National Academy of Inventors Elects Four BU Profs
Inventions range from LEDs to cholera-killing probiotics
Mark Grinstaff (clockwise from top left), an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and a CAS professor of chemistry; Theodore Moustakas, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering; Barbara Gilchrest, a MED professor and former chair of dermatology; James Collins, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and an ENG professor of biomedical engineering. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky
On the wall outside Theodore Moustakas’ office on the eighth floor of the Photonics Center hang two dozen plaques from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), each marking a process or product brought into the world by the College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering, who, not incidentally, has another 50 or so in boxes back home.
Moustakas is best known for discovering the method used to create the blue, green, and white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) used in computers, televisions, and outdoor displays. Now he’s unlocking the potential of ultraviolet LEDs.
“Those of us who study sciences and engineering, by nature we are curious people,” he says. “I’m old now, but still I have the same drive as I had when I was doing my postdoctorate across the river.”
That drive is something he shares with three other BU professors, who, like Moustakas, were recently elected charter fellows of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). The organization recognizes university and nonprofit researchers whose patented discoveries have benefited society. The others are James Collins, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and an ENG professor of biomedical engineering; Mark Grinstaff, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of chemistry; and Barbara Gilchrest, a School of Medicine professor and former chair of dermatology. They will be inducted on February 22 at the second annual conference of the National Academy of Inventors in Tampa, Fla., and receive a trophy and rosette pin for their efforts.
A pioneer in systems and synthetic biology, Collins has dozens of U.S. patents, one of which is an insole that sends random vibrations to subjects’ feet to help them improve balance and prevent falls. “We can take a 75-year-old and basically have them balance as well as a 25-year-old,” he says. His most recent work involves engineering a probiotic yogurt bacterium to detect and kill the cholera bacterium in the human intestine. His research team is also developing novel methods for detecting pathogens in the food industry, hospitals, and other consumer settings.
Grinstaff, who has more than 30 patents, has dedicated his career to discovering polymers that can be used to treat disease. He developed what he calls “fancy medical adhesives,” which surgeons use to seal wounds, and his research team has at least two other polymers in preclinical trials: a lubricant that’s injected into joints to increase flexibility and manage pain, and a film that’s stapled along lung tissue where a tumor has been extracted and emits a drug that attacks remaining cancerous cells.
Gilchrest’s work, which spans 10 patent families, concentrates on how and why our skin tans. Her team discovered a way to isolate human pigment cells and study the various genetic pathways that regulate tanning. For commercial and cosmetic reasons, the finding was huge. “About half the world is fair-skinned and wants to be darker,” says Gilchrest, “and the other half is dark and wants to be pale.” She also discovered that a skin cell’s tumor-suppressor protein, called p53, encourages the absorption of UV rays—preventing damage to DNA—and tells the cell to self-destruct when its DNA has been severely damaged. She says controlling this pathway could be key to preventing and treating malignant cancers.
In the early 1990s, Moustakas developed the method required to grow crystals, specifically gallium nitride semiconductors, on top of sapphire and other molecules, paving the way for the manufacture of blue, green, and white LEDs. Now he’s producing UV LEDs that have the power to kill bacteria and viruses on contact. Municipalities could use them to purify water, hospitals to clean surfaces, and pharmaceutical companies to sterilize medical packaging.
“The first time you discover something, the first thing you think is, I’ve done something wrong,” Moustakas says with a laugh. He doesn’t even tell his wife about his discoveries until he’s had a chance to repeat an experiment several times.
Moustakas, Collins, Grinstaff, and Gilchrest are among 98 NAI inductees, representing 54 research universities and nonprofit institutes and more than 3,200 U.S. patents. The new fellows include 8 Nobel laureates, 2 fellows of the Royal Society, 12 presidents of research universities and nonprofit research institutes, 50 members of the National Academies, 11 inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, 3 recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, 4 recipients of the National Medal of Science, and 29 American Association for the Advancement of Science fellows.