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Two UNM researchers win international recognition

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Two prominent University of New Mexico professors are joining an elite list of global inventors whose work has had a significant impact on society.

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Plamen Atanassov (Courtesy of UNM)

The National Academy of Inventors named Dr. Cheryl L. Willman and Plamen B. Atanassov on Tuesday as 2017 Fellows, distinguishing them as some of the most-impactful researchers among some 250 universities and research institutions worldwide. Willman is a distinguished professor of pathology and director and CEO of UNM’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. Atanassov is a distinguished professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of the UNM Center for Micro Engineered Materials.

They’re among 155 inventors worldwide named as fellows this year. The annual distinction recognizes academic researchers who have demonstrated a “prolific spirit of innovation” through inventions that impact quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.

Three other UNM researchers have received it in past years.

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Dr. Cheryl L. Willman (Courtesy of UNM)

“Dr. Willman and Dr. Atanassov have had a tremendous impact on fostering a culture of innovation … that is felt on local, national and international levels,” said UNM Chief Economic Development Officer Lisa Kuuttila.

Willman has used next-generation genomic sequencing to study the genetic makeup of leukemia, leading to discovery of genetic mutations in many cancer-stricken children and adults that block the benefits of traditional chemotherapy. The research found particularly high rates of mutation among Hispanic and Native American children and adults.

That led to development of new pharmaceuticals to specifically target and inhibit mutated cells, allowing traditional chemotherapy to work. Willman’s team at UNM did extensive laboratory experiments with the drugs, followed by five national clinical studies through the National Cancer Institute.

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Atanassov has developed a non-metal catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells that could dramatically cut the costs of producing them. Today’s fuel cells use platinum as a catalyst, which is rare and extremely expensive.

Atanassov’s work, done in collaboration with other UNM researchers and scientists at Daihatsu Motor Co. Ltd., contributed to development of non-metal catalysts by Albuquerque startup company Pajarito Powder LLC. Daihatsu, Japan’s oldest automaker and a member of the Toyota Group, has developed demonstration hydrogen fuel cells vehicles with UNM’s technology.

“It humbles me,” Atanassov said of the NAI award. “I don’t think of it as a singular recognition of me personally, but of all the researchers and supporters who contributed to our innovation.”

Willman said she’s gratified to see UNM discoveries directly helping patients.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done,” she said. “The NAI award acknowledges our work as innovative and important with the potential for huge impacts.”

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