12 big ideas in Wisconsin research

    1. MCW researchers could change the world of organ transplants
    Dr. Michael Mitchell, professor and researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a pediatric heart surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, is leading the charge in new research that could revolutionize organ transplants.

    Mitchell, in partnership with Mats Hidestrand, assistant professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at MCW, is pioneering a new, less invasive and more cost-effective way to detect the possibility of transplant rejections.

    Mitchell, who works with heart transplant patients at Children’s Hospital and across the globe, originally started the work in 2004 with his wife, Aoy Tomita-Mitchell, also a researcher at MCW. At the time, the two were working in Kentucky, focused on non-invasive prenatal testing, but their work evolved on arrival at MCW in 2006.

    Patients who undergo a heart transplant must also endure between eight and 12 biopsies per year to monitor for potential transplant rejections, Mitchell said.

    “Frequent biopsies to detect rejection are not only painful and expensive, they can also be dangerous for patients,” he said. “In some children, they are actually impossible to conduct because the vessels are just too small.”

    Rejections occur in approximately 15 percent of patients.  Mitchell’s research utilizes a blood test to detect donor DNA in the patient’s blood.

    “Higher levels of donor DNA in the patient’s blood stream can indicate rejection,” Mitchell said.

    In a 2012 study conducted at Children’s Hospital, the new method was proven to be 100 percent accurate in identifying early signs of transplant rejection days before the patient displayed any symptoms, Mitchell said. A new five-year, $3.27 million grant from the National Institutes of Health is funding a longitudinal study to test the method with 480 adult and pediatric heart transplant patients at five hospitals around the country.

    Early detection allows the patient to be treated with oral steroids at home for approximately $6.22 a day, compared to the thousands of dollars it would cost for multiple biopsies, or a new transplant.

    “This is the holy grail of the field,” Mitchell said. “And its potential, if proven as sensitive as we think it is, will literally get us to the next level in terms of outcomes.”

    The process could potentially become the standard of care and replace most biopsies in two to four years.

    2. DRS lands Navy contract to modify the USS Jimmy Carter submarine
    Milwaukee-based DRS Power & Control Technologies, Inc., a subsidiary of DRS Technologies in Virginia, lives to serve. The company regularly supplies power conversion, instrumentation and control systems to the U.S. Navy’s combat fleet.

    DRS, an innovator in nautical systems for the military, was recently awarded a contract valued at nearly $18 million to modify and redesign the propulsion unit motor on the USS Jimmy Carter submarine.  All work for the contract will be conducted in Milwaukee, and is expected to be complete by November 2015.

    3. Light technology could mean survival for brain tumor patients
    Dr. Harry Whelan, Bleser professor of neurology and pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin, is working to shine a light on the treatment of malignant, recurrent brain tumors. A near infrared LED light, to be exact.

    The treatment utilizes photo-sensitizing drugs injected into the bloodstream. The drug accumulates in the cancer cells, where it is activated by contact with an infrared laser.

    “The drug is chemically engineered to attack the cancer cells once it comes in contact with the light,” Whelan said.

    With traditional chemotherapy, negative side effects can occur when healthy cells are inadvertently attacked by the drugs given to kill the cancer. Sometimes, cancer cells survive. Too often, they grow into another tumor.

    Whelan has worked with photobiology and the medical applications of infrared light for more than 25 years.

    “Our research allows us to target specific cells in a given region,” Whelan said. “Particularly in an area like the brain, where you have several healthy cells responsible for very eloquent human functions, it becomes even more useful to only attack the cancer cells.”

    Clinical trials on adult patients with recurrent, malignant brain tumors demonstrated long-term survival of 40 to 50 percent, Whelan said. Those patients were previously given a survivability rate measured in months, not years.

    If the new treatment proves successful, it will save lives. It could also mean a whole new market for pharmaceutical and device manufacturers in Wisconsin. The team has already started working with local engineers on the light technology.  

    “The potential exists for this technology to be applied to other types of tumors as well,” Whelan said. “As we continue to understand the chemistry and refine the technology, this has the potential to be a one-and-done procedure  that could replace costly traditional chemotherapy sessions in certain patients.”

    4. At UW-Whitewater, art research advances U.S. foundries
    An art professor is making Wisconsin foundries better, faster and more efficient.

    Dan McGuire, art professor at UW-Whitewater and Whitewater Incubation Program fellow, and his team, were recent recipents of a $25,000 grant from the UW-Extension Ideadvance Seed Fund.

    McGuire’s teammates include Choton Basu, director of the Incubation Program’s Innovation Hub; and Jeff Vanevenhoven, entrepreneurship program coordinator and director of the introductory student business incubation initiative.

    The three have founded Innovative Foundry Technologies, which is focused on creating foundry-related inventions. If the team completes the first stage, it will be eligible for a second round of funding worth up to $50,000.

    The grants are given to faculty, staff and students who are part of the UW System or affiliated with WiSys Technology System or the UW-Milwaukee Research Foundation.

    In 2000, McGuire co-founded Foundry Solutions, headquartered in the Whitewater Technology Park.

    Foundry Solutions grew out of research originally conducted by McGuire as a method for his art students to more rapidly produce material for their metal sculptures.  Today, the company utilizes 3D printing to produce molds for foundries.

    5. Marshfield Clinic launches revolutionary lung cancer treatment trial
    Seizing the idea that personalized medicine is the future of health care, the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation has embarked on a new clinical trial that utilizes genetics to treat patients with lung cancer.

    In partnership with Gundersen Health System of La Crosse and St. Vincent Cancer Center of Green Bay, researchers have started to enroll patients diagnosed with squamous cell lung cancer, a common type of lung cancer typically seen in patients who smoke.

    The trial, according to Dr. Douglas Reding, oncology research director at Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, profiles the genetic makeup of the cancer in each patient and then matches him or her with the best treatment options.

    “Treatment is the most beneficial, and less costly, if we can pinpoint what types of treatment would be the most effective,” Reding said.

    More than 3,000 patients across the country will be enrolled in the study. Patients in the trial will be assigned to one of five sub-studies that will test an investigational drug matched to the cancer’s genetic profile, Reding said.

    “The informaiton we gather from the trial will determine if this approach to treating cancer is more effective and efficient than current therapies,” Reding said. “I see this as the first of many trials that will be designed like this.”

    Pharmaceutical companies in Wisconsin and across the country are pursuing targeted therapy treatments as the next frontier of treatment, Reding said.

    “The personalized approach is the next horizon,” he said. “Studies like these will continue to get us closer to that reality.”

    6. Exact Sciences receives milestone approval from FDA
    After nearly two decades of research, Madison-based Exact Sciences received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 for its non-invasive colorectal screening test, Cologuard.

    According to Kevin Conroy, chief executive officer of the company, colorectal cancer is highly treatable with early detection, but 23 million Americans between 50 and 75 are not getting screened as recommended. Colorectal cancer is the second most-contracted cancer in the U.S.

    Cologuard is available by prescription to individuals 50 years and older at average risk for colorectal cancer. The test is easy to take at home and does not require any medication, dietary restriction or preparation in advance.

    Cologuard tests for specific blood proteins and DNA mutations in the stool sample that are traditionally associated with cancer and pre-cancer.

    7. UW-Stevens Point offers important resource for paper industry
    UW-Stevens Point’s Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology  was formed in 2010 with the goal of connecting the university to business and industry throughout the state. The Institute currently provides its partners, many in the paper industry, with research and laboratory services that include paper testing, paper grade development, compostability and other, case-based analysis.

    The ability to test and produce products on a smaller scale, as well as access to university researchers and expertise, offer a unique opportunity for businesses throughout the state.

    The Institute has done more than 200 industry-facing projects with Wisconsin businesses since 2010, said Paul Fowler, executive director.

    “We’ve got quite the customer base, not just in Wisconsin, but nationally as well,” he said.

    8. UW-Green Bay researchers identify strontium risk in region’s deep aquifers
    Researchers at UW-Green Bay recently identified a naturally occurring chemical element in northeastern Wisconsin well water that could pose a health threat for consumers in the area.

    John Luczaj, geoscience chair in the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, headed up the research in partnership with Michael Zorn, vice chair, and graduate student Joseph Baeten.

    The team discovered naturally-occurring strontium in deep aquifers in the region.

    Several of the wells in UW-Green Bay’s study measured at levels of concern, Luczaj said. But the threat isn’t necessarily serious once identified.

    “Since the element acts a lot like calcium, we know that water softeners and reverse osmosis can completely eliminate the risk,” Luczaj said.

    According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, strontium, at elevated levels, can impact bone strength and skeletal development, particularly in infants and children.

    Anecdotally, some dairy farmers in the study did think the strontium discovered in the wells has negatively impacted milk production.  

    “Ultimately, the number of health impacts just is not well-known,” he said. “We believe our research sets a good baseline for anyone interested in continuing with health impact studies.”

    9. Business partnership helps grow UW-Stevens Point biomass processing lab
    UW-Stevens Point has created a niche for itself in the biomass marketplace.

    Through the Cellulose Pilot and Processing Laboratory and its partnership with American Science and Technology of Wausau, UW-Stevens Point is driving research and the commercialization of bio-based chemicals and products.

    The lab takes waste products from forestry, agriculture and energy industries and turns them into products that can be resold, thus creating a new revenue stream.

    “Our technology breaks down biomass into three major components; we then explore ways those components can be made into multiple kinds of high-value, salable products,” said Eric Singaas, director of research at the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology.

    The CPPL serves as the university-based research and development laboratory for new products, but is also available to academic labs, facilities and private industry at a cost, Singaas said.

    UW-Stevens Point teamed up with Chicago-based American Science and Technology to develop the laboratory, which also serves as AST’s Wausau facility. Plans exist to increase the capacity of the lab by summer 2015, Singaas said.

    10. UW-Milwaukee, Whitewater and UW-Parkside to launch major aquaponics initiative
    The U.S. imports nearly 5.5 billion pounds of seafood each year. It’s the nation’s third-highest import, behind automobiles and oil.

    To help meet demand domestically, UW-Milwaukee will lead an initiative, in partnership with UW-Whitewater and UW-Parkside, to establish the Research and Training Center for Commercialization of Intensive Aquaculture and Aquaponics.

    The Center is one of 12 projects funded by the UW System’s Incentive Grant program, designed to connect university resources with Wisconsin businesses.

    The goal is to establish aquaponics as a sustainable industry in Wisconsin by advancing technology training individuals in the science of aquaculture.

    11. UW-Madison research may hold the key to new cancer- fighting therapies
    Ronald Raines, Henry Lardy professor of biochemistry at UW-Madison, is a long-time researcher of bovine Ribonuclease A protein structures. His team has discovered how to manipulate amino acid structures in a way that makes them significantly more toxic to cancer cells than similar, existing structures.

    The EVade™ Ribonucleases work by degrading ribonucleic acids (RNA), resulting in inhibition of protein synthesis and cell death.  

    The technology is exclusively licensed to Quintessence Biosciences, Inc., of Madison. The company, founded in 2000, is focused on the development of protein-based therapies as anti-cancer agents.

    Its lead agent, QBI-139, has advanced to Phase I human clinical trial at the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center in Madison, and at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

    Additional products using modifications of the technology are also in development.

    12. Chemistry partnership means big business for Wisconsin
    Nearly 96 percent of all manufactured goods involve chemistry. The Southeastern Wisconsin Applied Chemistry Center of Excellence was established as a partnership between UW-Milwaukee and UW-Parkside to support economic development and strengthen the relationship between education and businesses.

    “Chemistry is a very important part of our state’s ability to remain competitive in the global marketplace,” said Doug Stafford, director of the Center of Excellence and the Milwaukee Institute for Drug Discovery.

    In 2014, the Center awarded 10 $75,000 grants to active collaborations between university researchers and Wisconsin businesses, through its Translational Grant Program.

    “The grant applications were evaluated on the scientific rationale and the economic and business impact,” Stafford said.

    Funded projects include vaccine development, new pesticides, pharmacuetical advancements, eco-friendly alternatives to current market chemicals, optical sensors and more efficient industrial processes.

    Some are startup operations, while others are partnerships with well-established brands and companies, mostly in the southeastern Wisconsin area.

    All can have deep economic impact on the region, Stafford said.

    The lab is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, supplied by industry leaders like Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, and provides an unmatched level of expertise and resources to the community.

    The new center will be fully operational by summer 2015, and will be located in the Kenwood Interdisciplinary Research Complex on UWM’s main campus, Stafford said.

    Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

    Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

    No posts to display