Published: Thu May 3, 2012
When Jeff Thompson was analyzing biological samples in a Tennessee Tech chemistry lab as an undergraduate, he got tired of using unreliable materials that destroyed his samples and resulted in poor resolution for viewing proteins in, for example, a blood test.
So he decided to create better ones, with the support of a Diversity Fellowship from TTU’s research office and funding from the university’s Center for Manufacturing Research.
After five years of research, theory and testing, the U.S. government gave the Lafayette native and his team a patent for his work.
The material he developed, with the help of TTU chemical engineering professors and co-inventors Holly Stretz and Pedro Arce, is a hydrogel that suspends thousands of proteins in layers in a process using electricity called electrophoresis, so they can be analyzed under a microscope. The hydrogels Thompson had been using could only separate one protein from the mix of thousands in a sample, and frequently broke when moving them to a microscope, destroying more than a day’s work.
“I see a chemical engineer as someone who creates things that will benefit society as a whole,” said Thompson, who graduates with his doctorate in chemical engineering this May. “Anytime I can do that, I’m filling the role of a chemical engineer.”
Because the gel he and his team created is more robust and can separate the thousands of proteins in a biological sample at once, the substance could revolutionize medical labs and tests.
“This will revolutionize things; it will cut down on cost and time,” Stretz said.
But that revolution is anything but certain.
Taking an innovation from the lab into the commercial realm has always been challenging for researchers; the process to find investors and move a product into production is uncertain, at best.
“Products like this are really a very interesting innovation and commercializing them is cross-disciplinary. That is a culture we need to foster,” said Arce, who chairs TTU’s chemical engineering department. “Innovation is inefficient; you need 100 ideas and maybe you get one good one. This is a good one.”
But Thompson, who started his undergraduate education at Volunteer State Community College and was recruited to finish his bachelor’s degree and conduct research at TTU, isn’t giving up on his creation.
Nor is Arce, who says he hopes the team’s work could inspire others to help make the university a technology-based incubator, or innovation park, where researchers, students and entrepreneurs could come together to create and attract businesses to the region.
Thompson is waiting on another patent from the U.S. Patent Office that will protect his production method. He says he hopes to collaborate with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to make the hydrogel.
“This process is the first generation, it’s the seed. The next generation is early innovation and commercialization,” Stretz said. “We can’t do this in a vacuum.”