Innovation Beat: Patents and licensing deals, provost's big ideas

Beta Cells light up bright green inside the zebrafish pancreas

Innovation Beat is a quarterly roundup of small stories about UO discoveries with big results. This edition of Innovation Beat highlights researchers who’ve earned patents and licensing deals. There’s also calls for entry and updates on entrepreneurship competitions.

UO researchers earn patent for promising diabetes treatment

Jennifer Hill made national headlines in 2016 with her discovery of a bacterial protein called BefA that shows promise to someday become a component of a new treatment for Type 1 diabetes. 

On Feb. 18 the U.S. Patent Office confirmed her discovery. Earning a patent is an important step toward translating medical discoveries into solutions that can improve peoples’ lives.

“When I learned that our patent had been issued, the first thing I felt was actually relief, followed by excitement, because the patent allows us to continue to push BefA in a direction that might help people someday,” Hill said. “The process of vetting and developing a new drug is extremely expensive and the patent makes the investment in that process worthwhile.”

At the time she made her discovery, Hill was studying the microbiome, the community of microorganisms that reside within the bodies of humans and most other animals, in biology professor Karen Guillemin’s lab. She was curious how the microorganisms that live in the gut of zebrafish interact with the pancreas. 

The pancreas produces beta cells. Beta cells make insulin, a chemical necessary to digest sugars. Type 1 diabetes causes an immune reaction that kills beta cells, making it difficult to process sugars.

Hill methodically examined hundreds of samples from bacteria species that live inside zebrafish, a common proxy species for studying human biology. She found a few bacteria that influence beta cell production in the zebrafish pancreas, and then narrowed it down to a single bacterial protein — a huge discovery. 

She named it Beta Cell Expansion Factor A, or BefA, and now she’s studying it in mammals as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Utah.

“It is important to understand how mammals respond to BefA or similar microbial cues because it gives us a clue into how humans might respond, which is important for a potential therapeutic,” Hill said. “I'm learning that, similarly to fish, mice are also ‘listening in’ on resident microbes to shape their pancreas development.”

Having the patent protects Hill and Guillemin’s claim to have discovered the BefA protein, as well as the methodologies they developed to use BefA to stimulate beta cell production in the pancreas as a treatment for diabetes.

“We are actively studying BefA’s mechanism of action from many avenues,” Guillemin said. “Having this patent allows us to explore different routes to developing BefA as a therapeutic, one of which could be through establishing our own company.”

UO research supports literacy evaluation program

University research to improve reading fluency assessments will soon be helping teachers across the nation, thanks to a licensing agreement with the education technology company Analytical Measures Inc.

College of Education research associate professor Joe Nese developed the Computerized Oral Reading Evaluation to reduce the workload for teachers who must frequently test their students’ reading levels. Evaluation combines an innovative psychometric model and a custom set of reading passages with speech recognition software to better evaluate student reading ability.

The automated evaluation allows teachers to simultaneously administer brief reading assessments to multiple students with fewer errors, providing a more accurate understanding of students’ reading development.

Analytical Measures will incorporate the tool into its Moby.Read application. The new tool and Moby.Read both received funding from the Institute of Education Sciences.

“It’s a good example of public grant money coming together to make research accessible and available to educators,” Nese said.

Nese and co-principal investigator Akihito Kamata plan to further improve the system by adding the capability to measure “reading prosody,” or how expressive students are when they read, like if they pause at commas or change their tone to emphasize dialogue and questions.

“Eventually what we really want is to better assess if students understand what they’re reading, rather than just measuring speed and accuracy,” Nese said.

Provost’s Innovation Challenge invites students’ transformative ‘big ideas’

Student entrepreneurs are set to present their market solutions “for transformative 'big ideas' that can have a significant social and/or environmental impact on society” in response to the Provost’s Innovation Challenge.

Formerly called QuackHatch, the competition offers $10,000 of prizes to encourage students to pitch their business ideas. This year the provost challenged students to address issues in the fields of environment, energy, global health, agriculture, food systems, literacy and smart cities.

Alex Balog and Ben Cooper’s Basking Filter have made the finals in this competition as well. They will be competing against a company that would reduce waste from detergent products by setting up refill stations, an event management firm that creates customized 3D photo experiences, a firm that would make “workwear for business travelers,” and a lithium-battery recycling company.

The teams will give their final presentations March 10 at 6 p.m. in the Gerlinger Alumni Lounge. Winners will go on to compete at Invent Oregon in April.

OHSU, MIT co-host $40K innovation competition

Oregon Health and Science University is calling for participants for an entrepreneurship competition called the OHSU Invent-a-thon. 

In partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Hacking Medicine initiative, the contest challenges innovators over an intensive weekend to solve medical issues in four focal areas: surgical care, early disease diagnosis, rural and low-resource setting health care, and management of chronic conditions.

The OHSU Invent-a-thon offers $40,000 in prizes. Event organizers are seeking people with a variety of professional backgrounds to apply, counting on multidisciplinary approaches to bring creative solutions to the medical industry.

Along with participants from the fields of medicine, business and technology design, they are inviting journalists, graphic designers, students and people who have been patients to lend their perspectives to improve medical care.

Since 2011, MIT Hacking Medicine has held similar “hackathons” in 29 countries, raising upwards of $240 million in venture funds.

The OHSU Invent-a-thon runs May 1-3 in Portland. Interested participants must apply online by April 15.

By Adam Spencer, Research and Innovation