Research excellence in practice

Triptych: lake-probe-forest

In his annual State of Research report this year, VP for Research Brian Herman called out several University of Minnesota faculty who have demonstrated research excellence through their academic leadership, collaborations with colleagues and other institutions, and scientific advancements that improve our world. Below are short profiles of three of these exemplary U of M researchers and some of the current projects they are working on.

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Top 10 Inquiry stories of 2014

2014 in snow

Last June, the Office of the Vice President for Research launched Inquiry to explore the impact of university research and tap into the collective knowledge of the University of Minnesota’s research community. In its first seven months, Inquiry has covered a wide range of research topics, from groundbreaking discoveries, to new partnerships and collaborative projects, to thought leadership from some of the U’s top experts. Here’s a look back on Inquiry’s 10 most viewed stories from 2014.

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Growing a sustainable bioeconomy

Winter rye

Every year, the Fibrominn Biomass Power Plant in Benson, Minn., produces 55 megawatts of renewable energy, enough to power about 40,000 homes, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.  Elsewhere in the state, companies like 3M and Cargill are making use of biomaterials to manufacture staples like clothing, fuel and packaging materials. A multi-sector advocacy group, the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota, is working at the policy level to impact decision making that supports growth of the state’s biofuel industry.

These commitments to sustainable energy and products are signs of Minnesota’s emerging bioeconomy where biomass, plant materials such as corn stalks and other biomass crops, provides the raw material for food, animal feed, fuels and other products.

As the industry grows, a team of University of Minnesota researchers is studying how to maximize the economic, environmental and social benefits for people across the state. Their project, “Building Community-based Bioeconomies,” a part of MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Research Program, will bridge the barriers between disciplines, bringing together researchers in agriculture, robotics, landscape architecture and more to develop a holistic approach to a stronger bioeconomy in Minnesota and beyond.

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10 reasons our research enterprise is thriving

Creating Ideas

By Brian Herman

Last week, I presented the annual state of research report for the University of Minnesota to our Board of Regents.

And I had good news.

Despite increasing competition for federal awards and a persistently difficult funding climate, the university, in partnership with its faculty, students, research community and external stakeholders, saw growth in nearly all performance measures in FY2014. These results show a strong research enterprise that has sustained its high ranking among an elite group of public research institutions and is outperforming its peers in the Big Ten.

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Made in Minnesota: Celebrating University Innovators

Fiber optics

Innovation and discovery have always been a proud part of the university’s growing and rich entrepreneurial landscape. During Made in Minnesota: Celebrating University Innovators, which took place Dec. 11 at Northrop, 285 inventors received much-deserved recognition for their efforts to, as President Kaler put it, “confirm that higher education is a profoundly public good.”

Representing 14 colleges across the university system, the honorees earned a total of 141 patents and 316 licenses during fiscal years 2012-2014. The evening included remarks from U of M President Eric Kaler, VP for Research Brian Herman and a keynote from nationally recognized journalist and urbanist Greg Lindsay.

2014 also marked the inaugural presentation of the Innovation Awards—winners were nominated by their peers in three categories for their contributions at various stages in their careers and in the commercialization cycle.

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Startup profile: ApoGen Biotechnologies

DNA test

ApoGen Biotechnologies Inc. is developing new drug therapies that will make cancer treatments more effective. The company is based on scientific discoveries by the University of Minnesota’s Reuben Harris, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics, and Daniel Harki, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicinal chemistry.


Technology

ApoGen is developing a new class of drugs that will slow the evolution of cancer cells, as well as companion diagnostics to identify the patients likely to get the most benefit from these therapies. ApoGen’s drugs block the activity of an enzyme called APOBEC, and the companion diagnostic will identify tumors with high levels of this enzyme. This technology is broadly applicable to many cancer types, including breast, lung, ovarian, bladder and head and neck cancers.
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Genomics research raises tough questions

dna sequence

By Susan M. Wolf

Genome and exome sequencing are generating a flood of genetic information about research participants and patients. That information is typically regarded as private, and both researchers and clinicians have stringent responsibilities to protect confidentiality. But families are beginning to come forward, asking whether individual genomic information about family members who have been research participants or patients has implications for their own health. Rsearchers and clinicians are increasingly facing a tough choice – do they protect the privacy of the research subject or patient’s genomic information, or do they share that information with relatives?

Individuals who have a certain mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, for example, are at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Or they may carry the variant for malignant hyperthermia, placing them at risk for a potentially catastrophic reaction to a commonly used anesthetic. There are any number of genetic variants that may be discovered in the individual sequenced that have potential health importance to relatives, as first-degree biological relatives commonly share 50 percent of their genes.

These issues may also arise after the death of the research participant or patient. Genomic research now commonly involves archiving data and specimens for long periods of time to facilitate continued research. Especially in cancer genomic research, the individual sequenced may die, leaving relatives concerned about their own risk. Yet the main federal law protecting the privacy of health information in the U.S., the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), protects the privacy of health information for 50 years after an individual’s death.

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Core strength: The value of institutional support

Rebar strength

By Frances Lawrenz

Earlier this week, Vice President for Research, Brian Herman, led a Campus Conversation to talk about the many ways the OVPR serves as both a catalyst and support system for research at the University of Minnesota.

In the past five years, OVPR has invested $108M in research funding across the university’s colleges and campuses. That’s a little more than $20M a year that goes directly to ensure that our scholars and innovators have the opportunity to advance knowledge in their fields, conduct critical, basic research and explore promising new ideas. These seed funds are also designed to leverage other investments and promote collaborations with business and industry partners.

As both a faculty member in the College of Education and Human Development and Associate VP for Research, I see firsthand the impact this has on expanding, strengthening and enriching our research community. The U of M is nationally known for the breadth and depth of its research programs, for its strong research collaborations and for its integration of research into undergraduate and graduate curricula. While you may know that the pacemaker, the Honeycrisp apple and the AIDS drug Ziagen were all invented by U of M faculty, you may not know that the U is also ranked number one in the nation in both industrial/organizational psychology and developmental psychology and is in the top ten for several disciplines, including history, creative writing, chemical engineering and special education.

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MnDRIVE-funded iGEM team turns mercury into gold

Undergraduate team takes home two honors from international competition

The iGEM – International Genetically Engineered Machines – competition challenges undergraduate students to identify real-world problems and solve them through biological engineering and design. Not only did the University of Minnesota’s team win a Gold Medal award at the 10th annual competition, held in Boston, Mass. Oct. 30 to Nov. 3, they also were awarded Best Environment project. And if that were not enough, they also filed with the university’s Office for Technology Commercialization to begin the patent process for part of their project.

Focusing on the bioremediation of the heavy metal mercury from contaminated water, Team Mntallica pulled students from microbiology, chemistry, engineering and business. The team of undergraduates spent four months creating a bacterial strain capable of detoxifying methyl mercury, along with an improved water filtration device.

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Treating diabetes with beneficial bacteria

Bacteria

University of Minnesota researchers are on a mission to treat diabetes, and they’ve enlisted a few trillion microscopic helpers.

In place of drugs or surgery, a team of researchers is studying how to improve diabetes patients’ insulin sensitivity by introducing trillions of beneficial bacteria into their intestines. Researchers believe this unusual approach, conducted through a fecal microbiota transplant, could improve how the body regulates blood sugar, the central problem in diabetics. The project is part of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), a $36 million biennial investment by the state that aims to solve grand challenges. As a part of MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Research Program, the project will bridge multiple fields of research and bring together experts from across the U to work on the same clinical trial.

Patients with diabetes have too much glucose in their blood, which leads to a host of serious health problems, from heart disease to obesity. Dr. Alexander Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the U of M and lead principal investigator on the project, said the right balance of bacteria has the potential to improve the body’s energy metabolism, in part by enhancing insulin function. Insulin drives glucose from blood into cells of the body.

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Startup profile: Reflection Sciences

Child with tablet

Reflection Sciences, launched in July 2014, provides training and tools for assessing executive function skills in early childhood. The company is based on the Minnesota Executive Function Scale, technology developed by Professors Philip Zelazo and Stephanie Carlson of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.


Technology

The Minnesota Executive Function Scale is a tablet-based test of a child’s executive function skills — those that aid in controlling one’s attention, thoughts, actions and emotions. The 5-minute game instructs children to sort objects into two boxes according to rules that gradually become more difficult. The test may be administered by teachers, paraprofessionals and researchers in childcare and school settings to measure the effects of training, school curricula and professional development. The test is an inexpensive and easily administered behavioral measure for children ages 2 to 7, the age range in which children can learn and improve their executive function skills.

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Patent roll call, fall 2014

Lightbulb drawing

Patents allow the most promising discoveries of today to become the game-changing innovations of tomorrow. A key milestone in the transition from the lab to the marketplace, patents protect the ownership of university technologies and grant them real-world applications to benefit society.

Congratulations to these University of Minnesota faculty who were recently awarded patents for their discoveries. To learn more about reporting an invention, contact the Office for Technology Commercialization at 612-624-0550 or umotc@umn.edu.

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