Press release | 20.6.2019
Vienna/Munich, 20 June 2019 - The European Patent Office (EPO) today presented Spanish scientist Margarita Salas Falgueras with two European Inventor Awards at a ceremony held in Vienna. The general public voted for her to win the “Popular Prize” and an international jury selected Salas as the laureate in the “Lifetime achievement” category. During a career that has spanned five decades, Salas invented a faster, simpler and more reliable way to replicate traces of DNA into quantities large enough for full genomic testing. Her invention is now widely used in oncology, forensics and archaeology.
"Margarita Salas is a pioneer in the field of molecular genetics and a champion for women in science," said EPO President António Campinos. "Her work has put DNA sequencing within reach of many more researchers and scientists, and paved the way for further breakthroughs in genetics."
Today's European Inventor Award ceremony at the Wiener Stadthalle was attended by some 600 guests from the fields of intellectual property, politics, business, science and academia. The Award is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world who have made an exceptional contribution to society, technological progress and economic growth. The finalists and winners in five categories (Industry, Research, SMEs, Non-EPO countries and Lifetime achievement) were selected by an independent international jury from a pool of hundreds of inventors and teams of inventors put forward for this year's Award. The recipient of the Popular Prize was chosen by the general public through an online vote in the run-up to the ceremony.
Margarita Salas has led the breakthroughs that have made DNA testing fast and reliable, leading to its use in a wide range of applications. After receiving her PhD in biochemistry in 1963 from the Complutense University of Madrid, Salas spent three years working with Nobel Prize winning biochemist Severo Ochoa at New York University. She then returned to her native Spain and founded the country's first research group on molecular genetics in 1967 at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in Madrid. There, she discovered that a bacterial virus called phi29 could create an enzyme, known as phi29 DNA polymerase, which assembled DNA molecules much faster than alternatives and much more accurately - with fewer than one error in a million base pairs.
Salas successfully isolated the enzyme and demonstrated that it also worked in human cells, ushering in ground-breaking applications for DNA testing. For the first time, this high accuracy replication made it possible to obtain reliable results from small quantities of genetic material. The technique is used today in medical research to study microbes that cannot be cultured in the laboratory. It allows oncologists to zoom in on small sub-populations of cells that could give rise to tumours. It also supports forensic specialists and archaeologists as trace amounts of DNA collected from crime scenes and historical sites can now be amplified by phi29 DNA polymerase to identify victims, suspects and even fossils.
Patent applications filed by Salas have led to the commercialisation of user-friendly DNA-sequencing kits. She and her team at the CSIC filed the initial US application to protect phi29 DNA polymerase and its uses in 1989, and the patent was granted in 1991; the European patent was granted in 1997. Further patents followed throughout her career. However, the patent for her method using phi29 DNA polymerase remained the most profitable one ever filed by the CSIC. It accounted for more than half of the organisation's royalties between 2003 and 2009, returning millions in investment to publicly funded research, and enabling Salas and her team to make further advances in genetics.
The Spanish scientist has consistently used her public visibility to promote basic research and encourage the participation of women in science. "When I started my PhD in 1961 there were almost no women doing research in Spain," she says. "Nowadays there are more women than men starting a PhD in our laboratories."
Today at the age of 80 Margarita Salas continues to go to her laboratory every day, working to further extend the capabilities of phi29 DNA polymerase. "For me research is really a passion; I could not conceive of life without it," she says. "I hope to be able to keep researching for many years to come."
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, it honours individual inventors and teams of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest challenges of our times. To qualify for the Award, all proposals have to meet specific criteria, including the requirement that the inventor had to have been granted at least one European patent for their invention by the EPO. The finalists and winners in five categories are selected by an independent jury of international authorities in the fields of business, politics, science, academia and research who examine the proposals in terms of their contribution towards scientific and technological progress, society, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. The winner of the Popular Prize is chosen by the general public from among the 15 finalists by online voting in the run-up to the ceremony. This year's 15 finalists were selected from hundreds of proposals put forward by members of the public, national patent offices around Europe, and EPO staff.
With nearly 7 000 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
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