What will Georgia's university scientists think of next?
The nation's leading HIV medications ... a painless way to deliver flu shots ... the best-selling treatment for chronic dry eye ... all of this and more have emerged from the laboratories of Georgia's universities.
In 2015 and 2016, GRA celebrates its 25th anniversary with "25 Breakthroughs in Georgia." We've got a few more to post in the weeks ahead. So enter your email in the right-column box (or just email us directly), and we'll add you to our list!
February 11, 2015
No. 1: Sensors that know something's wrong, wherever you are
But scientists at Georgia Tech invented a sensor that detects chemicals and impurities immediately — with no outside lab testing needed.
The breakthrough led to the launch of a company called Lumense in 2012. And its potential is extraordinary.
With the Lumense technology, food manufacturers can spot contamination onsite. Poultry producers can detect ammonia levels in their facilities. Even drinking water can be made safer.
All thanks to a tiny sensor – and a big idea.
March 9, 2015
No. 2: The only prescription for treating chronic dry eye
These are the unpleasant symptoms of chronic dry eye, a condition that affects as many as 25 million people in the U.S. alone. If left untreated, it can lead to inflammation that can damage the eye’s surface.
One of the most commonly prescribed treatments for dry eye is Restasis, a breakthrough drug based on a discovery at the University of Georgia.
While other eye drops provide artificial tears to temporarily lubricate the eye, Restasis increases the eye’s ability to produce its own tears. So Restasis doesn’t just alleviate symptoms — it helps treat the cause.
At UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Renee Kaswan began the quest to treat chronic dry eye in dog patients, a condition that may cause canine blindness. She discovered that an ophthalmic formula containing cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant and anti-inflammatory, had positive results.
Major pharmaceutical company Allergan developed the UGA innovation for the human health market, and Restasis was approved by the FDA in 2002. Restasis eye drops were the first – and remain the only – FDA-approved prescription medicine for dry eye today.
A veterinary product making use of Dr. Kaswan’s innovation is available to animal owners as Optimmune.
March 25, 2015
No. 3: A deeper look inside the human heart
And like thousands of cardiologists worldwide, his doctor opened the Emory Cardiac Toolbox, a software suite designed to take the guesswork out of medical imaging and diagnostics.
The Toolbox analyzes an array of attributes from a patient's heart scan, then produces a reliable diagnosis, from coronary artery disease to heart failure.
In Dr. Garcia’s case, the heart condition was caught early and deemed highly treatable. His prognosis was both good news and a twist of irony – Dr. Garcia was the man who invented the Toolbox at Emory University some three decades ago.
Today, the Emory Cardiac Toolbox is used to treat 4 million patients around the world every year. And Dr. Garcia continues to work with Atlanta-based Syntermed, which markets the software, to add features so that the Toolbox continues saving lives for years to come.
April 13, 2015
No. 4: Promise of a painless vaccination you can give yourself
But an invention at Georgia Tech could someday increase flu vaccination rates by as much as 41 percent, according to a study.
Dr. Mark Prausnitz and his team developed a vaccine-delivery patch, currently in clinical trials, that can be applied to the skin as easily as a bandage. The patches are convenient to transport and store, and they're safe to throw away after use.
Best of all, they’re pain-free.
The secret is "microneedles," 50 minuscule spikes no taller than a few grains of salt. Engineered at Georgia Tech out of water-soluble polymers, the microneedles dissolve harmlessly after use.
A clinical trial at Emory University is now testing how well the patch administers doses of flu vaccine. Next year, a similar trial is planned for the polio vaccine. The technology is being licensed to a Georgia-based startup, Micron Biomedical, which was founded by Prausnitz and his colleagues.
May 8, 2015
No. 5: How cancer manipulates the body's immune system
That very question led two Augusta University scientists to uncover a potentially revolutionary way to fight cancer.
It all hinges on a small enzyme with a long name: indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase, or IDO. The enzyme is important in a healthy pregnancy because it alerts the mother’s immune system that the fetus “belongs.”
But IDO’s signaling system can also be hijacked. Augusta’s Andrew Mellor, a GRA Eminent Scholar, and his colleague David Munn discovered that cancerous cells use IDO to disarm the immune system’s natural defenses — that is, they exploit the same mechanism designed to protect a fetus.
They were the first to identify IDO's manipulating role in cancer, and their discovery represents a sea change in understanding how the immune system works. The breakthrough also has the potential to improve treatments for infections, autoimmune diseases and other clinical syndromes.
In partnership with publicly traded NewLink Genetics, Mellor, Munn, and their fellow researchers at Augusta have developed drugs to inhibit IDO, so the immune system can fight back against cancer. For patients, this may mean lower doses of radiation and chemotherapy and a smoother road to recovery.
Clinical trials are underway at Augusta University and elsewhere to test the effects of IDO-inhibitor drugs in treatment for glioblastoma, melanoma and a host of other cancers — therapies that could aid in the battle against cancer.
May 15, 2015
No. 6: A way to restore polluted ground
That’s because munitions, both exploded and unexploded, leave behind a toxic residue that pollutes soil and groundwater. Dealing with this contamination is costly, dangerous and time consuming.
But a University of Georgia scientist found a novel way to restore these damaged ecosystems: a neutralizing chemical mixture called MuniRem®. The reagent can be applied directly to explosive residues in soil, water, equipment and buildings, as well as to bulk explosives themselves.
Invented by Valentine Nzengung, a UGA geology professor, MuniRem is the first substance to instantly neutralize explosives, bomb fillers and chemical warfare materiel. It can be scattered as a powder, sprayed as a liquid or even injected into groundwater.
The MuniRem reagent is marketed by Georgia-based MuniRem Environmental, and it’s not an off-the-shelf product. The company’s technicians visit each contaminated site to take samples and identify pollutants, then create a custom formulation.
Since its inception in 2000, MuniRem Environmental (formerly known as Planteco) has worked extensively with the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Agriculture and many other public and private sector clients. Contamination from spent munitions poses major risks at military training grounds, weapons manufacturing plants and storage facilities.
As a cost-effective way to reclaim valuable land and structures, MuniRem can help protect natural resources around the world for years to come.
June 4, 2015
No. 7: A clearer view of cancer care
An Emory University scientist, Dr. Tim Fox, engineered a way to get a clearer and more comprehensive picture of cancer treatment. He did this by integrating vast amounts of medical imagery into a sngle platform. Through the technology, PET, MRI and other images — taken at different angles at different times in different locations — are resolved and managed in one unified environment.
Fox and others shaped a company, Velocity Medical, around the invention, and the benefits to medicine have been extraordinary. Treatment teams using Velocity’s platform – no matter where they’re located – need only to look at a digital dashboard to get a full view of a patient’s treatment over time. “It’s enabled a care team to make not only faster decisions, but also more confident decisions,” Fox says.
In 2014, Palo Alto, Ca.-based Varian Medical Systems purchased Velocity and chose to keep the enterprise headquartered in Georgia. The acquisition provided the means to bring an Emory doctor’s ingenuity into health care settings around the world, all for the purpose of improving cancer care.
Watch GRA’s “2-Minute Breakthrough” video on Velocity >
June 12, 2015
No. 8: The most prescribed HIV medications in the world
One of these is Emtriva®, which combined with another drug makes up the medication Truvada®. It’s now being used to prevent HIV infection as well as treat it.
The breakthrough discovery was made in the early 1990s by professors Raymond Schinazi and Dennis Liotta and researcher Woo-Baeg Choi. The team discovered compounds that were powerful weapons against the enzyme that copies HIV.
In 2005, the royalty interest for Emtriva was purchased for $525 million – at the time, the largest royalty sale in the history of higher education. The “Em” in Emtriva stands for Emory, and the drug is treating thousands of patients outside the U.S. as well.
July 6, 2015
No. 9: An enduring hydrangea
The story begins in September 1998. Michael Dirr was touring a Minnesota nursery when something unusual caught his eye: A hydrangea in full bloom outdoors, just before the arrival of autumn.
“I said, ‘Do you know what you have here?’” he recalls. “While the plants had been growing there for several years, the nursery was planning to just bulldoze the shrubs.”
He brought cuttings of the Hydrangea macrophylla back to UGA, and over the next couple of years he exposed it to a wide variety of conditions. To Dirr’s amazement, it continued to bloom on new growth, and he named the flower Endless Summer®.
He didn’t stop there. Dirr and his team genetically crossed the variety with the Japanese Veitchii, the only Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar known to resist mildew. The result was a white mop head hydrangea that re-bloomed as well as resisted fungus. It became known as Blushing Bride.
In the years that followed, Dirr continued to blend the genes of re-blooming hydrangeas to give rise to a whole new market of hardier flowers. As of today, he has been instrumental in introducing 150 new plants into the horticulture trade, more than 50 of which have U.S. patents.
Beyond extending summer a little longer, Dirr’s enterprising work helped drive a surge in the sale of hydrangeas nationwide. In 2012, more than half of all hydrangeas sold in the U.S. could be attributed to Dirr’s cultivars. As he grew a flower, he also grew an industry.
July 23, 2015
No. 10: A sensor that guards your heart
Now, a breakthrough medical device invented at Georgia Tech sends reports of heart health straight from the pulmonary artery. This miniature wireless sensor, called CardioMEMS HF System, goes where human eyes can’t … to report on symptoms a patient has yet to feel.
Developed by Dr. Jay Yadav, a cardiologist, and Mark Allen, formerly a professor of electrical engineering, the device is based on a technology called MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems). MEMS uses micro-machining fabrication to craft an electrical system with components smaller than a human hair, so that key functions fit together on a single chip.
MEMS was originally developed for integrated circuits in computers, but Yadav and Allen believed it would offer an ideal platform for an implantable medical device. Because of its tiny tech, the entire CardioMEMS implant is the size of a small paperclip.
The device is implanted in a patient’s pulmonary artery through a catheter — no surgery required. It uses wireless communications technology to transmit data on cardiac output, blood pressure and heart rate to the patient’s doctor, who can then monitor the patient’s health from afar as well as suggest more personally tailored treatment plans.
The FDA approved the CardioMEMS HF system in 2014, and the technology has proven its worth: A recent clinical trial demonstrated a 37 percent reduction in hospitalizations for patients with the implant. St. Jude Medical acquired CardioMEMS in 2014 for more than $450 million and is now putting the new device to work for heart patient health.
August 9, 2015
No. 11: A better treatment for kidney implants
Two Emory scientists figured out a better way to help the body accept a new kidney – and their work led to what is now a leading drug for kidney transplant patients.
It’s called belatacept (bella-TAH-sept), and Emory’s Chris Larsen and Tom Pearson proved to be pivotal at two crucial points in the drug’s 20-year development.
First, the scientists identified the power of a key signaling pathway in cells, a discovery that opened the door for pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb to design the drug and invest in clinical trials in non-human primates.
Those trials didn’t go well at first, so Larsen and Pearson worked with Bristol Myers Squibb to explore other approaches – until they found one that had 10 times the effect in keeping the immune system from rejecting a kidney.
From there, they helped shape clinical trials in humans, the success of which led to the FDA’s approval of belatacept in 2011.
What makes the drug so significant is that it brings far fewer side effects and doesn’t have to be taken as often as other immunosuppressants. For the 50,000 or so people who have kidney transplants each year, that’s welcome news.
And they have Emory scientists to thank.
August 19, 2015
No. 12: A system to save the lives of stroke patients
That’s because tPA, the only FDA-approved drug to treat the so-called “brain attack,” must be administered within a few hours of the onset of stroke. Miss the window, and the path to recovery becomes much rougher.
But the ingenuity of a scientist and physician at Augusta University is buying time and improving the outlook for stroke patients. In the early 2000s, Dr. David Hess and his team at Augusta developed a specialized telemedicine system that allowed neurologists to evaluate and diagnose potential stroke patients from far away.
Dr. Hess knew that one of the major obstacles to fast treatment of stroke patients was a lack of qualified neurologists, especially at small rural hospitals. For their diagnosis, patients had to be transported to larger hospitals by helicopter, losing precious minutes or even hours.
So Hess and the Augusta University team – Grant Kohler, Sam Wang, Bill Hamilton, Hartmut Gross, and Fenwick Nichols – developed the telemedicine system called REACH. While similar systems were being developed around the same time, they relied on a fixed line between two locations. By contrast, REACH's web-based approach enabled qualified neurologists to log on from anywhere.
REACH’s flexible in-room camera allows the neurologist to examine facial movements and assess vision. The software integrates CT images, diagnostic tools, dosage recommendations and decision support, minimizing wasted time. Doctors using REACH can even converse with patients through the system.
The impact of REACH has been phenomenal: hospitals using the system successfully administered tPA at a rate of nearly 35 percent, compared to under 10 percent nationally.
Now marketed as REACH Access, the stroke system developed by Hess and his colleagues has expanded well beyond its roots in rural Georgia to serve hundreds of hospitals nationwide. And its use has expanded beyond stroke to treat patients in need of psychiatric evaluations, intensive care, pulmonolgoy and general neurology consultations across multiple settings of care.
September 10, 2015
No. 13: Bacteria that extends the shelf life of fruit
But that could soon change, thanks to a breakthrough at Georgia State University. Biologists Sid Crow and George Pierce have come up with a way to delay ripening in certain fruits, slowing the growth of mold and doubling their shelf life.
Their discovery hinges on a bacterium (Rhodococcus rhodochrous), which produces enzymes that diminish the effects of the fruit's release of ethylene gas, thus slowing the ripening process.
In the researchers' GSU lab, the bacteria is fermented in industrial-grade stainless steel tanks, thriving on a diet of sugars, proteins and oxygen. The crucial development-ripening enzymes are then harvested and formulated as a spray, which can be applied to the interior of shipping boxes or containers.
Since the product removes the need for refrigeration, it could offer huge savings on energy … and that's just the beginning.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 40 percent of fruits and veggies are thrown away because of spoilage or damage in transport — a tremendous waste of resources, from water and land to shipping costs and human power.
So far, the discovery has yielded six patents for Georgia State and is capturing the attention of industry. Through their newly launched company, TerraCopia Group, the scientists are working to bring the product to market.
Crow and Pierce believe their find will bring enormous cost savings to farmers and food distributors, huge benefits to the environment and cheaper, tastier nutrition for working families.
(And maybe a chance for the famous Georgia peach to see more of the world...)
September 23, 2015
No. 14: Technology to foil phone fraud
Phone fraud is running rampant in the world – the most recent estimates place the amount stolen through telephone scams at more than $10 billion annually. One reason is that the chief lines of defense still tend to be questions that fraudsters can easily answer, such as “mother’s maiden name.”
In 2010, a Georgia Tech doctoral student invented a different way of detecting and stopping phone fraud. Vijay Balasubrimaniyan came up with “phoneprinting” technology that analyzes more than 150 hidden characteristics in a single phone call – points of information that, together, reveal the call’s true origins.
With the help of a faculty advisor, Balasubrimaniyan launched a startup, Pindrop Security, to market the technology. Today, Georgia-based Pindrop has 100 employees, and its one-of-a-kind technology detects fraudulent calls in 15 seconds with 90 percent accuracy.
Consumer brands, big banks and government agencies are increasingly turning to Pindrop to provide the latest protection against phone fraudsters. The inventiveness of an enterprising student in Georgia is the reason why.
October 7, 2015
No. 15: Bermuda grass that tolerates shade
It’s the go-to grass in parks. Farmers grow it for their grazing livestock. Managers of golf courses and sports arenas plant it for its extraordinary durability, even in extreme heat.
Bermuda grass does have a downside, however: It has to soak up eight to 10 hours of sunshine a day in order to thrive. At least that was the case before scientists at The University of Georgia rolled out something once considered unthinkable: Bermuda grass that tolerates shade.
Marketed as TifGrand®, the grass requires only half the amount of sunlight as other Bermuda options. It needs less water and fertilizer and is more resistant to pests. It’s even kind to people who are sensitive to allergies, because the cultivar is seed and pollen sterile.
Wayne Hanna in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences started working on the grass back in 1991 and was later joined by Kris Braman. Together, they painstakingly grew and culled hundreds of hybrids until they landed on one that tested consistently well in 19 states.
TifGrand was introduced to the marketplace in 2009 as a group of four grasses, each optimized for a specific need. No longer must landscapers choose between lovely shade trees and lush Bermuda sod – thanks to UGA, they can have both.
November 11, 2015
No. 16: A method to detect autism sooner
That’s because the human brain grows and develops exponentially in the first months and years of life. The earlier intensive therapy can begin for children with autism, the better they will be able to develop to their full potential.
Here's the problem: autism is typically not diagnosed until a child reaches the age of 4 or 5 – years after the “window of opportunity” for capitalizing on the brain’s rapid early development.
But scientists at Emory University developed eye-tracking technologies and methods that identified markers of autism by the sixth month of life. At that tender age, their research showed, babies who began to make less eye contact with human faces were eventually diagnosed with autism.
The discovery — made by Ami Klin, a GRA Eminent Scholar, Warren Jones and others at the Marcus Autism Center and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta – was historic. Autism markers had never been observed so early in a child’s life. The breakthrough means that new intervention strategies might be developed in the future to help children with autism much sooner than it is now possible.
This summer, Klin, Jones and Marcus Autism Center colleagues began preparing a major clinical trial for detecting autism in toddlers, which the National Institutes of Health identified as the most pressing need in the field. The FDA is monitoring the trial.
If successful, the trial would be a major advance toward the goal of universal screening for autism in toddlers using a community-viable tool. And the technology could radically change patterns of early screening in primary care, thus expanding access to services and maximizing the potential for the many thousands of children affected by autism.
November 29, 2015
No. 17: A drug that makes the bleeding stop
A new drug called Obizur can help. Invented by Emory hematologist Dr. Pete Lollar and approved by the FDA, Obizur helps the blood to clot in an emergency for patients with acquired hemophilia A.
These patients lack what’s known as clotting factor VIII, an essential protein that allows the blood to coagulate after an injury. In some cases, the absence of factor VIII stems from the immune system attacking factor VIII molecules, treating them like a disease.
That’s where Obizur comes in.
While conducting basic research on the clotting process, Dr. Lollar and colleagues made an intriguing discovery. Pigs also have clotting factor VIII, similar to that in humans. But they found that human antibodies sensitized to recognize and attack factor VIII failed to react to porcine factor VIII.
So Dr. Lollar and his team used proteins derived from porcine factor VIII to develop a modified factor VIII that could skate past the sensitized immune systems of hemophilia A patients – and make the bleeding stop.
Now marketed as Obizur by Baxter International, the drug born of an Emory lab is expanding its reach. In late November 2015, it became the first approved treatment for acquired hemophilia A patients in the European Union.
January 6, 2016
No. 18: Algorithms to detect cyber-invaders
These compromised devices number up into the millions, and they helplessly follow the "bot master's" commands to carry out cyber crimes, unbeknownst to the owner of the device.
Although bot nets are well known today, they were a novel concept back in 2005. Computer science professor Wenke Lee and his research group at Georgia Tech were among the first to study this next-generation threat and sound the alarm about their danger.
Their breakthrough came when they discovered that the key to stopping bot nets was recognizing the unique patterns of web traffic they spawned — and tracing these communications back to the source.
Lee and his group developed algorithms to identify the key signatures of communication between bot nets and their master: characteristics like the pattern and number of queries, or even the time of day. Using these algorithms, they could monitor an entire network for the suspicious communications that suggested a bot was phoning home to its controlling source.
With their research results in high demand, Lee and his Georgia Tech colleague Merrick Furst and postdoc student David Dagon launched a company called Damballa. In summer 2016, Damballa was acquired by Core Security, an industry-leading network security company.
The war against malicious cyber threats may never end, but the ingenuity of Georgia Tech researchers gives the “good guys” a major advantage.
February 12, 2016
No. 19: Technology to accelerate drug development
By connecting human cells and tissue to electronic circuitry, an MEA opens up a new avenue to evaluate more drug compounds before they’re tested on people. But the device has had its limitations: With just 64 electrodes, a standard MEA could analyze only one cell sample at a time.
That is, until Georgia Tech scientists reinvented it.
For starters, they custom-designed an integrated circuit – one that offers a more precise reading of the signals sent by cells. They also developed new micro-fabrication methods, so that more electrodes could be placed on an industry standard micro-titer plate.
The ingenuity of these scientists culminated in a fast-growing company, Axion BioSystems. Axion’s industry-leading MEA platform, the Maestro, has 768 electrodes and can analyze as many as 96 cell samples at once. As a result, drug development researchers now have the firepower to model the effects of 96 compounds in a single experiment.
Developing and marketing a successful drug typically takes more than a decade and costs billions of dollars. But the leap forward in MEA technology that Georgia Tech provided just may transform the process forever.
March 11, 2016
No. 20: Robots that craft clothing to order
Now, a Georgia Tech machine innovation means we may soon add “sewing” to the list.
While most manufacturing is automated, humans are still best at handling fabrics, aligning materials and keeping a seam straight. But the ingenious “sewbots” developed by retired Georgia Tech professor Steve Dickerson are shifting that paradigm. They can even stitch a seam in a perfect circle.
Dickerson’s invention relies on high-speed photography. His smart sewing machines capture up to 1,000 frames per second, manipulating each photo automatically to enhance contrast.
Using these high-contrast images, the machine counts individual threads in the fabric to make complex calculations on fabric tension and positioning – and then it responds on the fly. Underlying the artificial intelligence is a robotic system that grabs and positions each piece of fabric, holding it in place with vacuum suction.
Dickerson patented the sewbots in 2012 and founded a company, Softwear Automation. Now led by CEO K.P. Reddy, Softwear is expanding operations and faces a promising future. The company’s sewbot technology could help bring textile manufacturing back to American shores, creating better jobs for U.S. workers as managers and technicians who supervise the sewbots’ handiwork.
We may no longer beat the ‘bots at sewing. But inventors like Steve Dickerson still have the edge on human ingenuity.
April 19, 2016
No. 21: Heat pumps with half the carbon footprint
An innovation from Georgia Tech may provide a cost-effective, eco-friendly solution. Dr. Srinivas Garimella developed a new kind of a heat pump that uses waste heat — like that from a generator — to provide cooling.
This style of heat pump has been in use for a century, but only in large-scale industrial applications. That’s because its essential components are huge, sometimes making the heat pump as large as a small building.
But Dr. Garimella overcame this obstacle. His heat pump uses “microscale heat transfer,” combining all components into one. Inside this single component, refrigerant and other fluids flow through minuscule passages – the width of several human hairs – etched into thin sheets of metal.
One of these sheets doesn’t provide much cooling, but tens of them stacked together do. So a finished unit is easy to install at home or transport to an army base.
The U.S. Department of Defense believes Dr. Garimella’s heat pump could reduce the amount of energy to run air conditioning by 50 percent compared to conventional systems. That’s why the U.S. Navy and the Department of Energy (ARPA-E) together have invested nearly $5 million in Dr. Garimella’s research.
With support from GRA, Dr. Garimella is working on bringing the technology to market. Several energy companies across the U.S. are planning to field test the new heat pumps later this year.
As temperature extremes become more commonplace, Dr. Garimella’s heat pump could be an invaluable solution: more energy-efficient comfort for people across the globe.
May 9, 2016
No. 22: A five-minute test that predicts cognitive decline
Researchers are working hard to develop medicines that stop or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. But successful early intervention requires early diagnosis, which hasn’t been easy to achieve.
Now, a simple test developed at Emory University can identify people at risk for cognitive decline. And a five-year, NIH-funded study found the test could predict Alzheimer’s disease three to six years before symptoms appeared.
The test uses eye-tracking technology to determine how long a person stares at familiar and unfamiliar images that pass by in a series. It emerged from Dr. Stuart Zola’s three decades of studying memory in monkeys. Zola found that monkeys with a damaged hippocampus area of the brain performed poorly at distinguishing familiar images from new ones. Since Alzheimer’s disease begins with an abnormal hippocampus, Zola realized the same kind of test could predict cognitive decline in humans.
Unlike existing tests to identify Alzheimer’s, such as PET scans and spinal fluid analysis, the Emory test is inexpensive and takes just five minutes to administer. A major pharmaceutical company used it to recruit participants in clinical trials for an early-intervention drug treatment.
The test was developed in partnership with Yerkes National Primate Research Center and is being further refined by Neurotrack, which licensed the technology in 2012. Additional studies are underway at Harvard, Brown and Stanford, as well as in Shanghai. By the end of 2016, the test may be available from physicians.
Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s would bring early intervention in its treatment. Emory University’s breakthrough test may provide the head start that so many have been searching for.
June 15, 2016
No. 23: Treatment for drug-resistant depression
It involves transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a technique that delivers intense pulses of electromagnetic energy to targeted regions of the brain. Beginning in the 1990s, researchers were developing evidence that TMS could treat depression. But the technology to apply it efficiently wasn’t available – until Emory neurologist Charles Epstein teamed up with Georgia Tech’s Kent Davey.
An expert in epilepsy research and an electronics hobbyist in his spare time, Epstein knew about the potential of TMS and had begun to build his own device. For support, he called on Davey, an electromagnetics expert and then a professor at Georgia Tech. Together they created the first magnetic stimulator with an iron-core coil.
Earlier magnetic stimulators were designed with air-core coils, which required millions of watts for every pulse. This massive burst of power produced tremendous amounts of heat, and the high-voltage components were prone to malfunction.
Epstein and Davey’s patented iron-core magnetic stimulation coil needed only a quarter of that power and generated eight times less heat, an advance that made TMS an efficient and practical technology for large numbers of treatments.
Emory partner Neuronetics, Inc. commercialized the technology as NeuroStar TMS Therapy®. Following a successful clinical trial, NeuroStar received FDA clearance in 2008, making it the first TMS therapy to be approved as a treatment for depression. Today, NeuroStar is offered by more than 650 physicians across the nation.
A growing body of clinical evidence and expanding insurance coverage are steadily making TMS therapy accessible to more Americans with depression. For millions who’ve spent years battling depression, the collaboration between Emory and Georgia Tech may be just the lifesaver they need.
August 22, 2016
No. 24: An at-home test for anemia
Anemia is both a condition and a constant threat. If it’s not monitored, it can lead to heart failure or organ damage. To keep a tally of their red blood cells, the 2 billion people worldwide who have anemia typically must visit a clinic or doctor’s office to be tested. While a few at-home tests are available, they’re either expensive, hard to use or limited to certain types of anemia.
But an enterprising student enrolled in Emory and Georgia Tech’s Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering found a way to surmount those obstacles.
Working with Dr. Wilbur Lam, an assistant professor in the department, Erika Tyburski developed a simple, single-use test that provides an accurate reading of anemia. The test blends a person’s blood with a chemical reagent, triggering a reaction that reveals the level of hemoglobin, the protein responsible for carrying oxygen in the body.
Their process is performed through a disposable home kit that costs a fraction of other point-of-care tests. Its simplicity is remarkable: prick the finger and touch the blood drop with a tiny tube. The tube, attached to a cap, auto-fills with the blood; the cap is screwed back onto a vial containing fluid (the reagent). Within a minute, the fluid changes color, the shade of which determines anemia.
The development of the test, called AnemoCheckTM, brought the 2014 launch of a company, Sanguina, which received early investment from GRA Ventures. Following a final review from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the test is expected to be available in stores early in 2017.
“AnemoCheck doesn’t require additional equipment or electrical power,” says Dr. Lam, who is also a pediatric hematologist at Emory and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “And while it’s ideal for patients with chronic anemia, it will really have a significant impact in poorer countries where severe anemia is highly prevalent, and where current anemia tests are cost-prohibitive.”
October 17, 2016
No. 25: A finding that propelled new treatments for cancer
Emory immunologist Dr. Rafi Ahmed discovered the answer.
Ahmed found that when T-cells are exposed to chronic viral infections, they produce an “inhibitory receptor” called PD-1. When that receptor encounters a protein – with the similar name of PD-L1 – on infected cells, the T-cell attackers lay down their arms and stop fighting the disease.
This finding opened the door to an important discovery about cancer cells, some of which use the same tactic of cloaking themselves with the PD-L1 protein to put the brakes on killer T-cells.
So Ahmed and his team suggested a solution: a PD-1 inhibitor that blocks the connection between PD-1 and PD-L1. They found that the blocked connection removed the brakes on the T-cells, allowing them to get back to work — essentially empowering the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.
Ahmed’s discovery was key to accelerating the development of a new class of cancer immunotherapy drugs that are now saving lives. Three of these drugs — Nivolumab (Opdivo®), Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) and Atezolizumab (Tecentriq®) — have been approved to treat melanoma, lung cancer and bladder cancer. And many more therapies using PD-1 inhibitors are now being tested in clinical trials to treat a variety of cancers.
If Keytruda® sounds familiar, that’s because it made news in 2016 as the drug Jimmy Carter credits with helping him fight metastatic melanoma.
Cancer is a complex disease. But with breakthroughs in fundamental research such as Ahmed’s, scientists are creating more targeted treatments and saving more lives.