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Mehl’s Invention Earns U.S. Patent
Ryan Mehl, associate professor of chemistry
What was supposed to be an afternoon chat with colleagues last month on Hartman Green turned into one of the more memorable moments of Ryan Mehl's career.
The associate professor of chemistry was talking shop with Peter Fields, associate professor of biology, and Ken Hess, professor of chemistry. As they discussed mass spectrometry in the comfort of Adirondack chairs, they noticed a bicyclist heading their way. It was Dick Fluck, associate dean of the faculty and the Dr. E. Paul and Frances H. Reiff Professor of Biology.
Fluck had big news to deliver: the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) had awarded a patent for Mehl's invention, "Site-specific incorporation of fluorinated amino acids into proteins." It marked the culmination of an application process of several years, including work with patent attorneys and the production of lengthy, detailed documents.
"To our knowledge, this is the College's first patent," Fluck says. "This is a terrific thing for Ryan and for the College. It's been a learning experience for everyone involved."
Mehl's work builds on technology developed by a group of scientists with whom Mehl worked prior to his arrival at F&M. The technology revolves around the ability to incorporate fluorinated amino acids into proteins, a process that allows scientists to do structural work inside living cells. Such chemical modifications are desirable for many situations, including diagnostic procedures and clinical treatment.
"Putting anything into a protein is not easy," Mehl says. "In general, it's been an initiative for 30 years. The first major success was in 2001. Since then, people have been doing a variety of different things with that technology."
Scientists are limited in their ability to modify proteins by the chemistry, location and abundance of natural amino acids. Fluorinated amino acids will give scientists the ability to capture images of protein location and structure inside living cells—the first step in using the tool for medical diagnosis in magnetic resonance imaging.
"Structurally, fluorine can replace hydrogen reasonably well," Mehl says. "We have many options because we have so much hydrogen inside us. Adding fluorine is a way of turning on a flashlight in a sea of hydrogen. We're essentially putting a beacon inside a protein, and the rest of the protein and all the hydrogen become invisible. We've rebuilt the genetic machinery inside the cell to use the fluorinated amino acid."
For Mehl and Fluck, the road to the patent was unpaved; there was no mechanism at the College for applying to the USPTO, and the patent committee had been moribund. Over the past couple of years, they figured out a structure and set of guidelines for applying.
"I didn't come to F&M with the intention of writing a patent," Mehl says. "But I thought this could be game-changing, and powerful, so I went to Dick. He welcomed the idea. I think it speaks to the nature of F&M and its growth as an institution.
"During the process, I said many times, 'I'll never go through this again,'" Mehl says. "But I have to admit, I'd be in favor of doing it again. Now that F&M owns it, I'm wondering what we can do with this technology. I'm focused on taking the next step forward."