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George Georgiou Named a 2014 Inventor of the Year

George Georgiou, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Chemical Engineering, received the 2014 Inventor of the Year award presented by the Office of Technology Commercialization on November 12, 2014.

The award recognizes Georgiou for commercializing industry-changing technologies, preparing students to follow in his footsteps, and proving that What Starts Here Changes the World.

"If necessity is the mother of invention, then surely education is its father," says UT President Bill Powers. "When the two come together in a place like The University of Texas at Austin, magnificent things happen."

Past Inventor of the Year recipients stand behind profound inventions, such as the revolutionary lithium-ion battery used to power an array of consumer electronics and a less-painful blood-sugar monitor used across the world to continuously and accurately monitor glucose levels in diabetics.

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George Georgiou, the Cockrell Family Regents Chair in Engineering. Photo by Marsha Miller.

In 2013, Nature Biotechnology named Georgiou one of the world's top 20 translational researchers, and his far-reaching body of work backs up that honor.

His inventions account for 15 distinct technologies, and more than half of his 75 issued and pending patents have been licensed or optioned. By comparison, only about 5 percent of patent applications from academic institutions are licensed.

"George is an amazing person, and he really straddles the fence between doing great basic science and great applied science," says Everett Stone, a research scientist who works with Georgiou. "He's an engineer by background, but he delves into every area. He's not afraid to change direction — he just goes for it. The work over his career spans hundreds of different avenues, and he's been highly successful in all of them."

After working with an antibody being developed for the treatment and prophylaxis of inhalational anthrax disease, Georgiou co-founded Aeglea Biotherapeutics with Stone to pursue clinical evaluation of protein therapeutics he discovered at the university.

"The main advantage of protein therapeutics," Georgiou says, "is they are very precise in the way they act to treat a disease. As opposed to chemotherapeutic agents and other small molecule drugs that are usually taken orally and are more likely to have a number of side effects, because their mode of action is much broader."

Georgiou creates those protein therapeutics to target specific amino acids, taking advantage of a cancerous cell's metabolic vulnerability and, in turn, selectively killing only the tumor.

"We take human enzymes and re-design them so that they can destroy the metabolite the cancer cells need," Georgiou explains. "Then we inject them into the patient, and the enzyme circulates in the blood. It destroys the metabolite, and then the patient is depleted from that particular metabolite. The cancer cells cannot grow, but the normal cells are unaffected."

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Georgiou's students and colleagues agree he's one of the busiest people on campus, but he always finds the time and energy to offer guidance and keep projects on track. That persona, say those who know him well, drives other industry and academic leaders to want to collaborate with Georgiou.

"Whenever he's looking at taking on a new project, he does this check to see if it's worthwhile and if somebody would want to use it," says Brandon DeKosky, one of Georgiou's graduate research assistants. "That's the driving force behind why so much of his work gets out there — he makes sure whatever he's working on is going to be useful."

[Learn about Georgiou's former student Jennifer Maynard and how she's working on a better way to treat whooping cough.]

Georgiou, who is among the "Top 100 Eminent Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era," according to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, arrived on the Forty Acres in 1987 as an assistant professor of chemical engineering, and he's spent his entire career here. Universities, Georgiou says, are the best "engines of innovation," where ideas that impact our society are first developed.

"I think of problems where I can have an impact," Georgiou says. "The motivation is not really to be considered an inventor. The motivation is primarily to be able to do something that is meaningful."

Georgiou is the second professor from the Department of Biomedical Engineering to receive the prestigious Inventor of the Year award. Professor Thomas Milner received the award in 2013.

James McGinity, a pharmaceutical scientist at The University of Texas at Austin, was the other 2014 Inventor of the Year recipient. Read more on about how both of the 2014 Inventors of the Year are transforming the medical field.