Two Ohio State University health sciences professors have been elected as members of the National Academy of Inventors 2022 class of fellows.
Jianrong Li, professor of virology in the College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Veterinary Biosciences, and Peixuan Guo, holder of the Sylvan G. Frank Endowed Chair in Pharmaceutics and Drug Delivery in the College of Pharmacy, are among the 169 academic inventors to be named National Academy of Inventors (NAI) fellows this year. They are the 15th and 16th Ohio State inventors to be chosen as NAI fellows.
In 2021, Guo was named Ohio State’s Innovator of the Year, and Li, along with colleague Stefan Niewiesk, was among the finalists for the award.
Li has led the development of a number of vaccine candidates for respiratory viruses and enteric illnesses – those that affect the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. His lab worked swiftly to develop vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 in response to the pandemic, developing separate candidates using the measles and mumps viruses as platforms for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The idea is that because children have been safely vaccinated for measles and mumps for decades, we could incorporate this vaccine into the MMR vaccine to prevent four diseases simultaneously: measles, mumps, rubella and COVID-19,” Li said.
These platforms also enable delivering a “needle-free” vaccine through the nose, which generates both a system-wide antibody response – the same response as that produced by an injection in the arm – as well as a mucosal immune response in the linings of airways, where viral particles attach to host cells. All currently approved COVID-19 vaccines are delivered intramuscularly but are unable to induce sufficient mucosal immunity, the body’s first line of defense against respiratory viruses. The White House’s effort to develop the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines includes an intranasal vaccine approach.
In each candidate, the team’s use of specific snippets of the “prefusion” version of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein – the shape the protein is in before it infects a cell – and strategic insertion of those genes into modified measles and mumps virus genomes produced strong neutralizing antibody, mucosal antibodies and T cell immune responses and protected against lung damage in animals.
The SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidates and a third vaccine candidate against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the No. 1 cause of human respiratory infections that can also cause serious illness in infants and the elderly, have been licensed to an India-based vaccine and pharmaceutical company.
Vaccines developed in Li’s lab have also been commercialized for use in protecting piglets from two deadly viruses, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus and porcine deltacoronavirus. Previous viral outbreaks have caused significant economic losses for the pork industry in the United States and worldwide.
A member of Ohio State’s Infectious Diseases Institute, Li has been awarded eight patents and has eight pending patent applications, and has entered into a total of eight licensing agreements with companies that are commercializing vaccine products developed in his lab.
Li, who joined Ohio State’s faculty in 2008, attributed his lab’s success to Ohio State’s creative and collaborative environment and support from his college and department.
“I am humbled and truly honored that my peers have considered me for this award,” he said. “This honor really belongs to the postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and research assistants in my laboratory. In the past 14 years at Ohio State, I have had the privilege to work with them to generate innovative ideas, make new scientific discoveries, and translate basic virology research into the development of novel vaccines against viral pathogens that threaten human and animal health.”
The many RNA-related discoveries attributed to Guo, also director of the College of Pharmacy Center for RNA Nanotechnology and Nanomedicine, date back to his days as a student in the 1980s, when he determined that short segments of noncoding RNA not only existed, but had important functions in cells. In findings published in Science, he called them “small RNAs” or sRNA. Among those he proposed at the time were the microRNAs that have been found since to have a powerful influence over genes’ protein-building functions.
Guo’s discoveries involve some of the most intricate cellular processes – many of which have opened the door to the development of therapies, particularly for several types of cancers. He is a member of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center Translational Therapeutics Program.
Guo was a pioneer in the field of RNA nanotechnology, first proving RNA strands could self-assemble into a nanoparticle, and since advancing understanding of RNA particles and properties that make them useful vehicles for targeted delivery of anticancer drugs. In 2014, he proposed that RNA therapeutics would be the third milestone in pharmaceutical drug development.
In 2020, his lab showed in animal studies that RNA nanoparticles have rubbery and amoeba properties that help explain why they target cancer tumors so efficiently and how they keep their toxicity low – by quickly leaving the body.
He reported in 2021 on a promising liver cancer therapy: an RNA nanoparticle designed to carry both a chemotherapy drug and a molecule to prevent the pumping of the drug out of liver cells. In animal studies, these nanoparticles targeted tumor cells effectively and inhibited tumor growth.
“RNA can be therapeutic, but it has taken some time for the field to get to pharmaceutical development,” he said. “The mRNA vaccines have opened up the public’s understanding of RNA. At one time, people didn’t believe it was possible – but now we know it is.”
Guo also points to his first construction of a viral DNA packaging motor. He discovered the third type of biomotors that use a revolving mechanism without rotation to transport the lengthy dsDNA genome. A biomotor is a biological machine that drives movement to help with the energy-related transport of proteins and other molecules – key processes behind such activities as walking and breathing, because transport is essential to the completion of numerous cellular functions. The use of the revolution mechanism without the use of rotation avoids the coiling or tangling during the transportation of the lengthy genome.
The finding eventually led to applications of this motor to perform “single pore sensing,” including the detection of individual peptides – short chains of amino acids – to advance cancer diagnostics.
Guo, too, took on new projects at the start of the pandemic, including development of an at-home diagnostic test for COVID-19 infection. An invention of his dating back more than 30 years made an indispensable contribution to the mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2: a novel way of producing a molecule of vaccinia virus mRNA capping enzyme that prevents mRNA from degradation and ensures proper translation of mRNA protein-manufacturing instructions.
Guo has been a member of Ohio State’s faculty since 2015. He has filed 70 patent applications, with 13 granted and others pending. Most of these technologies have been licensed for commercialization.
“Of all the recognitions I have received, this is the highest honor in the field of innovation,” Guo said. “I am happy to be recognized as an NAI fellow.”
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.
“This year’s class of NAI fellows represents a truly outstanding caliber of innovators,” 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.”
The 2022 class of fellows will be inducted at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Inventors in June 2023 in Washington, D.C.