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Science & Tech

Editors’ Pick: No More Needles

Programming cells to heal the body

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Hormonal therapies — such as insulin for diabetics, human growth hormone for people with dwarfism, and interferon for fighting tumors or hepatitis — are expensive to manufacture. They have one other shortcoming: they work only if patients follow through with the treatments, which often means multiple daily injections.

While advancements have been made, from infusion pumps to inhalants, injections are still the standard of care, according to Michael Wolfe, a School of Medicine professor of medicine and chief of the gastroenterology section at Boston Medical Center. And all those needles lead to significant “noncompliance rates” among patients.

“Injections hurt,” Wolfe says simply. “They’re uncomfortable and inconvenient.” He and his research team are working on a new means of both manufacturing and delivering hormonal therapies — using the patient’s own cells. Specifically, they are working on genetically modifying a patient’s stem cells (derived from fat or bone marrow) into little hormone “factories” that can be reimplanted into the patient to create the needed treatments.

Wolfe and his research team have successfully engineered stem cells to produce human insulin in the stomach and small intestine of mice, and now their efforts have garnered one of three Ignition Awards from BU’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), each worth about $50,000.

Four times a year, with the help of a five-person committee of senior venture capitalists from the Boston area, OTD selects Ignition Award winners from applications submitted by BU professors or students whose research is ready to make the leap from the laboratory to the business world. The next Ignition Award winners will be chosen by the end of the summer.

“The Ignition Awards program exists to recognize research that will someday translate into commercially available technologies, products, or treatments,” says Stanford Willie, executive director of OTD. "This first batch of winning projects represents diverse and potentially lifesaving applications in health and medicine.”

To view Part 1 of the Ignition Award series, Sniffing Out Cancer, click here.

To view Part 2, Solving the Pain Puzzle, click here.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

This article was originally published on BU Today on July 27, 2006.

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