Translational science

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University Honored for Generating New Companies

May 16, 2018

In the 12 years since the University of Minnesota established its Office for Technology Commercialization (OTC) in 2006, more than 120 new companies have been founded based on the U's diverse research activities. Now, OTC is a finalist for an international award recognizing the best academic technology transfer units in the world. According to Twin Cities Business, the other nominees are comparable units at Indiana University, Johns Hopkins, Oxford and Yissum (Hebrew University of Jerusalem). Vice President for Research Allen Levine said "We are thrilled to see the University of Minnesota receive global recognition. . . . It is a testament to our efforts. . . to foster entrepreneurship, connect with the private sector and accelerate the transfer of knowledge to benefit the public good.”  The winner will be announced on May 22 in London. Several faculty members affiliated with the Consortium have launched companies in partnership with OTC, including Kenny Beckman (University of Minnesota Genomics Center, Corebiome); Bruce Blazer (Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Tmunity Therapeutics); and Michael Sadowsky and Alexander Khoruts (BioTechnology Institute, CIPAC – Crestovo LLC).

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Researchers Print 3D Electronics and Cells Directly on Skin

April 30, 2018

A new paper describes a low-cost 3D printing technology that could be used to print on skin temporary sensors for detecting chemical or biological agents, solar cells to charge electronics, or new types of skin grafts. The research was conducted by a team led by Michael McAlpine, the University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, in partnership with Jakub Tolar, dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School and director of the Stem Cell Institute, a Consortium member. The new 3D printing technique can be mapped onto each individual's skin contours and uses a specialized ink made of silver flakes that can be peeled off with tweezers or washed off with water. Prof. McAlpine notes, “It is such a simple idea and has unlimited potential for important applications in the future.”

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CTSI Receives $42.6 Million to Expand U of M Health Research Impact

April 9, 2018

The University of Minnesota's Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) has received a $42.6 million grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program. CTSI, a Consortium member, will use the funding to train and support researchers striving to make important discoveries that will improve Minnesotans’ health. The five-year award is effective March 30, 2018 through February 28, 2023 and is one of the University’s largest federal research grants; this is the second time CTSI has received this prestigious recognition. VP for Research Allen Levine notes, "CTSI has provided important clinical and translational research support across the University, including . . . for six technologies that have led to startup ventures in areas like microbiome analysis and cancer drug delivery." New to this grant is a mentored career development component that will allow trainees to develop the skills to translate research discoveries into clinical practice. 

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23andMe Wins FDA Approval for Direct-to-Consumer Cancer Test

March 6, 2018

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today authorized the first direct-to-consumer (DTC) test to report on three specific BRCA1/BRCA2 breast cancer gene mutations that are most common in people of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent. These three mutations, however, are not the most common BRCA1/BRCA2 mutations in the general population. “This test provides information to certain individuals who may be at increased breast, ovarian or prostate cancer risk and who might not otherwise get genetic screening, and is a step forward in the availability of DTC genetic tests. But it has a lot of caveats,” said FDA spokesperson Donald St. Pierre. “While the detection of a BRCA mutation on this test does indicate an increased risk, only a small percentage of Americans carry one of these three mutations and most BRCA mutations that increase an individual’s risk are not detected by this test. The test should not be used as a substitute for seeing your doctor for cancer screenings or counseling on genetic and lifestyle factors that can increase or decrease cancer risk.” After an FDA review determined that the test is accurate (i.e., can correctly identify the three genetic variants in saliva samples) and can provide reproducible results, marketing authorization was granted to 23andMe. Learn more here

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C difficile bacteria

Research Reveals Exciting New Possibilities for Microbiome Therapies

February 22, 2018

A major paper just published in Cell Host & Microbe sheds light on a question that has puzzled scientists for years: while we know fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) works for people suffering from recurrent Clostridium difficile infection, how exactly does it work? The research team behind the paper includes Alexander Khoruts and Michael J. Sadowsky, the director of the Biotechnology Institute, a Consortium member center. They used clinical experiments and statistical modeling to uncover the "rules" for how donor bacteria grafts itself to existing gut microbes in the host. One of the outcomes of the research is Strain Finder, a method to predict which types of bacteria will best colonize a microbiome being treated via FMT. An article in the Star Tribune further describes the work of Sadowsky and Khoruts’ Microbiota Therapeutics Program, which is on the cutting edge of developing remedies for various microbiome-related illnesses. You can also read a Star Tribune op ed by Khoruts and Sadowsky, in which they express their concerns about the article's focus on a for-profit model for developing such therapies. 

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Vercise deep brain stimulation device

Key Parkinson's Brain Stimulation Research Led by U, Funded by MnDRIVE

January 10, 2018

A brain stimulation device just approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was developed as part of a multi-site clinical study led by University of Minnesota medical researchers and partly funded by the MnDRIVE program. According to Twin Cities Businessneurology department chair Dr. Jerrold Vitek and his research team successfully implanted the first non-trial patient with the Vercise system at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in December. The device is manufactured by Boston Scientific, and has been hailed as “one the most innovative neuromodulation technologies available today.” Deep brain stimulation is used to reduce the involuntary shaking and stiffness that are among the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. MnDRIVE – Minnesota’s Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy – is a partnership between the University and the State of Minnesota that aligns areas of research strength with the state’s key and emerging industries. One of of MnDRIVE's areas of focus is the treatment of brain conditions; the others are robotics, global food and the environment. 

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Model of crystal structure for CRISPR-Cas9

Will 2018 Be the Year of CRISPR?

December 27, 2017

An article in MIT Technology Review notes, "In just the past few years, advances in [the gene-editing technology] CRISPR have been happening at a breakneck speed — and companies have sprung up to commercialize the technology. Now, patients in Europe and the U.S. could be treated with CRISPR-based therapies as soon as 2018." Looking at actual research, however, the picture is more mixed: trials are planned at Stanford University, for example, but have already been delayed at the University of Pennsylvania. Alexey Bersenev, director of the Advanced Cell Therapy Lab at Yale New Haven Hospital, cautions “the field is currently over-optimistic about possible results of clinical trials. . . . Every new and hot biomedical technology usually undergoes an inflated expectations phase.”

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A Prolific Gender Studies Researcher's Outcomes Questioned

December 14, 2017

According to an article in Ars Technica, "Psychologist Nicolas Guéguen's large body of research is the kind of social psychology that demonstrates, and likely fuels, the Mars vs. Venus model of gender interactions, with its assertions, for example, that men consider women wearing red to be more attractive. But it seems that at least some of his conclusions are resting on shaky ground. Since 2015, a pair of scientists, James Heathers and Nick Brown, has been looking closely at the results in Guéguen's work. What they've found raises a litany of questions about statistical and ethical problems. In some cases, the data is too perfectly regular or full of oddities, making it difficult to understand how it could have been generated by the experiment described by Guéguen." In addition to identifying questionable research outcomes, Heathers and Brown learned that some of Guéguen's methodologies put female researchers in sexualized situations. These types of concerns are central to Research Integrity and Trustworthy Science, a conference that will be held on the University of Minnesota campus on March 8. Eminent, nationally-known presenters will address data fabrication, selective data reporting, predatory journals and concerns about the reproducibility of scientific findings. To learn more and register for free in-person or webinar attendance, click here

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Wolf Joins TOPMed Advisory Panel

November 30, 2017

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has appointed Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf to the External Advisory Panel for the Trans-Omics in Precision Medicine (TOPMed) Program, which is dedicated to the advancement of heart, lung, blood, and sleep precision medicine. Since its launch in 2014, TOPMed has supporting whole genome sequencing and other omics platforms such as metabolomics and proteomics; the project researchers expect to have achieved a total of 150,000 whole genome sequences by the end of 2018. Research conducted on such a scale raises importance governance questions, including how best to ensure the privacy of participants' health data when it's shared with the broader research community. Prof. Wolf is a renowned expert on genomic privacy, having led several research studies that established the legally and ethically preferred methods to manage research findings from biobanks. The External Advisory Panel will provide the NHLBI Director and staff with expert guidance on TOPMed, with the goal of applying systems biology to drive the future of precision medicine. 

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Brian Madeux

U Scientist is Among First to Edit Genes Within Body

November 22, 2017

Last week a 44-year-old California man was the first to be implanted with billions of copies of "a corrective gene and a genetic tool to cut his DNA in a precise spot," according to The Guardian. The patient, Brian Madeux, suffers from Hunter syndrome and has endured 26 operations to treat symptoms of the disease. Dr. Chester Whitley of Masonic Cancer Center, a Consortium member, is a lead scientist researching the therapy. It is based on zinc-finger nucleases, which work like "molecular scissors that seek and cut a specific piece of DNA." Dr. Whitley is quoted in the Atlantic, where he notes, “You know exactly where you’re going in the genome. It’s not like using a shotgun hoping you’re hitting a bird. It’s like using a rifle.” While still in clinical trial, if proven effective, zinc-finger nucleases could "kick off a new era for gentic disorders, one where kids never have to suffer their effects in the first place." 

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Whole-body Skin Graft Gives Hope to a Boy with a Rare Disease

November 10, 2017

An article in Science Magazine describes the case of a 7-year-old boy who suffers from "a severe form of epidermolysis bullosa (EB), an often-fatal group of conditions that cause skin to blister and tear off at the slightest touch." He has made a dramatic recovery after being treated with genetically modified stem cells that were used to grow new skin, which was then grafted onto his body. Jakub Tolar, MD, is also developing therapies for EB; he is Dean of the Medical School and Director of the Stem Cell Institute, a Consortium member. In the Science article, he notes, that "the grafts . . . can’t repair damage to internal surfaces such as the esophagus, which occurs in some EB cases. Fortunately, that wasn’t an issue for the boy in this study. The treatment is 'a good step in the right direction,' Tolar says, 'but it’s not curative.'” In a separate article in STAT, John Wagner, MD, Director of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital’s blood and marrow transplant program, says the findings have “'extraordinary' potential because, until now, the only stem cell transplants proven to work in humans was of hematopoietic stem cells — those in blood and bone marrow."

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IonE 10 yrs logo

IonE Celebrates Ten Years

November 17, 2017

The Institute on the Environment (IonE), a Consortium member, celebrated its tenth anniversary on Thursday, Nov. 16. IonE is a cross-disciplinary institute that focuses on solving major environmental challenges, and a leader in the field of ecological economics — the science and practice of incorporating externalities and the value of nature into decision making. They foster research and engagement; entrepreneurship and leadership development; service to society; and innovative communications like their magazine Ensia

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CTSI Launches New Training Tool for Research with Human Participants

September 25, 2017

The Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), a Consortium member, has launched a new web-based training tool for University of Minnesota clinical research professionals who work with human participants, and their supervisors. The Human Research Training website is a free, easy-to-use tool to help these researchers identify and maintain the appropriate training, certification, credentials, and immunizations. “Previously there wasn’t a systematic way to identify what research training was necessary or a system to track and maintain training compliance,” said Megan Hoffman, CTSI Workforce Development Program Manager, Clinical Translational Research Services. “This tool provides the linking and connectivity between U Learn and Moodle in one spot — it works to provide training uniformity across our vast research enterprise. The tool doesn’t add to the training requests, it simply tracks them in one place.”

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Is it Clinical Care? Is it Research? Navigating the Difference in Genomic Medicine

August 31, 2017

A working group of the Clinical Sequencing Exploratory Research (CSER) Consortium has published the first-ever study describing new approaches to a crucial question: how should genomics investigators handle the increasingly blurry boundary between research and clinical practice? The article, "Navigating the Research-Clinical Interface in Genomic Medicine" appeared in Genetics in Medicine, which is published by ACMG. A new blog post by Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf, JD and Wylie Burke, MD, PhD (Department of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington) describes the results of CSER's empirical research. A 22-item survey was administered to investigate how investigators were conceptualizing and navigating the research-clinical interface. The results were striking: most of the studies describe a merger of research and clinical care. According to Wolf and Burke, "This challenges the conventional wisdom that while clinical care benefits patients, research seeks only generalizable knowledge." CSER encompasses nine National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded projects driving the translation of genomic sequencing into clinical care; among these are grants for which Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf serves as a co-Principal Investigator: Disclosing Genomic Incidental Findings in a Cancer Biobank (with Gloria Petersen of Mayo Clinic and Barbara Koenig of UCSF) and LawSeq: Building a Sound Legal Foundation for Translating Genomics into Clinical Application (with Ellen Wright Clayton of Vanderbilt and Frances Lawrenz of the University of Minnesota). Prof. Wolf was the lead author on the Genetics in Medicine article. 

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Nanowarming in an alternating magnetic field

U Researchers Develop New Nanotech to Improve Transplant Outcomes

August 23, 2017

A team led by University of Minnesota researchers has developed a new method for thawing frozen tissue that may enable long-term storage and subsequent viability of tissues and organs for transplantation. The method, called nanowarming, prevents tissue damage during the rapid thawing process that would precede a transplant. The U of MN has long been a leader in organ transplants – 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the world's first pancreatic transplant, in 1967. According to the study's co-author, Prof. Michael Garwood, PhD, of the University of Minnesota Dept. of Radiology, "Prior to the development of [this nanowarming technology, called] SWIFT, no imaging technique had been capable of quantifying high concentrations of iron-oxide #nanoparticles in tissues non-invasively." Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf led the team that developed the oversight guidelines for nanotechnology research with human participants; learn more about those here.

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