A safer screening test to replace amniocentesis is being developed by researchers at Living Microsystems (www.livingmicrosystems.com). The company's first product detects rare fetal cells in a blood sample taken from pregnant women in the first trimester. The simple blood test detects Down syndrome and other genetic abnormalities and is less risky than amniocentesis, which carries a fetal death rate of 1%.
The technology was licensed from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We have a technology that could make a big difference in fetal and maternal well being," says Mike Grisham, president and CEO of Living Microsystems in Richmond.
When obesity expert Richard Atkinson, M.D., retired from the University of Wisconsin he moved back to his home state and founded Obetech (www.obetech.com) in Richmond.
Since the mid-1990s, he has investigated the link between a specific common cold virus, adenovirus-36 (Ad-36), and obesity. He's shown that 70% of mice and 100% of monkeys infected with Ad-36 become obese.
In cell cultures, Ad-36 makes more fat cells, and they accumulate fat faster. When Dr. Atkinson measures antibodies to Ad-36 in people, he finds that about 30% of obese people have antibodies to Ad-36, compared to 10% of non-obese people.
At Obetech, Dr. Atkinson patented an assay for Ad-36 antibodies. He believes that it is as important to know your Ad-36 status as your cholesterol levels. Normal weight people who test positive for Ad-36 can make lifestyle changes to prevent weight gain. Obese people who test positive can feel less guilty.
"If someone sneezes on you in an elevator, you can become fat," says Dr. Atkinson. The Ad-36 assay is available from Obetech, whose long-term goal is to develop a home test kit.
Luna Innovations (www. lunainnovations.com), headquartered in Blacksburg, created a new carbon material for nanotechnology called Trimetaspheres. Harry Dorn, Ph.D., a chemist at nearby Virginia Tech University, discovered Trimetaspheres, and Luna licensed the technology.
Trimetaspheres can contain up to 80 carbon atoms, which are stabilized by three metal atoms and a nitrogen core. Luna improved the technology and produces large quantities of Trimetaspheres that are stable in air and water-soluble.
"Our technology is a unique carbon material that's like a fullerine, but the three metal atoms inside give it highly unusual properties," says Robert Lenk, Ph.D., CEO of Luna NanoWorks, a new division located in Danville.
Luna NanoWorks renovated a 24,000-sq-ft tobacco warehouse into a manufacturing facility to produce Trimetaspheres. The nanomaterial is so new, that "we don't know all its potential applications," says Dr. Lenk.
The metal magnets inside the spheres make them ideal for medical-imaging applications. The first product being developed is a contrast agent for MRI, which is safer and gives better images than current agents. The metals used in MRI contrast agents must be encapsulated to prevent toxicity, yet some metals escape.
In contrast, the metals inside Trimetaspheres cannot escape, and they give 25-fold better image quality. Luna NanoWorks also will supply others with Trimetaspheres for research and industrial applications.