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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

January 2020

From science to innovation — 2019 tech breakthroughs

NIEHS research led to cutting-edge inventions, and institute leaders aim to keep that momentum going in the new year.

NIEHS scientists and grant recipients study how environmental factors affect human health, building knowledge that is then shared with the public and policymakers. Sometimes, that research results in technological breakthroughs. Here are examples from 2019.

Michael Resnick, Ph.D. Resnick leads the Chromosome Stability Group, where he studies, among other things, the p53 gene, which is important for controlling cell cycles. Mutations in that gene can lead to cancer. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Tackling disease, chemical warfare, and contamination

Sharon Soucek, Ph.D. Soucek negotiates a variety of contracts and collaborative agreements, helping NIEHS in-house scientists connect with outside organizations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

“A long-term game”

When it comes to turning NIEHS research into innovation, patents — which can be expensive and time-consuming — are only part of the story, leaders say. Fostering outside partnerships and providing scientists tools they need to exploit good ideas are equally important.

“This is a long-term game,” said Sharon Soucek, Ph.D., head of the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT), which helped Resnick file his patent application. “These developments can take years to materialize.” They also can take a little bit of luck, as scientists can begin with one idea and discover something else entirely.

William Suk, Ph.D., director of SRP, referred to 2019 research from Brown University as an example. Scientists received funding from his program to study how nanomaterials such as graphene can protect humans from exposure to hazardous chemicals. Along the way, they found that the substance can be used as a shield to block mosquitoes.

The happenstance involved in such projects is not lost on Soucek. “We have mechanisms in place so that scientists can collaborate and develop technologies — any of their ‘Aha’ moments,” she said. Some of those mechanisms involve confidentiality or material transfer agreements for sharing items such as genetically altered mouse strains, which are a form of intellectual property.

Soucek pointed out that one of her noteworthy 2019 tasks involved the institute’s agreement to assist in the Apple Women’s Health Study. “OTT serves as a liaison between researchers here and outside parties in academia and industry,” she said.

Entrepreneurial mindset

Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D. In addition to overseeing the small business programs, Shaughnessy works on projects related to mutagenesis and environmental exposure research. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

“NIH [National Institutes of Health] supports commercialization of research discoveries through technical assistance programs and efforts to help developers find strategic partners and other investors,” said Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D., a health scientist administrator in the Division of Extramural Research and Training. He works with Lingamanaidu Ravichandran, Ph.D., to manage the SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.

“One problem is that academic researchers often don’t have a business and commercialization background,” noted Shaughnessy. “So, these programs can help educate them or give them access to business assistance so they can know their market, protect their intellectual property, and understand some of the challenges they may face in scaling up the manufacture of a product or technology.”

(Jesse Saffron, J.D., is a technical writer-editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


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