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Research Communications

What's the big idea? 

Take a look at seven technologies under development at Ohio University

By Andrea Gibson

Your iPhone knows you from your unique finger swipe. A new test can tell whether you're at risk of hardened arteries. A device implanted in your office building protects it from major earthquake damage.

These are just a few big ideas that Ohio University inventors have developed in recent years. Will these innovations come to your home, workplace, or doctor's office? If so, when?

Each year, Ohio University's Technology Transfer Office looks for new campus inventions that can be patented, licensed to a company, and manufactured and marketed for commercial, industry, or military use. In some cases, faculty, staff, or students might license the technology back from the university and launch their own startup companies to develop the products. Otherwise, the university works with established and startup businesses around the globe to take these ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace.

The university has commercialized several innovations in biomedical sciences and engineering. Last year, the university received $9.4 million in royalty income from research licenses, making it the top institution of higher education in Ohio for technology commercialization revenue. At the university, the revenue goes back into research and commercialization initiatives.

The process of turning a big idea into a product can take several years—and some inventions never make it the marketplace. But the experience of developing creative solutions and the prospect of making an impact keeps inventors going.

What's in Ohio University's technology pipeline? Here are just a few snapshots.

Ken Walsh

Ken Walsh; Photo by Ben Siegel

Absorbing the shock of earthquakes

Buildings and bridges may be equipped with vibration reduction systems that feature sensors, computers, and energy dissipation devices that can detect earthquakes and absorb shocks. The problem? These systems are a bit too complex, which doesn't always instill confidence in their reliability, says civil engineer Ken Walsh.

With support from the National Science Foundation, Walsh is developing a mechanical system that relies on a pneumatic damper in combination with a novel mechanism and simple sensor to detect and dissipate energy from earthquakes or other disasters. Motion of the building or bridge drives the damper piston, which compresses gas contained in one of the chambers. This stores energy that otherwise would be absorbed by the structure, he explains.

Each time the building changes direction, a valve on the device is pulsed open and closed. The energy stored in the damper is dissipated, and the process is repeated. By triggering the valve mechanically rather than through a complex system of sensors and computers, Walsh argues that the system will be more reliable and more attractive to building and bridge owners.

The device could be used in a broad spectrum of applications that call for shock absorption, he notes, such as cars, aircraft, or in military weaponry.

New method to detect atherosclerosis

When a team of Ohio University medical scientists and engineers tested a new compound's effectiveness on treating atherosclerosis—or the hardening of the arteries that can lead to stroke or heart attack—they made one unexpected finding. A protein called Wnt5a routinely showed up in the affected arteries.

The researchers now are working on development of a new test that searches for levels of the protein as a first warning sign that a patient may be in danger of developing atherosclerosis, says pathologist Ramiro Malgor.

The diagnostic test could be less invasive and less expensive than current methods, which also have limited use in catching the disease in its early stage, according to the researchers, which include several faculty members in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

Frank Kraft

Frank Kraft; Photo by Ben Siegel

Copper tubing for heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR) systems

The multi-billion dollar heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration system (HVACR) industry uses more than a billion pounds of copper heat-exchanger tubing annually. Although copper is a pricier choice than competing materials such as aluminum, manufacturers prefer its thermal conductivity, strength and durability, and ease of joining and field repair, says mechanical engineer Frank Kraft. There's also new interest from makers of medical and biological refrigeration systems in copper's inherent anti-microbial properties that can inhibit the spread of pathogens.

To help meet the evolving demands of the industry, Kraft and his students have developed a patented process to manufacture micro, multi-channel copper tubing for high-quality, high-efficiency HVACR systems. The process creates an inherently stronger tube and a higher internal surface area, which improves heat transfer, he explains. This allows HVACR systems to work at higher operating pressures, which increases system efficiency.

Kraft currently is working to commercialize this technology for several applications, including heat exchangers for industrial solid state laser systems and for solar thermal receivers.

A new target for combating cancer growth

Almost all cancer cells are "addicted" to glucose, says scientist Xiao Chen. They depend on glucose and other nutrients to fuel growth.

But a new compound developed by biologist Chen and organic chemist Stephen Bergmeier is showing promise as a road block to this process, which essentially could starve cancer cells of their preferred energy source.

"Chemotherapies are not very specific," Chen says, "but this is a targeted approach."

In laboratory studies, animals treated with the compound showed a 60 to 70 percent reduction in the size of their cancerous tumors compared to a control group, and a few subjects were even tumor-free by the end of the treatment. No significant side effects were observed.

The compounds are based on PGG, a naturally occurring substance found in vegetables and beverages such as red wine, which has been touted by other studies for its heart-healthy properties.

The researchers' synthesized version is still in development. Right now, the compound has a short half-life in the body of about 30 minutes. The team—which has drawn from the expertise of biochemists Jennifer Hines and Shiyong Wu, as well as biologist Robert Colvin—is striving for the six to 12 hours needed for the compound to be effective in humans.

Liu

Photo by Andrea Gibson

Behaviometric “passwords” for smart phones and other electronic devices

No matter how clever or complicated your passwords for electronic devices and online applications may be, hackers are quickly finding ways to break them. Technology companies are now looking to biometric methods—such as a fingerprint login—to keep our transactions secure. Biometrics, however, have a fundamental flaw.

"Once your fingerprint data have been stolen, you'll never be able to grow a new set! At least you can reset your passwords, but your fingerprints and other biometrics are with you for life," says Ohio University biomedical scientist S. Lee Hong.

Hong and engineer Chang Liu have developed a new approach that avoids both pitfalls, they say. Their interface for smart phones and other electronic devices remembers and matches the characteristic movement patterns of the individual user.

"If someone hacked in and took the data underlying the movement and fed it back in, the system would reject it," Hong says.

It would take only seconds to trace a new behaviometric pattern – no memorization involved, he adds.

The technology could be used in mobile devices, by banks and e-commerce, the military, and the healthcare industry, the researchers report.

"Recent deployment of high-resolution touch displays on mobile devices enabled us to develop this novel authentication method for the masses without any additional hardware," Liu says.

Hao Chen

Photo by Ben Siegel

Faster screening of chemical compounds

From finding new compounds for drug development to detecting narcotics or explosives at crime scenes, scientists have relied on mass spectrometry to identify molecules. Ohio University chemist Hao Chen is developing a portfolio of technologies that can expand the capabilities of this classic technique.

In 2004, Purdue University scientists developed a technique called desorption electrospray ionization (or DESI) that can analyze solid samples, which is built on a Nobel Prize-winning method for creating an electrically charged mist. Chen adapted the DESI technology to include analysis of liquid samples and has cut the preparation time (which can last from minutes to hours in the laboratory) entirely.

The chemist's inventions also can help analyze compounds more precisely and quickly, which could, for example, increase the number of compounds drug companies could explore as treatment candidates in a shorter time period, getting new therapies to market more quickly.

His technologies also may aid basic research in areas such as imaging flaws in human protein folding, which has been found to be the underlying cause of major neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Chen's research enables scientists to combine the power of mass spectrometry with two other important techniques in the chemist's toolbox, electrochemistry (chemical reactions triggered by electric voltage) and liquid chromatography (which separates mixtures), he notes.

Better colonoscopy training for doctors

Americans are urged to get colonoscopies to find and treat cancer of the colon before the disease progresses. Millions of people now are signing up for the medical procedure, which isn't without its risks—some patients may experience a puncture or tear that requires immediate intervention.

Mechanical engineer Junghun Choi is determined to help doctors improve their skills at performing colonoscopies through a new training model that gives medical students interactive feedback. Currently, students learn on a passive, rubber torso. Choi's technology is a synthetic colon equipped with multiple sensors that tell students and their instructors how quickly they are moving the probe through the tract and if they are using too much force.

The engineer is working with David Drozek, a Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine professor and colonoscopy expert, to test the model's effectiveness with medical students.

Choi also is working on several companion technologies that provide an early warning signal to docs that the colonoscopy probe is kinking in the colon, as well as more efficient technologies for cauterizing polyps and tumors found during these exams.

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2013 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.