a disclosure form to the Office of Technology Management to determine whether he needs two more patents after discovering that his treatment method could also be used for people with allergies and Type 1 diabetes.

“We believe this technology platform is really broad based,” he said. “We have fantastic proof of principle.”

“I think we should give society something back for all of the trust and money they invest in us.”

Prabhakar’s research focuses on the function of the body’s immune system.

“When everything works well, that’s the best thing we have going for us — it protects us from infection and cancer, and we can get vaccinated to develop life-long immunity against many childhood infections,” he said.

“But the way the immune system is designed, it’s not perfect. It has to be highly flexible because the body does not know what infection it will encounter when one gets on a plane, when one goes to other parts of the world, or when it will be exposed new chemicals.”

He’s interested in how the immune system responds — why, for example, it doesn’t always attack cancer cells or why it sometimes “attacks self antigens and tissues” to cause autoimmune diseases such as lupus or Type 1 diabetes.

“I became very fascinated by why the immune system goes haywire, and is there a way to control it?” he said.

“If I understand the regulation of the immune system — if you can learn to shut down one part to stop autoimmune disease or coax another part to go faster to get rid of cancer cells — I can do very exciting science.”

Though Prabhakar is interested in the business end of his research, he has no business acumen. He joined a mentorship program through the Office of Technology Management to connect with business leaders.

“A business mentor holds us accountable for what we are doing and always helps us focus on the prize,” he said. “We do science because we are curious, but that can sink a company. You can be doing research for the next million years but the development of a therapy cannot wait a million years.”

In times of economic crisis, it’s especially important for researchers to develop technologies that can become commercially viable, he said.

“As funding challenges continue to grow, universities really should be looking at their technologies to see how they can use them to create economic activity that will benefit the scientist, university, state and society at large,” Prabhakar said.

“I think we should give society something back for all of the trust and money they invest in us.”