Academic research needs a new funding model

network of atoms

As federal support for academic research declines, universities are losing capacity to address significant global challenges through cutting-edge research.

In a recently published piece in The Conversation, the University of Minnesota’s Brain Herman, Ph.D., vice president for research, and Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., associate vice president for research, highlight how research universities must consider new models for academic R&D funding.

Limited federal funding leaves research universities locked in a fierce battle for a diminishing pool of resources. Continue reading

Developing data science tools to study how the brain works

fMRI scans

A team at the University of Minnesota aims to give researchers a better set of tools for exploring how the brain functions.

In a recent study, an interdisciplinary team of researchers investigated ways to better analyze the data that results from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that records images of brain activity over time. While fMRI holds enormous potential for neuroscience research, researchers need new ways to interpret the fMRI data as a network of activity between different regions of the brain.

The study, published in IEEE Computer this month and funded by the National Science Foundation along with a MnDRIVE Fellowship in Neuromodulation, investigated different methods for analyzing and modeling fMRI data. The study’s goals align with the White House’s BRAIN Initiative, launched by the Obama Administration in 2013 which aims to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain. Continue reading

Mapping gene “social networks” may improve disease treatments

Genes under a microscope

Genetic interaction maps, like the ones above, provide a computer model to show how the functions of different genes in a yeast cell connect. Credit: University of Minnesota

Studying the way genes “socialize” could ultimately help scientists develop better treatments for diseases.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Minnesota and University of Toronto collaborated to investigate the way genes function — not as independent actors, but as part of larger social networks. The team created the first complete genetic interaction network of a yeast cell, which begins to explain how thousands of genes within the cell coordinate with one another to orchestrate life at a cellular level. The study established a set of principles that scientists can use in creating genetic interaction maps across many different species, including humans, to learn more about how genes behave.

This technology may ultimately help scientists understand the genetic roots of diseases and aid in developing treatments to counter those diseases. For example, scientists could use gene interaction maps to develop cancer therapies that target only sick cells in the body, leaving the healthy ones untouched. Continue reading

Daniel Voytas awarded inaugural Hackett Fund for Genome Engineering

Daniel Voytas

Daniel Voytas, Ph.D., director of the Center for Genome Engineering at the University of Minnesota, works to push the boundaries of innovation and entrepreneurship through his work in plant science.

A recent profile in Science Magazine details Voytas’s journey from a child in rural Minnesota with a love for plants to co-creating the groundbreaking TALENs, a method of targeted genome editing in plants. This approach is more powerful and targeted than traditional genetically modified (GM) crops, and because Voytas’s process does not leave behind any foreign DNA, it avoids the GM label, as well as the stigma and regulation barriers surrounding it.

Already, TALENs has been used both within and outside of the plant world, improving livestock and animal models of disease, and saving lives by transforming human-immune cells.  Voytas is highly regarded in his field for his expertise and collaboration and strives to make TALENs, and other popular gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR, available to a wide population of researchers. As the global population rises and food security becomes an increasing concern, Voytas feels a revolution in genetic editing is a matter of survival. Continue reading

Glial cells: guardians of brain activity

Gilal cells

After a stroke, blood flow through capillaries is hard to restore, even when the blood clot is removed. In Alzheimer’s disease, blood flow to some brain areas is compromised. In diabetic retinopathy, diabetes patients’ retinas deteriorate. The problem may be a compromised blood supply that can’t meet the demands of neurons.

In all these conditions, neurons are starved for the oxygen and glucose they need to function properly. Normally, when neurons in the brain or retina are working and need extra nourishment, some type of signal prompts nearby blood vessels to dilate and let more blood through. Pinpointing the nature and origin of such signals is critical to finding treatments for conditions in which it is lost or weakened.

But the signals don’t necessarily pass directly from neurons to blood vessels. University of Minnesota researchers have shown that in the retina, cells called glia—Latin for “glue”—respond to neuronal activity by signaling capillaries within the retina to dilate, increasing capillary blood flow by up to 26 percent. Their report is a cover story for the Journal of Neuroscience.

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New poultry testing lab expands capabilities

Minnesota Poultry Testing Lab

In Minnesota, poultry is big business. A high-tech renovation to the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory, unveiled at a grand opening last week in Willmar, expands the state’s ability to test for diseases and safeguard this $5 billion industry.

The MPTL is a cooperative venture of the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. The laboratory helps protect poultry and human health by providing rapid detection of poultry diseases and certifying poultry for shipments. 300,000 avian testing procedures are conducted each year, and the renovation will allow the MPTL to conduct new molecular tests, including Avian Influenza, Newcastle Disease and Avian Metapneumovirus.

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U named Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s research

A network of neurons

University of Minnesota researchers have received a major grant that will amplify efforts to develop new treatments for complex and debilitating brain disorders.

Today, the University was named a Morris K. Udall Center for Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research by the National Institutes of Health. The designation provides $9.07 million over the next five years to establish a Udall Center at the University and fund multidisciplinary research that aims to reveal the fundamental causes of Parkinson’s and improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with the disease. With its new designation, the U of M joins nine other centers at research institutions across the country.

Jerrold Vitek, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the University’s Department of Neurology, will lead the Udall Center. His team will collaborate with world-class researchers from across the globe, bringing together some of the brightest minds in Parkinson’s research. Continue reading

Minnesotans drive research forward at D2D building


There aren’t many places where you can ride a Ferris wheel, feed a farm animal, catch a rock concert, and then mosey up the road to contribute to world-class research. The Minnesota State Fair, however, is one such place.

Now in its third year at the State Fair, the University of Minnesota’s Driven to Discover (D2D) building connects the nearly 2 million annual fairgoers with opportunities to learn about and participate in research from across a wide range of University departments and colleges. Visitors to the D2D building can learn about and volunteer for one or more of research projects conducted on the spot, that change every day, ranging from how people regulate their own eating habits to how multitasking affects their ability to safely drive a car. Fairgoers can also sign up to be involved in studies requiring specialized laboratory facilities, which are conducted on the U’s campus after the Fair.

This year, 32 studies were held in the D2D building, and more than 13,000 fairgoers volunteered to participate in a research project.

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Lab tests structural strength against earthquakes, other natural forces

Building destroyed by earthquake

In late August, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake devastated Central Italy, killing hundreds and injuring hundreds more. The quake also demolished many structures, destroying homes and buildings of historic and cultural importance.

When it comes to earthquakes and other natural disasters, designing structures to be resilient against environmental forces can help limit the resulting damage. Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Multi-Axial Subassemblage Testing (MAST) Lab can test how structures and building components hold up against the strain of enormous natural forces, from simulated earthquakes to tornadoes to soil pressure. The lab, originally supported for 15 years by grants through the National Science Foundation, is part of the College of Science and Engineering’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering.

Mounted at the top of the MAST Lab’s testing area is a steel crosshead that precisely twists, compresses and stretches large structures through six components of movement or forces. The equipment, driven by specialized software, allows researchers to simulate the many forms of stress that building materials and components might experience not only from natural forces, but from the weight of the structure itself. The lab can test structural components nearly 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and exert up to 1.3 million pounds of vertical force — enough to lift an Airbus A380 jet airliner, plus its passengers and cargo, off the ground.

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Why prostate cancer treatment falls short


A common treatment for prostate cancer targets only one type of cancer cell, leaving patients vulnerable to a second type that continues to multiply, according to work at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC).

“The problem is that some of the cancer cells are dependent on androgens–testosterone and other male hormones–and some cancer cells require estrogens,” says research leader Akhouri Sinha, a professor in the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, the Masonic Cancer Center, and the VAMC. “[A common treatment] is to drastically reduce the supply of androgens, but that leaves the estrogen-dependent cancer cells to grow and thrive.

“It’s like trying to shut off a river by damming only the main channel, while letting water in the side channels continue to flow.”

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Two U startups named among “Best University Startups 2016”

Sun shining over city street

Two University of Minnesota startups received national recognition today for their potential to create jobs, advance technology and meet societal challenges in industry and the environment.

Innotronics and Minnepura, both launched by the U’s Venture Center, were named among the 35 “Best University Startups 2016” by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), an association of university startup officers. The startups were chosen from a group of 200 submitted companies launched by universities across the U.S.

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New startups take on societal challenges in health, environment


When it comes to finding solutions to some of the largest challenges facing society today, research and innovation are some of the best tools available.

The University of Minnesota’s 10-year strategic plan, Driving Tomorrow, lays out the role that cutting-edge University research will play in addressing the grand challenges that face Minnesota, the U.S. and the world. The plan highlights how innovative research conducted by interdisciplinary teams can lead to new solutions that help society succeed in finding ways to feed the world sustainably, foster just and equitable communities and more.

The focus on the five Grand Challenges is growing throughout the University’s research endeavors, and its startup enterprise is no exception. Fiscal year 2016 saw another record number of startups launched, and several of these companies are working to implement promising new discoveries that connect to these priorities.

Below, Inquiry highlights two new startups that are further developing U research to create solutions in the Grand Challenges areas of advancing health through tailored solutions and assuring clean water and sustainable ecosystems.

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