Building a culture of health across the U.S.

Children running in field with father

A new, national initiative based at the University of Minnesota will bring experts together from across disciplines to address complex health issues at the community level.

Earlier this fall, the U of M was selected as the national center for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program. As the program lead, the U of M will work to bring together a wide variety of research experts to conduct action-oriented public health studies in communities across the country, while also cultivating these experts’ roles as future leaders in interdisciplinary research. The innovative, two-year research projects in IRL aim to drive change in communities and advance policies that share a central goal — building a culture of health.

“A culture of health is about helping people live healthier, more vibrant lives now so they don’t need as much medical care down the road,” said Michael Oakes, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and community health with the School of Public Health. “These projects make good use of translational, applied research to help create new social norms that benefit our society’s well-being, such as regular exercise, work-life balance and healthy social environments.” Continue reading

Patent roll call, fall 2016

Lightbulb drawing

Filing for a patent on a research discovery is more than just a way to protect the intellectual property behind it. Patents are often a crucial step toward moving breakthroughs beyond the lab and into the market, where they can benefit society.

Congratulations to the U of M researchers 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. Continue reading

Cancer treatment startup based on U research wins Tekne Award

Tekne Award

A startup company that develops next-generation cancer treatments based on University of Minnesota research has been awarded for its innovative therapies.

GeneSegues Therapeutics received the Minnesota High Tech Association’s Tekne Award Wednesday night in the category of Health Care — Small and Growing. Tekne Awards recognize innovation across Minnesota in industries ranging from advanced manufacturing, health care and agricultural technology.

GeneSegues develops microscopic capsules that serve as a vessel to transport gene therapies through the body that help stop the spread of cancer. The capsules are smaller than conventional nanoparticles, allowing them to slip past the human body’s biological barriers and attack cancerous cells more precisely, while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

The company grew out of research done by U of M post-doc Gretchen Unger, Ph.D., in the early 2000s. Unger is currently chief scientific officer with the company. The company’s CEO is Laura Brod, who is also an at-large member of the University’s Board of Regents.

IRB expands to strengthen human research protections

Glass panels on side of building

The University of Minnesota’s Institutional Review Board plays an important role in ensuring that clinical research projects make the welfare of human participants their top priority.

Recently, the IRB strengthened its capacity for protecting human research participants and upholding the ethical conduct of human research by expanding its membership’s size and range of expertise. The IRB, an integral part of the U’s Human Research Protection Program, now includes more than 80 members with expertise in areas like psychiatry, pediatrics and oncology. These members now sit on eight biomedical panels and two social-behavioral panels, up from the previous one biomedical panel and two social-behavioral panels.

The majority of IRB members are U of M faculty who have deep scientific and technical knowledge in their fields and are highly regarded by their peers. They also make a significant time commitment for the good of the research community. Under federal law, IRB panels are independent and do not answer to individuals, departments or units that rely on the IRB for the review of their research.

See the full list of current IRB members or read about recently retired IRB members.

Turning sugar into plastics, polyesters – and new industries

Kechun Zhang

With the world hungry for more and better nutrients, antibiotics, plastics and other materials, a cheap and sustainable source must be found. Enter Kechun Zhang, who works with the most abundant of all: sugar.

“Sugar is the basis of life,” explains Zhang, a 2015-17 McKnight Land Grant Professor in the College of Science and Engineering’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS). “Everything is made of sugar or sugar-derived materials. Plants turn carbon dioxide into sugar, and it’s fed into all of life, including the cellulose in plant cell walls and the starches in seeds.”

Zhang and his colleagues—notably Regents Professor Frank Bates and chemistry professor Mark Hillmyer—have used various sugars as feedstocks to produce the building blocks of plastics, elastic materials (including spandex) and other products. This year, the three researchers founded the company Valerian Materials to manufacture the building blocks (monomers) of high-performance, biodegradable plastics and other polymers from renewable stocks instead of petroleum. Continue reading

Research partnerships work to bring knowledge beyond U

Light rail in downtown Minneapolis

Public universities play a well-known role in creating new knowledge, but they must also bring that knowledge beyond the ivory tower and into the community.

A new pilot program at the University of Minnesota focuses on working with partners outside the U to create new knowledge and put it into play benefiting the community. External Stakeholder Engagement, launched earlier this year by the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research, combines University research talent with one or more partners from community organizations, government agencies, industry and nonprofits to promote innovation across a range of disciplines.

Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., associate vice president for research and program leader, said the partnerships are designed to catalyze and sustain research between the University and external partners to accelerate the transfer of new knowledge for the public good — a cornerstone of the  research strategic plan, Five Years Forward. Continue reading

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 Brian 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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