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Beyond the Breakthrough

UNLV's scientists make discoveries and share their findings in prestigious journals. But then what?

People  |  Jul 2, 2013  |  By UNLV News Center

UNLV Chemistry professor Hui Zhang. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

This essay by Hui Zhang is part of the This Way Up series. Zhang and his wife, Hong Sun, are both professors in the chemistry department and previously worked at the Nevada Cancer Institute and the Yale School of Medicine.


Last year, one of my students was looking through a catalog for biomedical researchers like myself. She was surprised to discover that among the products was a chemical compound that I had developed along with a team of researchers at the now-closed Nevada Cancer Institute. This compound showed promise for solving one of the great challenges in cancer treatment — how to kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

My research identifies the molecules that are part of the cell division machine, and we investigate how different proteins work together to make a cell divide. This research helps answer how a human develops from a single fertilized egg and also addresses the mechanisms of diseases such as cancer. Cancer cells can divide under conditions that a normal cell cannot. So, identifying the molecular mechanism that causes cancer cell division can help us develop chemical inhibitors to treat the disease.

My team shared the results of our study on that compound in an academic journal. Then I moved on. I'm now developing a compound that I believe will target cancer cells even better. However, it is surprising that the biomedical supply company was able to reproduce and sell it to other researchers. Now that company is enjoying any profits that stemmed from our work.

To be honest, I was not terribly upset by seeing my work in a company's catalog. I am a molecular biologist, not a lawyer nor a businessman. I am driven by the science and a desire to cure a disease that killed my father. Left to my own devices, I would continue my work in the lab and in the classroom for the inhibitors on my own.

Being a professor allows me to focus on the cure in a way that just does not happen in the labs of pharmaceutical companies. Those companies, by their nature, must be concerned with more immediate profit potential. Breakthrough research — the kind that leads to cures — is first done at universities. Then we share our research with the larger community, and eventually private companies come in to develop products that will benefit patients.

But, of course, I recognize that my employer should share in the proceeds that come from the research I do. Fortunately, UNLV recently has bolstered its resources for protecting the intellectual property developed by its faculty. The new UNLV office of economic development works with faculty members on what's called technology transfer.

This means that should my next compound prove to work, the university can patent the discovery and then find a private company interested in carrying it through to the market. The university and I would share in the proceeds that come from licensing the product. And the Southern Nevada community would benefit in the development of the biomedical industry in the Las Vegas Valley, which is something my wife and I want very much for our new hometown.

Hui Zhang and his wife, Hong Sun, are professors in the chemistry department. Sun researches the genetic factors in cancer cell growth. Previously, they worked at the Nevada Cancer Institute and Yale School of Medicine.