Technologies that can change lives now moving beyond the lab
Friday 6 April 2012
From flowing massive amounts of digital information to healing pain, scientists in UC's Proof of Concept program are pushing innovations and speeding technology transfer.
A search for novel painkillers has led UC Irvine scientists to a potential two-for-one strategy that may heal surgical wounds at the same time it relieves pain.
At UC San Diego, researchers have devised a way to dramatically boost the amount of digital information that can shoot through fiber optic cables. This addresses the problem of data load and bandwith in this information age.
Both projects stand on the brink of commercial development. But that’s the rub.
Promising biomedical and engineering discoveries at universities start with federal funding for basic research. Many reach the brink of revealing their real-world potential only to encounter a dreaded funding gap between basic research and commercial application. It’s called the “valley of death” — where cutting-edge innovations come to a grinding halt before they can benefit society.
UC’s Proof of Concept (POC) Commercialization Gap grant program is helping bridge the valley with short-term funding to allow researchers to take that critical step toward commercial viability. In its inaugural year, the program made grants of up to $250,000 for one-year projects to move promising research and make it ready for commercial consideration. Proposals went through a two-tier, rigorous screening: the first by peer scientists and the second by venture capitalists, yielding funding for 13 projects in 2011-12.
The grantees presented their innovations on April 5 at the UC Systemwide Technology Transfer Forum for industry and technology venture capitalists. The workshop showcased projects, ranging from agriculture to information technology.
“Some university research is poised to make a great contribution to health, technology and the state’s economy,” says William Tucker, executive director, Innovation Alliances and Services at the UC Office of the President.
“But the university can’t be the investor of first choice. We need to position our ideas so that the value to investors is clear. These are projects where you can easily see their value."
The Technology Transfer Forum gave researchers a chance to demonstrate their project’s potential and allowed commercial funders to consider the prospects of these new technologies, said Tucker.
One of the most promising POC projects stems from the UC Irvine pain-relief discovery. A UC Irvine team has identified a strategy that blunts pain at the site of injury rather than acting on the brain’s perception of the pain — the way opioids and most other potent pain killers work. Blocking pain specifically at the wound site avoids side effects such as grogginess or potential drug dependency.
Neuroscientist Daniele Piomelli has found a way to promote the action of anandamide, a naturally occurring marijuana-like chemical in the body. Anandamide normally relieves pain by linking up with other proteins called cannabinoid receptors — the same type of receptor that allows marijuana to produces its pleasurable effects.
But an enzyme in the body regularly recycles anandamide, taking it out of action and preventing it from providing extended pain protection. Piomelli and his colleagues identified a new class of compounds that block this enzyme only when it is acting outside of the brain. In experiments with mice, they were able to significantly extend anandamide’s analgesic effect.
“This potential drug is rather unique in that it could be taken orally but does not cross the blood-brain barrier, and so does not act on the brain,” Piomelli says. “To my knowledge, this is the only pain-relieving compound that can be taken into the body to relieve pain, but only act peripherally. So far, in our studies we have found significant pain relief without any side effects.”
Piomelli’s research is funded by NIH, but this particular project lost its funding at a critical phase, threatening to stop or at least postpone progress.
“We thought this part of our research was going to have to close up shop, but that’s when we applied and received the POC grant,” Piomelli says. “One of the hardest parts of this kind of research is converting the findings into something that is really medically useful. The support really propelled us.”
And it led to a new, totally surprising, discovery this year.
“We found that the animals not only experienced pain relief, but that the new compound also promoted healing,” he said. “A wound that would normally heal in three weeks could heal in one. This was mind blowing to us.”
It’s a long way from mouse studies to clinics and hospitals, but Piomelli can see the great promise of the discovery.
“After surgery, this compound could be put in the IV line along with morphine and other analgesics. It could help reduce pain, speed healing and shorten the recovery time.”
The finding is so new that Piomelli is not ready to describe it in detail, but at the Proof of Concept forum he shared enough of the data to demonstrate the discovery’s potential. Now, it’s up to the forum’s guests or others to decide if they want to help move the new pain reliever-wound healer the next big step toward the clinic.
Moving loads of data
At the same time that Piomelli’s research team was working on anandamide, another UC research group was tackling a looming communications problem that can affect us all.
The human hunger for information seems to have no limit. We’re now up to a billion internet searches a day and 50 million tweets. We email around the clock and send terabytes of data around the world. Ultimately, almost all digital data and communications flood through fiber optic cables. But there is a limit. It’s called bandwidth.
Fiber optics is the gold standard for heavy loads of data transmission. New research shows that the rate at which data now flows through fiber optic cables has already reached half of the cables’ ultimate limit. The cost of laying down thousands of miles of new, larger cables poses another kind of limit. So, the hunt is on for new technologies to increase bandwidth capacity.
The conventional way of thinking has been that there is a one-to-one relationship between bandwidth and data: Ten gigahertz of bandwidth transmits about 10 gigabits of data. But researchers at UC San Diego’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, recognized that 10 times more data can be stuffed — almost literally — into a given bandwidth as long as there is a kind of decoder at the receiving end.
The team conceived of a strategy to transmit data on 10 or more channels within the bandwidth of a single conventional-sized channel. The approach is analogous to compressing video or audio content before streaming it to customers; but instead of digital compression, this strategy physically compresses — or “constrains” — the bandwidth itself.
The constrained communications are more garbled as they come through the cable, but the researchers have shown that the message — the data load — can be fully restored when it reaches its destination.
“We all thought we had to have fat bandwidths to carry large amounts of data. But it turns out that’s not true,” says Nikola Alic (in photo at top of the page), a research scientist at UC SanDiego and leader of the new Calit2 communications effort, now funded by a POC grant.
“We find we can cut the bandwidth to 10 percent of the original and still keep as many bits as before. We just need a chip at the receiving end to retrieve the full, original content imbedded in the constrained bandwidth.”
With their POC grant, the team has demonstrated the new technology in the lab and are starting to test its practical use by using 1,000 miles of optic fiber cables to represent long-distance communication.
“Without the POC grant, it would have been a no-go,” Alic says. “In the last year, we’ve been able to compress data much more effectively, so we can now demonstrate its full potential.”
Alic believes in the new technology’s value and wants to get it into use before data overload forces long-distance fiber optic communication to a screeching halt, or at least a plodding transmission rate.
He says the practical next step would be to fabricate the chips that can unscramble incoming data. If that step is taken, the new technology will be poised to help usher in the next generation of communications capacity.
Tweeps and Internet jockeys: Breathe easy.