BU Innovators of the Year: Where Are They Now?

When asked to describe the invention he’s most proud of, 2020 BU Innovator of the Year Jerome Mertz, Biomedical Engineering (ENG) shared, “The invention itself is usually a letdown, and I rarely think about it when it’s over. It’s the process of getting there that’s interesting to me.” When you’ve disclosed nearly two dozen inventions, as Mertz has over the course of his career at BU, perhaps it’s easy not to grow too attached to any one invention’s outcomes. And yet, in many ways, the after-story is where the real work of BU research begins, as ideas and discoveries move from the laboratory into the lives of real people out in the world.

BU’s Innovator of the Year is an award bestowed annually on a faculty member who translates world-class research into inventions and innovations that benefit humankind (and nominations are being accepted now). But what comes of these distinguished innovators, not to mention their innovations? Here, the Office of Research asked several recent Innovators of the Year to answer a few questions about their research, their approach to innovation, and how things have changed for them since receiving their award.

What have the last few years brought for you, in terms of research and innovation? 

Prof. Weining Lu (2019 Innovator of the Year): My collaboration with Pfizer on a potential new drug for chronic kidney disease continues moving forward even in the midst of the COVID pandemic. At Pfizer’s second quarter earnings conference on July 28, Pfizer leadership highlighted the latest clinical development status of the ROBO2 drug program and noted the collaboration between Pfizer/CTI and BU/BMC. As Pfizer Worldwide R&D President and Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Mikael Dolsten shared, “Preliminary results from an interim analysis of our ongoing Phase 2a study in adult patients with steroid-resistant FSGS [focal segmental glomerulosclerosis] demonstrated promising data with a statistically significant and clinically meaningful reduction in urine protein to creatinine ratio or UPCR. We are advancing the program to potentially demonstrate proof of concept in ’22 and preparing for pivotal studies.”

Prof. Jerome Mertz (2020 Innovator of the Year): We are working on building a product in close collaboration with a company. We have also disclosed a new invention in ultrasound imaging (and published an associated paper).

Prof. Gustavo Mostoslavsky (2017 Innovator of the Year): In 2018, a year after being named BU Innovator of the Year for the development of a tool that made more efficient the creation of cells that might help heal patients with damaged tissues, we published a study that further emphasized its versatility and utility. Specifically, we reported that the tool, STEMCCA, was very efficient at inducing nuclear reprogramming in feeder-free conditions, using not only peripheral blood but also amnyocytes as the starting population.

Today, my lab has projects related to Ebola virus infection in liver and gut; we are using patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) that have a mutation in the prion gene causing a terrible neurodegenerative disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) to make neurons, astrocytes and brain organoids to recapitulate the mechanism of neural injury in vitro; and for the last several years we have studied hematopoietic differentiation to make macrophages and microglia for studies of HIV infection, as well as the production of T cells and NK cells for future CAR therapy. We patented this technique and recently put an agreement in place with a new start-up biotech company.

Prof. Xin Zhang (2018 Innovator of the Year): Over the past years, our metamaterials technologies, both those that enable highly efficient, air-permeable sound silencing and noise reduction and those that markedly boost MRI signal-to-noise ratio and thus significantly improve the performance of MRI, have drawn significant worldwide interest from the scientific community and industry, with the stories having been picked up by more than 200 media outlets, including BBC, Boing Boing, Business Insider, Design News, Digital Trends, Fast Company, Gizmodo, La Opinion, Mashable, Physics World, Smithsonian Magazine, TreeHugger, WBUR, WIRED, and The Wall Street Journal. We have formed two startups, through which we aim to commercialize our metamaterials technology and see it employed in clinical medicine and noise reduction, respectively.

In 2019, I was elected to the Fellow of National Academy of Inventors. In addition, our metamaterials technology was also recognized with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Innovation Awards (Emerging Technology Design) in 2019, which “celebrate the most pioneering engineering and technology innovations from energy and sustainability to transport and healthcare,” and the Finalist of E&T Innovation Awards (Excellence in R&D) in 2020, which “recognize and celebrate the very best new innovations across the breadth of science, engineering and technology.” In 2020, I became a Finalist for the IET Achievement Medal. In addition, our team was granted several major patents on our metamaterials technology and was named a 2020 Invented Here! Honoree by the Boston Patent Law Association.

What advice do you have for other BU researchers looking to deepen their impact? 

Prof. Lu: I would say the same thing as I did in the Brink story on my work in 2019: “Persist and believe in your science.” I would also echo my remarks from the 2019 BU Innovator of the Year award celebration event: Innovation happens when people of different backgrounds and cultures (such as academia and industry) come together and work towards a common good for the benefit of our patients. As drug discovery and development is a long and difficult journey, academia and industry must collaborate more to cross the valley of death between basic and clinical research. As the old saying goes, ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ Let’s go together so that we can go far to discover new treatment for our patients.

Prof. Mertz: The hardest commodity to find is time. Don’t squander it! (It only gets worse.)

Prof. Mostoslavsky: Every big “translational” breakthrough came from a basic research discovery, so keep doing your basic research no matter if its application is not clear yet. Be passionate about it, and try to keep it fun so every day you are happy to come to the lab to get the job done. I have been at BU almost 14 years and I was very lucky to share my scientific journey with my friends and colleagues at BU’s Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM). So try to surround yourself with people you like, it will make your life easier and more enjoyable!

Prof. Zhang: Collaborate and partner. Throughout my research career, I have always strived to deliver practical technologies that would solve problems relevant to our modern society. With this goal in mind, I have closely collaborated with a number of industrial partners, understanding that this pathway offered an avenue towards impact.

Anything else you’d like to share on where you are now?

Prof. Lu: After having experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, my daughter Lily Lu has decided to go to medical school to become a compassionate doctor.

Prof. Zhang: Looking into the future, my goals are to build on the key innovations developed in my lab to date, broaden our understanding of their fundamental underpinnings, explore the breadth of their potential applicability, and continue to translate the key platform technologies in order to realize their full global societal impact. Our recent innovations related to ultra-open metamaterials applied to acoustic silencing have drawn an incredible amount of interest from diverse industries, including numerous Fortune 500 companies, seeking to apply this paradigm to their technologies.

With BU as a platform, I am confident that we can mature this novel class of metamaterials to realize impact across diverse industries, including aerospace, automotive, defense, and architecture, among others. Similarly, with respect to metamaterials related to MRI, I am poised to continue our translation from the lab to the bedside, bringing a revolutionary technology towards clinical use in MRI. It is my firm belief that the world-class students, collaborators, resources, and innovation culture of BU will serve to transform my research and impact the world.

Information For...