Barbara Osborne, an immunologist and Distinguished Professor in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was recently chosen as a 2022 Fellow by the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). The NAI Fellows Program highlights academic inventors who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society. Election as a NAI Fellow is the highest professional distinction awarded to academic inventors.
“This year's class of NAI Fellows represents a truly outstanding caliber of innovators. Each of these individuals have made significant impact through their work and are highly regarded in their respective fields,” said Paul R. Sanberg, President of the NAI. “The breadth and scope of their inventions is truly staggering. I am excited to see their creativity continue to define a new era of science and technology in the global innovation ecosystem.”
“My inventions have all been serendipitous, really,” says Osborne. “Most academic scientists aren’t setting out to invent things; we usually want to study a system—in my case, the biology of the immune system. But sometimes you find something that can translate into a useful technology. I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in this situation a number of times throughout my career.”
In Osborne’s case, her patents have all stemmed from her work in immunology, and stretch back to the late 1990s, when she was working on cloning antibodies for human health. Antibodies are like our system’s soldiers—they recognized pathogens in our bodies, and then attack them. But antibodies specialize: specific antibodies are able to recognize and attack specific diseases, which means that if your system is invaded by pathogens for which you don’t have antibodies, you may get sick.
One way of addressing the gap in our natural immunity is with antibody treatments, and before Osborne and her collaborators, the raw material for these treatments was to bleed humans with the desired antibodies. “But if we could create cloned cattle to produce the antibodies we needed, we could more easily and more cost-effectively create the treatments that could save lives,” says Osborne. And that’s exactly what she and her collaborators did. That invention has been used to treat everything from Ebola to COVID to Influenza.
Another set of patents works on the opposite end of the immunological spectrum: rather than amplifying the body’s immune system, there are cases where the body’s immune response needs to be suppressed. Nowhere is this more important than in transplants, especially bone-marrow grafts, which are crucial for treating cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.
Unfortunately, not only might the host’s immune system reject the transplanted marrow, but the immune cells in the marrow itself might reject the host—a condition known as Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD).
“We discovered that there’s a particular bacterium in our gut, Bacillus subtilis, that’s coated in a special kind of sugar called an exopolysaccharide. And this sugar has the wonderful ability to suppress the host’s immune system, virtually eliminating GVHD,” says Osborne.
“Everyone in the Technology Transfer Office is thrilled that Barbara has been selected as a 2022 NAI Fellow,” says Burnley Jaklevic, director of the TTO who has worked with Osborne on many of her patents and helped spearhead Osborne’s nomination to the NAI. “Not only is Barbara one of the kindest and most considerate people you could ever hope to meet, but she is also a brilliant scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with her over the years, to help protect her promising inventions and to nominate her for this prestigious award.”
As important as research insight and academic creativity have been to Osborne’s invention, she is quick to point out the key role played by UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which exists to translate fundamental research into innovative product candidates, technologies and services that deliver benefits to human health and well-being. “None of this would have happened without IALS,” says Osborne. “It’s been a priceless resource in developing translational research, and it has been fabulous working with the staff and fellow researchers at the Institute.”