The research of Michigan Tech's Tammy Donahue aims to make knees last longer.

I freely admit I look forward to this every year — the 10-hour journey from metro Detroit to the rugged, remote Keweenaw. It’s wild, unspoiled beauty up here — but also, thanks to the fine folks at Michigan Technological University, it’s also every bit as high-tech as you can imagine. My visit to Husky Country Friday and Saturday to kick off the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2010 Fall Tech Tour was no exception.

My day started with Tammy Donahue, associate professor of mechanical engineering. Her work hopes to make knees last longer and knee replacements a whole lot less necessary.

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Donahue studies the aftereffects of knee injuries. Let’s say you blow out your knee playing backyard sports. The doctor goes in and repairs everything she can see, “but what we know is that there is also damage that is not visible to the doctor.”

How does Donahue know that? “They may reconstruct your ligaments, but 10 years later you get arthritis in that knee anyway,” she said.

It’s known that an anti-inflammatory called an ineterleukin-1 receptor agonist will help prevent that later damage if it’s adminstered immediately after the injury. But current technology doesn’t let it hang around long enough to do much good.

So Donahue is working with a Michigan Tech chemistry professor, Pat Heiden, to develop nanoparticles that will allow the agonist to be released slowly, over time, preventing the future damage.

The technology will be tested on animals next year at Michigan Tech. It’s at least five years away from human trials, though.

Donahue is working on federal funding to speed up the research from the National Institutes of Health and the federal Department of Defense.

Donahue already has NIH funding on another project, to build artificial interfaces for the junction between your large leg bones and the meniscus — the soft pad inside your knee between your upper and lower leg bones. That’s often damaged in knee injuries. Donahue’s research is combining a polymer scaffold with the bone marrow stem cells to create the new junction.


My next visit was to the microscopy lab of John Jaszczak, a 19-year veteran physics professor at Michigan Tech.

Jaszczak is working to start a venture in Michigan Tech’s Enterprise program, in which teams of Michigan Tech students tackle real-world business problems for companies or try to start businesses of their own.

In this case, it’s a blend, and I happened to visit on a very momentus day. Michigan Tech’s Nanotech Innovations Enterprise was making its first deliveries of an atomic force microscopy educational sample kit.

Jaszczak and a trio of students — Joe East, a junior biology major from Ann Arbor, Chris Knoblauch, a fifth-year dual major in electrical and mechanical engineering from Warren, and Jared Ruffini, a fifth year student in biomedical engineering from Saginaw — showed me how they work.

Atomic force microscopy uses a sharp probe made of silicon that touches a surface, measures the force between the surface and the probe, and turns that into an image. The microscope can literally see down to individual atoms.

Nanotech Innovations assembles a selection of samples for students to look at through the microscope, in order to train them on its capabilities. Included are natural graphite crystals, carbon nanotubes, photonic wave guides, porous silicon, a single transistor, polymer fibers and computer chips.

Jaszczak got the idea for making the kits after talking with the Arizona company from which Michigan tech bought its microscopes at a conference. The enterprise got $200,000 in seed money from the National Science Foundation to start, but will be self-sufficient going foward if it can sell 20 kits a year, Jaszczak said. (The kits will retail for about $1,200.)

The Enterprise’s team includes students from physics, materials science and business as well as engineers. “We’re very interdisciplinary and we try to balance research and innovation with product engineering,” Jaszczak said.

And on the fun side, the Enterprise has also developed a Lego kit that replicates in large size the function of the atomic force microscope that it calls the scanning probe macroscope. It uses crude motors and a very basic control system to make three-dimensional maps of Lego shapes, getting the point across to younger students what the real equipment does in micro-minuature.

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Jaszczak said the university wants the Enterprise to incorporate to handle more sales, and two Michigan Tech business majors are helping him with that task.

Nanotech Innovations also markets and sells graphite crystals that are used in research into advanced forms of carbon.


Next I trotted to the other side of Michigan Tech’s campus, exploding with fall colors, for a visit with Megan Frost, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. She’s been at Tech three years since completing post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan in chemistry

Frost is working on advanced technology that could greatly improve implanted medical monitoring devices over the next few years.

Basically, Frost said, when a device like a medical monitor — even a tiny one — is inserted into the body, all hell breaks loose with the immune system. Frost said it’s well known that nitric oxide mediates that response, but nobody knows exactly how much or for how long.

Frost is working on polymers that emit nitric oxide in the presence of light. They could go into the body along with the probe, using a fiber optic cable for illumination — stopping the body’s destructive immune response to the probe. The amount of nitric oxide can be customized to just enough to stop the immune response by varing the light that’s cast on the polymer.

And that, she said, could lead to much more effective in-body monitoring of everything from blood glucose levels for diabetics to blood oxygen levels for surgery patients.

Technologies like artificial vascular grafts and artificial lungs could also benefit from the technology to limit the immune response, Frost said.


My final visit of a Friday that began before dawn in St. Ignace was Darrell Radson, dean of the School of Business and Economics at Michigan Tech.

Radson is relatively new on the job, having joined Tech in July 2008 from Drexel University in Philadelphia. Radson is quickly putting his imprimatur on the business program at Tech — which like Drexel is an engineering-focused school growing into a complete academic program.

At Drexel, Radson ran a program called Business and Engineering, which got business students involved in engineering projects. A similar program has gone into effect at Tech — a senior requirement for business students called Business Development Experience.

To graduate, Tech business students will now be required to develop, write and present a business plan for a new product or technology developed by a College of Engineering Senior Design Team; or develop, write and present a business development and management plan for a Michigan Tech Enterprise; or successfully manage an investment portfolio through Michigan Tech’s Applied Portfolio Management Program, which runs a $1.2 million portfolio.

“I’m at Michigan Tech, so I’m taking advantage of this engineering college and the Enterprise program to help business students work with the technology and innovation that this economy needs to move forward,” Radson said.

Radson said business education has traditionally focused on all aspects of running a successful business, followed by a capstone senior course in business strategy that was intended to tie everything together. Now, though, Radson said, “strategy has become its own discipline, with its own theories and its own gurus, like economics or statistics. And that’s fine, but now we don’t have an integrative capstone experience, which is what strategy was supposed to be.”

The Business Development Experience, Radson said, takes the place of that strategy course.

After that, it was off to the Best Western Frankin Square Inn for a little shut-eye in preparation for an even busier Saturday of Michigan Tech visits.

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