Category Archives: biotechnology

How will new patent law affect tech sector?

The America Invents Act was signed on Sept 16, and it makes sweeping changes to the way patents work in the US.  Widely seen as pro-business and possibly detrimental to small time inventors, the new law will phase in over the next 18 months and change the way the technology field is implemented.

VTIP, the technology transfer office of Virginia Tech, is sponsoring an event to help sort out the facts from the myth.  Guest speakers will describe the effects on inventors and tech startups and answer questions.  The event is called “Making Connections” and will be held in 310 in the ICTAS building on Stanger Street on October 18 from 2-5 pm.  Anyone is welcome to attend, but seating is limited so register with Michael Miller using the information provided in the link.

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Filed under biotechnology, Communications, electronics, Energy, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

Virginia Tech Researchers sort cancer cells using micromachined silicon

Virginia Tech reports today on new research to identify early stage cancer cells.

Using ovarian surface epithelial cells from mice, researchers from Virginia Tech have released findings from a study that they believe will help in cancer risk assessment, cancer diagnosis, and treatment efficiency in a technical journal: Nanomedicine.


Read more here.

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Filed under biomimetic, biotechnology, genetics, medical technology

Local Tech Companies Nominated for Awards

It’s almost May, and you know what that means:  The NewVa Corridor Technology Council has announced a list of companies nominated for the various awards handed out at the annual awards banquet.  You can find a link to the NCTC website to register for the awards ceremony here.

Awards are handed out in the categories of Rising Star, Educator, Entrepreneur, Leadership, and Innovation.  Sometimes they hand out another special award for a local technology leader whose contributions don’t fit exactly into any of the single categories.  It’s a fun networking opportunity and a chance to reward the technology leaders who help drive the local economy.  This year it will be at the Hotel Roanoke, in beautiful downtown…er, …..Roanoke.

The list of nominees is provided by the local newspaper here.

Now, a comment about the NCTC name.  I liked it better before, when it was the New Century Technology Council.  Apparently they decided that once the New Century had cut it’s first teeth, it would seem passe’ to keep that reference.  So instead, they decided to use the terribly expensive “NewVA” brand (I don’t know who paid for it, or who came up with it – it wasn’t the NCTC as far as I know, but a regional re-branding.).  NewVA is sort of short for New Virginia, as if Old Virginia would be something distasteful, or old fashioned, maybe.  I’m not going to gripe about it too much, except to note that “NewVA Corridor Technology Council” does not roll off the tongue as smoothly as “New Century Technology Council”.

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Filed under biomimetic, biotechnology, Communications, Energy, fuel, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

Keeping the eggs in the omelette

I feel like a pincushion.  I’ve had so many pre-emptive shots this season to ward off flu and pneumonia and such that I am thinking I might as well go ahead and get a tattoo.

When I was younger, I laughed at the flu and never got a shot.  In fact I laughed at the people who ran around getting the shots in the fall, and called them all sorts of effeminate names.  But for the past few years the flu decided to remind me that I am not 25 years old any more, so now I get the shots.

When I can get them, that is.  There always seems to be a shortage of vaccine when I need the shot, and I can tell you one reason.  Eggs.

Yep, you need about 2 eggs to make a single dose of flu vaccine, and the vaccine itself generally doesn’t cover all the possible ways you might get the flu anyway.  Plus, it takes about six months to crank up the amount of production needed for the general population, so if something new and slightly unexpected comes along, it’s hard to get the vaccine to people in time.

Eggs are used to make vaccine?  Yup.  It’s the traditional method.  Eleven days after fertilization the embryos are injected with live virus, which then incubates inside the fluid sac until it is harvested.  Obviously not a wonderful experience for the embryo, I’m guessing.  So, that means that you need millions of fertilized eggs to make the product, and it all seems rather difficult and messy to me.  And slow, which means that some people, like about 36,000 per year, could die from the disease.

But, Dr. Paul Roberts of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is coming to the rescue.  Roberts has been experimenting with a different method of producing the vaccine, based on cell cultures.  His goal is to develop a faster way to produce vaccine which will also be more adaptable to changing mixes of flu variants that occur during a typical flu season.  To accomplish this, Roberts essentially makes the flu produce its own poison.

The way your body fights an invader, such as a flu virus, is to produce antibodies against it.  It’s sort of like tagging the invading cells with a little red flag, and then sending out other killer cells to wipe out anything with red flags.  Unfortunately, antibodies work best when they are very specific to a particular invader, but the flu doesn’t consist of just one flavor of threat.

Roberts is using new cell culture technology to coax infected cells to produce their own antidotes, so to speak.  He tags the envelope of the host cell containing the virus with proteins that will induce the body to make antibodies, and so when the virus emerges, or ‘buds’ from the host cell, it gets wrapped in the envelope, effectively painting itself with a big bullseye for the immune system.  The virus itself is killed and then it can be safely injected into the host (me, for example) where my own body will stimulate my immune system against it without my having to actually get the flu.  Later, when real flu bugs invade me because my office mate spent the last three days coughing and sneezing on me, I’ve already got my antibodies lying in ambush.

I love it when a plan comes together.

So, the point is that eventually this cell culture technique might replace the egg incubation technique, which means that vaccines could be produced more rapidly to address emerging health threats.

Plus, since you no longer need millions of eggs to produce vaccine, demand for eggs will go down, resulting in lower egg prices for consumers…well, we won’t go there.  I like to discuss topics that have predictable outcomes, like science.  Not economics.

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Filed under biotechnology, genetics, medical technology

Under my skin

Who among us hasn’t slipped out without our parents knowing and visited our local hopefully hygenic body artist and gotten a little permanent ink decoration in that special spot,  only to change our minds later and realize that either (a) our current significant other, the object of our inky affection, turned out to be a jerk/jerkette, or (b) in some careers, visible tattoos are not considered acceptable business attire?  Don’t you hate it when Mom turns out to be right?

In addition to many actual dermatological conditions requiring attention, a growing number of people are seeking to undo that adolescent indiscretion through laser skin treatments.  With the devices currently available, the laser light is applied to the surface of the skin and then it is up that beam of light to find its own path to the pigmented areas beneath the surface of the skin.  That means it can bounce around in there for a little while before finding the pigmented area, all the while heating up the surrounding tissue needlessly.  Ouch.

Biomedical Engineer Dr. Chris Rylander and his team in the Biotransport and Optics Lab at Virginia Tech have come up with a device that better controls where the laser light travels using optical fibers modeled after a mosquito proboscis – that’s the part the mosquito sticks into you to suck out blood and leave behind an itchy bump (and possibly malaria).

When a mosquito first slips its proboscis into a victim’s skin, it is so small it can’t be felt until the insect starts the deposit/withdrawal process of removing blood.  Chris’ optical fibers rival those of a mosquito, and he is working on a full-scale prototype of his current single fiber prototype.  These fibers can painlessly penetrate the outer layer of the skin and direct laser light more efficiently and quickly to those subdermal target areas.

While the offending spots and blemishes to be treated seem to reside on the surface of the skin,  they arise there from the subdermal layers.  Zap the subdermal cells that are the source of the unwanted pigment effectively and completely, and the source of the spot will be no more.  And that is what Chris’ invention is all about: delivering laser light faster, better, and with less damage and pain to the cells that resupply the spot you see on the skin’s surface.

For more details, you can actually download a pdf report of Chris’ work from the website of the National Insitutes of Health here.

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Filed under biotechnology, Materials, medical technology, optics

Bovine flatulence

One thing I have found about social media is that headlines featuring references to bodily functions always attract more readers.  Today’s technology discussion is actually about software, but I promise to work it around to flatulence eventually, just to preserve my journalistic honesty.

When I was in college, back in the ‘olden days’ when computers still used punch cards, freshmen engineering students had to learn to use drafting tools and techniques and actually DRAW pictures of things on a piece of paper.  Yep, T-squares, drafting tables, and drafting pencils were the tools of the trade for an engineer, along with something called a slide rule.  But enough tripping down memory lane.  The point is, computer technology eventually developed to the point where engineers can now use Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs to build up 3-D models of their cool widgets, and transfer that information directly to a computer controlled fabrication machine and just like magic, they can be holding a solid model or even a finished part in their hand, sometimes in just a few minutes.

But what about the flatulence?  I’m getting there…

So these CAD programs are wonderful ways to increase efficiency and reduce both cost and time to market in the manufacturing world.  But what if the thing you want to manufacture is, say, a new kind of bacterium?  Can CAD systems help us engineer living organisms?  I’m glad you asked, because it gives me a chance to talk about ….bovine flatulence.

But first, let’s talk about gene sequencing.  As we all learned in our high school biology class, during those brief moments when we were not terrorizing the girls by hiding  in their purses tiny preserved crustacean parts that we had just dissected, living things grow and develop according to a pattern of proteins called genes.  These genes are composed of combinations of a few building blocks arranged in particular ways.  The sequence of building blocks is responsible for directing some cells to be fingernails, for example, while other cells are mustaches.  Smart biology type scientists have been figuring out how to adjust these building blocks to change how the cells function, in an attempt to create a master race of superhuman beings that will take over the world.  Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag.

Seriously, by altering the genetic makeup of the cells, all sorts of good things result, such as gene therapy for many different hereditary conditions, and such.  Also, you can modify the structure of certain types of bacteria so that they produce less methane gas when digesting plant matter inside the gut of, say, a cow or a Talk Radio personality.  But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Dr. Jean Peccoud’s  Synthetic Biology Group in the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute has just received a $1.4 million grant from the  National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a CAD system to design genes.  His GenoCAD software is a collaborative framework for the entire research community, and Peccoud is making the code available through the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB).  Follow the links to learn more detail about GenoCAD, but let me just say that it will provide to the biology community the same sort of tools for designing living things that the regular CAD systems provided to the manufacturing and engineering communities.

Of course, just because they have this new GenoCAD system, it doesn’t mean that biologists will now be able to clone dinosaurs or create those cool creatures I saw in Avatar.  Probably not.  But it does mean that they might be able to make  adjustments to bacteria that live in the gut of cows and produce huge, and I mean HUGE, amounts of methane gas from digesting plants.

So, we finally come to the part of the story about bovine flatulence.  But since I have reached my word limit, I’ll just let you wander on over to this site where you can read all about how rumen methanogen bacteria in cows are responsible for global warming, and how tools like GenoCAD may be able to reduce gas production.  In cows, at least.

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Filed under biotechnology, genetics, software

It’s a Wire! It’s a Tube! It’s . . . Super-Foam!

Ever wonder where Governor Schwarzenegger got his Terminator skin?

Well, maybe not.  But if you recall, the Terminator robot in the film had a metallic skeleton with biological tissue over it, so that it looked just like a human being…if human beings were all bodybuilders from Austria, that is.  Anyway, tissue engineering is not just something they dreamed up in Hollywood.  It’s for real.  The idea is to duplicate bone and cartilage, for example, to make replacements for real tissue in our bodies when it wears out due to, oh, say, football injuries or skydiving, or maybe just being over 40.

So that’s what Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michael Sano was working on one day when he noticed that sometimes the cellulose fibrils he was making were thinly coated with metal, resulting in tiny ‘nanowires’.  He quickly realized that by altering the solutions in his experiments, he could produce any type of nanowire he wanted to make.  He also learned that under the right conditions he could degrade the cellulose, leaving a ‘nanotube’.  By tweaking yet another parameter he could create a material that is best described as ‘metallic foam’.

From Sano’s engineering perspective, he could see he had solved a long-standing challenge for the field of nanotube construction: how to fuse sub-nano-sized segments together to extend them into something that still had a continuous hollow core and was long enough to be a functional nanotube.

Mike could also see that this was potentially a way to produce nanocircuitry in situ, allowing connections to be formed between points in ‘nanospaces’, if you will.

And the metallic foam?  Well, it is light-weight , strong, and can be produced from just about any metal ion you want.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the Governator of California, as far as I know.

To read more about the project Mike Sano was working on when he made his discovery, you can go here.

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