Research at JVIC blazes trails in medicine, defense
Monday, August 24, 2009 4:00 AM
Scientists at Springfield's Jordan Valley Innovation Center hoping to shatter the ivory tower stereotype are pushing to commercialize technologies that would protect satellites from solar flares, keep soldiers safe from chemical weapons and create a protein footprint for migraine headache sufferers from saliva samples.
Missouri State University President Michael Nietzel may have been right at a news conference earlier this summer when he suggested that many people in the Ozarks are unaware of the caliber of research under way at the center city facility, 524 Boonville Ave.
"Springfield doesn't understand the significance of what goes on here," Nietzel said.
Ongoing research at JVIC is divided into six areas of intellectual activity: biomaterials, nanotechnology, advanced manufacturing, genomics/proteinomics, software engineering and medical devices. And the center - barely two years old - is firing on all collaborative cylinders.
JVIC's unique public-private model has been credited with advancing innovation by pairing corporate research affiliates with MSU students and resources. Companies retain ownership of their intellectual property while the university nets royalties and licensing revenue for its role in aiding the real-world scientific pursuits.
Here's a revealing look at what's happening inside the walls of downtown Springfield's budding hub of commercially driven research and development.
Radiation hardening for satellites
Lockheed Martin Nanosystems is spearheading a research project designed to protect satellites and other unmanned spacecraft from radiation - namely disruptive solar flares that can cause communications systems to go haywire.
Alongside Lockheed Martin are corporate research affiliates Brewer Science Inc. and Applied Systems Intelligence, said JVIC Executive Director Ryan Giedd. Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) replaced JVIC tenant Nantero about a year ago after acquiring Boston-based Nantero's government business unit.
Giedd said the U.S. military has long been interested in guarding satellites from geomagnetic storms that erupt on the sun and send radiation waves through space. Those waves can wreak havoc on satellites, navigation systems and power grids. In 1989, a solar storm knocked out power to all of Quebec, Canada, and solar flares in late 2003 disabled a Japanese satellite.
Lockheed is working with Rolla-based Brewer to "harden" satellites with carbon-based circuitry in place of silicon, which is more susceptible to solar radiation, Giedd said. Brewer's contribution comes in the form of extremely lightweight carbon nanotubes, super-strong cylindrical molecules applied to microchips as a highly purified liquid ink, said Kevin Edwards, director of Brewer's carbon nanotechnologies business unit.
"Devices made using this technology are now being used in space," Edwards said. "There's a lot of cosmic radiation out there, and if it weren't for our atmosphere, we'd be pretty crispy critters."
The U.S. Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research and U.S. Air Force are funding the research, which began about three years ago, but Giedd said the project's status is classified.
Deciphering migraines through saliva
Scientists at JVIC also are analyzing saliva samples from migraine sufferers to better diagnose and treat their headaches.
MSU's Center for Biomedical and Life Sciences has been partnering with the Headache Care Center, 3805 S. Kansas Expressway, on clinical trials for about seven years, said CBLS Director Paul Durham, a biology professor. In that time, Durham and Dr. Roger Cady, founder of the Headache Care Center, developed a saliva test that measures a specific protein released when migraines begin to rage.
To gather samples from Headache Care Center patients participating in the trials, citric acid is placed on the tips of their tongues to activate the salivary glands. The sample is frozen into what Durham calls a "spitcicle." Once thawed, the sample is centrifuged and run through a machine that measures proteins, specifically calcitonin gene-related peptide, or CGRP.
Based on that "protein footprint," researchers have a better understanding of which patients are truly battling migraines, which are often misdiagnosed as sinus infections, and how they respond to various drugs.
"Truthfully, a lot of treating migraine is guessing, and we'd like to change that," Cady said.
Physicians most often prescribe triptans, such as Imitrex, to combat migraines, but the meds are only about 60 percent to 70 percent effective, Durham said. CBLS researchers hope to further isolate protein "markers" found in saliva that, when reduced, could reverse migraine pain, he added.
The long-term goal is "personalized medicine" for migraine sufferers who may someday use a saliva-based home headache test similar to a home pregnancy test, Durham said, adding that specific drugs would be prescribed based on the results.
Pharmaceutical companies have funded most of the migraine research through grants, and Durham recently applied for a one-year, $300,000 grant through the Missouri Life Sciences Research Trust Fund. Cady and Durham will publish their research findings later this year in an issue of the journal Headache.
Doctors drive medical device research
A surgical positioning device for infants with cranial abnormalities, a polymer-based alternative to wiring fractured jaws and a contact lens that protects and treats eye injuries on the battlefield are among the innovations in development at St. John's Medical Research Institute.
Research scientists at the institute have built prototypes for both the positioning device, which significantly reduces operating room prep times and offers 360-degree access to the skull, and the plastic jaw clamp, which could eventually replace metal wiring used to mend broken jaws. Both devices were conceived by St. John's plastic surgeon Dr. Bharat Shah.
Shah said the positioning device is on the cusp of commercialization. A Wisconsin-based manufacturer has agreed to mass-produce the foam molds, which will retail for less than $100, said Matt Price, operations manager for Inveno Health Inc. - a for-profit entity that markets and licenses products developed by the institute.
The plastic jaw clamp isn't as far along, but Shah and Dr. Roger Huckfeldt, the institute's medical director, are hopeful the final product will eventually be licensed to a medical equipment manufacturer.
"When you have a good idea, you have smart people that make it into something," Shah said of the institute's six-person staff.
Dr. Shachar Tauber, an ophthalmologist and director of eye research at St. John's Clinic-Eye Specialists, also is working with the institute to develop a special contact to treat corneal injuries sustained by military personnel. The Defense Department is partially funding the research, which is in the first of four phases.
By year's end, researchers should have a prototype for the chilled carrier that medics will use to transport the lenses and related supplies, said Keela Davis, the institute's technical research director. Davis said a "completely functional prototype" of the lens itself, which uses nanosized carbon fibers to store and release medication, is still at least four years out.
Protecting soldiers with polymers
In another JVIC lab, subcontracted CBLS researchers have joined forces with scientists at St. Louis-based Crosslink to develop technology that would keep soldiers safe from chemical and biological warfare agents.
Crosslink has worked on the self-detoxifying system for three years and scientists are awaiting results of live-agent field tests completed at Ohio's Battelle Memorial Institute in late July.
Project coordinator Eve Fabrizio said the electroactive polymer technology would enable the military to coat tents and shelters with a conductive layer of substances that, when remotely activated, would release hydrogen peroxide to neutralize deadly agents such as mustard gas or anthrax spores.
CBLS Director Durham said the self-detoxifying system has fared well in preliminary tests at JVIC, which utilize surrogate chemicals in place of live agents.
"There are family members that are pretty close," he said. "This stuff could do major damage to you. These surrogates are pretty nasty."
The U.S. Army and Defense Threat Reduction Agency - an arm of the Defense Department - have funded the project. The first phase received $2.8 million, and the ongoing second phase received about $5 million, Fabrizio said. If the field tests go well, a third phase would entail commercialization and manufacturing, company officials said.
Foster-Miller Inc., another corporate JVIC affiliate, is concurrently working on adapting the detoxifying technology for individual suits for soldiers, Giedd said. Foster-Miller is an independent, wholly owned subsidiary of Virginia-based QinetiQ North America.