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Biomedical miracles

Prestigious partnership funds five new health care innovations by MU scientists

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Sept. 1, 2012
Cell image

A computer screen displays an image derived from a gold nano-rod-based technology developed by Mizzou researchers Raghuraman Kannan and Gerald Arthur for use in early detection of cancer. Gold nanorods are attached with a peptide that specifically seeks out the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a biomarker for cancer in tissue. The cancer detection kit is one of five projects recently chosen for funding through the Coulter Foundation.

When it comes to advancing health care, Mizzou scientists aren’t just training a fledgling generation of innovators. They aren’t merely conducting research. They’re also taking the next steps: developing new lifesaving technologies and working to put them in the hands of the people who need them.

Helping in that endeavor is the Coulter Foundation, an organization established by engineer, inventor and entrepreneur Wallace H. Coulter to fund medical research and engineering.

Last year Mizzou was chosen as one of 15 universities in the nation — and the only university in Missouri — to enter into a Coulter Translational Partnership to take biomedical engineering products from the lab to the market. It’s a distinction that places Mizzou in good company, among universities such as Stanford, Duke, UCLA and Johns Hopkins.

Chuck Caldwell

Chuck Caldwell, a graduate student in biological engineering, observes displays during a celebration of the Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program at the Reynolds Alumni Center. Caldwell works with one of the research teams on the development of biomedical technologies for cancer treatment. His father, Bill Caldwell, professor emeritus of pathology and former director of Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, played a key role in forging Mizzou's partnership with the Coulter Foundation.

The inventions

Kicking off the fall 2012 semester, Mizzou has announced five projects getting a nudge toward commercialization thanks to $5.2 million in Coulter funds.

Each project is led by an interdisciplinary team of principal investigators: an engineer from the MU College of Engineering and a clinician from the MU School Medicine. All of the undertakings promise to improve diagnosis and treatment for multiple medical conditions:

  • Lung cancer
    Professors Li Qun Gu and Michael Wang have developed an accurate, inexpensive, noninvasive nanotechnological method for measuring the effects of lung cancer therapies. The technique has potential applications in treating other cancers, heart disease, diabetes and psychiatric disorders.
  • Colorectal cancer
    Also using nanotechnology, professors Raghuraman Kannan and Gerald Arthur have designed a detection kit for early diagnosis of colorectal cancer that also can be used for detecting other forms of cancer.
  • Burn wounds
    Using laser technology, professors John Viator and Stephen Barnes have created a photoacoustic diagnostic instrument to measure the depth of burns in a noninvasive way, helping to preserve healthy tissue in burn patients.
  • ACL injuries
    Professors Sheila Grant and Richard White have developed a new tissue graft technology for use in anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery. The new method is designed to integrate better into joints, last longer and improve functionality.
  • Autism
    A new pupillary light reflex test invented by professors Gang Yao and Judith Miles can be used to monitor children’s neurological development and provide early detection of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.

“This theme of serving the patients of our health system is very critical to what we are all about today,” MU Chancellor Brady Deaton told the crowd gathered at an Aug. 31 event celebrating the Coulter partnership and announcing the projects.

The selection

The biomedical technology research projects chosen for Coulter funding were subject to close scrutiny. All had to meet two major conditions for the awards: demonstration of outstanding scientific merit and evidence of potential to meet a well-defined — and currently unmet — clinical need.

The intensive review process was overseen by a committee of investment fund managers, researchers and entrepreneurs as well as Biological Engineering Chair Jinglu Tan, retired Ellis Fischel Cancer Center director Bill Caldwell and MU Office of Technology Management and Industrial Relations director Chris Fender.

“We have identified projects that have excellent market potential and provide tremendous benefit to patients but need a little more investment to help advance through the later stages of the translation process and reach patients,” explains Jake Halliday, Coulter program director at MU.

Equally painstaking was Coulter’s selection of universities.  

“The terms and conditions for serving in this partnership as a university is a rigorous process and one we respect that respects the academic quality, breadth and depth of our university," says Deaton.

The perfect partner

So, why Mizzou?

When opportunity knocked, Tigers were ready.

MU is made for collaboration. Our university is one of only five in the nation to house schools of medicine, engineering, health professions, nursing, veterinary medicine, agriculture and business — as well as a research reactor — on one campus.

Mizzou is equipped with a Biodesign and Innovation Program, which unites the School of Medicine and the College of Engineering for joint research and the development of new medical technologies. MU's Institute for Clinical and Translational Science transforms discoveries made by MU researchers into products and services. Mizzou Advantage pulls the campus's resources together, fostering cooperation among faculty, staff, students and external partners to address and solve needs and problems in MU's areas of strength.

The Coulter legacy

The partnership with the Coulter Foundation provides MU with $666,667 a year. Participating MU departments contribute $333,333 each year for five years.

Additional research projects are expected to be announced over the remaining four years of the partnership.

These "bridge funds" help kick-start the entrepreneurial phase of each project, in keeping with the spirit and the vision of Wallace H. Coulter.

Though he never earned a university degree, Coulter, through his own research, made significant contributions to biological engineering. He invented a method for counting and sizing microscopic particles suspended in a fluid (known as the Coulter Principle). He was a pioneer in hematology. He founded the Coulter Corporation, which developed technologies used in the treatment of cancer, leukemia and infectious diseases.

In his lifetime Coulter earned 82 patents.

“I believe our scientists share his same passion for discovery, innovation and collaboration,” Robert Tzou, interim associate dean of engineering, said during the awards ceremony. “The next Wallace H. Coulter may be here in this room."

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Last updated: Sept. 3, 2012