In research endeavors and technology transfer, discovery breakthroughs do not occur overnight. The application of slow, methodical, and persistent efforts in research often yields a promising solution for a stubborn and refractory problem.

This is the case with our featured innovator: Dr. Deborah Spector. A professor and researcher at UC San Diego since 1978, Spector began with a purpose: finding a vaccine for human cytomegalovirus (hCMV). Her determination produced tangible results with issued patents U.S. Patent Number 4,762,780-Method and composition for screening and diagnosing “HCMV” and U.S. Patent Number 5,173,402-Method and compositions for screening and diagnosing human cytomegalovirus (“hCMV”). Spector’s most recent patent application WO/2007/106404-Vaccine for viruses that cause persistent or latent infections, explains the methods and compositions for the prevention and treatment of infections caused by viruses such as herpesviruses, retroviruses, hepatitis viruses, papillomaviruses, and cytomegalovirus.

Along with her research team at UC San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Spector has worked diligently towards understanding the replication cycle and infection process for hCMV and similar viruses. In the case of hCMV, it is believed that this virus infects as many as sixty to ninety percent of adults in the U.S. While dormant in many, hCMV can be life threatening for individuals who are immuno-compromised and often results in birth defects when transmitted to a developing fetus. In fact, hCMV causes more birth defects than any other virus.

According to Spector, “Between 0.5 percent to 2.5 percent of newborns are infected with hCMV, and of the 5 percent to 10 percent that are symptomatic at birth, most develop a secondary consequence, such as microcephaly, hearing loss, or motor disabilities. Even in the asymptomatic group, approximately 15 percent will later show hearing or vision loss. It is estimated that each year in the United States, 40,000 children are born with congenital hCMV infection, resulting in 400 deaths and leaving approximately 8,000 children with permanent impairment.”

Current medical practice utilizes blood tests to identify the specific antibodies that indicate an hCMV infection. Viral cultures are another diagnostic tool often used. However, once identified, treatment options are limited and there are no cures.

Through her CMV research, Spector has already made a substantial contribution to the field of medical diagnostics. An earlier innovation was licensed to a diagnostics company that developed and marketed a test to detect the presence of CMV in blood or plasma. With her ongoing studies in virology, Spector hopes to continue to make strides in addressing infectious diseases that have limited treatment options.

Dr. Deborah Spector received her Ph.D. in 1975 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratories of Drs. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus at UC San Francisco, where she showed that the src oncogene is a conserved eukaryotic gene expressed in both normal and transformed cells. She became an assistant professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego in 1978 and began her studies on cytomegalovirus. In 2005, she moved to the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Dr. Spector’s faculty web site is located at http://pharmacy.ucsd.edu/faculty/Spector.shtml.