As a public university Western Michigan University prides itself on providing solid undergraduate and graduate-level programs while being able to provide researchers the opportunity to develop ideas into reality. Dr. Karim Essani of the Department of Biological Sciences specializes in the study of molecular and immunological aspects of viral infections. Dr. Essani has been a member of WMU for the last 15 years and has contributed 25 original publications to the scientific community. Dr. Essani is one of a handful of researchers at WMU who has had the opportunity to conduct original work and has seen his projects develop into a commercialized product. Using the Tanopoxvirus as a model for his research, Essani looks at the molecular mechanisms within the viral model that dictate which gene sequences are expressed or kept silent.
Similar to the human genome, viruses are used by Essani and many top research universities because of similarities and the ability to manipulate the genome. Applying all of the data and knowledge gained from his research, Dr. Essani has focused on how different viruses can harm or benefit the human immune system.
Viruses have evolved with time and have developed defense systems that can counteract the reactions of the host cell. When the Tanopoxvirus enters a cell it is able to reprogram the cell and dictate new processes to be performed. In the case of the Tanopoxvirus, once it has entered the cell and reprogrammed the genome, a new protein is produced which is then secreted into the blood stream. It may be this protein that could eliminate the need for having open heart surgery to free clogged arteries, you could simply be injected with a the viral protein that would essentially serve as Drano for the body’s arteries. Dr. Grant McFadden of Viron Therapeutics has been working with Essani on this project and says, “The idea of exploiting viral anti-immune proteins as drugs to treat diseases of excessive inflammation or hyperactive immune syndromes is still relatively new. However, clinical trials with one of these molecules are currently underway, and the results so far are very encouraging.” If such a revolutionary treatment reaches the market, it will require the collaboration of the researchers, WMU, and a corporation that sees the potential in making a new product that will meet a market need. After publishing an article in Microbial Pathogenesis in 1994, Essani was contacted by McFadden who then introduced him to Viron Therapeutics. WMU and Dr. Essani then collaborated with Viron to file a patent on the viral gene sequence and novel protein, entitled “Nucleic Acid Molecules and Polypeptides for Immune Modulation”, which is now US patent # 6,894,155. Viron and WMU then entered into an agreement whereby Viron obtained commercial use rights for the patented technology and WMU obtained the right to receive future royalties from Viron. Essani and WMU will continue to investigate the more fundamental aspects of the technology, while Viron will focus on developing a market ready product, which includes managing clinical trials for FDA approval. This process will continue to evolve with the development of the commercialized product until somewhere in the future doctors will hopefully write prescriptions for a new, useful medical treatment based on Dr. Essani’s work.