A Tech Tour-Like Friday At Wayne State University

A Tech Tour-Like Friday At Wayne State University
Twice a year I head off for the hinterlands of Michigan on the Great Lakes IT Report Tech Tours.

As you might know by now, the fall tech tour has a back-to-school theme and deals with university tech transfer and research spinoffs.

But because the whole idea of the Tech Tour is to get me out to the other half of Michigan's population once in a while -- i.e., the non-metro-Detroit part -- the universities in southeast Michigan usually aren't included.

Well, this year Julie O'Connor, director of research communications at Wayne State University, did something about that. She put together an absolutely fascinating Tech Tour-style series of meetings for me Friday, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

And I even got to sleep in my own bed the night before.

The day began bright and early in the basement of the physics building.

In several basement rooms, a work crew under the direction of physics professor Claude Pruneau and research assistant Vladimir Petrov are building an 80-ton magnet assembly that will become part of the Large Hadron Collider, the fabled super atom smasher along the border of France and Switzerland.

The LHC will smash lead nuclei together at 5.5 trillion electron volts of energy, compared to 1 TeV at the Fermi collider in the United States. Those titanic collisons will separate subatomic particles like protons into their constituent quarks.

"It's a quark-gluon plasma, a new phase of matter," Pruneau said. "Well, it's not exactly new. We believe this state of matter existed for about a millionth of a second after the Big Bang. We're trying to recreate this in the lab and study it, understand its properties."

Oh. Right.

For the record, the objects involved are 10 to the minus 15th meters in size, colliding at nearly the speed of light and creating collisions that dissipate in 10 to the minus 22 seconds. Billions of those collisions will add up to knowledge, thuogh.

They're building a huge, heavy calorimeter or heat detector in the basement that will help scientists measure a wide variety of properties of the plasma. The aim is to understand the fundamental properties of matter.

Where that might lead, who knows, but earlier physics experiments done just for science's sake have led to advances like PET and CT scans.

The detector modules are layers of lead and insulators, pierced by fiber optics and topped with electronics. They're about halfway through building 2,200 of the 50-pound modules under a $5 million Department of Energy grant and $8 million from the French and Italian governments.

Oh, and Pruneau convinced me not to worry about those scare stories about the LHC creating a planet-swallowing black hole.

"If you believe the theory that a black hole could be produced, you also have to believe the rest of that theory, that that micro black hole will very quickly disappear," Pruneau said.

Well, OK then! Smash those nuclei!


Into the car for a short trip over to Motor City Casino and the final day of the iSURGITEC conference, a three-day affair featuring surgeons and medical researchers from Wayne State's medical and engineering schools and three other institutions banded together as ASTII, the Advanced Surgical Technology and Innovation Initiative.

Dr. Madhu Prasad, associate professor of surgery at Wayne State's medical school, said the medical profession faces challenges like a lack of financing for faculty development, a lack of coordination from the government, and a lack fo application of evidence-based medicine.

He traced the history of surgery, from India's Susruta in 460 BC, the first plastic surgeon. Back then the sentence for theft was having one's nose cut off. Susruta transplanted part of the hand onto the face to create a new nose for those unfortunates -- using a surgical kit that looks virtually identical to today's tools.

The 20th Century, Prasad said, was the triumph of "big surgery" -- transplants, cancer operations, open heart operations.

Now, the concept of minimally invasive surgery has arrived, and for the first time in 2,500 years, surgical tools look radically different. There's also the da Vinci surgical robot that allows a surgeon to perform far smaller actions than the hands are capable of -- and allows surgeries to be performed remotely.

Emerging surgical techniques include nanotech and micro-electro-mechanical devices -- for example, a scalpel with pressure and force sensors for more precise incisions, nanoneedles that draw blood with no pain and devices that filter out tremor in surgical movements. Three-dimensional imaging will continue to make exploratory surgery rarer and rarer, Prasad said.

Greg Auner, an engineering professor and microsystems expert, followed with a video presentation on nanobots that will eventually be used to attack disease in the body and new neural prosthetics that might one day cure paralysis.

Auner also predicted major improvements in imaging, scanning and remote control robotic surgery, including non-invasive cancer detection and tumor surgery. New materials like ceramics will also make cutting tools more precise. Bioreactors will replace animal studies in medical research.


From the casino it was off to one of my favorite places on the Wayne State campus, the bioengineering building, which looks like nothing special on the outside, but where amazing research lies inside.

I had lunch with Albert King, chair of biomedical engineering, Cindy Bir, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and King Yang, professor and director of the bioengineering center.

And in a wide ranging discussion that included a tour, I learned that Sport Science, the cable TV show based on Wayne State research, has been picked up by ESPN -- but as a shorter program, like a segment within sports news programs. A spinoff, Fight Science, has been picked up for five more episodes by the National Geographic Network.

Bir's reserach includes studies of less-than-lethal weapons for law enforcement, with funding from the Department of Defense or justice groups.

The department also does a lot of research into fighting the medical effects of improvised explosive devices. Yang's labs are chock full of research into a variety of awful stuff that happens to the body and brain in collisions and explosions. It's leading to better designs for everything from military vehicle interiors to sports gear to military helmets.

Downstairs are two crash test sleds and a shock tube, which uses pressurized helium to simiulate blast inury from shock waves.


Then it was off to a medical office and research building, Scott Hall, and a meeting with Zhou-Hua Pan of the School of Medicine. He's working on fascinating research that could offer new hope for some kind of sight for those now doomed to blindness by retinitis pigmentosa.

Pan noted that the disease kills off the top layer of cells at the back of the retina, the light-sensitive rods and cones. But the two layers of cells beneath, the biopolar and the ganglion cells, still like intact below. The idea is to make those cells photo-receptive to replace the function of the rods and cones.

Pan's research hit on a light-sensitive protein from green algae called ChR2 that could be injected into the cells by using a virus to make those cells light sensitive. The technique has worked well in animal tests with mice, rats and most recently marmosets.

Pan is interested in spinning his patent-protected resaerch off into a company that could start human tests.

He said it's not yet known how acute the vision produced by his techinique would be, but it's assumed it would not be as good as normal vision, and is likely to require the use of special goggles. Still, it beats blindness.


Next stop, the Wayne State chemistry building on main campus and a visit with Zhongwu Guo, a globe-spanning researcher who got an undergraduate degree as a pharmacist at a military university in China, a Ph.D. in Poland, and who came to Wayne State four years ago from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Guo's research is in carbohydrate 'glyco-biology,' particularly carbohydrate-based therapeutics, and the realtionship between carbohydrates and some pathological processes, especially cancer.

"Tumor cells exprerss very unique carbohydrates, so they are good targets for therapies or diagnostic methods," Guo said. "What we are trying to do is to stimulate the immune system to recognize these unique carbohydrates so the immune system itself can kill the cancer cells. This kind of therapy is much more specific to the cancer cells so it is less toxic."

Animal studies have shown the therapy effective, "especially for the inhibition of tumor metastasis. It is less efficient for elimination of large solid tumors but it is very good for the inhibition of metastasis. It is also easier to treat one large solid tumor. It is very difficult to treat metastazised tumors, small tumors everywhere."

Guo said he believes that eventually, his carb-based anticancer drug "will be a very good supplemental treatment for traditional therapies."

Guo is still awaiting funding to test the patent-protected concept on large animals. He has post-doctoral fellows, graduate assistance and even a few undergrads working on his projects. The undergrads synthesize some of the required chemicals.


The final stop of the day was Wayne State's sparkling pharmacy building, named after former Arbor Drugs CEO Eugene Applebaum, who made a big donation for it, and a visit with Aloke Dutta, who is working on new and improved anti-depressant and anti-Parkinson's disease drugs.

Dutta has worked on a single molecule that simultaneously inhibits the re-uptate of serotonin (like Prozac) norephinephrine and dopamine. Parkinson's is caused by a lack of dopamine, which helps the body control motor movement.

Dutta also has patent protection on his "triple uptake inhibitor," which shows strong effect against depression in mouse studies. (Depression in mice is measured by giving up trying to escape an environment -- when they give up they go into an obvious state of despair.)

For Parkinson's, Dutta's come up with a single molecule that stimulates dopamine receptors the same way domamine does, and promotes better survival of dopamine-sensitive neurons. It's packaged in an antioxidant, since oxidative stress is associate with Parkinson's. This drug is close to human trials.


Thanks to Julie O'Connor and everyone involved with planning Friday's visit -- it was great, and a reminder just how much world-class research is under way close to home.

Posted on Sunday, November 01, 2009 (Archive on Wednesday, November 11, 2015)
Posted by rcline  Contributed by rcline