Explaining Science Through A Patent

Collin College biology professor Dr. Collin Thomas enjoys working with students on research projects in the college�s laboratories.

Collin College biology professor Dr. Collin Thomas enjoys working with students on research projects in the college’s laboratories.

If you ask Collin College biology professor Dr. Collin Thomas how previous research could have a strong effect on a student today, he would probably smile and gesture for you to take a seat. You would be in for a treat because this professor is a research scientist that frolics and romps in molecular playgrounds. He has not only published papers on his findings, but he has also patented intricate biological processes.

A leaky cell

In 1999, when Dr. Thomas was completing his doctoral research and reported his initial discovery that led to his patent, he was treated much like Galileo the day he said that the earth revolved around the sun. Dr. Thomas postulated that the cell actually pumped its energy (Adenosine Tri Phosphate; ATP) outside of itself. Normally, ATP remains inside of the cell.

“People would laugh when we told them. They said, ‘Why would a cell make ATP and throw it out the window?’ Since then, the field has exploded,” Dr. Thomas said.

Dr. Thomas and his fellow researchers patented a process of making cells less resistant to foreign substances including pesticides, herbicides and chemotherapy drugs. With his patent, farmers are able to reduce the amount of pesticides on their crops, and one day his work may greatly improve chemotherapy in cancer patients.

Shutting the door on the ABC’s

In the business world, there is much value placed on an open-door policy, but in science sometimes it is more important to close the door. In all cells, the doors, or channels, that let ATP out are called Adenosine Binding Cassette (ABC) proteins. The cells pump poison through these doors outside of their cellular membranes. Dr. Thomas learned that apyrase, an enzyme that breaks down ATP, also helps ABC channels do their job. Poisons hitch a ride with ATP on their way out of the cell. If apyrase stops breaking down the ATP, ATP piles up outside of the cell. This causes the flow of ATP and toxins to stop, and instead of moving outside the cell, they start to build up inside the cell.

Dr. Thomas uses cancer as an example. If individuals with cancerous tumors have drug resistance, they probably have thousands of ABC channels that allow the drugs to flow outside of the tumor. In essence, the chemicals then damage the body, not the tumor cell. The same idea works in plants.

“If you increase the amount of apyrase outside the cell, then a mustard plant can survive a lethal dose of Agent Orange because it can pump it out; you have an incredibly resistant plant,” Dr. Thomas said.

So the question then becomes how do you stop the toxins from flowing through the ABC channels? If you stop the apyrase from breaking down the ATP outside of the cell, you upset the natural flow of ATP and poison. With cancer, this means the poison stays in the tumor and can kill the cancer cells and not the body. Likewise, in plant cells, this means herbicides will have a greater effect on the plants. Dr. Thomas and his coworkers discovered a number of small molecules that are capable of blocking apyrase resulting in the desired build up of poison in the cell.

“You go to the store for a two-pound bag of herbicide that is good for 1,000 square feet because that is what it takes to kill the weeds. However, if you mix the herbicide with the apyrase inhibitor, also called an enhancer, you will need much less herbicide,” Dr. Thomas said.

Dr. Thomas is working with students on plant genetic engineering projects in the college’s laboratories. Ultimately, he hopes to develop a patent with a student.According to Dr. Thomas, the ideas he presents in an introductory science course, like his own idea, were initially debated. Continual testing and time are the elements that bring these ideas to the pages of a textbook.

“Teaching and research are really part of the same mission to me—both are about exploration.  In the course of teaching, if you are lucky, you are able to re-alienate yourself from first principles and see something new.  Research puts you in much the same mindset as your students—you are searching for meaning in a larger context of unknowns,” Dr. Thomas said.

Collin College offers a variety of undergraduate research opportunities. For a complete schedule of classes offered Fall 2009, visit www.collin.edu/eschedule. Fall registration runs from June 23 through Aug. 24. Navigate to “Getting Started” on the college website for information on admissions and registration.

For more information about Collin College, visit the website at www.collin.edu.

Reprinted with permission by Plano Profile.