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Posted: October 21, 2009
Winners announced in 2009 Collegiate Inventors Competition
(Nanowerk News) A faster tool for cell programming and a new way of allowing quadriplegics to perform simple tasks have won grand prizes of the 2009 Collegiate Inventors Competition, a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame sponsored by the Abbott Fund, the non-profit foundation of the global health care company Abbott, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Harris Wang, who invented a new way of cell programming at Harvard Medical School, and Stephen Diebold, who invented the Drop Point tool for quadriplegics while at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, each received a $25,000 prize during the Competition's culminating ceremony last night at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
Graduate and undergraduate winners were also announced for their top work. Graduate winner Geoffrey von Maltzahn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won for his advances in nanomedicine to increase the effectiveness of cancer drugs, and the undergraduate team of Philip Wagner, Lindsay Holiday, and Dana Leland of Dartmouth College won for their electrocoagulation arsenic filter. As winners, von Maltzahn and the Dartmouth team each received a $15,000 prize from the competition.
All student entries were scrutinized during an initial evaluation process by over 20 experts from industry, government, and academic research who judged the entries on the originality of the idea and the potential value and usefulness of the invention to society. Then, on October 19th, nine chosen finalists presented their inventions to a final panel of seven judges, including five inductees from the National Inventors Hall of Fame and representatives from the USPTO and Abbott.
James West, a final phase judge and an inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the electret microphone, said, "Once again, we're impressed by the outstanding caliber of the student inventions. We encourage college students to celebrate invention as part of their science and technology research, and we're also looking forward to seeing the impact of their work as they progress. I know that all the judges join me in commending these students."
The prominent group of judges for this year's competition includes five National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees: C. Donald Bateman (Ground Proximity Warning System), Robert Bower (self-aligned gate MOSFET), Edith Flanigen (molecular sieves), Rangaswamy Srinivasan (excimer laser surgery), and James West (electret microphone). In addition, the judging panel includes Jeffrey Pan, Associate Director, Scientific Informatics and Automation, Global Pharmaceutical Discovery from Abbott, and Jasemine Chambers, Group Director of Industrial Design from the USPTO.
"Abbott is proud to again be part of this competition that showcases innovation and foster broader understanding of science," explained Jeffrey Pan, Associate Director, Scientific Informatics and Automation, Global Pharmaceutical Discovery, Abbott. "Through our support of the competition, Abbott hopes to help inspire today's science students who may go on to find tomorrow's cures and treatments for the world's most serious diseases and health care challenges."
"The United States Patent and Trademark Office is pleased to be part of this outstanding young inventor recognition program," USPTO Director David Kappos commented. "Maintaining America's technological edge is vitally important in today's world economy. The highly talented and creative collegiate inventors who participated this year renew my confidence that this nation's innovative tradition will continue to endure. I congratulate all of the 2009 winners and wish them well in their future endeavors."
The graduate grand prize winner, Harris Wang, 26, is a student in the lab of George Church, a researcher well-known for his attempts to make genetic sequencing faster and cheaper. Church was long interested in creating faster tools for cell programming and discovered that Wang was willing to take on the challenge. Wang knew that cell programming was still a slow and hands-on process. He developed a protocol designed to permit faster cell programming, and then put together hardware and software to automate it. He calls the approach MAGE: Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering.
To demonstrate, Wang engineered a strain of E. coli bacterium that produces lycopene, a red-colored antioxidant. He added the genetic recipe for lycopene to the bacterium's chromosome. Then he used his MAGE approach to evolve a strain of the bacteria in which production of lycopene was highly efficient. In a more traditional approach, researchers painstakingly isolate, snip apart, reassemble, and reinsert individual genes. Wang believes that his technology will allow bioengineers to produce customized microorganisms much more cheaply and quickly than possible before. Such engineered microorganisms might be used to produce a wide variety of useful compounds, such as antibiotics, biofuels, and chemotherapy drugs. Born in China, Wang grew up in Salt Lake City and is currently working towards his doctorate in biophysics.
Undergraduate grand prize winner Stephen Diebold, 21, from the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows, designed an improved pointing stick for use by people with quadriplegia and other disabilities that prevent them from using their arms. Pointing sticks are used to type, operate cell phones, and otherwise manipulate objects. Existing pointing sticks are gripped in the user's teeth or mounted, helmet-like, on the user's head. Either approach presents problems: a mouth-held pointer prevents the user from speaking and a head-mounted pointer requires assistance to put on or take off.
Diebold's Drop Point stick is designed to be donned and doffed with a shrug of the user's chin. He came up with the approach after spending time with then-law student Jonathan Ko, who has quadriplegia. Diebold said, "I saw that to Jonathan, the pointing stick was his arms and hands, and he had to ask somebody every time he wanted to use his hands—that seemed absurd to me." By attaching the pointing stick to a cup which is in turn attached to a strap that loops around the user's neck, the user is able to freely engage the pointer as he wishes. Diebold is currently majoring in industrial design.
Graduate prize winner Geoffrey von Maltzahn, 29, turns what may be a new page in nanomedicine with his method of using a pair of nanoparticles that work together in an innovative way to increase the effectiveness and lower the side effects of existing cancer drugs. Powerful cancer-killing drugs are well-known to science and widely used in clinical medicine, but since these drugs are also highly toxic to healthy cells, targeting drugs specifically to tumors has been a major focus in cancer research. Of late, much of this drug-targeting research has looked at using nanoparticles to carry the drugs to tumors. A major challenge, however, is that cancer cells, and the tumors they may form, have a finite numbers of targets to which nanoparticles can attach—and since a given nanoparticle can carry only a small drug payload, this limits the amount of drug that can be delivered.
In von Maltzahn's approach, one set of nanoparticles lodge in a tumor's blood vessels and cause local bleeding. The bleeding prompts clotting factors to be produced, which in turn, attracts a second set of nanoparticles that have been programmed to be attracted to the clotting factors and that deliver a cancer drug. The use of the clotting factors dramatically increases the number of targets for the drug-carrying particles. Raised first in Arlington, Texas and then Fairfax, Virginia, von Maltzahn received degrees from MIT and the University of California, San Diego before beginning his current work on a Ph.D. in medical engineering and physics.
Undergraduate prize winners Philip Wagner, Lindsay Holiday, and Dana Leland tackled the problem of reducing arsenic found in groundwater to safe levels, with a cheap, reliable device made of materials locally available in rural Nepal. The team developed a way of using electrocoagulation—a process employed in the large-scale water treatment plants of many modern cities—in a system radically downsized to fit into three five-gallon buckets. Water to be treated goes into the first bucket where the students induce electrocoagulation by sending a simple electric current through two steel plates in the water. Iron precipitates are released. These iron particles bond aggressively with the arsenic that exists in the water. This newly-reacted water is then poured into a second bucket of clean sand, which has a hole in the bottom and sits over a third empty bucket. The sand collects the iron-arsenic particles and arsenic-free water collects in the bottom bucket. When the team tested the device with water contaminated with 200 parts per billion (ppb) arsenic, the output water contained under 1ppb arsenic—well under the 10 ppb level considered safe for drinking.
Wagner, 22, grew up in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania; Holiday, 24, spent time growing up in both Teec Nos Pos, Arizona in the Navajo Nation and Phoenix; and Leland, 22, is from Baltimore. All three are Spring 2009 engineering graduates of Dartmouth College.
About the Collegiate Inventors Competition
The Collegiate Inventors Competition, a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, encourages college students to be active in science, engineering, mathematics, technology, and creative invention. The Competition specifically recognizes and rewards the innovations, discoveries, and research by college and university students and their advisors for projects leading to inventions that may have the potential of receiving patent protection. Introduced in 1990, the Competition has awarded more than $1 million to nearly 100 students for their innovative work and scientific achievement through the help of its sponsors.