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WARF Innovation Award winners take on colon cancer detection, tomorrow’s plastic

October 13, 2015

A blood test that could save lives and a sun-powered scheme to turn biomass into valuable compounds have won Innovation Awards from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).

“The Innovation Awards showcase the people and ideas that make the University of Wisconsin–Madison at the leading edge of scientific research in the nation and world,” says Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF.

One of the year’s prizewinning inventions could offer new hope in the fight against colon cancer through earlier, easier and more detailed detection. The disease afflicts millions worldwide – almost 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. Early detection is critical to saving lives but colonoscopy can seem invasive and costly.

Photo: Jennifer Pleiman — Melanie Ivancic — Michael Sussman

Jennifer Pleiman (left), Melanie Ivancic and Michael Sussman

A diagnostic test being developed by biochemistry Professor Michael Sussman and his team requires only a small blood sample to search for protein “red flags.” Early results suggest the new test is able to detect cancer at an early stage and may outperform other screening methods.

“We’re still in (the) early stages,” says Melanie Ivancic, a member of the team. “The pilot study in humans is going well so far. We’re participating in the WARF Accelerator Program to expand the study to include a larger number of patients looking at pre-cancer polyps as well.”

The winning team includes William Dove, Jennifer Pleiman, Edward Huttlin, Perry Pickhardt, Xiaodi Chen, Amy Irving, Adrian Hegeman, Mark Reichelderfer and Gregory Kennedy.

Hyun Gil Cha (left) and Kyoung-Shin Choi

Chemistry Professor Kyoung-Shin Choi and postdoctoral fellow Hyun Gil Cha also took home top honors for their work using solar energy to transform biomass into a highly prized industrial molecule. Their method employs a special type of solar cell to drive a mild but highly efficient chemical reaction.

More specifically, the process oxidizes the biomass chemical HMF (5-hydroxymethylfurfural) into a compound called FDCA (2,5-furandicarboxylic acid), which is used in industry to produce polymer materials, pharmaceuticals, antifungal agents, organic conductors and much more.

The new process is sustainable and may be used to develop plant-based plastics down the line.

“It’s still early but there are people in industry already interested in our work,” says Choi. “We’re putting two different fields together – biomass conversion and solar energy.”

An independent panel of judges selected the winners from a field of six finalists. These finalists were drawn from among more than 380 invention disclosures submitted to WARF over the past 12 months. The winning inventions each receive an award of $5,000, with the funds going to the UW–Madison inventors named on the breakthroughs.

The other finalists included: Karthikeyan Sankaralingam, Jaikrishnan Menon and Lorenzo De Carli for a high-performance memory processing unit; Adel Talaat for methods to detect mycobacterial infections in dairy herds; Robert McDermott and Pradeep Kumar for advancements in quantum computing; and David Lynn and Uttam Manna for their work on super nonstick surface materials.

WARF staff also announced the winners of the fourth annual Discovery Challenge Awards, granted to teams of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to carry out exceptional collaborative work.

This year’s winners are: Mengyi Cao (biochemistry) and Matthew Stilwell (biochemistry); and Mustafa Ozcam (food science) and Rachel Wilson (surgery). The two groups will each receive $7,500 to advance their research through these newly formed interdisciplinary collaborations.

Photo: Matthew Stilwell and Mengyi Cao

Matthew Stilwell and Mengyi Cao

Photo: Mustafa Ozcam and Rachel Wilson

Mustafa Ozcam and Rachel Wilson

The Discovery Challenge winners were selected from among more than two dozen graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who participated in a research symposium and research award competition to develop cutting-edge, interdisciplinary ideas. The WARF Discovery Challenge is a program pioneered by the WARF student ambassadors with the goal of encouraging graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from across the entire campus to learn from each other and expand their research vision.

—Sally Younger