Exploring Industry’s Best-Kept Secret

December 28, 2011 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

Exploring Industry’s Best-Kept Secret

They may not hit the New York Times bestseller list, but books about government-issued patents serve a vital research purpose, says Assistant Professor of science, Thomas DeRosa.

“Patents are the most under-utilized resource out there,” he says. “They’re the best-kept secret in chemical research and development in both industry and academia.”

A ‘big hit’ with physicians
Up until eight years ago, DeRosa had been working as an organic chemist at Texaco, when he was approached by a book agent working with the scientific publishing firm, Elsevier.

Since then, DeRosa has written four books on chemical research patents, and a fifth, Next Generation of International Chemical Additives, A Critical Review of U.S. Patents, is forthcoming in Spring 2012.

One of DeRosa’s books, Patent Applications, A Tool for Identifying Advances in Polymer Chemistry R & D, is organized around applications for the patented process, such as additives, adhesives, cosmetics and dyes.

“The book is a useful tool for polymer chemists,” says DeRosa. “By reviewing summaries of current patents, they can avoid duplicating research and processes that already exist. In addition, they can identify places for new development.”

Another of DeRosa’s books, Significant Pharmaceuticals Reported in U.S. Patents, is organized around the diseases pharmaceuticals are designed to address, including AIDS, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

“Scientists who conduct pharmaceutical research in order to better treat illnesses, benefit from the book by having easy access to what contemporary patents are showing,” he says. “This book was intended for chemists, but it was a big hit with physicians. They’re very busy and need a quick way to review the patent literature to determine where we are with certain drugs designed to treat specific illnesses.”

Students unlock the science behind patents
Professor DeRosa worked with six C-STEP students this term in projects where they examined patents related to three areas: antineoplastic agents that kills cancer cells, methods of controlling cholesterol, and cardiovascular shunts.

First, he edits the highly technical patents, to accommodate the students’ expertise in organic chemistry expertise.

Then he guides students as they deconstruct the chemical process outlined in the patent.

“I ask them three questions,” says DeRosa. “‘What problem is the patent addressing?’ ‘What does the patent literature say about ways to address that problem?’ And finally, I ask them, ‘What’s lacking in these solutions? At which place in the process do you see opportunity for improvement, perhaps in a way that could lead to another patent?’”

Students use organic chemistry—or are provided instructions for higher-level organic reactions—to understand and modify the processes, DeRosa says, and they write a 12- to 15-page paper on their findings and recommendations.

One student, he says, who was being treated for breast cancer at the time, was particularly interested in the patented process by which antineoplastic agents alter the “tumbling rate” of malignant DNA, rendering it unable to duplicate.

“She couldn’t get enough of the information about antineoplastic agents and how they work,” he says. “She realized she had a fascination for the chemistry of the human body and now she’s in medical school.”

Learning how the world works
“This kind of research belongs in the community college,” says DeRosa. “If students want to be involved in Fortune 500 firms someday, they need to be aware of the process of identifying something that’s patentable, and how to bring it to the attention of the appropriate person, and set that process in motion.”

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issues over 1,100 chemical patents a week, out of about 7,000 applications—many of which originate in a workplace students didn’t know existed.

“I’m creating in the academic setting, a way for students to experience industrial R&D,” DeRosa says. “I like working with young people. Eventually, I’d like to begin patenting some chemical processes that have viable commercial applications, so we can put BMCC in the limelight and have students directly involved in all aspects of marketing, as well as in developing applications for a newly patented process.”

In the meantime, he says, “students are learning how the ‘real world’ works in terms of chemistry, and advances in chemistry, and they’re gaining a sense of where they might fit into that industrial or academic world.”