September 2, 2014

Miracles and Wonders

Mark R. Howard | 7/1/2004
In high school, I had a math teacher who enjoyed playing the curmudgeon. Part of his shtick involved solemnly proclaiming the superiority of geometry, which he taught, while pretending to treat other sciences as glorified magic tricks. Chemistry, for example, he dismissed archly as "witchcraft.'' In reality, of course, he had great respect for other disciplines and used his act effectively to encourage both his students and fellow teachers to have as much passion for their favorite subjects as he did for his.

I thought of him in May at the first annual Florida Tech Transfer conference. The conference brought together university and private sector researchers, entrepreneurs, intellectual property experts and business and government leaders interested in developing and marketing new technologies. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will point out that the magazine helped sponsor the conference, along with the Florida Research Consortium, the Florida High Tech Corridor, the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and a number of law firms.)

It was an impressive group. I sat in on a presentation by Dr. Ian Phillips, an internationally known researcher who's vice president of research at the University of South Florida. Phillips is the kind of scientist who gives scientists a good name: He's accessible enough for a general audience but sophisticated enough for scientists. His description of his team's research into the use of genes to repair heart tissue was as lucid as the research is wondrous.

Phillips' lab has created a "vigilant" gene that can be injected into the body. The gene then hangs around the heart, dormant. It switches "on" only when it detects too little oxygen going to some part of the heart (i.e., in the case of a heart attack).

At that point, it summons stem cells from the body's own bone marrow to begin repairing the heart tissue. It also makes those stem cells, which usually die quickly, last longer. And, thanks to a "homing factor," the gene only works on the heart muscle.

Phillips showed slides that illustrated the effectiveness of the vigilant genes in the hearts of mice. Human applications are probably decades away, but the technology will probably find a market within several years in other research.

Scientific advances are in the daily news enough that it's easy to lose a sense of wonder at how astounding research like this is. The fact that we can isolate genes is amazing enough; being able to put on-off switches and longevity factors in them borders on magical. Witchcraft, indeed.

Other research presented at the conference ranged from new techniques to manage and diagnose cancer (Moffitt Cancer Center, FIT), to sensors with homeland security applications (USF) to "brain mapping" technology (UF). One presentation (FAU) dealt with "antimicrobial nanoparticles" that can prevent infections in wounds and then be removed magnetically; another (FSU) involved the use of "super-smeller" mice genetically altered to increase their ability to detect odors, including those from hidden explosives.

I'm writing about this for two reasons. One, to point out that for all the short shrift the Florida Legislature continues to give the state's universities financially, they are producing a great deal of top-shelf research.

The full impact of the state's collective effort doesn't really come across, I think, until you see a lot of it together in one place. Just a few hours spent at the conference was to forever lose the sense that research in Florida stops at Taxol and Gatorade.

This is something for lawmakers to keep in mind if Gov. Jeb Bush pushes, as he should, to expand the $30-million "centers of excellence" program that provided three grants to promote promising research projects.

Second, for all the science on parade at the conference, politics was never too far from the surface.

In particular, there's still an undercurrent of quiet resentment in some circles over the state spending $300 million to help create a Florida branch of the Scripps Research Institute. Some in academia suggest not so subtly that they could accomplish a lot more, research-wise, with $300 million than Scripps will.

This surfaced both in casual conversations at the conference and also when a questioner at a luncheon presentation by a Scripps representative asked pointedly whether Scripps had plans to "give back to the community."

A few sour grapes are understandable given legislative funding that lags enrollment by about three years and the small potatoes the state has committed to research compared to states like California, Georgia and Michigan.

But the wisdom of the Scripps deal is becoming increasingly clear. The fact is that the state -- even if it were politically possible -- could drop massive sums of cash on a single university of its choosing and in 20 years not get the leverage it will get from Scripps in five. Among the many things that Bush understands well is leverage.

Scripps is also demonstrating its entrepreneurial culture -- which many universities are still learning -- both in the way it's gone about raising money and in how it's building bridges to other research institutions. In late May, it announced an academic partnership with FSU's magnet lab.

Whatever competitive challenges Scripps may pose to some, its culture, visibility and heft will end up raising the bar for all -- and along the way draw a lot more of the world's attention to what all of Florida institutions are doing.

It's a good time for the state's research efforts to focus on what they can accomplish together. The tech world is heating up again -- Andreas Stavropoulos, a managing director from a major Silicon Valley investment firm who spoke at the conference, says valuations for firms with marketable technologies are soaring again. "Euphoria is back," he says.

And Florida has enough going on to, in time, make plenty of magic.

Tags: Editor's column

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