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Cell Biologist John Herr Named U.Va. Inventor Of The Year

April 23, 1999 -- John C. Herr, a professor of cell biology and director of a center for contraceptive vaccines at the University of Virginia, has been named the Christopher J. Henderson Inventor of the Year by the University of Virginia Patent Foundation.

Herr has studied human sperm and their anatomical and molecular characteristics for the past 20 years and over the past decade has filed and received a number of patents related to his research, which has applications in contraception and fertility diagnosis.

The U.Va. Patent Foundation award recognizes an invention that has proven to be of notable value to society. The criteria for selection include commercial success and the invention's value in treating disease, protecting the environment, as a tool for research, in education and training, in the development of a field of science or technology, or helping the disadvantaged, the disabled and the elderly.

"John Herr is the model for the academic scientist of the future," said Robert S. MacWright, executive director of the U.Va. Patent Foundation. "He is able to seamlessly combine an interest in corporate product development and intellectual property with traditional academic interests in basic science and research. He is successfully bridging the gap that has historically existed between academia and industry, maintaining credibility in both spheres."

Herr's laboratory is developing two product lines based on his research in the molecular anatomy of sperm. The first products are kits that enable men to conduct sperm counts at home. The kits would be used by men who recently have had vasectomies and want to ensure that the sperm has been eliminated from their semen, and by men who are trying with their partners to conceive and want to learn whether their sperm counts are adequate.

A prototype of the home kit, "SpermCheck I," has been developed by ContraVac Inc., an Albemarle Country biotechnology company founded by Herr several years ago. Herr is currently seeking venture capital to conduct human clinical trials of the product later this year.

The second line of products would revolve around a contraceptive vaccine for women. The contraceptive vaccine works by stimulating a woman's immune system, causing it to develop antibodies to molecules that appear on the surface membrane of sperm. The antibodies bind with the sperm and destroy its ability to fertilize the egg. Herr is currently working with a major European pharmaceutical company to further the research in this area and eventually to develop products.

Herr's research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Colleagues also have made important contributions. "The work that my lab has conducted over the past 20 years has been the joint effort of many fellows, graduate students and collaborating colleagues whose creative input has been vital to our success," Herr said.

"Technology transfer from universities to U.S. industries represents an important mechanism by which university scholarship can directly affect the physical and economic well-being of U.S. citizens," said Gene D. Block, vice president for research and public service. "The U.Va. Patent Foundation is playing a critical role by helping to commercialize powerful technology emerging from the University. Increasingly, the effects of technology transfer can be felt locally through the licensing of our patentable research within the greater Charlottesville area. This important activity is assisting in the healthy growth of the region's high technology sector."

Previous winners of the U.Va. Inventor of the Year Award are:

* 1997 -- Richard Guerrant and Timothy Macdonald: "Rehydration and Nutrition Therapy"

* 1996 -- Jessica Brand, Patrice Guyenet, Richard Pearson and Janine Jagger: "Safety Syringe"

* 1995 -- Donald Hunt, Jeffrey Shabanowitz and George Stafford: "Mass Spectrometer"

* 1994 -- Gerald Mandell and Gail Sullivan: "Inhibition of Inflammatory Cytokines"

* 1993 -- Joseph Larner: "Insulin Mediators"

* 1992 -- Robert Berne, Luiz Belardinelli and Rafael Rubio: "Adenocard"

Christopher J. Henderson, president and chief financial officer of Robbins & Henderson, a New York firm specializing in financial and related services for institutions, has been active in promoting partnerships between universities and industry. The Inventor of the Year Award was named after him because of his commitment to and interest in the University of Virginia. Henderson will personally present the award to the winner.

The U.Va. Patent Foundation is a not-for-profit Virginia corporation affiliated with the University of Virginia that promotes the transfer of technology developed at the University to business and industry.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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