Melha Mellata, an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition, now has a patent that covers new methodology for safer and effective cancer treatments. Photo by Blake Lanser.

Assistant professor receives patent for method of inhibiting tumors

Melha Mellata, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, received a patent for a new method she invented for inhibiting tumors and improving safety of live vaccines. 

The United States Patent and Trademark Office approved Mellata's patent application for the methodology, granting her U.S. patent 9198950, Recombinant bacterium comprising a toxin/antitoxin system. The invention consists of genetically modifying a bacterial toxin-antitoxin system and utilizing it in a live vaccine, such as Salmonella, to selectively deliver the toxins into the tumor cells and destroy them. This system can also be used to make live vaccines safer.

"I am honored to have this patent awarded as only approximately 20 percent of all inventors are female," said Mellata. "Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and I hope my invention will lead to a cure that will play an important role in lowering that statistic, as well as lowering the impact of infectious diseases." 

Current cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, can be harmful to normal cells. However, Mellata’s system will be successful in terminating cancerous tumor cells, leaving normal cells healthy. The recombinant bacterium comprising a toxin/antitoxin system works by activating the promoter of the toxins that naturally target tumor cells.

"By studying living cells, such as bacteria at the molecular level, researchers have elucidated many systems used by these cells to survive and cause diseases," she said. "These bacterial systems can be modified to be used for purposes that will benefit us. Lastly, bacteria can teach us new ways to improve human, and animal health."

Live attenuated vaccines are considered among the most influential tools for disease control and potential disease elimination. Weakened bacteria that are unable to cause clinical diseases, but trigger a self-limiting infection leading to the stimulation of protective immunity, represent an attractive method to prevent and/or treat infections. Overall, her research will benefit both human health and agricultural animal production.

Mellata researches the development of effective intervention strategies against diseases. She focuses primarily on the molecular pathogenesis of bacteria, host response to infections, and vaccine development to control infections in humans and food-producing animals, such as chickens. Her research has significantly advanced the field, resulting in high-impact publications, federal funding, and patents.