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2 research projects up for Governor's Innovation Awards

November 16, 2010

Two ASU projects – one that develops wearable environmental sensors and another which has developed novel brain stimulation methods – are among the finalists for the 2010 Innovator of the Year Award for Academia, which is given out as part of the annual Arizona Governor’s Celebration of Innovation.

The first project goal is to develop sensitive, wearable and wireless chemical sensors to quickly and reliably detect toxic chemicals in the air that are critically important for health risk assessment, disease prevention and environmental monitoring. The project is led by Nongjian (N.J.) Tao, a professor of electrical engineering and director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors, as well as fellow researchers Erica Forzani, Francis Tsow and Rodrigo Iglesias.

The second project involves development of methods and devices for implementing transcranial pulsed ultrasound in the noninvasive stimulation of intact brain circuits. This project, led by William (Jamie) Tyler, an assistant professor of neurobiology and bioimaging in the School of Life Sciencs in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been focused on providing solutions for overcoming limitations held by other brain stimulation methods including electrical, photonic, magnetic, and pharmacological ones.

Tuning into innovation

Tao’s technology is built upon a novel microfabricated tuning fork array sensor platform (Biodesign Insitute) and wireless sensor technology (Motorola). The team has validated and demonstrated applications of the technology for indoor and outdoor air quality, occupational safety and health, and asthma prevention.

The sensor system has been successfully tested to map air quality in Phoenix (with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality), studied traffic pollution-related health risks in Los Angeles (with the Keck School of Medicine at University of Southern California and California EPA), protected firefighters and arson investigators (with Phoenix Fire Department), and monitored the environmental effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (with the University of New Orleans).

The sensor has been presented by National Institutes of Health Director, Francis Collins, to the U.S. Congress as an example of successful translational university technology; and by the NIH to the World Health Organization (Geneva, Switzerland), and UK Biobank. The Biodesign Institute team, working together with collaborators at the University of Arizona, Motorola, and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety & Health, continue to refine and broaden the applications of their invention.

Brain tweaking

Novel treatments of brain disorders and injury represent some of the most significant and unmet needs in modern medicine. Tyler's development of ultrasonic neuromodulation offers hope for new brain stimulation therapies used in treating a broad range of brain disorders, without requiring surgery and with a spatial resolution several times better than other noninvasive approaches like transcranial magnetic stimulation. Tyler's group has shown that his method is safe, reliable, and precise. Their recent translational breakthroughs demonstrate how ultrasonic neuromodulation can be used to terminate epileptic seizure activity or to modulate learning and memory processes in animal models. The group is working on establishing human studies over the coming year.

Ultrasonic neuromodulation represents a paradigm-shifting platform around which many new neurotechnologies utilizing brain stimulation will emerge. These include use in current therapeutic brain stimulation procedures for replacing surgically invasive devices such as deep-brain stimulating electrodes or in near future brain-machine interfaces where brain stimulation will connect us to information clouds and social network highways. Tyler has filed three patent applications, built two prototype devices and co-founded a start-up medical device company (SynSonix, LLC; SynSonix is further developing brain-machine interfaces, some of which are designed for treating neurological disorders and others designated for entertainment purposes, such as video gaming. The innovative research and development activities of Tyler’s group offers a new area for biotechnology growth in Arizona, in addition to expanding the burgeoning neuroscience program and ongoing world-class biomedical research at Arizona State University and in the Valley. 

An innovative tradition

The 2010 honors represent the sixth year in a row that ASU has been a finalist for the Innovation Award for Academia. In 2009, Milton Sommerfeld and Qiang Hu, both ASU Polytechnic Campus professors of applied science and mathematics, were honored with the top award. Sommerfeld and Hu have developed a process that can convert algae into aviation or jet fuel. They also recently won the Arizona Bioindustry Association’s top research award for 2010 and Time magazine named the process one of the top innovations in 2008. The Biodesign Institute’s director of the Center for Evolutionary Functional Genomics, Sudhir Kumar, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, was also chosen as an award finalist in 2009.

In 2007, Roy Curtiss III, director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Infectious
Diseases and Vaccinology and professor in the School of Life Sciences, was selected as a finalist for his research team’s efforts to develop new vaccines against disease targets including pneumonia, hepatitis, tuberculosis, plague and human and avian flu.

In 2006, Biodesign researcher and life sciences professor Bert Jacobs and his team, also in the institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, won the award for a project to create a vaccine that can cure smallpox infections in their early stages and also provide a powerful tool for fighting a host of other viral pathogens, including a new project directed at HIV.

In 2005, the Biodesign Insitute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology won the Innovator of the Year award again for a project led by researchers Charles Arnzten and Tsafrir Mor, who are also professors in the School of Life Sciences, involving a multi-pronged research effort to prevent HIV infection.

In 2004, the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) was also bestowed with top honors for their iCARE research project, which has developed several projects to help people who are visually impaired recognize text, people and environments.

Winners will be announced during the awards ceremony Nov. 18 at the Phoenix Convention Center in downtown Phoenix. The event commemorates the top technological and business achievements of the year. The Governor’s Celebration of Innovation has become a premier community gathering in Arizona. The Governor's Innovation Awards, Arizona’s highest honor for technology innovation, is presented annually by the Arizona Technology Council and the Arizona Department of Commerce.

The Arizona Technology Council, in partnership with the Arizona Department of Commerce, chose the finalists for the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation in their respected categories. The award recipients were selected by an independent selection committee comprised of local business and academic leaders, based on their contribution to the business and technology community and their technological innovation. One company, within each category, will be announced as the winner on the night of the awards gala.