Fun Facts About the Anatomy and Physiology of the Stomach

  1. The stomach can hold a lot of food.

When empty, the stomach is pretty small – it is only about the size of your fist. However, it is also capable of stretching to hold up to 4 liters of food – equal to about 8 tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream! This capacity to store food is important: we can eat much faster than we can digest food. It takes anywhere between 6 to 8 hours for food to pass through the stomach and into the intestine, and it can take up to 3 days for food to travel through the entire gastrointestinal tract.

  1. The stomach has many different parts.

Although diagrams of the stomach might make it seem as though it is just a sack, it actually has different parts that perform various functions. The main part of the stomach, the body, is where food is churned and broken down. It is mixed with a cocktail of acidic gastric juices to form a semi-fluid gloopy mass called chyme. The fundus, which forms the upper portion of stomach, is where the air that enters the stomach when we swallow is stored and undigested food is retained before it is mixed in with chyme in the body of the stomach. The lowest part of the stomach is called the pylorus, and it connects the stomach to the small intestine. It prevents the contents of the intestine from rising back up into the stomach when the small intestine contracts.

  1. The acid in our stomach is strong enough to digest most of the organs in the body. It is even strong enough to dissolve some metals!

The cells lining the wall of the upper regions of the stomach secrete hydrochloric acid, which has a pH between 1 and 2. For comparison, that is approximately the pH of the acid in car batteries, and is so acidic that it can dissolve steel. In the body, the hydrochloric acid starts to digest food and kills any microorganisms that might have entered the body along with the food. You might wonder how gastric acid doesn’t digest the stomach itself along with digesting the food it contains. After all, if the acid is strong enough to dissolve steel and cause severe chemical burns if skin were to touch it, the stomach could very well be harmed. The stomach is protected by mucosal cells that secrete a layer of mucus that protect the walls of the stomach. The mucus is 95% water and 5% polymers which give mucus its thick consistency. The mucus contains bicarbonate ions which neutralize some of the hydrochloric acid.

  1. The stomach is the only organ in the digestive system that has three layers of muscles.

Unlike the walls of the rest of the organs in the digestive system, the wall of the stomach is comprised of three layers of muscles. The outer layer is made up of longitudinal muscles, the middle layer is made up of circular muscles, while the inner-most layer – called the oblique layer – has muscles that run diagonally. The outer two layers help in the movement of food down the stomach and into the small intestine, while the inner layer – the layer unique to the stomach –allows the stomach to churn the food and helps in physical digestion. These muscles are why we can digest food even if we are standing on our heads: it is the muscles that move food along the digestive tract, and not gravity!

  1. The stomach is like a small chemical factory.

The stomach secretes a lot of chemicals. As mentioned above, it secretes hydrochloric acid that helps with digestion. It also secretes chemicals that stimulate the secretion of gastric acid. Additionally, it secretes a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin is often called the “hunger hormone” because ghrelin levels rise after fasting and make us want to eat!

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Scanning for Differences…

If you’ve ever watched dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Doctor, or House, you’ll definitely have heard these terms at least once: PET, CT, or MRI. Among the vast array of medical terminology, positron emission tomography (PET), computerized tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are perhaps three of the most well-known. Whilst mentioned almost interchangeably, each member of this trio of imaging technology actually differs significantly from each other, but can also work in conjunction with each other. But what are the key differences?

To begin with, CT scans are composed of various X-ray images taken from different angles, generating a more holistic image of the patient’s bones, tumors and even cancers. CT scans are more precise and detailed than normal X-rays, but come with an added cost and radiation intensity. MRI scans, on the other hand, do not involve any form of radiation, instead relying upon a combination of magnetic force and radio waves to observe soft tissues and the nervous system. MRIs also generate images of bones, tumors, and cancers, but are superior to CT scans in terms of image quality and depth. However, this burdens the former with a heftier price tag and slower imaging process than the latter. If you need a more detailed image of your soft tissue, ligaments, or organs, your doctor will commonly suggest an MRI. If you need a general image of an area like your internal organs, or due to a fracture or head trauma, a CT scan is often recommended.

The third and newest form of imaging, the PET scan, differs from the other two imaging techniques due to its focus on imaging organs rather than bones. PET scans are often performed on CT/PET or MRI/PET combination machines, meaning they are used in conjunction with CT and MRI scans. During the procedure, patients are injected with a liquid containing small radioactive particles and sent through a PET scanner that picks up the particles in the organs. Compared to CT and MRI scans, PET scans take almost 10 times as long, require intense preparation and are considered an invasive procedure. They are significantly more expensive and leave trace amounts of radiation in the patient’s system, but are extremely useful in monitoring bodily functions and are more successful at detecting early-stage cancers. PETs yield images that are not as clear as CTs and MRIs, thus using them in conjunction with the latter two allows for an in-depth yet dynamic imaging treatment.

While the three different types of imaging technology have a number of similarities, their primary differences are in the areas of administration, procedure, and risk. While CT and MRI scans are commonly used on structures such as bones, their differences in cost and risk lead to gaps in imaging quality and efficiency. On the other hand, PET scans are used to monitor body functions and prove significantly more efficient at identifying cancers, despite their added risk. So, despite their similarities, none of these technologies can completely compensate for another and, like a lot of things in life, can be used together to strengthen their individual qualities, providing more comprehensive results and saving lives, one scan at a time.

 

Behind the Scenes of Hunger

What makes us want to eat? We typically base our eating on the physical sensations of hunger and fullness – we eat in response to a grumbling stomach, and we stop when we feel full. Behind the scenes, however, the process is regulated by several hormones.

Ghrelin

One of the hormones controlling our appetite is the hormone ghrelin, or, as it is often called ‘the hunger hormone.’ Ghrelin is secreted by the stomach, and the levels of ghrelin circulating in the blood correlate with hunger. Ghrelin levels peak before meals, and dip after we eat in proportion to the size of the meal. Ghrelin levels also depend on the macronutrient composition of the meal. A carbohydrate-dense meal suppresses ghrelin levels to a greater extent than meals dense in fats and proteins. Scientists have found that artificially injecting ghrelin in rodents and humans increases energy intake.

Cholecystokinin

Cholecystokinin is a hormone secreted by the cells of the duodenum. The duodenum is the first part of the intestine, located immediately beyond the stomach. The secretion of CCK has a number of effects: it stimulates the secretion of gastric acid, stimulates pancreatic secretion, and suppresses energy intake. CCK is secreted in response to the intake of food and decreases hunger, with concentrations rising within 15 minutes of eating. CCK levels subsequently fall in 3-5 hours. However, while the role of CCK is known to increase the sensation of fullness during a meal, it’s role in appetite regulation between meals is not as well studied.

Appetite Diagram

Leptin

Leptin is a hormone secreted by adipose (fat) tissue. Leptin indicates the amount of energy the body has stored in the form of fat, and when it binds to receptors in the hypothalamus, it tells the body to reduce food intake.

Insulin

Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas. Like leptin, the amount of insulin released is proportional to the amount of fat stored in the body. Insulin decreases appetite, and studies have shown that injecting insulin in rodents reduces both their food intake and their weight. Insulin also stimulates the production of leptin and binds to some of the same targets as leptin in the hypothalamus.

Peptide YY and Oxyntomodulin

Both Peptide YY (PYY) and oxyntomodulin are hormones that are secreted by a special type of cells in the intestine called L-cells. Like CCK, PYY is secreted in response to the intake of food. Studies have showed that a protein and fat heavy diet can lead to greater and longer lasting increases in PYY, leading to reduced hunger for longer durations of time.

Oxyntomodulin is also released in response to the ingestion of food. Studies have showed that oxyntomodulin inhibits the secretion of ghrelin after meals are consumed, contributing to the feeling of fullness. In addition, oxyntomodulin also lowers the rate at which at which the stomach is emptied, further reducing hunger.

These hormones are only part of the story. The brain plays a vital role in the process. Aside from integrating the signals from the hormones, reward signals – such as dopamine when one takes a bite into a favorite dessert – are also integrated in the brain and can also influence appetite and food consumption patterns. The gut microbiome also plays an important but still not entirely understood role in appetite regulation. With increasing rates of obesity, metabolic disorders such as diabetes, and increasing research on the role of such disorders in diseases like Alzheimers or cancer, scientists have begun to study processes like appetite regulation a lot more, and it has shown that the process is much more complex than initially suspected.

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OTTer Fun Facts

 

Otters LOVE Rocks: Otters often have a favorite rock to open their shellfish! Each otter stores a favorite rock in its chest pouch that is unique to them and their preference. The otter loves to keep this tool close when gathering food. Every otter has a pouch for storing food, that is not super noticeable, but an important part of the otter’s body. Source: The Little Book of Otter Philosophy.

Otters Have a Unique Smelly Poop: Weird fact of the day is Otters have a particular stink to their feces. So much so, that this poop is coined, “Spraints.”

Otter Pregnancy: Otter gestation can last up to two months, but otters do not begin to breed until they are at least five years old. In fact, otter pregnancy is unique to this animal. The otter can have a delayed implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus. Therefore, a baby otter can be born up to a year after fertilization has occurred. A female otter can have one up to six babies per litter. Baby otter births typically will occur from the months of November to May.

Otter Fur:  Did you know otters have the thickest fur of any mammal? Otters have up to 850,000 to one million hairs per square inch. Source: The little Book of Otter Philosophy, Home and Environment.

Otters are Nocturnal Animals! Typically, otters will hunt at night. Source: The Little Book of Otter Philosophy, Work and School.

Otters are Team Players: Did you know otters love to relax in a group setting? In fact, researchers from Alaska have observed otters in groups of over one thousand floating in the water. These friendly creatures can be seen relaxing in groups from ten to hundreds. Source: The Little Book of Otter Philosophy.

One Big Breath! Otters have massive lung capacity. Depending on the type of otter they can hold their breath for up to eight minutes. [Source: The Little Book of Otter Philosophy]

It’s All About Looking Good: The sea otter will spend much of its time grooming itself. In fact, looking this good can take up to six hours! However, the reason that otters will spend time cleaning themselves is so that their fur will remain buoyant (keeping them afloat) and dry.  Source: The Little Book of Otter Philosophy.

CIA Agent or Otter?  Recently, declassified records from the 1960’s, found that the CIA studied otters in the 1960’s. Known as the, “MK Ultra Project.” This project designed an otter harness. The reasons are still unknown, but believed to be so that otters could deliver explosives or microphones to sensitive areas to create an otter dossier. Source: The Little Book of Otter Philosophy.

Otters Love to Chase Their Own Tails: Check out this link!

Otter Cafes: In Japan or areas of Asia, “Otter Cafes” have become a popular commodity. Clients pay to pet and play with otters. This idea venture, while cute, is questionable due to the endangered subset of populations.

 

Bet You Didn’t Know this about the Gut Microbiome!

When the word “symbiosis” comes up, people typically think of lichens – composite organisms established from fungi and algae. Or they think about clownfish and sea anemones – a relationship seared in our memories thanks to Finding Nemo. Humans, however, don’t come to mind. It turns out, however, that we are helped by millions of bacteria that live inside us. These bacteria are not only more numerous than we might guess, but also play roles extending beyond digestion. Here are some interesting facts about the gut microbiome:

  1. The gut microbiome is enormous – there are upwards of 30 trillion bacterial and fungal cells in the gastrointestinal tract, most of which reside in the colon. This makes the number of microorganisms housed in the gastrointestinal tract equal to, if not slightly higher than, the number of cells that compose the human body itself!
  2. While the number of human cells might just equal the number of cells constituting the gut microbiome, the number of genes encoded by the human genome is no match for the number of genes encoded by the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome encodes approximately 150 times the number of genes encoded by the human genome.
  3. These extra genes come in handy to humans. These genes allow the bacteria to produce an array of enzymes that help humans digest complex carbohydrates in the large intestine and extract nutrients from them. In the absence of these enzymes, the human body would not have been able to get nutrients from a lot of the food we consume.
  4. The gut microbiome also helps synthesize vitamins B and K in the body. Vitamin B plays an important role in metabolism, while vitamin K is required for blood clotting. The gut microbiome also helps the body absorb chemicals such as phytochemicals and polyphenols that function as antioxidants.
  5. Our diet influences the composition of our microbiome. Those who consume a plant-based diet and those who consume a diet rich in animal-based-products have gut microbiomes that are enriched in different bacterial species. Consumption of foods rich in probiotics can also help alter the composition of the gut microbiome.
  6. The gut microbiome plays an important role in modulating inflammation. Inflammation is a process by which the body stimulates the immune system by secreting chemical signals called cytokines. While this system is beneficial If the body is being invaded by pathogens, continuous inflammation leads to tissue damage. While some bacteria can protect against chronic inflammation by producing anti-inflammatory cytokines, some species can cause inflammation as well.
  7. A disrupted microbiome – particularly a disruption in which there is an over-enrichment of microbes that cause inflammation – has been associated with numerous diseases including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), colorectal cancer, and type II diabetes. While it may seem difficult to believe that the microbes in the gut can play a role in notoriously complicated diseases like IBD, fecal transplants from healthy individuals that aim to rebalance the microbiome of a patient suffering from IBS or IBD have led to an alleviation of symptoms.
  8. The gut microbiome can even regulate mood and memory – aspects of the functioning of the human body that don’t seem connected with the gut and digestion at all. In fact, the gut microbiome produces numerous neurotransmitters that regulate mood, including serotonin, the hormone that causes the feeling of well-being and happiness.

New research has only begun to elucidate the complex connection between the food we consume, the bacteria in the gut that help digest it, and the resultant effect on our long-term health. The interconnectedness between the bacteria in the gut and the chemical responses they stimulate in the body is evidence of the complex ways in which organisms depend on one another, and how the tiniest of organisms can have massive impacts on our health.

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4566439/

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10620-020-06109-5

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00394-017-1445-8

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/ebiom/article/PIIS2352-3964(19)30800-X/fulltext

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41575-018-0061-2

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12328-017-0813-5

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41575-019-0209-8

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/ebiom/article/PIIS2352-3964(19)30639-5/fulltext

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41422-020-0332-7

https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1002533

https://bionumbers.hms.harvard.edu/bionumber.aspx?s=n&v=1&id=113400

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling

15 Good Minutes: Hee Cheol Cho

Issues surrounding cardiovascular health and disease are personal for Dr. Hee Cheol Cho. Dr. Cho lost his father to a heart attack, and his father lost his siblings to heart attacks. “The topic of cardiovascular disease is embedded in my family and blood,” Dr. Cho said.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D. is a stem cell and cardiology researcher, Urowsky-Sahr Scholar in Pediatric Bioengineering, and Associate Professor at the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Pediatrics at Emory and Georgia Tech. Dr. Cho’s research focuses on cardiac pacemaker cells and developing a gene-and cell-based treatment for cardiac arrhythmia. His “biological pacemaker” is a minimally invasive alternative treatment for cardiac arrhythmia.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D.

Cardiac arrhythmia refers to irregular heartbeats that can cause fatigue and, in more severe cases, unconsciousness. To correct the heartbeats, an electrical pacemaker is often implanted. This implanting of electric pacemakers is not considered suitable for pediatric patients, and it is an invasive procedure. There are also several drawbacks of the device, including battery replacement, dislodging of the lead wire, and risk of infection. Dr. Cho and his research team have developed a device-free pacemaker, using a small molecule to convert heart muscle cells to pacemaker cells to restore natural heart rhythm.

Dr. Cho’s research also addresses myocardial infarction. Myocardial infarction, commonly known as a heart attack, is an abrupt blockage of the heart vessel that supplies the blood to the heart.  When the circulation is cut off, then the heart vessel will begin to die within hours. The heart cannot regenerate itself, and once the muscle begins to die it will be replaced with fibrotic tissue that leaves a big scar.

In the lab, Dr. Cho and his team pursue knowledge and understanding of how stem cells arrive at heart muscle cells and what kind of growth factors we can add or subtract so that we get the heart muscle cells that we want to replace the damaged muscles.

“We are at the point where we can reasonably specify which road the stem cells will take to become either atrial or ventricular heart muscle cells. In our latest discovery, we found a way to make these stem cells become left or right ventricular cells and that’s important because when the myocardial infraction happens and the damage is in the left ventricle, then we want to implant in the left ventricle. We have arrived at a point where we can specify this.”

Beyond his personal connection, Dr. Cho has many other inspirations and influences for entering this line of work. “My parents and my family have been the initial influencer of my career, but the proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ applies to me as well,” Dr. Cho said.  “In the early years of my training, my Ph.D. supervisor and post-doctoral mentor all have given me such excellent training and mentorship to form me as a scientist. Now that we have this research team, my young and talented, and seasoned scientists all influence me. Their dedication, work, and their exciting discoveries are all humbling to me and give me such great satisfaction as they grow. These past few years I have also developed relationships with patients and their families. When I speak and communicate with young people with cardiac pacemakers and want to play sports again and see how our research gives them hope, it is a motivation to me and my career.

As Dr. Cho described his work, he had a few words of advice for aspiring scientists and his past self: “If I could rewind 20 years from today, then I think I would tell myself to ‘be the best version of yourself.'”

The Pros of Probiotics

You might have heard the word “probiotics” before. You might have seen it written across yogurt containers, or heard advertisers pitch that their new health drink is full of probiotics. But you might not know exactly why – and how – they are good for you. Here is a breakdown.

What are probiotics?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit to the host.” In short, they are microorganisms – typically bacteria – that are good for us. Probiotics are able to survive the acidic environments of the stomach and intestines. They are capable of adhering to the walls of the gastrointestinal tract and show antimicrobial activity against pathogens.

Which organisms are considered probiotics and where are they found?

There are numerous microorganisms that are considered probiotics, but species under the genus Lactobacillus or the genus Bifidobacterium are the ones that are most commonly referred to.

Probiotics are found in most fermented food. Yogurt is a good, easily available source of probiotics. Other sources include pickles, kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut, kombucha, and certain types of cheese.

How are probiotics good for you?

The first scientist in the Western world to publish work on the benefits of probiotics was Russian zoologist and 1908 Nobel Prize winner, Ilya Metchnikoff. He wrote that people living in Eastern Europe had greater life expectancy and noted that they lived largely on milk that was fermented by lactic acid bacteria. He proposed that the microorganisms in the colon produced toxic chemicals that led to aging, but consuming the fermented milk helped populated the intestine with lactic acid bacteria that reversed the aging process.

Today, studies have shown that probiotics can improve certain gastrointestinal disorders.

  1. Antibiotic-associated Diarrhea (AAD)

Antibiotic-associated diarrhea is caused because of an imbalance in the gut microbiome due to the consumption of antibiotics. Antibiotics, in addition to killing pathogenic bacteria, kill some of the good bacteria that are important for digestion. Estimates show that anywhere between 5-39% of patients suffer from AAD. Probiotics can help restore and normalize the gut microbiome when antibiotics are prescribed.

  1. Clostridium difficile Infection

A mild Clostridium difficile infection typically leads to diarrhea and mild abdominal cramping. Severe infections, however, can even be life threatening and can lead to extreme diarrhea, severe abdominal cramping, weight loss, and dehydration, and can even lead to kidney failure. The infection takes place because C. difficile colonizes the intestine and releases toxins which cause diarrhea. Treatments are not usually fully effective, and patients relapse because some C. difficile spores evade treatment and survive. Studies have shown that probiotics can help prevent and improve symptoms of C. difficile infections.

  1. Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer refers to any cancer that affects the colon or the rectum. There is evidence that indicates that diet – and probiotics – can reduce the risk of cancers, particularly colorectal cancer. As elaborated in more detail below, probiotics help protect against colon cancer by modifying the composition of the gut microbiome, and lowering the number of bacteria that produce harmful, carcinogenic biproducts. Probiotics produce chemicals that inhibit cell proliferation and act as detoxifying agents. Probiotics can also help in the elimination of carcinogenic compounds from the body.

How do probiotics work?

While there isn’t a single definite answer for how probiotics work, scientists have a few models explaining how they benefit the body.

  1. They reduce the degree of colonization of the gastrointestinal tract by pathogenic bacteria through competition. Probiotic microorganisms compete for binding sites on the walls of the intestines and compete for nutrients. This is one of the methods that scientists believe could be at play with respect to probiotics being able to reduce the risk for cancer. Studies have shown that patients with colorectal cancer have lower numbers of Lactobacillus (probiotic bacteria) and higher levels of Salmonella and Clostridium, which are involved in the pathogenesis of colorectal cancer. Probiotic bacteria can grow at the expense of bacteria like Salmonella and Clostridium, reducing the risk of cancer.
  2. There is research that suggests that probiotics could help degrade receptors in the walls of the gastrointestinal tract that bind toxins. boulardii, a yeast, helps protect against C. difficile infection symptoms by degrading the toxin receptor on the intestinal mucosa.
  3. Probiotic bacteria produce a variety of chemicals including organic acids, hydrogen peroxides, and bacteriocins that inhibit the activity of harmful bacteria. Enzymes produced by bacteria in the intestines – while helping with digestion – can produce carcinogenic biproducts. Organic acids and hydrogen peroxides produced by probiotics acidify the intestinal environment and can inhibit the biochemical activities of these enzymes, reducing the number of carcinogens produced.
  4. Probiotics help in the elimination of carcinogens. Carcinogenic compounds bind to the cell walls of probiotic bacteria and are eliminated through feces.
  5. Probiotics produce compounds that have anticarcinogenic activity. Probiotics produce short chain fatty acids which serve as a source of energy for colonocytes and promote the death of cancer cells.

Recent research has shown that the microbes in the gut play a vital role in our overall wellbeing. A lot of questions about how probiotics influence the gut microbiome remain unanswered, in no small part because accessing the gut microbiome to study isn’t easy – it requires invasive surgery. What is clear, however, is that probiotics don’t just give yogurt and kombucha the unique taste that most of us enjoy, but also provide us several surprising health benefits.

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Meet the 2021 Annual Celebration Awardees

Each Spring, Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer hosts an Annual Celebration of Technology and Innovation. Though we weren’t able to gather in person to celebrate this year, we are extremely proud of the 2021 awardees. We took time to interview several of this year’s awardees to learn more about their technologies and their reaction to winning an award!

2021 Innovation of the Year – Serological Test for SARS-CoV-2; John Roback, MD, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

John Roback, MD, Ph.D.

“John D. Roback, MD PhD.  I am a Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Medical Director of Emory Medical Laboratories, and Executive Vice-Chair for Clinical Operations in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

“It is a wonderful recognition of a team science initiative to rapidly implement SARS-CoV-2 serology testing in Emory Medical Laboratories at the start of the pandemic.  The short time from test development in the research laboratory (Drs. Wrammert, Suthar, and Ahmed) to validation, FDA authorization, and clinical implementation was a testament to the collegial team work between this group and their colleagues during the process.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“The team led by Drs. Wrammert, Suthar, and Ahmed began developing a COVID-19 serology assay (a test to detect antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus) early in 2020. The test was transitioned to Emory Medical Laboratories where I led a team that produced the clinical data resulting in FDA Emergency Use Authorization and subsequent clinical use of this test to identify patients who were exposed to the virus and/or vaccinated.”

What does this award mean for your lab or your family?

“From my perspective, the leadership and staff of Emory Medical Laboratories was very proud to have made such an important clinical impact early in the course of the pandemic through the implementation of this serology assay.”

What are the next steps for this technology?

“We are continuing to offer it in Emory Medical Laboratories to positively impact patient care.”

2021 Deal of the Year – Phaeno, Inc. – A Method for Full-Length RNA Deep Sequencing with Existing Next-Generation Technology; William Agnew, Ph.D. & Mark Emerick, Ph.D.

Can you please introduce yourselves?

Mark Emerick, Ph.D.

Dr. Agnew: “My name is William Agnew. I have come from academia – I was trained in UCLA at the Molecular Biology Institute and was on the faculty of Yale for a number of years in the Medical School in the department of cell and molecular physiology. Then I moved to Johns Hopkins University, where I was the Chair of Physiology for about 13 years, as well as a professor of physiology and neuroscience. Around 2009, I stepped down from the chairmanship and went on as a visiting professor at Emory to pursue to development of a new technology. My background is in molecular neurobiology, which led us into a very interesting area which resulted in us developing the technology that represents the intellectual property that we’ve licensed from Emory and Johns Hopkins.”

William Agnew, Ph.D.

Dr. Emerick: “I’m Mark Emerick. I have been at Emory for a long time. I have a PhD from Yale in Physiology and Molecular neuroscience and a postdoc at Hopkins. I hooked up with Bill in the early 2000s and we were working on a project about ion channel structural diversity and the mechanisms that generate diversity in cells, which led to the project of sequencing the full length of the transcriptome of cells, and then moved to Emory and developed this sequencing technology with Bill.”

Can you describe the technology for which you won the award?

Dr. Agnew: “In the past 20 years – this has really been the era of the genome – one of the technical triumphs has been the fact that whereas the first genome took 10 years and close to $3 billion to sequence, we can now sequence an individual’s genome in about 2 hours for a wholesale cost of about $600. The result of having this ability to pull out a patient’s genome is to look at the constellation, the family of genes that that person might have inherited from their parents, plus any mutations that may have accumulated during their development. Every cell has in it a group of molecules that are the molecular machinery of the cell – these are the proteins and they control everything in the cell. All of those properties are dictated specifically by the group of proteins that the cell expresses. There are about 25,000-30,000 of these and they are different for every type of cell, called the proteome. To understand the cause of disease, to diagnose it properly, understand the mechanisms, identify the targets for drugs or other molecular interventions, you need to know the proteome. The idea is that we take a snapshot of the proteome to understand what makes a cancer cell a cancer cell, what makes an Alzheimer’s neuron an Alzheimer’s neuron. That can’t be deduced by sequencing the genome. What we did is we took the technology instruments that are used to sequence a whole genome at a very low cost, and changed the chemistry that is used a little bit so that now we can sequence all of the messages in a cell – and that’s the advance. One of the other big things we are looking at is we need to have national-scale surveillance of whole viral genomes and this technology can do that. We are pretty excited about the prospect, optimizing it so that you can sequence ground water samples from 1,000 communities every two days and spot the emergence of any viruses and you would even be able to do sophisticated analysis to track their migration and development. As hard as it has been to move this forward, and it has been a long process, this is a golden moment to make a contribution to human health and demonstrate the full power of this technology.”

What are the next steps for this technology?

Dr. Agnew: “The basic technology was proven in proof of concept studies. That allowed us to write patents with Emory and Johns Hopkins … Where we are now is we want to demonstrate the technology at full scale, and we are getting to the point where we want to optimize the synthesis of the reagents and steps into what are called deliverables – which are kits of reagents and also the data pipeline so that these can be sold or licensed to a genome center. We hope that around this time next year, we will be able to hand out beta kits so that they can go and exploit this. This could also get surged because of possible applications for COVID. We are well positioned to have a big impact.”

What prompted you to start a biotech company?

Dr. Agnew: “Mark basically invented the core trick that goes into this stuff and we did a huge amount of work inventing the supporting technology and analysis and then we decided – we might want to protect that! We wrote the patents and Emory and Johns Hopkins were really supportive, and it just turned out that it would be best if we formed our own company, took ownership of the rights of the technology and then we could license it to another company to develop or develop some of the core elements and license the products. It would just give us a lot more flexibility to go to a wide variety of people whose problems could potentially be solved with it and make sure that it is disseminated in the best way possible. We also have a bunch of other innovations and we thought if we could generate the revenue, we could put that out for public benefit as well. Forming a company seemed like a good mechanism.”

What does winning this award mean to you personally?

Dr. Agnew: “The amount of support we had, in this kind of competitive environment was spectacular and can never express our gratitude for giving us the freedom to do what we were trying to do and believed in us and there was a time a few years ago when I went to one of these award ceremonies, and I remember the person who got up had won something similar to this, and gave a speech and I thought wow, that is really cool, and maybe someday we will be talking to folks about this. So it’s huge, and Emory and Johns Hopkins have been so supportive. To get recognized for what we have been trying to do, which has been very hard, quite frankly – it has required a lot of tenacity – is another gift from the University. It’s pretty humbling, it’s really cool.”

Dr. Emerick: “I would confirm that. The last 20 years have been rather difficult to get support for what we have been working on. We had a bit of trouble making money, so the funds from people were very helpful, and Emory was certainly very helpful. Just in the past few weeks I have been doing literature reviews, and people have been republishing our results with great fanfare, the results that we had trouble getting published 15-20 years ago. This is the kind of confirmation that shows what we knew at the time that we are on the right track. It’s only now that it is beginning to build traction, and now with this award, it is a great confirmation of that.”

Do you have one word to describe your feeling winning this award?

Dr. Agnew: “I was so surprised – we got this announcement and we’d had a pretty good set of things happen over the course of about a week, and then this announcement came in and it was just the icing on the cake, tremendously exciting. One word would be ‘thrilled.'”

Dr. Emerick: “I was completely unaware. I was completely unprepared for this. It wasn’t on my radar, so when it arrived, I was like ‘That’s really nice!’”

2021 Significant Event of the Year – Aligos Therapeutics, Inc. – Initial Public Offering; Raymond F. Schinazi, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

Raymond Schinazi, Ph.D.

“My name is Dr. Raymond F. Schinazi. I am a professor of pediatrics at Emory University. I’ve been at Emory for about 40 years. The focus of my work is HIV, HBV, HCV and emerging viruses. That’s what I do for a living. I am interested in particular in the discovery and development of drugs for these viruses.”

Can you talk about the specific technology that you won the award for?

“Viruses in general are made up of different components, which includes of course the genetic material of the virus, which, in the case of Hepatitis B is DNA. The DNA is protected by something called the capsid. We have been focused on the capsid, because if we can destroy the capsid or alter its shape, we can allow the enzymes in the body to destroy the DNA of the virus. Only viruses have capsids, so you can target the capsid and by doing that, for example, you can open it up and expose it to the elements and it will degrade, because the DNA will no longer be protected. Its shield will be gone. We have been interested in compounds that specifically target the capsid. We call them capsid effectors.

These drugs that we have been working on target very specifically the hepatitis B capsid. The capsid also contains something called cccDNA, a latent form of DNA. By interfering with the cccDNA with capsid effectors, you can basically stop cccDNA from producing new variants or viruses and that is a big advantage. Now, even if you use regular antiviral agents, you can prevent the production of new viruses, but they can come back. You need to tackle the reservoir, which is found in the cccDNA.”

What is the current standard of care for Hepatitis B, and how can this be a game changer?

“The current standard of care is basically taking these drugs forever. They are known to prevent or delay the development of cancer of the liver. The only way to solve that problem is to have a liver transplant, there is no drug that can work. We are trying to eliminate the virus with these capsid effectors in combination with regular antivirals. You can suppress the virus to very low levels and also hit it with the new drugs and tackle the reservoir of the virus so that you don’t have a reactivation. Eventually with time – about a year of treatment – you clear the virus completely. There are markers for that. One of the clinical markers to determine if you have cleared the virus, is that if you stop therapy, the virus doesn’t come up again. That’s called a functional cure. When you have a functional cure, you are cured. You don’t need to take any more drugs, and you stop the process of getting liver cancer completely.”

How did your collaboration with Aligos Therapeutics come about?

“I have known the CEO of the company – his name is Dr. Larry Blatt – for a long time. He is a colleague and friend. [When starting Aligos Therapeutics] he needed assets, and at the time we had discovered this drug but didn’t have any suitors. With Emory’s help, we were able to license this technology to this small biotech company start up in California. Together we came up with an even better compound than the one in the original patent. They developed the compound with us, did all the preclinical work, and decided to put it in people who are not infected with hepatitis B to make sure it is safe and get data on the pharmacokinetics – how long the drug persists in the body. Then they went into infected patients. The results are preliminary and just being provided to the public that at a 100 mg dose – the lowest dose they have used so far – they were able to clear the virus in half the patients after only two weeks of treatment. This doesn’t mean that it has been cleared from the body completely, there was just none in circulation after only two weeks of treatment at a 100 mg once a day, so that’s pretty impressive. You can imagine what would happen after say 4 weeks, or 6 months, or a year. The question is whether they will rebound after you stop therapy. There are many questions to be answered, but at least the preliminary results so far are encouraging. And of course, the work will continue. What we would like to see is a decline in virus and we would also like to see that when you stop therapy, the virus doesn’t pop back up immediately.”

What are the next steps?

“We need to find the best dose that will give the biggest impact safely. That’s what we are aiming for. Safety is paramount, efficacy is second, and long-term effects are also important. And remember, you are clearing a virus that has been there for 20 to 50 years in the body. It is a big challenge, because if one is left, the virus will expand.”

What does this award mean to you?

“OTT works in partnership with people like myself and getting this award is a way to say thank you to the inventors. It’s not just me, my group helped me immensely. And they are really the heroes in my lab. Drs. Sebastien Boucle, Franck Amblard, Leda Bassit. We have people from many nationalities in our lab, and you saw people from diverse background coming together to work for the common good. It is a big deal to be recognized for participating in something that could cure a major disease. It is an amazing opportunity and to be recognized by our university is a good thing. It’s nice to be recognized by peers at your university, and that’s what this award does.”

Is there one word you would use to describe how you feel winning this award?

“Gratitude.”

2021 Significant Event of the Year – Aligos Therapeutics, Inc. – Initial Public Offering; Leda C. Bassit, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

Leda Bassit, Ph.D.

“I am an Assistant Professor in the department of Pediatrics at Emory University, with 28 years of experience in virology and viral diagnosis working with HIV, hepatitis B and C, West Nile, Dengue, Chikungunya, Yellow fever, Zika viruses, and most recently coronaviruses, including the variants of SARS-CoV-2 strains. My extensive know-how focuses on the studies of antiviral agents against HBV and other relevant viral pathogens, cell culture systems, drug-drug interactions, antiviral drug resistance, toxicities (mitochondrial DNA and glutathione), and neutralization assays using several cell systems (organoid systems), such as primary human hepatocytes or hepatoma cells, kidney (Vero), neuron, fibroblast, myelogenous leukemia, primary human macrophages, pulmonary, colon cells, among others.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

“To be able to contribute on the development of a novel antiviral drug that has the potential to cure chronic hepatitis B virus infection which affects ~300 million people worldwide.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“HBV nucleocapsid plays an essential role in the viral replication cycle that includes HBV genome packaging, reverse transcription, intracellular trafficking of relaxed circular DNA (rcDNA) into the nucleus and maintenance of chronic infection. Our drug is a capsid assembly modulator (CAM) with a unique glyoxamidopyrrolo backbone, which has shown substantial in vitro and in vivo effects in HBV DNA replication.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“I am glad to be part of a team that is focused on the development of safer antivirals that target the HBV replication cycle and have the potential to prevent the nearly one million human deaths annually due to liver diseases associated with hepatitis B.”

Can you use one word to describe winning an award?

“Appreciated.”

One Year Later: Interviews with 2020 Annual Celebration Awardees

Each Spring, Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer hosts an Annual Celebration of Technology and Innovation. In preparation of announcing the 2021 awardees, we spoke with several award recipients from 2020 about their experience with OTT’s Annual Celebration.

2020 Innovation of the Year – Autonomic Formation of Large-Scale Wireless Mesh Networks; Sergio Gramacho, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

“I am Sergio Gramacho, an avid learner and applier who had the opportunity to formally study Electrical Engineering (BS), Business (MBA) and Computer Science (Master, PhD) in different moments of my career.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

Sergio Gramacho, Ph.D.

“This award was crucial for me and my project partner, Dr. Avani Wildani. Dr. Wildani was my Ph.D. advisor, and the news of this award came about 2 months before my Ph.D. defense. Together with positive feedback from recent paper submissions, it was the final sign that I was ready for defending my research.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“We conceived, designed, and proved practical the formation of wireless mesh networks by independent and autonomous agents, organized in controlled partitions. Also, by design, the solution is resilient to changes in the network nodes over time (self-healing characteristic). This technology has the potential to create large telecommunication networks without large companies using simple (low reliability) network nodes. The solution technology is heavily based on software, for maximum adaptation to different settings. We hope that this innovative mode of network creation will allow networking underserved regions of the world, including areas of the U.S.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“My family was ecstatic about the news. We were in the expectation of having my Ph.D. defense, and the award came as a critical recognition of the value of my research. One person, however, was especially happy: my father-in-law. He was on travel, staying with us in December 2019 when I was actively working with OTT. He gave me multiple suggestions regarding potential applications if the patent was granted.”

What has happened since the award?

“In partnership with the Office of Transfer Technology, we have a patent application that has moved to its final phase.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“I really enjoyed the opportunity of working with OTT. They made something that seemed extremely difficult to execute and distant for us, a patent application, seamless. I strongly recommend to other researchers and students this experience.

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Realization.”

2020 Innovation of the Year – Autonomic Formation of Large-Scale Wireless Mesh Networks; Avani Wildani, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

“I am Dr. Avani Wildani. I am a fifth year Assistant Professor in Computer Science, formally computer science and math. I primarily work in computer systems now and essentially how information is understood and represented in different spaces can be biological and mathematical spaces that allow us to work in different areas. I do a lot of work with public health, particularly, environmental health recently on transferring knowledge modules between different areas. Also, we do some work in understanding and moving some information around between different storage devices.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

Avani Wildani, Ph.D.

“I was very happy for Sergio, who is the main person on this project, this was a project he was passionate about when I first met him. Seeing Dr. Sergio Gramacho’s hard work come to life was very rewarding for me.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“At a high level, we tried to build a mesh network. So, a mesh network when you put together the internet and wires and connections can become complicated. In some places, such as a festival or sports stadium or even in disadvantaged areas of the world, that can be a lot of overhead. What we want to do is allow computers to come together. The problem with this is there is a lot of overhead where the computers communicate asking one another, “are you still alive? Yes! I am still alive.”  Because of overhead, as you add more and more computers the network becomes slower and slower due to asking one another if they are still alive. This is a concept called negative scaling. The goal of this project was to diminish negative scaling by creating clusters that individually communicate and essentially creating a virtual network or a software designed network over this mesh. That allows a super-linear scale, rather than a sublinear scaling, allowing a larger network.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“The glory of this project goes to Dr. Sergio Gramacho and he ended up accepting a job at Emory University as a software engineer within our department.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“I think the Emory Office of Technology Transfer is very nice, it allows technology to be more directed to an applied world. When Dr. Sergio Gramacho was working with Emory Office of Technology Transfer, he had some great ideas of how to translate his work into an applied span and this was very helpful for him.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Efficient.”

2020 Innovation of the Year – Software to Derive Brand Insights from Mobile Location Data; David Schweidel, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

“My name is David Schweidel. I am a professor in marketing in Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. I received my B.A. in mathematics, M.A. in statistics, and Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Pennsylvania.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

David Schweidel, Ph.D.

“I enjoyed many things. We were surprised initially, but it was a nice recognition. Especially, giving the breadth of work that happens at Emory University and be included amongst this group of award recipients.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“Mobile Location Analytics (MLA) is a type of customer intelligence that works to track smartphone locations. This geo-technology can then be matched to locations of interest such as other retailers. Today, people are more familiar with mobile location data than ever before. All of the apps on our phone ask us permission to access our camera or even microphone and, in some cases, a mobile application will ask if it can use your location. Thus, we partnered with a company that provides location services for many of those apps. That allows us to gain access to location history and anonymize data. With that, we can follow the same device and see if it goes to a particular restaurant or venue, or what types of businesses in general.  This data was obtained without having to find who owns this particular device.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“This was validation of our early work with this company. Since this award, we have continued to work on projects with them and are in the process of doing a larger study. At this moment, we are preparing the manuscript from data that they have given of devices collected in the year 2020 in the state of Georgia. We are looking at how COVID-19 impacted people, but also businesses. Despite the shelter in place order being lifted in the state of Georgia, people have decreased frequency of going to retailers and other businesses. Now we are looking at the economic impact of COVID-19 has had in the state.

We are also doing a different project and how COVID-19 may have changed our social interaction. This project is an emphasis on the social network structure within metro Atlanta. Asking the question, “how are people socializing with each other?” We plan on looking at that social interaction data as a precursor to COVID-19 spreading or maybe individuals considering socializing less. The field of marketing has fundamentally changed more and has become much more data driven. This is a new source of data we are seeing becoming more available to marketers.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Impressive. If you look at the range of work being conducted at Emory University, we have the healthcare side of Emory, and there are other divisions making a great impact.”

2020 Innovation of the Year – Software to Derive Brand Insights from Mobile Location Data; Daniel McCarthy, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

“My name is Daniel McCarthy, and I’m an Assistant Professor in the marketing department at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

Daniel McCarthy, Ph.D.

“It means a lot when a project you’ve spent a considerable amount of time working on gets some sort of external validation. For an award like this, it is a great indicator that the potential for the project to have an impact is high. As someone who is particularly interested in writing high-impact papers, this is important.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“The technology is essentially an algorithm that allows us to infer customers’ preferences for brands from their geolocation data (i.e., data representing the raw pings that mark where a panel of consumers have been over time).”

What has happened since the award?

“The project continues to evolve. My co-author, David Schweidel, is using a very similar geolocation dataset to bring to life a much more sophisticated model for customer behavior, and in turn, is applying it to study the impact of COVID-19 across a variety of different product and service categories.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“I’m grateful to the Office of Technology Transfer for taking an interest in this work, and hope to come to them sometime soon as other technologies bubble up from my research!”

2020 Deal of the Year – Kodikaz Therapeutic Solutions – Circulating Tumor DNA for Targeted Cancer Therapeutics; Leon Bernal-Mizrachi, MD

Can you introduce yourself?

“Leon Bernal-Mizrachi, MD, I am the Associate Professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Chief of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute at Grady Campus and Co-Director of the fellowship program.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

Leon Bernal-Mizrachi, MD

“I was not expecting it, I did not know I was nominated. It was a very pleasant surprise. This project has been a hustle and it has overcome a lot of obstacles, and starting to see recognition for the work was very encouraging for our group. It was a pleasant surprise and provided me with fuel.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“The discovery is based on an unknown phenomenon that occurs in cancer patients in which we demonstrated that cancer releases genetic material to the bloodstream. At the time, we did not know why. We found the reason was because it was a method of communication between cancer cells. We then took advantage of the mechanism that occurs and created a system to deliver cargo to cancer cells to kill them. An example or analogy of this would be a Trojan horse. We identified and we used that to deliver multiple different things to cancer therapy, such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, fluorescent dye, or killer genes that only goes to cancer cells-not other areas. This is because we are hijacking normal mechanisms of cancer cell communication and we are taking advantage to deliver a killer mechanism to cancer cells.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“Unfortunately, this award was given to COVID, as Chief of Hematology I was very busy.  Sadly, this work did not have the sound or noise it deserved. It was a private enjoyment of family and friends, group, and lab. We have not had the opportunity to enjoy this award since the pandemic began.”

What has happened since the award?

“A company I founded with other colleagues has been awarded the Boehringer Ingelheim NYC Innovation Prize. We have been provided lab space for free on this award. Also, another important thing is we have secured investment from two venture capital groups. Our hope is that based on the results and speed we are moving, we will go for a major serious investment in a year or so. This will expedite maturing our technology and securing funding was crucial.

Since this award, as this is an unknown mechanism, we are trying to understand how it works. We are trying to identify two folds: one is the technology, how it is working and the normal biology of what occurs in the communication occurs within the cancer cells.  Thus, we are advancing on what is the receptor of the genetic material in the cancer cells that allows it to only target that cancer cell. On the technology side we have advanced and have started identifying the efficiency of what we see and identifying limitations of the technology and impact of the type of cargo we put inside Trojan horse. This is an exciting moment we are learning as we do experiments, and it has been an amazing experience. There is no data in the literature about this, so we are pioneering this technology.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“This has been a great experience. This is the second time I have the chance to partner with industry. The first experience was very pleasant and this experience has been even more pleasant and opened a new opportunity for me to get to know brilliant minds in the field of science and understand how they think.

The second is that I learned that academia and industry are different in the threshold of acceptance. In industry the aim is to take it to clinical applications. The level of certainty of any result must be extremely solid and vetted by many individuals. In academia you are in your own lab. In this case, we send the technology to multiple labs to validate what we have seen. This has been very interesting.  Finally, being exposed to the business side of technology and industry. This is an eye-opening experience for which as a physician or scientist you are not trained for.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Persistence. This project has overcome the main obstacle for the fear of the unknown. Addressing something that is completely noble. People can discourage you or your results can discourage you. It is a matter of taking every result as a positive result. That has been the best thing. Keep your dream and be persistent and do not let anything stop you.”

2020 Start-up of the Year – Aligos Therapeutics, Inc. – Series B Financing; Raymond Schinazi, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

“I am the Frances Winship Walters Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University and Director of the Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

Raymond Schinazi, Ph.D.

“We get recognized for our work globally, so it is nice when we can get some recognition at the local level. It takes a village to develop a drug, but usually the chemists and biologists in academia who made the initial discovery don’t always get the credit. I believe giving credit to the team for the hard initial work is critical to encourage other young scientists at Emory to innovate and discover new drugs that can treat or cure difficult infections like hepatitis B virus (HBV).”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“We’ve worked successfully in the past to find treatment for HBV infection and two major drugs are now FDA approved from this work including lamivudine (3TC) and telbivudine (LdT). However, although these drugs are effective virus suppressors in the liver and peripheral circulation, they do not cure. The holy grail has been to find a cure for HBV. The drug’s potency not only in cell culture, but now in humans, make them the best in class for suppressing and possibly eliminating HBV in infected individuals. These are the most potent drugs for HBV today with activity in the low sub-nanomolar range.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“This discovery was made by a team in our lab including Drs. Sebastien Boucle, Franck Amblard and Leda Bassit. They are the heroes and deserve a lot of the credit. This discovery forges lifetime friendships and camaraderie among the inventors and provides confidence and real importance for them.  Fortunately, my family is not affected by HBV since we were vaccinated many years ago. But there are over 400 million people who got the infection and that were not vaccinated that then go on to develop liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma).”

What has happened since the award?

“The drug is now on the verge of entering phase 2 multinational clinical trials. The preliminary results to date in humans infected with HBV have been very encouraging.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“Many drugs fail, and there are large cemeteries of drugs that have failed. However, one should remember that it is the drug that fails, not the scientists. Our job is to put our best foot forwards and hope there are few or no unforeseen road bumps on the way to drug approval.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Gratitude.”

2020 Significant Event of the Year – Meissa Vaccines, Inc. – License Agreement & Series A Financing; Christina Rostad, MD 

Can you introduce yourself?

“I am a Pediatric Infectious Diseases physician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University. I do clinical and translational research in vaccine development, with a focus on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).”

What did you enjoy about winning an award?

Christina Rostad, MD

“This award was a much-appreciated honor, as there are many wonderful technologies being developed at Emory.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“This award was for the development of RSV live-attenuated vaccine technology applied to boost immunogenicity and attenuate viral replication through targeted modifications of the RSV genome.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“My laboratory continues to pursue innovative strategies to develop RSV live-attenuated vaccines, including developing single-cycle vaccines with stabilized pre-fusion F and de-shielding immunodominant epitopes through deglycosylation.”

What has happened since the award?

“This technology has been licensed to Meissa Vaccines, Inc., with Series A financing, and phase 1 clinical trials scheduled to begin later this year.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“I would like to thank Dr. Martin Moore, who was the principal investigator of this research and my mentor during fellowship. I would also like to thank the co-inventors, Drs. Christopher Stobart, Anne Hotard Lopez-Ona, Jia Meng, and Elizabeth Laikhter, in addition to my wonderful mentors, and colleagues who made this possible.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Innovation.”

Annual Celebration: Where Are They Now?

Each Spring, Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer hosts an Annual Celebration of Technology and Innovation. In preparation of announcing the 2021 awardees, we spoke with several award recipients from previous years about their experience with OTT’s Annual Celebration.

2009 Innovation of the Year – Novel PET Imaging Agents; Mark Goodman, Ph.D. 

Can you introduce yourself?

“I am Mark Goodman; I am a professor of Radiology and Imaging Sciences. I have secondary appointments in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology. I am the Emory Endowed Chair in Imaging Science.”

Fred Sanfalippo, Exec. VP Health Affairs; Mark Goodman, inventor; Cale Lennon, case manager; David Wynes, VP Research Admin.

What did you enjoy about winning an award/attending the reception?

“It was most gratifying to be recognized for developing translatable technologies that can help manage diseases. Also to recognize my colleagues who participated and helped bring the technology to the point where OTT recognized it as something that was important and deserved an award. And of course, I enjoyed having my family there as well. I have been married for 42 years and when you embark on an academic career you have to have the support to be able to put in the time and the effort to accomplish something.”

Can you tell us about the award you received and how you felt when you learned you were receiving an award?

“The first one I received was in 2009. It was an award that recognized a new technology. It was an imaging agent for cancer that would use nuclear medicine imaging. It felt quite wonderful to have the University and OTT pick that achievement as something they wanted to recognize.”

 Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“It impacted my lab because it gave us more notoriety amongst our peers. That work enabled us to secure NIH funding in that area, several grants. That helped fund scientists and staff in the laboratory. It helped maintain the lab and secure people’s futures. I have had funding every year for 27 years, so I am quite fortunate in that regard. The award helped me further build my program.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“The celebration was very nice, you got to see colleagues who also received awards. Their labs and families attended. You get to talk and mingle, and sometimes you end up meeting future colleagues in the event. It’s also nice to have your family there to celebrate and share the honor with you. It is a certainly a very lovely celebration.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“The words I choose are ‘gratification’ and ‘appreciation’. Gratification for receiving the award and then appreciation for Emory and OTT to actually recognize faculty.”

2017 Innovation of the Year – Frog Skin Peptides as Inhibitors Of Influenza & Zika Virus; Joshy Jacob, Ph.D.

Can you tell us about the award you received and the innovation it was for?

“We looked at peptides from the skin of frogs to see if any of those peptides can inhibit viruses that infect humans. There are small peptides called antimicrobial peptides that are found in all lifeforms, and they have very broad reactivity. We just wanted to know, if any of these peptides that the frog makes in its skin be cross utilized to human viruses. Using this method, we have found peptides that can kill not just influenza, but Zika and Dengue viruses as well.  A peptide is a small run of amino acids. If you took individual amino acids put them like beads on a string, and you have a short piece of them, it would be a peptide. The full string would be a protein.”

Jonathan Lewin, Executive VP Health Affairs; Joshy Jacob, David Holthausen, Song Hee Lee, inventors; Justin Burns, case manager

What did you enjoy about winning an award/attending the reception? 

“Winning the award came as a surprise. I was actually very excited about it because it gave us the acceptance that people think that this is important work. Attending the celebration was actually a lot of fun because I got to meet a lot of fellow innovators at Emory University. Also, there were a lot of people there that were like venture capitalists. It’s always good to see any of the people from Emory University that I have worked with closely.”

 Did the award have any impact on your lab or family? 

“The impact was that it was given to me, my Ph.D. student, and my post-doc. All of us got to go up there and stand on the stage and receive it which was very joyful. And my student was overjoyed and so was my post-doc, so that made me happy.”

What has happened since the award?

“We have extended those studies with peptides. Then COVID-19 came about and then we stopped all that and moved into COVID work. When it calms down, we are going to go back again to the frog peptide story.”

Can you tell us a little about the COVID work that you are doing right now?

“We have tried to find a peptide that can actually inhibit the SARS coronavirus. We looked across animals that have coronavirus in them naturally, or those that cannot be infected by the SARS coronavirus. We picked one family of peptides so that we could cover a whole lot more animals. We looked at 40 different animals and we screened 300 different peptides. We have two that actually inhibit coronavirus, and I have filed an invention disclosure with OTT.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Joyful.”

2018 Start-Up of the Year – EMRGE, LLC; Monte Eaves, MD

Can you introduce yourself?

“I am Monte Eaves; I am a plastic surgeon. I used to be a professor at Emory in the division of Plastic Surgery in the Department of Surgery. As of September 1, with some changes associated with COVID and with our company becoming commercially active, I left Emory and now I practice part-time with my wife in a practice called ME Plastic Surgery in Atlanta.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award/attending the reception?

“I think for me, the thing that struck me was the sense of community that came out of the reception. At Emory, we get a lot of support from Tech Transfer for multiple projects. It’s also wonderful when you can get all of these different groups together because you can see that even though we are all spread out, it is indeed a community. The other thing that was so exciting was that many people on my team were able to come for the ceremony. For them to see what we are doing through the eyes of Emory, Tech Transfer, and others in the Atlanta entrepreneurial community was very reassuring for them and showed them that we were on a good path and going in the right direction.”


David Wynes, VP of Research Administration; Monte Eaves, inventor; Kevin Lei, case manager

Can you tell us a little about the invention that you received the award for?

“The technology we developed is called a force modulating tissue bridge. The device is intended for non-invasive wound closure, but at the same time, it takes all of the tension off of the skin, so it is also designed to improve scar outcomes, as we know that the primary driver of poor scarring is tension. It can be reapplied in the healing period. It’s a very simple concept, but what is exciting is that there was a lot of engineering underneath it to get the different components to move and rotate right, and to figure out all of the manufacturing.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“It was exciting. For my wife and kids, it was important that they see that what I was spending all my nights doing was moving somewhere; It’s not just a theory, it’s not a ‘maybe’ and it’s not just a pipedream. It was something that could come together and be a product, be a company, and make an impact for patients. It was reassuring for them in that way.  I think it’s also helpful later when fundraising, to show that you have been recognized as a company and as a startup. That gives potential investors some reassurance, it’s one of the many pieces of the puzzle.”

What has happened since the award?

“When we got the award, we had prototypes and we knew what we wanted to build but we had none of the manufacturing figured out. We spent a few years to get that developed because we had to design and validate our own custom manufacturing machinery. We had a product release in September of 2020, and it is now being used clinically. We had our first sale in January 2021. We are in the process of preparing for a full commercial launch and building up our inventory.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“The one thing I would share, especially for people interested in developing a product, is that Tech Transfer can be a tremendous resource, especially the way that Tech Transfer can make connections. For me, a critical connection originating from Tech Transfer was with GRA (Georgia Research Alliance) which has been a great supporter and has provided me with key mentorship. Tech Transfer can get people started and is really helpful.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Affirmative. It provides you that sense of clarity and security that you are going down the right path. It really affirms what you are doing.”

2018 Innovation of the Year – Messenger RNA-Based Biopacemaker; Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D.

Can you introduce yourself?

“My name is Hee Cheol Cho, I am an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics. I hold the title of Urowsky-Sahr Scholar in Pediatric Bioengineering and I am also the director of the Heart Regeneration Program at the Children’s Heart Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.”

What did you enjoy about winning an award/attending the reception?

“I was beyond excited to win the award of “2018 Innovation of The Year”. It was a huge honor to say the least, that our technology was picked as the best one. The award reception was one that I had never attended in that style. They gather all the up-and-coming technologies that are licensed from Emory University.  I got to meet a lot of entrepreneurs at the reception. Not only the people being awarded, but also awardees from previous years. Getting in that mix was a lot of fun and very insightful for me as our inventions are just getting into technology transfer and development.”

David Wynes, VP of Research Administration; Hee Cheol Cho, inventor; Raj Guddneppanavar, case manager

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you received the award for?

“The title of the technology was “Messenger RNA-Based BioPacemaker.” The idea is to create a pacemaker using cells or genes. A few years ago, we found a way to pace the heart by injecting a natural human gene. Our gene technology was able to convert ordinary heart muscle into new cardiac pacemaker cells. These new biological pacemaker looked and functioned like the natural pacemaker that we are born with. To advance this technology into a therapy, we succeeded in developing messenger RNA-based gene therapy. mRNA is a perfect gene delivery platform for our biological pacemakers. We took advantage of the brief life time of mRNA, and demonstrated that the gene is no longer needed once the biological pacemakers are created. It is serendipitous that the safety of mRNA-based gene delivery is now confirmed with the Covid-19 vaccines. Our gene therapy invention delivers the pacemaker gene into the patients in the safest way possible. In the next 5-10 years, we are hopeful that we will provide alternative, device-free cardiac pacing therapy for patients who are dependent on pacemakers. We are particularly excited with the potential improvements in clinical care and outcomes with pediatric patients. Current pacemakers are far from ideal and at times inadequate for the newborns and infants who require a pacemaker.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family?

“Absolutely. For our lab, the award itself was the beginning of other opportunities that were presented to us. We have been able to secure three major NIH funding as well as a preclinical technology development award from the U.S. Department of Defense. The award has also attracted interests to eventually develop the technology into commercial products.”

What has happened since the award?

“The award also opened the door for more collaboration. Since we received the award, our collaborations have expanded beyond the labs at Emory and Georgia Tech. We have also started conversations with potential industry partners to plan for the road ahead in terms of the data needed for the first human trial. It is not an understatement to say that the award has been a huge windfall for advancing the technology to a clinical reality.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“The award was important because with that I was able to form a stronger bond with the OTT office. There had been a lot of interest from venture capitalists as well as other investors who are interested in taking our technology into the commercial product development pipeline. We are looking into that aspect as well. From technology development to ultimate translation into therapy, the award has been a key that connected those efforts.”

Can you use one word to describe the event?

“I can summarize my experience with the award as ‘catalyst’. We have worked hard to get to the point to win the award, and after the award a lot of opportunities were presented to us. We took advantage of those opportunities and built our research portfolios even more. I think that the award and event was a definitive catalyst for our research.”

2019 Innovation of the Year – Alexidine and Analogs to Treat Lung Cancer; Adam Marcus, Ph.D.

Can You Introduce yourself?

“I am a professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology. I am also the associate director for basic research and shared resources at Winship, and currently serve as the interim executive director of Winship. On the lab side, my work is mainly as a cancer cell biologist where we look at how cancer cells metastasize and then determine how best to stop that metastasis using small molecule inhibitor strategies.”

 Can you tell us a little about the award that you received and the technology that it was for?

“A couple of years back, we were awarded the Innovation of the Year Award from OTT for the discovery of analogs of Alexidine. These alexidine analogs are modifications to the chemical structure of Alexidine to make it more potent by targeting the highly invasive cancer cells that spread. The analogs do this by changing the way that these cells process energy, to reduce their ability to metastasize and spread, as well as their ability to grow. The Innovation of the Year award was for the discovery and studies that test the efficacy of alexidine analogs in lung cancer, and especially lung cancer metastasis, which is the primary reason for patient mortality.”

Thota Ganesh, inventor; Sarah Wilkening, case manager; Deborah Bruner, SVP for Research; Adam Marcus, inventor

What did you enjoy about winning an award/attending the reception?

“It is exciting to get recognition for the work your team has done, being a part of the OTT process and getting to know everyone. The award gave us the opportunity to talk about our research in a large venue to people that have a variety of careers at Emory.”

How did you feel when you learned you were receiving an award?

“The award itself is recognition for the accomplishments and the amount of work that goes into this research from several different people. The work was conducted by a former graduate student, a chemist, and several other researchers in the lab. Receiving this award generates more momentum and excitement for this project.”

Did the award have any impact on your lab or family? What has happened since the award?

“Since receiving the award, our team obtained funding from Biolocity, which provides funds to Emory and Georgia Tech investigators. It has enabled us to test our compound in more clinically relevant scenarios, where we perform pre-clinical trials in mice and tested the compound to see if it works on lung cancer in a mouse. Those results have been very promising. On top of that, we recently found out that we received the Phase 1b award from the Georgia Research Alliance. We have been able to expand and further develop the compound, and we are excited for the future to see where we can take this. Ideally, in the future, we will have a Phase 1 trial in human patients.”

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

“It’s always fantastic to get support from the university, and this research has had the university’s support from the start. Receiving the initial pilot awards has helped us become competitive for external funding. In fact, we have pending funding made possible by the team’s progress and recognition to date from the National Cancer Institute. It has been fantastic to receive the initial support, and to be recognized by the Office of Technology Transfer. It’s an exciting time for the lab and we are excited to push this forward.”

 Can you use one word to describe the event?

“Energy. The room was filled with excitement and enthusiasm for science all across Emory.”