10 Life-Changing Ideas
Colorado State University biologists June Medford and A.S.N. Reddy have been awarded a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant to examine the possibility of genetically engineering plants to rapidly lose their green color in response to biological or chemical weapons. Photo by CSU Photography, Communications & Creative Services
Research under way at Colorado's research universities might unlock a cure for cancer, make natural gas production safer, better predict the movement of devastating wildfires and otherwise improve the lives of people worldwide.
These are 10 life-changing ideas being investigated at the schools.
1 Fat Gene: : Researchers have discovered that deleting a specific gene in mice prevents them from becoming obese even on a high fat diet, a finding they believe may be replicated in humans. "When fed a diet that induces obesity these mice don't get fat," said Prof. James McManaman, lead author of the study and vice-chairman of research for Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "It may be possible to duplicate this in humans using existing technology that targets this specific gene." In the two-year study, the research team created a strain of mice without the Plin2 gene, which produces a protein that regulates fat storage and metabolism. Usually, mice fed a high fat diet will eat voraciously, yet these showed an unusual restraint. Not only did they eat less, they were more active.
2 Plant Detectives: : Colorado State University biologist June Medford and her team have dug deep into the natural world and have come up with a way for plants to detect environmental pollutants and explosives. Using a computer-designed detection trait, the researchers can rewire a plant's natural signaling process so it turns from green to white when certain chemicals are detected in air and soil. That key step is part of a long process that could be used in a wide range of applications — from airport security to monitoring pollutants such as radon in a home. Medford said, "We've 'taught' plants how … to tell us there is something nasty around."
3 Stopping Viruses Cold: : Billions of people worldwide are at risk for getting mosquito-borne diseases from yellow fever to West Nile virus, and few treatments are available. Susan Keenan, UNC biological sciences professor, and her team are investigating and developing compounds to prevent the growth of such diseases, including one that prevents viruses from reproducing. The team's long-term goal is to develop its compounds into virus-preventing drugs.
4 Diet Soda or Water: : Many dieters choose zero-calorie drinks over the recommended water during their efforts to lose weight. CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center Executive Director James O. Hill is trying to determine if zero cal drinks offer the same benefits as water for weight loss. He is principal investigator on a study, half of which will be conducted at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center and half at Temple University in Philadelphia. "There have been a lot of studies showing that non-caloric soft drinks are a better choice during weight loss than caloric drinks, but there's never been a study comparing zero-calorie beverages with water," said John C. Peters, chief strategy officer at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. "This will be the first one."
5 It's a Gas: : University of Colorado Boulder mechanical engineering professors Scott Bunch and John Pellegrino lead a team experimenting with the use of graphene membranes, one of the world's thinnest and strongest materials, to separate molecules through sieving. That process is a "significant step," according to CU, toward more energy-efficient gas production and reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plant exhaust pipes.
6 Joint Venture: : A new, longer-lasting joint implant material, developed at CSU over the past 17 years, was implanted in the knee of an English patient in 2012 and is being sold in Europe. The material was created by Susan James, head of CSU's mechanical engineering department, and BioPoly LLC of Fort Wayne, Ind. It allows people to have joints repaired at a younger age and alleviates their pain faster. The new material is made from hyaluronic acid and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene. It is now being evaluated for approval and use in the U.S.
7 Reducing Rarity of Rare Earth Metals: : Colorado School of Mines has joined several institutions and industry partners to address critical shortages of rare earth metals. Such metals are widely used in technology and defense industries, among others. This year the group received a $120 million federal grant to address four problems related to the metals: creating substitutes, diversifying existing supply sources at risk of disruption, improving reuse and recycling, and strengthening energy security.
8 Cancer-Fighting Fruit Flies: : CU-Boulder, along with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, CSU and SuviCa Inc. of Boulder, is finding compounds that may lead to development of cancer-fighting therapies. Professor Tin Tin Su of CU-Boulder and co-founder of SuviCa, uses a genetically modified fruit fly model to screen for such compounds. The compounds may be used alone or with existing therapies.
9 Wildfires On The Move: : As geographic areas grow drier with climate change and the threat of wildfires increases, the University of Colorado Denver is investigating how to better predict the fires' movement. Jan Mandel, chief of the university's mathematics & statistical sciences department, heads a group working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to use real-time data to analyze and track fires. Such improved tracking could give residents in a fire's path more time to get out of harm's way and guide firefighters more quickly to contain and put out fires.
10 Stabilizing Vaccines: : Researchers have developed a new technology that produces stable vaccines, which can withstand long temperature variations and thereby save millions of lives. In effect, the thermostabilization technology developed by CU Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences faculty member John Carpenter in collaboration with CU-Boulder faculty Ted Randolph and Amber Clausi could potentially revolutionize the vaccine industry. Most vaccines require refrigeration, which adds considerable cost to the production and storage of current conventional vaccines. Long-term stability is a significant problem in vaccines for use in emergency situations and especially for vaccines used in the developing world. The savings realized from the elimination of cold chain costs and related product losses would significantly increase the profitability of vaccine products and save millions of lives.