Curiel, Janetka named fellows of National Academy of Inventors

Distinction recognizes impact of innovations

Washington University School of Medicine professors David T. Curiel, MD, PhD (left), and James W. Janetka, PhD, have been elected fellows of the National Academy of Inventors.

David T. Curiel, MD, PhD, and James W. Janetka, PhD — both of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis — have been named fellows of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). The recognition represents the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors.

They are among 162 new fellows whose inventions have made an impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. Curiel and Janetka join 18 other Washington University faculty members who have been named fellows since the program began in 2012. They will be honored at the NAI annual meeting in June in Raleigh, N.C.

Collectively, the NAI fellows hold more than 58,000 issued U.S. patents, which have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies, 3,200 companies and created more than 1 million jobs.

David T. Curiel

Curiel, the Distinguished Professor of Radiation Oncology and director of the Biologic Therapeutics Center at the School of Medicine, is being recognized for his pioneering work in creating therapeutics and vaccines using harmless, inactive cold viruses — adenoviruses ­— as vehicles for delivering COVID-19 vaccines and gene therapies for cancer and genetic diseases. He co-founded several biotechnology startups, including DNAtrix, Unleash Immuno Oncolytics, and Precision Virologics to develop virus-based cancer therapies and vaccines.

Throughout his career, Curiel has worked to combine genome-editing technologies with viral delivery systems to fix genetic errors that cause disease. His work aims to use harmless adenoviruses to precisely place gene-editing machinery inside the body as a treatment for hemophilia, a blood-clotting disorder, and alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency, in which the absence of a protein leads to lung and liver damage.

More recently, he teamed up with infectious diseases expert Michael S. Diamond, MD, PhD, the Herbert S. Gasser Professor of Medicine, to create a COVID-19 vaccine administered via drops in the nose rather than a shot in the arm. The vaccine creates a strong immune response throughout the body. Unlike any currently available COVID-19 vaccine, it acts in the nose and respiratory tract, where viruses enter the body, and can potentially stop the virus early in the infection. The vaccine was licensed to Bharat Biotech, a vaccine manufacturing company in India, and Ocugen Inc., a U.S.-based biotechnology company, for the vaccine’s development in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

Curiel earned his medical degree at Emory University School of Medicine in 1982. He completed his residency at Emory and two clinical fellowships in pulmonary medicine and biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md. In 2002, he earned his doctorate from the Groningen University in Groningen, Netherlands, before joining the faculty in 2011.

He previously was named a senior member of the NAI, in recognition for his gene-therapy research.

James W. Janetka

Janetka, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, and of chemistry, is being recognized for his accomplishments in designing and developing small-molecule drugs to treat cancer and infections caused by pathogens, including bacteria, viruses and parasites. In a collaboration with other Washington University researchers, he has discovered new antimicrobial compounds to treat urinary tract infections (UTIs); antiviral drug candidates for COVID-19 and influenza; and small-molecule therapeutics to fight toxoplasmosis and parasitic worm infections.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) that infect the urinary tract cause UTIs by first binding to sugars on the bladder surface. Janetka led the design and discovery of nonlethal antimicrobial compounds — mannosides — that prevent E.coli from binding to the bladder wall. Together with Scott J. Hultgren, PhD, the Helen L. Stoever Professor of Molecular Microbiology, they developed a sugar-based decoy molecule that the bacteria favor over the sugars in human tissues. By binding to the decoy molecule, E.coli washes out of the urinary tract in the urine. The drug, if safe and effective in humans, could serve as an alternative to antibiotics and is not susceptible to resistance.

Janetka and his collaborators developed an antiviral compound, MM3122, that blocks SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and other coronaviruses from entering cells and replicating. MM3122 is effective as a preventive and therapeutic drug in a COVID-19 animal model. He is working with Jacco Boon, PhD, an associate professor of medicine, of molecular microbiology, and of pathology and immunology, to optimize the compound and identify a clinical candidate as a new broad-spectrum antiviral drug for coronaviruses and influenza.

Working with Makedonka Mitreva, PhD, a professor of medicine and of genetics, and external collaborators, Janetka is designing new small-molecule drugs to combat debilitating parasitic infections, such as river blindness and intestinal worm infections, caused by parasitic worms. These neglected tropical diseases infect billions of people in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South America. There is a desperate need for new drugs, and small molecules that interfere with the proteins required for the worms’ survival have the potential to be effective broad-spectrum treatments.

Janetka and L. David Sibley, PhD, the Alan A. & Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor of Molecular Microbiology, have developed new drugs to target the parasite Toxoplasma ghondii that is thought to infect more than 40 million people in the U.S. alone. The team worked with a biotechnology company to identify a lead compound. With long-term funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, they are optimizing these new oral drugs to treat and potentially cure Toxoplasma infections.

Janetka has co-founded two pharmaceutical startups, Fimbrion Therapeutics and ProteXase Therapeutics. Fimbrion Therapeutics is working with GlaxoSmithKline on clinical development of the mannoside GSK3882347, now in phase 1b clinical trials, for treating UTIs in people. ProteXase Therapeutics licensed Janetka’s technology on protease inhibitors to develop anticancer and antiviral drugs.

Janetka earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1990 and his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1996. He completed his postdoctoral training at the NIH and worked at Vertex and AstraZeneca before joining the faculty at Washington University in 2009. He has been issued 29 U.S. patents and was named a senior member of the NAI in 2022.

About Washington University School of Medicine

WashU Medicine is a global leader in academic medicine, including biomedical research, patient care and educational programs with 2,800 faculty. Its National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding portfolio is the third largest among U.S. medical schools, has grown 52% in the last six years, and, together with institutional investment, WashU Medicine commits well over $1 billion annually to basic and clinical research innovation and training. Its faculty practice is consistently within the top five in the country, with more than 1,800 faculty physicians practicing at 65 locations and who are also the medical staffs of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals of BJC HealthCare. WashU Medicine has a storied history in MD/PhD training, recently dedicated $100 million to scholarships and curriculum renewal for its medical students, and is home to top-notch training programs in every medical subspecialty as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology and communications sciences.

Originally published by the School of Medicine

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