Bridging a gap: GRA's technology investment

Research can’t advance without high-technology tools, and federal grants seldom cover the cost of such sophisticated instruments.
 
That’s why GRA’s strategic investment in state-of-the-art lab technology is crucial. It bridges this financial gap, drives collaboration among universities and serves as the linchpin for scientific breakthroughs.
 
Here are eight examples of how GRA’s technology investment has advanced discovery and invention and attracted highly competitive research grants to Georgia’s universities.
 

 

Watching the mind at work

High-powered MRI system at Georgia State/Georgia Tech Center for Advanced Brain Imaging 
 
“Functional MRI” is a favorite imaging technique of scientists who study how the brain works. It is non-invasive, easy to use and lets researchers see active areas of the brain literally light up as a person looks at pictures, performs a task, or recalls a memory.
 
At the Center for Advanced Brain Imaging, a joint center of Georgia State and Georgia Tech, functional MRI is just one way scientists use a 3-Tesla MRI imaging system purchased in 2009 in partnership with GRA. The 3-Tesla machine is twice as strong as standard MRIs and delivers 16 times higher resolution – power and capability that greatly enhance research programs underway at Georgia State and Georgia Tech.
 
As scientists learn which areas of the brain control certain cognitive tasks, they can develop new technologies to help patients compensate for missing brain function. Such technologies could help people who can’t speak learn to communicate, for example, or give immobile patients the ability to operate a wheelchair.
 
The Center is truly interdisciplinary, with more than two dozen scientists actively conducting research. Experts in psychology, medicine and physiology are investigating autism, anxiety, the effects of aging on brain function and successful adaptation of the brain after a childhood brain tumor. Chemists, physicists and computer scientists also work together to improve the MRI technology itself.
 
The Functional MRI instrument was made possible with investment from the Georgia Research Alliance.

Elizabeth Wright of Emory University operates the cryo-electron microscope, purchased by GRA.
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Unparalleled views of viruses

Cryo-electron microscopes at Emory University
 
Modern drug development promises tailor-made therapies to fight harmful invaders. But to make a medicine that fits, scientists first have to know the size, shape and structure of the virus particles they’re battling. When those particles are just nanometers in size, that’s no easy task.
 
At Emory University, researchers use specialized weapons to analyze the enemy: two cryo-electron microscopes that yield the best possible view of the virus particles and micro-organisms. Purchased with funding from GRA, these microscopes deliver high-resolution images and reveal three-dimensional forms.

Just as important, a cryo-electron microscope uses samples that have been frozen to about 350°F below zero, the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Frozen specimens don’t have to be stained or fixed, so they can be viewed in their native environment, and the samples are more stable and less likely to collapse – essential for studying their structure.
 
One of Emory’s microscopes has another big advantage: a phase plate that utilizes properties of light waves to achieve higher contrast and reveal more detail. The Emory phase plate microscope is one of just four in use in the United States, one of only two at American universities.
 
Researchers at Emory use these tools to study measles, influenza and RSV, a common respiratory virus in children, with the goal of aiding in the development of therapeutic drugs and vaccines.
 
The cryo-electron microscopes were made possible with investment from the Georgia Research Alliance.

The pathogen detector

Raman spectrometer at UGA’s Animal Health Research Center
 
A typical Raman spectrometer “reads” material by firing a laser at the material’s surface and analyzing the wavelengths of vibration to determine what the material is made of. This works well with concentrated samples of a substance – say, a bag of white powder police suspect is cocaine. But traditional spectroscopy instruments are largely useless in finding tiny amounts of pathogens in a real-world sample.
 
GRA Eminent Scholar Ralph Tripp changed that. He devised an array of nano-sized silver rods that increase the spectrometer’s sensitivity by 100 million times, making it possible to find even miniscule amounts of viruses.
 
Tripp initially designed the device for his laboratory research into zoological diseases. But he realized the technology would be infinitely more valuable if it could be used in the field, with portable instruments.
 
In 2010, GRA purchased a First Defender portable spectrometer, and Tripp built a nano-rod array to fit. The enhancing technology is now produced by a start-up venture, Argent Diagnostics, and sold to Thermo Fisher Scientific, manufacturer of First Defender.
 
The portable surface-enhanced spectroscopy devices have become the gold standard for field work, quickly identifying viruses, food-borne pathogens, and biological agents in defense settings.

Evidence of a changing brain

Multi-photon microscope at Emory University
 
Because Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, longitudinal studies are crucial for understanding its development and searching for treatments.
 
But past studies have been limited because the methods used to examine the brain risked damaging brain tissue. Scientists could only study brain tissue after death, when Alzheimer’s Disease was already fully developed, and could learn little about the formative stages of the disease.
 
But today, there is a tool that can obtain high-resolution images of the brain without harming living tissue. The tool is a multi-photon microscope, and in 2009, GRA partnered with Emory University to purchase such instrumentation for the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Emory.
 
Emory scientists now are conducting long-term studies with the microscope. The device uses a pulsed laser to visualize brain tissues as deep as one millimeter, a significant improvement over the 100-micrometer range of other microscopes.
 
Working with living tissue has made it possible to visualize brain synapse function and dysfunction. Researchers also have captured images of the brains of healthy mice, and will compare these against pictures of the brains of mice that have been genetically engineered as models of neurodegenerative diseases.
 
In the future, Emory scientists will use the microscope to evaluate new therapies for diseases that affect brain function. The microscope was made possible with investment from the Georgia Research Alliance.

Inventing the instruments to diagnose autism

Machine tools at the Marcus Autism Center
 
The prevalence of autism has increased at an alarming rate, and the cost of treating American children with this developmental disease is well over $100 billion a year. The outlook is better for kids who are diagnosed early; however, many children are not identified until they enter school at age 5, when rehabilitation is much more difficult.
 
Researchers at the Marcus Autism Center, led by GRA Eminent Scholar Ami Klin, want to make early intervention the norm. They are applying what they know about the early signs of autism to create new diagnostic tools that can be used in pediatricians’ offices, day care centers, and elsewhere in the community to identify toddlers, and even babies, who need further evaluation and possible therapy.
 
The center builds these tools in its Applied Research Technologies Laboratory, using a full slate of machine shop equipment purchased by GRA. The lab consists of 3,000 square feet of offices and work space where mechanical, electrical and software engineers create diagnostic and therapeutic technologies.
 
This ability to rapidly translate research findings into prototypes of practical devices enabled the center to win an $8.3 million National Institutes of Health Autism Center of Excellence grant. More important, it promises to lead to better outcomes for millions of children. The Applied Research Lab was made possible with investment from the Georgia Research Alliance.
 
• Read an article about groundbreaking discovery in the Autism Center >
 

Designing and building at the nano-level

Electron beam lithography system at Georgia Tech
 
Nano-scale structures can do amazing things, but creating those structures is highly technical, delicate work. An electron beam lithography machine makes such work possible.
 
The $4-million e-beam lithography system at Georgia Tech allows engineers from academia and industry to carve nano-scale shapes. Those shapes then serve as molds to create tiny electronics, biological devices and optical components.
 
One researcher at Georgia Tech used the machine to build a device that helps scientists examine DNA. His invention had a nano-sized hole and an attached probe. The hole was just the right size for a DNA sequence to be fed through, making it easier for researchers to count and measure DNA pairs.
 
When the e-beam lithography machine was installed in 2004, it earned Georgia Tech a place in the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, a consortium of 13 academic research sites, including Cornell, Harvard and Stanford.
 
More than 500 researchers use the equipment each year; 4 in 10 are from outside the university, supporting operating costs with user fees, and demonstrating the importance of this equipment to the research community at large.
 
The e-beam tool was made possible with investment from the Georgia Research Alliance.

New insights into molecules

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer at the University of Georgia
 
Most drugs are designed to attach to proteins in the body. So, it’s important for scientists to understand the structure of proteins and how they interact with other molecules.
 
Such research is making great strides at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center at UGA, thanks in part to a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer purchased by GRA.
 
GRA Eminent Scholar James Prestegard has used NMR to study proteins and carbohydrates, learning more about how and where they attach to naturally occurring molecules as well as derived drug candidates.
 
Prestegard not only conducts research using established methods, but also investigates new methods of using the equipment to get better results. Already, he has developed a technique that uses a high-magnetic field to make research with proteins and carbohydrates faster and more informative.
 
When first installed in 2002, UGA’s 900 MHz spectrometer was one of only a handful of comparable machines worldwide. Even today, only 50 or so of these super-powered instruments are in operation. Since 2007, the technology has been self-supported with user fees.
 
The NMR spectrometer was made possible with investment from the Georgia Research Alliance.

The world’s resource for herpes B testing

Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory at Georgia State University
 
For people at risk from the potentially deadly herpes B virus, Georgia State’s BSL-4 laboratory is the only place to turn for a diagnosis. No other lab in the world tests for B virus antibodies in humans.
 
The virus is common – and relatively harmless – in macaque monkeys, which are frequently used in biomedical research. Medical lab workers can become infected through bites, scratches, splashes or needle stick injuries. If the virus isn’t detected early, it attacks the central nervous system and has a fatality rate of more than 70 percent.
 
Georgia State’s Viral Immunology Center offers rapid diagnosis 24/7/365 for cases of suspected exposure, to catch the virus early when anti-virals can save lives. By keeping researchers safe, the BSL-4 lab also protects the research itself; GRA Eminent Scholar Dr. Julia Hilliard believes that deaths from B virus could lead to the shutdown of biomedical research labs that use macaque monkeys.
 
The BSL-4 lab was built in 1998 with investment from GRA. Today, its work is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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