The University of Nebraska Medical Center has formed a partnership with a Chinese investor to commercialize a compound developed at the Omaha research complex that makes mouthwashes and oral hygiene products work longer.
China-based Bohe Biotech will pursue commercial uses for a newly invented derivative of menthol, a common ingredient found in oral hygiene products, said Michael Dixon, president of UNeMed Corp. That is the UNMC department that tries to turn research into salable products by forming partnerships with companies.
The menthol derivative was invented by UNMC researcher Dong Wang and employs ingredients that cause the breath-freshening agent to last hours, as opposed to minutes with conventional versions. If everything goes according to plan, the additive will eventually be marketed to makers of oral hygiene products such as mouthwash, floss, toothpaste and chewing gum.
“I could easily imagine a Johnson & Johnson or Procter & Gamble adding this to their products,” said Dixon, speaking of two prominent U.S. makers of oral hygiene solutions.
It might take five years for products containing the ingredient to reach stores in China, Dixon said. But if it does, UNMC would share in the profits. Attempts to commercialize it in the rest of the world would probably follow, he said, and be greatly accelerated by the work in China.
For now, China’s Bohe Biotech will conduct more research and trials, said Wang, the inventor, who stands to share in royalties from eventual sale of the product.
He said the product uses common ingredients mixed in a way that permits the menthol to better adhere to tooth enamel. The result is the slow release of menthol over several hours, leading to fresh, minty breath for prolonged periods.
“I don’t know if I would say all day, but we hope longer than with regular menthol,” said Wang, a pharmaceutical chemist, who noted that he is not a medical doctor and cannot aid anyone with medical conditions such as halitosis.
Wang, a native of China who has been living in the United States since 1998, said the additive is safe, cheap and uses already well-known ingredients but in a novel way. He said he can’t remember the exact moment he thought of the idea but said many of his best ones come in the morning, and often in the shower.
Project partner Bohe Biotech is based in Chengdou, China, and is run by Wang Jiang, who UNeMed described as a successful and prominent investor and entrepreneur.
“The bio-pharmaceutical industry is the second-largest industry in Chengdu high-tech zone, and is developing very fast,” Jiang said. “The city provides a good industrial environment to attract big corporations like General Electric and AstraZeneca, so it has gradually become the first choice for bio-pharmaceutical enterprises to settle in western China.”
Dixon, head of the licensing office, said the department is on track for about 20 similar arrangements this year; 10 years ago, he said, between two and five a year were typical.
The office collects about $1.5 million a year from licensing UNMC inventions to companies, Dixon said. While the medical center is the owner of all inventions made there, the money is split, with part going to recoup research costs, part to the university and another share to the faculty inventors.
Dixon said the menthol project was licensed to Chinese investors because researcher Wang had contacts there. Dixon said about 25 percent of the office’s agreements to commercialize inventions are with Nebraska startup companies, with the rest divided between U.S. and international partners.
Increasing trade with China is a major economic development effort by Gov. Dave Heineman, who led a trade mission there last year.
In addition, there are long-standing ties between China and UNMC, such as faculty exchanges aimed at developing more and better rural and family doctors in the world’s most populous nation.
“China views us at UNMC as a premier academic medical center,” said Dixon, who traveled to China recently to sign the menthol product agreement.
He said it could not have been done without UNeMed licensing associate Qian Zhang. A native of China, she is the only person in the office who speaks Chinese. Her other qualifications to broker biotech business deals aren’t shabby: a Ph.D. in cancer biology and an in-progress master’s in business from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“Technology transfer is turning what you find into what you can use,” she said. “It is the most critical goal of medical research.”
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