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Science & Tech

Breathing Easy in a Brighter, Healthier World

Ignition Award–winning research aims at energy efficiency, disease reduction


University research can take a new idea only so far. To turn the next great discovery into something that helps people live better, healthier lives, university researchers need real-world expertise and money to make what works in the lab into a commercial product.

It’s known as translational research — the specialized manufacturing, engineering, and business know-how necessary for high-tech innovations to go from bright idea to the marketplace — and in recent years, Boston University has steadily increased its capacity for helping scientists bridge the gap. These efforts include a multimillion-dollar partnership with the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation to bring biomedical technology to market, membership in the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT), a Cambridge-based consortium of hospitals, universities, and engineering laboratories, and BU’s Office of Technology Development semiannual Ignition Awards.

The proposals for Ignition Awards, which typically range from $25,000 to $50,000, are submitted by BU researchers in the fields of health care, clean energy, communications, and, new this year, social entrepreneurship. They are then reviewed by committees of faculty, students, venture capitalists, industry and foundation representatives, and entrepreneurs.

“All proposals are judged heavily on the impact they may have if the research is successful,” says Michael Pratt, director of corporate and business development in the Office of Technology Development, who oversees the Ignition Award program. “But the new social entrepreneurship category is judged most heavily on potential societal impact.”

The three most recent Ignition Award recipients were announced last month: Theodore D. Moustakas, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering and a professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, Michael Pollastri, a CAS assistant professor of chemistry, and Ross Summer, an assistant professor of pulmonary medicine and immunology in the School of Medicine.

Theodore D. Moustakas: Green LEDs

What’s up?
Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, can be found in a wide array of products, including digital watches, electronic signs, and flashlights. Unlike incandescent bulbs, which operate by heating up a thin filament of tungsten, LEDs are made of semiconductor alloys that emit light when an electric current passes through them.

The efficiency of ordinary incandescent bulbs is only 10 percent, meaning that 90 percent of the electricity used to power them is lost as heat. If all home light bulbs were replaced with LED illumination, Moustakas says, “the savings for the U.S. alone would be over $20 billion a year.”

A major obstacle to widespread LED use remains, however: the ability to make white light. White light can be obtained by coating blue LEDs with a phosphorescent substance that glows in reaction to light, but while this method works fine in flashlights, it does not hold up well in illuminating rooms.

Ideally, combining red, blue, and green LEDs should produce a natural white light, but unfortunately, the current crop of green LEDs are inefficient, for reasons that are not clear even to scientists.

What was found?
Moustakas thinks he’s found a better way to manufacture green LEDs.

According to him, the problem is atomic. The indium-gallium-nitride alloy used in green LED construction undergoes a phenomenon known as partial atomic ordering. This means that while certain areas of the LED’s crystalline structure are orderly, with the atoms arranged in neat rows, in other areas the atoms are distributed at random. These two areas do not combine well, resulting in a layering of ordered and random areas that reduces the LED’s efficiency.

Moustakas is exploring a new method of creating green LEDs that will reduce partial atomic ordering by growing the material on a different plane. He estimates that his method could increase the efficiency of green LEDs from 10 percent to 40 percent.

Why it matters:
Replacing light bulbs with LEDs in the home will benefit the environment and be more economical. The greater efficiency of LEDs means lower electricity bills and less waste and will potentially offset carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

If all incandescent bulbs were replaced by LEDs, Moustakas says, the energy savings would be equal to “retiring 30 large electricity-producing plants,” and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by up to 150 million tons per year.

What’s next:
Over the next year, Moustakas plans to use his new method to produce wafer-sized green LEDs with his Ignition Award funds. The project has also obtained funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Where to find more:
Click here to find out more at Moustakas’ laboratory Web site.


Michael Pollastri: Sleeping Sickness

What’s up?
Pollastri wants to speed up the production of drugs for parasitic diseases that wreak havoc on people in poverty-stricken African nations.

His initial target will be T. brucei, a blood parasite that causes trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness. Trypanosomiasis is spread by the bite of the tsetse fly and causes swelling of the lymph nodes, anemia, and heart, kidney, and endocrine system problems. If untreated, the parasite spreads to the brain, resulting in coma and death. It is estimated that more than 66,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa die of sleeping sickness each year.

What was found?
The first step in developing a drug is finding a substance that attacks and kills the parasite. Certain genetic markers in T. brucei may serve as flags to signal what compounds may be effective.

Pollastri plans to synthesize substances known to act on human genetic markers similar to ones found in T. brucei. The candidate compounds will be tested for their ability to effectively kill or inhibit the growth of cells from the parasite.

Why it matters:

Parasitic diseases like sleeping sickness are widespread in poor areas across the world, but there is little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments for them. The World Health Organization estimates that up to one billion people suffer from neglected diseases.

What’s next:
If his method is effective in speeding up the production of a sleeping sickness drug, Pollastri hopes to apply the platform to other parasitic diseases, such as river blindness and malaria, that he says are often neglected in pharmaceutical research.

“Drug companies want to cure these diseases, but it doesn’t help their bottom line,” Pollastri says. “It’s a good public service, though, and pharmaceutical companies will be interested if we have the right compounds.”

Where to find more:
Click here for more information and here for Pollastri’s research wiki.

Ross Summer: Acute Lung Injury

What’s up?

This year, in hospitals across the United States, more than 200,000 patients will develop acute lung injury (ALI). ALI occurs when an overenthusiastic immune response results in massive inflammation of the lung. Most frequently seen in hospital patients admitted for respiratory problems such as pneumonia or emphysema, ALI is fatal 40 percent of the time.

“We want to develop a diagnostic marker for patients at risk for ALI,” says Summer. “Right now, we don’t start taking care of them until it’s too late.”

What was found?
Summer’s research focuses on the link between adiponectin, a signaling molecule produced by fat tissue, and ALI. Previous experiments with mice, conducted in collaboration with Kenneth Walsh, a MED professor and the director of BU’s Whitaker Cardiovascular Institute, found that animals that did not produce adiponectin were at a higher risk for acute lung injury. Mice that were given excess amounts of adiponectin were protected.

What’s next:
The next phase will attempt to establish this same correlation in humans. Summer will study patients admitted to the ICU at Boston Medical Center. They will have a blood test to gauge their levels of adiponectin, and Summer will then monitor each patient during his or her hospital stay.

If Summer demonstrates a strong link between low levels of adiponectin and high risk of acute lung injury, simple blood work could be all that doctors would need to assess risk for ALI, saving thousands of lives a year.

Roxanne Palmer is a graduate student in COM’s Science and Medical Journalism Program. She can be reached at rdpalmer@bu.edu.

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