UCI Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology discusses his great volume of inventions and the great innovation opportunity for our region.
To say UCI Professor, Anatomy and Neurobiology Daniele Piomelli, Ph.D., pharmacology, has a number of inventions is an understatement. In fact, the prolific inventor’s neuroscience research has led to 50 UCI innovations in the life sciences space. Most recently, Dr. Piomelli’s work has focused on tackling the nation’s opioid crisis as well as better understanding the effects of cannabis since California’s legalization of marijuana has led to a burgeoning industry.
1) You have 50 inventions at UCI compared to the five or so inventions a typical UCI inventor might have. To what do you credit this accomplishment?
One factor could be that my lab works on a number of related, but distinctly different topics. Each of them has generated a stream of inventions. Part of our lab’s DNA is to try to understand biological systems with an eye on application. We develop chemical tools used to probe biological systems and some of those tools are patentable. Some even turn into potentially useful drug candidates.
2) Much of your research has focused on tackling the opioid crisis in our country. Where do you see an opportunity for industry to use your innovations or research in this space to help those affected?
The opioid crisis is a complex phenomenon, but the bottom line is relatively simple: we do not have effective non-addictive medications for many forms of pain. Some medications, for example aspirin-like molecules, are only effective in certain forms of pain and not others.
When we look at the opioid crisis, the key thing is how we undercut the whole problem. How do we treat pain, without causing addiction? I spent a great deal of time in the last 25 years trying to answer this question. We were lucky that our research brought us to study biological systems – such as the endocannabinoid system – that plays a major role in the control of pain. As we were making probes to try to understand those systems, we also had the opportunity of developing new medications for pain—medications that share no similarities with the opioids and have no addictive potential.
We have developed several potential drugs, but two are particularly interesting. The first are compounds that inhibit the degradation of anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid substance, while the second inhibit the degradation of another important analgesic compound called palmitoylethanolamide, or PEA. These compounds have very marked analgesic properties in animal and early-stage human models. Will they be useful in treating pain and reducing the need for opioid drugs? This is a question we are addressing now, and are working with the support of the National Institutes of Health and biopharmaceutical start-up companies.
3) What are some of the keys to success in working with industry from a UCI inventor perspective?
I think the most important thing is to be yourself, and to be honest with yourself and your potential partners. Don’t oversell or undersell your research.
4) How has UCI Applied Innovation personally helped you and how do you see it as helping UCI innovation efforts overall?
I’ve been at UCI for almost 20 years and the majority of my innovative work has been done here [at UCI]. Everyone I’ve interacted with [at UCI Applied Innovation] has been exceedingly helpful. They have helped me and my team protect the intellectual property that we have generated. UCI Applied Innovation is taking a great step towards bringing more venture capitalists to UCI.
5) What most excites you about your current invention focus and the opportunity for it to improve lives?
We have a few interesting things in our portfolio of licensed inventions. Our inhibitors of anandamide degradation are steadily, albeit slowly, moving toward the clinic. One class of these molecules is positioned for acute pain, another may be useful in anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Our inhibitors of palmitoylethanolamide degradation are also moving forward. These molecules may find use in chronic pain and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, asthma, skin inflammation etc. We’ve also invented inhibitors for an enzyme called acid ceramidase, which is involved in cell senescence and aging. These molecules were licensed to two separate companies, which are developing them for cancer and Parkinson’s disease. One last class of molecules we invented, but not yet licensed, simultaneously targets two checkpoints in the inflammatory process. They have shown remarkable efficacy in animal models of colon inflammation.
6) What excites you most about the future of our region as a global leader in innovation? Do you think there is a specific opportunity for the region to excel as an innovator in your area of expertise?
Since January and the implementation of proposition 64, cannabis is legal for both medical and adult non-medical use in the state of California. This is an extremely important change, which brings also several challenges. There are potential benefits and risks associated with cannabis. We need to understand them better. And we also need to engage the cannabis industry – which is worth over $7 billion and is expected to grow exponentially in the next several years – in a meaningful dialogue to help them grow in a sustainable manner.
Note that in addition to medical challenges, there are also legal, environmental, industrial, and engineering components that need to be taken into consideration. Systemwide, we are poised to take on these challenges. Innovation should not be waiting on the sidelines.