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The pulse of biotechnology

How bioelectrics research could make us healthier

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: June 25, 2009
Naz Islam

Naz Islam, a professor in the College of Engineering, collaborates with life-sciences researchers on bioelectric studies. The research may have applications in cleaner, safer medical and agricultural practices.

Imagine a technology that, in a few controlled zaps, could cure cancer, purify water, boost alternative-energy production and wrangle agricultural pests — without harmful side effects for humans.

It may seem sci-fi. And certainly the electromagnetic gadgets kept for these purposes in the basement of MU’s Engineering Building West — an anechoic chamber, portable pulsars, TEM Cells — look futuristic. But if MU Professor of Engineering Naz Islam and his fellow researchers have their way, better living through bioelectrics is an imminent reality. Focused pulses of electricity have the potential to replace harmful chemicals in practices ranging from pesticide use to chemotherapy.

“It’s a very clean way of doing things,” Islam says.

This week scientists from three continents convene at the University of Missouri for the 2009 International Bioelectrics Symposium, a two-day, in-depth discussion of the effects continuous-wave (CW) and nanosecond intense, pulsed electric fields can have on humans, plants and animals.

Innumerable potential applications are being explored by the participants, primarily members of the International Bioelectrics Consortium that includes researchers from Virginia, France, Germany, Japan and, soon, the United Kingdom. In Germany, Islam says, the technology is being used to get more juice out of fruit. In Japan, it’s being used to kill bacteria in water supplies. Old Dominion University in Virginia has received grants from private donors and the National Institutes of Health to investigate its effects on cancer. 

Collaborative circuits

Here at Mizzou, Islam has embarked on interdisciplinary bioelectrics projects that supplement his work as the principal investigator on Department of Defense-funded research of radio frequency effects on electronic systems. His expertise in electromagnetics, he discovered, has biological applications.

“You take an electromagnetic field,” Islam explains. “You apply it to a cell, and then you can see the effects of electromagnetic energy – what it does to the cell.”

This relatively simple principle has powered multiple undertakings.

Islam has worked with Professor David Sleper in the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology to study the effects of electromagnetic energy on soybean germination — research that could have applications in biofuel production.

He has worked with Associate Dean Marc Linit and research scientist Terrell Stamps in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources to investigate how applying electromagnetic fields to trees could eliminate wood-eating nematodes, tiny insects that live on pine beetles. Success could mean a reduction in the need to treat wood with potentially harmful chemicals.

Currently Islam is collaborating with professors Venkataseshu Ganjam, in veterinary medicine, and Dennis Lubahn, in biochemistry, in using electromagnetic pulses on LnCaP cells, ostensibly to shrink prostate-cancer tumors. Eventually, he hopes, the studies could lead to the eradication of cancer by electric pulse, in conjunction with — or, ideally, without the need for — drugs and surgery.

Sparking awareness

In his research, Islam enlists students taking his bioelectrics course, a lab in which 90 percent of the education entails hands-on study. Students gain awareness of the technology and its possibilities, strengthening the field for the future.

“The main problem is to generate interest,” says Islam, who played a key role in bringing this year’s international symposium to MU.

In using electromagnetic pulsars, scientists can alter parameters such as the duration, frequency and power of the pulses emitted, resulting in a huge number of outcomes. Because the research therefore can be time-intensive, consistent sources of funding are essential. While lamenting that some of his ideas — such as studying the biological effects of wireless phones’ electromagnetic waves on humans — are considered “unfundable,” Islam is heartened by developments such as Old Dominion University’s N.I.H. grant for cancer research.

“It looks like this research will be fundable in the near future,” Islam says.

Next, Islam wants to explore the potential uses of electromagnetic pulsars in healing hairline fractures. He just needs a partner from the life sciences.

“Here in engineering, we have resources, but we need to have someone from the other side of campus. If two of us collaborate together, we can make a team,” Islam says. The close proximity of life-sciences and engineering facilities — and the cooperative spirit of the faculty — place Mizzou in a prime position for such interdisciplinary projects, he says. “There are not many campuses like this.”

The 2009 International Bioelectrics Symposium runs June 25-26 in the Christopher S. Bond Life Science Center on the MU campus. Thursday’s sessions focus on biomedical research. For more information, visit the symposium Web site.

Read more in:  Health & MedicineOn CampusAgriculture & the EnvironmentScience & TechnologySpecial Features & Series

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Last updated: June 6, 2013