Oil spill cleanup by sponge: Madison scientists tout tidy technology

By Thomas Content of the Journal Sentinel

In a development arising from nanotechnology research, scientists in Madison have created a spongelike material that could provide a novel and sustainable way to clean up oil spills.

It's known as an aerogel, but it could just as well be called a "smart sponge."

To demonstrate how it works, researchers add a small amount of red dye to diesel, making the fuel stand out in a glass of water. The aerogel is dipped in the glass and within minutes, the sponge has soaked up the diesel. The aerogel is now red, and the glass of water is clear.

"It was very effective," said Shaoqin "Sarah" Gong, who runs a biotechnology-nanotechnology lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery in Madison.

"So if you had an oil spill, for example, the idea is you could throw this aerogel sheet in the water and it would start to absorb the oil very quickly and efficiently," said Gong, a University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of biomedical engineering. "Once it's fully saturated, you can take it out and squeeze out all the oil."

The material's absorbing capacity is reduced somewhat after each use, but the product "can be reused for a couple of cycles," Gong said.

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UW 'ideas factory' looks to turn research into economic growth

By Kathleen Gallagher of the Journal Sentinel

When Rebecca Blank arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last summer, she became chancellor of one of the largest academic research universities in the world, but one that has an uneven track record for commercializing that work.

UW-Madison had nearly $1.2 billion in research spending yet launched only four start-ups in 2012, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. Blank wants to improve that performance and has a great opportunity in front of her.

As she settles into the job, Blank is overseeing the hiring of three key economic development leaders and a new university-driven commercialization effort. Blank says she wants "a real step-up in ways we engage in the economic development agenda for the state."

During a four-year stint as deputy U.S. commerce secretary, Blank says she learned that economically successful regions attract investment and industries by building partnerships between the public, private and educational sectors — and there is always a large research institution involved.

"The University of Wisconsin-Madison is that research center. It is the ideas factory and the innovation center for the state," Blank said. "It has got to be a partner with the state and with the private sector if we're going to attract the high-tech manufacturing, nutrition, software, health care businesses of the 21st century."

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Q&A: How WARF Plans to Stay Relevant in Lean Times for Tech Transfer

Angela Shah

Quick, name one of the oldest—if not the oldest—university tech transfer institutions in the country.

If your brain automatically took you to a spot in New England or sunny California, think again. It’s the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, which was founded nearly 90 years ago in 1925.

What would become WARF started when Harry Steenbock, a University of Wisconsin biochemistry professor, discovered a way to increase the vitamin D content of food, which could eliminate rickets, a crippling bone disease in children caused by a deficiency in that vitamin. Quaker Oats offered him $900,000—worth almost $12 million today—for the rights to his invention.

But Steenbock believed that the university should benefit from research he had conducted there. And so, he began to petition regents to set up a foundation composed of alumni that would manage patents from university research, and license the inventions to people in the business world who could make them into useful, profitable products. Any royalty income from the products would flow back to the foundation, and be put back into additional UW research, creating what WARF founders envisioned would be a virtuous cycle.

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UW-Madison, WARF: Announce new tech transfer partnership

MADISON - The University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) today announced the launch of a major new partnership focused on entrepreneurship on the UW-Madison campus, building on a long legacy of collaboration to move scientific innovation to the marketplace.

In defining, co-funding, and launching D2P - shorthand for Discovery to Product - UW-Madison and WARF seek to more effectively cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship among faculty and students, and better support the formation of new companies, while systematically expanding the number of innovations that reach the market through startups or licensing arrangements with established companies.

"D2P is a big step forward in our support of entrepreneurship among both faculty and students," says UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, explaining that her time at the U.S. Department of Commerce reinforced her belief in universities as the "idea factories" required to keep American companies competitive. "I want to make sure that UW-Madison is on the cutting edge of entrepreneurship and technology commercialization."

D2P will be funded initially through a $1.6 million commitment from UW-Madison with matching funds from WARF.

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UWM physicists win prestigious National Science Foundation grant

By Mark Johnson of the Journal Sentinel

Physicists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who have been developing three dimensional images of the structure and movement of proteins, won a prestigious National Science Foundation grant Wednesday.

The team, whose work could help drug companies design new medications, will share in a $25 million grant with colleagues at seven other institutions. UWM's share will come to a little less than $4 million over 5 years.

Proteins are crucial to virtually every human action from breathing to thinking and many diseases result from problems with how they are made or how they function.

Six hundred applications were received for grants to establish National Science and Technology Centers. Just three were accepted. In addition to the award made to UWM and its partners grants were given to groups led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's like the Olympic Games where there are three medals," said Abbas Ourmazd, a member of the team that won the grant and a distinguished professor of physics and electrical engineering. "It's an objective metric for the league UWM is playing in."

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UW-Madison model of common cold virus could lead to better drugs

DAVID WAHLBERG | Wisconsin State Journal | dwahlberg@madison.com | 608-252-6125

UW-Madison scientists haven’t cured the common cold, but they may have explained why nobody has — in a discovery that could lead to better drugs against sneezes and sniffles.

Campus researchers constructed a model of rhinovirus C, a particularly problematic strain of cold virus identified just seven years ago, and showed how it differs from rhinoviruses A and B.

Rhinoviruses cause about 85 percent of colds and account for some ear and sinus infections, bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma attacks.

Drugs against rhinoviruses haven’t done well in clinical trials. That is likely because they didn’t protect against rhinovirus C, according to the new study in today’s edition of the journal Virology.

“There was always a high failure rate,” said Ann Palmenberg, a UW-Madison biochemistry professor who led the research. “The drugs didn’t work against the Cs.”

The three-dimensional model Palmenberg’s lab designed of the protein shell of rhinovirus C could help scientists find a receptor that could be targeted by new drugs, she said.

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Top 10 Colleges for Tech CEOs -- Marquette University at #6

Revenge of the Nerds

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have shown that you don't need to graduate from college in order to lead a giant technology company.

But they're the exceptions. Bloomberg Rankings analyzed the alma maters of 250 chief executive officers of U.S. tech companies with a market value of more than $1 billion.

Full List

Groups attack Wisconsin Alumni Foundation's embryonic stem cell patent

By Kathleen Gallagher of the Journal Sentinel

Two nonprofit groups are continuing their challenge to one of the Wisconsin Alumni Foundation's key embryonic stem cell patents by asking a federal appeals court to invalidate it.

The Public Patent Foundation, based in New York, and Consumer Watchdog, Santa Monica, Calif., filed a brief Tuesday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Public Patent Foundation was one of the successful challengers in the recently decided case in which the Supreme Court ruled that genes cannot be patented.

"WARF's broad patent on all human embryonic stem cells is invalid for a number of reasons and we are confident the Court of Appeals will agree," said Dan Ravicher, the foundation's executive director. The groups believe that all researchers should have unfettered access to embryonic stem cells, which scientists believe could help treat many diseases.

A WARF spokeswoman declined to comment, saying the foundation needed to review the filing with its attorneys.

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Waisman scientists model human disease in stem cells

by David Tenenbaum


Many scientists use animals to model human diseases. Mice can be obese or display symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Rats get Alzheimer's and diabetes.

But animal models are seldom perfect, and so scientists are looking at a relatively new type of stem cell, called the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell), that can be grown into specialized cells that become useful models for human disease.

IPS cells are usually produced by reprogramming a skin sample into a primitive form that is able to develop into all of the specialized cells in the body. In the laboratories at the Waisman Center at UW-Madison, scientists are growing iPS cells into models of disorders caused by defective nerve cells. The technology depends on work pioneered over the past decade or so by Su-Chun Zhang, a neuroscientist who leads the iPS Core at Waisman, which also produces cells for other investigators on campus.

The multidisciplinary Waisman Center, now in its 40th year, combines treatment with clinical and basic research to address many of the most complex and disabling disorders of development.

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Engineered stem cell advance points toward treatment for ALS

by David Tenenbaum

MADISON, Wis. — Transplantation of human stem cells in an experiment conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison improved survival and muscle function in rats used to model ALS, a nerve disease that destroys nerve control of muscles, causing death by respiratory failure.

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s disease." According to the ALS Association, the condition strikes about 5,600 Americans each year. Only about half of patients are alive three years after diagnosis.

In work recently completed at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, Masatoshi Suzuki, an assistant professor of comparative biosciences, and his colleagues used adult stem cells from human bone marrow and genetically engineered the cells to produce compounds called growth factors that can support damaged nerve cells.

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