Duane Miller, PhD, retired from the College of Pharmacy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in 2015, but he still comes to work four days a week.
Dr. Miller has made research his retirement, because how can you sit at home when you’ve spent your life ferreting out what could lead to next-generation treatments for cancer?
Dr. Miller, who holds the title of Professor Emeritus in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UTHSC, is due to receive his 100th United States patent from his lifetime of research effort before the end of the year. He was honored today at the 2019 Innovation Awards luncheon hosted by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF). The foundation promotes innovation, research, and commercialization of UT-developed intellectual property. The luncheon in the Student Alumni Center O.D. Larry Dining Hall recognized innovators from UTHSC, who are making life better locally, nationally, and globally.
“When I retired, I was 70 or 71, and sitting at home is not too much fun,” Dr. Miller said in an interview prior to the luncheon. “I have always enjoyed research and working with people and developing research and carrying out the projects. There is an excitement to putting forth hypotheses, testing them, and then finding out if your hypothesis is right. And a lot of times, you get shocked, because you don’t get the results you thought you would get. That’s why I love science and being here. You keep learning new things.”
Previously chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dr. Miller’s time at the office now is spent on research funded by National Institutes of Health grants and contracts with companies.
He came to UTHSC in 1992 from The Ohio State University and held the Van Vleet Professorship, which he said helped him immensely in establishing his research at the university and securing funding.
For almost two decades, he has focused on designing and synthesizing new molecules that can be used to study and develop treatments. Currently, he is a member of two research groups, as well as several smaller collaborations. One group is working to find substances, selective androgen receptor degraders (SARDs), to treat resistant prostate cancer. He develops the molecules, his co-investigator, Ramesh Narayanan, PhD, associate professor of Medicine, Hematology, tests them using biological assays and examining their biological mechanisms in action. Twice-a-week meetings to assess how the research is developing include their research assistants. “Those are very exciting times,” Dr. Miller said.
Earlier in his career, Dr. Miller worked on developing selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs). These work like testosterone to help individuals with skeletal muscle-wasting, a major issue with cancer treatment, recover muscle mass.
This project was special to Dr. Miller, who watched his first wife suffer from muscle-wasting, after she was diagnosed with cancer. “This is why we do this,” he said. “We do it to help people. My first wife died from cancer, my uncles died from cancer, so it’s what I would like to be able to say — that we had some part in fighting the struggle against cancer.”
He is also working with Wei Li, PhD, professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, researching Tubulin, proteins that form the skeletal system of a cell. They are looking for a way to block cell division in cancer and trying to develop drugs that accomplish that.
“We’re trying to improve medical care for people, and if we can come up with a drug that will help, then I feel I have had a satisfying career,” Dr. Miller said.
Richard Magid, PhD, vice president of UTRF, said it is “quite rare” for one person to hold 100 patents. “No other UT professor has ever hit this milestone, and even big tech companies don’t have many inventors who make it to 100, despite their enormous research and development efforts.”
The awards luncheon recognized UTHSC researchers who have been awarded 2020 Maturation Grants, licensed technologies, received start-up awards, and been issued patents.
Stacey Patterson, PhD, president of UTRF, said Dr. Miller is “a true inspiration to lots of inventors across the UT System.” She said UTRF has had another banner year, thanks to the innovators across the system. “The products and services that are being commercialized from the University of Tennessee and the UT research enterprise are making a difference in Tennessee and beyond,” she said.