Wayne State Shows Off Amazing Biotech In Tech Tour Preview
DETROIT (WWJ) – I start my annual fall Tech Tour of the technology transfer offices at the major research universities of northern Michigan, mid-Michigan and West Michigan Wednesday.
So last Friday, it seemed only appropriate to kick things off with a fall Tech Tour of southeast Michigan’s great urban university, Wayne State.
My day began with the genial Joan Dunbar, vice president of technology commercialization since May. She’s running a recently reorganized department based at Wayne State’s 5057 Woodward building, the former Maccabees Insurance headquarters, with satellite offices at the School of Engineering and three full-time licensing associates, one in life sciences, one in medical devices, and one in advanced automotive and cleantech.
Dunbar said Wayne State has recently established a virutal tech development incubator that allows it to fund early stage companies, and a board of 60 industry and venture capital consultants to help the tech transfer staff evaluate commercialization proposals. Wayne State has also established a postdoctoral fellows program to groom the people Dunbar says are “the next generation of entrepreneurial scientists.”
She means people like Jeffrey Ram, a professor in Wayne State’s medical school who started out in pathology and microbiology, and students like Roxana Moniri Javid, a grad student from Iran, and Ahsan Akram, an undergraduate bioengineering student from Brownstown Township.
They showed me a briefcase packed with tubes and electronic gear designed to test ballast water from Great Lakes freighters to make sure it doesn’t contain invasive species — like the zebra mussel, quagga mussel and others that have already pummeled the lakes’ ecosystem.
Ram said new regulations going into effect in 2016 will require the big boats to have treatment systems to kill invasive species in ballast water. But how to make sure it’s working? Systems like the one dreamed up by Ram and built by Moniri Javid and Akram.
Ram said he got the idea for a portable, automated testing device after pulling an all-nighter testing water from a freighter in Gary, Ind., then racing it up to its next stop in Duluth, Minn., then pulling another all-nighter testing its water in Duluth.
“I thought there’s gotta be a better way,” Ram said. “There’s gotta be something e can put on the ship to collect the samples and do the test autonomously so we don’t have to be running around to do it.”
Ram estimates the device can be manufactured for less than $10,000. It uses a simple enzyme test to detect certain problematic strains of tiny plants and animals in the ballast water. He’s getting funding from a nonprofit called the Great Lakes Protection Fund to build and field test the device.
Ram and his students have even developed a remote control for the testing machine — it can be operated remotely from a computer or smartphone.
Ram said there are several competitors working on devices — but they don’t have his remote control feature.
Ram said the project, for which a patent application has been filed, is likely to wind up being built by a medical device or water treatment company.
He said treating the ballast water in the first place is a “very difficult problem — you’re trying to come up with something that’s so toxic it’ll kill everything (in the ballast tank) but something so harmless that when you release the ater it’ll kill nothing.” Some systems involve chlorine, some involve ultraviolet light, and others involve lye — sodium hydroxide — which can be neutralized before release with acids.
There are also possible applications for the device is monitoring beaches and in food preparation.
After a short stroll across Wayne State’s campus — and when the heck did this campus get so pretty? Back in my college days it had all the charm of a Soviet apartment complex — I was blown away by a bunch of visits at the university’s massive engineering building.
First up was Yong Xu and three of his graduate students, each working on a fascinating bit of medical instrumentation.
Like, for instance, how about a wearable monitor that gives detailed information on your heart rhythm and breathing, that weighs all of eight grams (about a quarter of an ounce) and is smaller than a penny? That’s what grad student Yating Hu showed me.
The device is essentially a miniaturized electronic stethoscope, powered by technology from micro-electro-mechanical systems, or MEMS. Worn on the chest, the device detects heart rate, heart murmur, blood pressure, various forms of shortness of breath and the “crackles” in breathing sound produced by lung diseases like pneumonia.
Applications include continuous medical monitoring after hospital discharge, monitoring the proper placement of tracheal tubes during surgery, improved fetal heart monitoring, and continuous blood pressure monitoring.
The work is being supported by Children’s Hospital in Detroit and a California venture capital fund, Astia.
Next, Ph.D. student Hongen Tu showed off designs of flexible electronics, using a material called parylene C to produce flexible, implantable sensors that are biocompatible. They can be used for continuous blood pressure monitoring. Tu also showed off a “smart yarn” — a flexible fabric about the width of a human hair that can be implanted with sensors.
Finally, M.D. and Ph.D. student Eric Kim showed off advanced designs in neural probes based on those flexible electronics that combine electrical sensing and chemical sensing.
The devices could lead to major advances in treatment of brain diseases like epilepsy, tinnitus and Parkinson’s disease. They’re currently being tested on rats.
And Kim is also designing a device based on the technology that could restore hearing for those whose auditory nerves have been cut or damaged.
Just down the hall is the materials lab of H.C. Wu, associate professor of civil engineering, who is working on improvements to concrete and the cement that holds it together.
Wu said virtually all concrete reinforcement technologies have drawbacks. Steel “rebar” rusts and is heavy. Plastics being eyed to replace it fail catastrophically when they finally fail. Both reinforcement methods are costly and labor-intensive.
So Wu has developed a netlike fabric that can be made of carbon fiber or glass fiber to replace reinforcing bars in concrete structures. It’s impervious to rust, lightweight and offers a low installation cost. And it will not fail catastrophically in, say, an earthquake — it will bend slowly rather than break.
Wu is also working on a new form of cement, being called Detroit cement, eyed to replace the Portland cement now used in concrete.
Wu said the problem with Portland cement is that making it is such an energy-intensive, environmentally dirty process — it requires heating limestone up to 1,600 degrees Centigrade, which means a lot of carbon dioxide release in generating all the energy required for all that heat, and the chemical process itself that turns limestone into Portland cement releases lots of CO2. Also, Portland cement is a breathable material, so concrete cracks — always. Even relatively new concrete.
So, Wu is making cement out of another kind of rock, dolomite. Producing a cement from dolomite releases far less CO2, in part because it only has to be heated to 650 to 900 degrees Centigrade.
And Wu’s Detroit cement has four times the ductility of Portland cement, meaning it won’t crack as easily.
From Wu’s lab, it as a short stroll to the CARES robotics lab of Abhilash Pandya, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, where several grad students and postdocs are researching better ways of remote controlling robots.
Among many projects in this lab is patent-pending technology to automatically control the camera used by surgeons in laparoscopic surgery. Frequently, Pandya said, there will be one medical staffer controlling the laparoscopic surgical tools and another controlling the camera, and it can be difficult for them to communicate. The software uses tracking devices on the end effectors of the surgical tools to make camera tracking automatic.
The camera tracking system also acts as a safety feature, making sure the surgeon never loses sight of their instruments, so they can’t inadvertantly injure a patient.
The software also has possible military and space-exploration applications.
Among the other wonders in this lab is software for automatically guiding a fleet of several robots at once — an obvious military application. There’s also a robot arm being built to help paraplegics and others with limited mobility lift and move things. There’s an autonomous surgical system being developed, where a robot actually performs the surgery. And a robot with a built-in spectrometer that can tell the difference between cancer and healthy tissue.
All amazing stuff, all advances that are coming to a hospital near you in the years ahead.
So that was my Friday at Wayne State, a research and technology gem that is doing its darndest these days to be a little less hidden. Many thanks to Julie O’Connor of Wayne State’s research office for setting up this visit.
And about that Tech Tour — I’m starting it next Wednesday at the MichBio conference in Kalamazoo. Then, Thursday, I’m headed to the Upper Peninsula for meetings at Michigan Technological University in Houghton (which, trivia buffs, is farther away from Detroit than is Washington, D.C.). After that, it’s back down below the bridge for tech transfer visits to Saginaw Valley State University, Central Michigan University, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University. Can’t wait!!