When Hunein "John" Maassab got his doctorate in epidemiology in 1956, his dissertation was on influenza, and he has continued researching flu right up to this fall's release of an inhalable flu vaccine he helped develop.
"I feel good. I feel in a sense that I have accomplished my life's dream," Maassab said when the vaccine, FluMist, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. "I spent all my lifetime developing this vaccine."
In September, Maassab, who recently retired as professor of epidemiology in the U-M School of Public Health, received a lifetime technology transfer achievement award at a ceremony at the Michigan League celebrating the culmination of some four decades of work in the science behind the new flu vaccine.
In presenting Maassab's award, Noreen Clark, dean of the School of Public Health, said, "We live in a time of rapid communication and instant gratification, a time when people change careers as often as they used to change jobs; a time when a 'long term commitment' might mean 'five years'; a time when a dream is something you hope to accomplish next week. John Maassab is the opposite of all this."
Maassab came to Michigan as a graduate student and studied under Thomas Francis Jr., the founder of the epidemiology department. Francis had invented the first flu vaccine, which used a killed flu virus, and he urged Maassab to pick up where he left off, but to develop a live-virus vaccine.
Francis also mentored Jonas Salk during Salk's work at U-M and is perhaps best known as the scientist who announced to the world that the Salk polio vaccine was safe and effective in a ceremony at U-M's Rackham Auditorium.
FluMist, approved for use by healthy people ages 5 through 49, uses a live but weakened virus, administered to help develop immunity. The virus is adapted to grow at the lower temperatures of the nasal passages but not the warmer conditions of the lungs where influenza disease develops. A trivalent vaccine, like the flu shot, it includes three different strains of vaccine. The flu shot, by contrast, uses only killed virus.
FluMist has been licensed exclusively to MedImmune, a company in which the researcher and the University of Michigan have a financial interest. MedImmune Vaccines Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of MedImmune Inc., is manufacturing and marketing FluMist, and Wyeth Vaccines, a business unit within Wyeth Laboratories, is co-marketing it.
Kenneth J. Nisbet, executive director of U-M's Office of Technology Transfer, anticipates U-M could eventually make millions of dollars from its FluMist licensing arrangement.
U-M reported $9.1 million in tech transfer revenue in the 2003 fiscal
year, compared with $5.7 million the year before, he reports. Revenue
tallies include royalties U-M has received as well as the sale of equity
in businesses using technology developed at
"Society benefits from widespread usage of the technology developed here, Nisbet says. "Our goal is to get the benefits of our research deployed as widely and as effectively as we can, for the benefit of the general public. If we do that job well, the financial rewards will follow."