Sometimes the key to solving a complex health problem can be found in something as small as a notecard.
That's what Abigail Weaver has been proving through the design of a paper-based analytical tool that combines color-producing chemical reactions with paper to make an inexpensive, portable test for pharmaceuticals. These test cards are able to generate a "color bar code" that can quickly determine whether a sample is an authentic pharmaceutical or counterfeit. Testing takes only six minutes, requires no lab equipment, and to date her group has produced color bar codes for 40 different pharmaceutical ingredients.
"Poor quality drugs tend to make their way into countries in turmoil, or in settings with loose regulations or limited resources, where challenges can include unreliable access to power and lack of trained personnel," explained Weaver, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. "We feel that there are ways to bring chemical analysis out of the lab to meet real world problems where they exist."
Weaver is one of six emerging scientists that Baxter recently recognized as recipients of the Baxter Young Investigator Award, created to stimulate and reward research applicable to the development of therapies and medical products that save and sustain patients' lives. The awardees, who each receive a $2,000 cash prize, were invited to Baxter's Round Lake, Ill., campus to present their research to Baxter scientists and executives and to be recognized at the awards ceremony.
"Ms. Weaver's application was impressive on a number of levels," shared Dennis Jenke, one of Baxter's Distinguished Scientists, who has a background in the field of plastic/solution compatibility. "She was able to simplify the complex, develop applicable technologies that support an appropriate level of medical care throughout the global community, and use those technologies during her extensive field testing in Kenya. This accomplishment embodies Baxter's own priorities and commitment to expanding access to care."
To select the award winners, Baxter evaluates candidates based on several criteria, including the quality of the research itself, whether the individual has published his or her work in a reputable journal as a first named author, has scientific media coverage commending the work, or has made significant strides in going beyond the confines of prior work of their research group by novel collaborations or introductions of new perspectives.
"With this award, we're looking for knock-your-socks-off innovation that has the potential to impact clinical therapeutics," said Barrett Rabinow, one of Baxter's Distinguished Scientists, who has a background in drug delivery, pharmaceutical modeling and nanotechnology, and spoke at the awards ceremony. "It provides an avenue to identify, meet, reward, and potentially recruit the outstanding talent responsible for this research. And it provides an enriching educational opportunity for our own scientific community."
Other winners presented on a diverse array of projects. Joo Kang, Ph.D., Harvard University, presented on an extracorporeal blood-cleansing biospleen for sepsis therapy; Shudipto Dishari, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, focused her research on understanding virus retention behavior of virus filtration membranes and Erkin Kuru, Indiana University, was recognized for research into applying designer molecules to bacterial surfaces that enable them to become florescent and more easily observed. Hang Ren, University of Michigan, presented on an electrochemical nitric oxide release system that improves hemocompatibility and reduces bacterial biofilm formation on biomedical devices, addressing the issue of catheter-related bloodstream infections that can result in as many as 28,000 deaths and increased healthcare costs of up to $2.3 billion per year. Pratik Randeria, Northwestern University, investigated how topically applied spherical nucleic acid (SNA)-gold nanoparticle conjugates can help increase wound healing in those with diabetes.
"This addresses a big problem—there are approximately 20 million people in the U.S. who have Type 2 diabetes, whose skin takes much longer to heal when wounded. In 2010, more than 70,000 amputations in the U.S. alone needed to be performed," said Randeria, a graduate student within Chad Mirkin's laboratory at Northwestern. "Our approach showed dramatically accelerated wound healing in mice, and in addition to possibly benefitting those with diabetes, we feel that SNAs have potential in a variety of different skin disorders."
Rabinow notes that Randeria's research is significant as it addresses a major medical need. "This is a novel, practical way for getting DNA-type therapies into the cell, potentially paving the way for an exciting era of a whole new class of promising drugs," he said.
In addition to the six first-tier winners, 11 young scientists were selected as second-tier winners and awarded $500 each (see full list here). Their research also pertained to instrumental and analytical sciences, life sciences, medical device engineering, or pharmaceutical sciences, with emphasis on the potential of the research to save and sustain lives. Through the recognition program, Baxter hopes to help these up-and-coming researchers advance their projects and careers and continue down a path of scientific discovery that can ultimately lead to addressing important healthcare needs.
"If we can identify, encourage and nurture promising young scientists early in their career, then we increase the likelihood that these high achievers will realize their full potential and produce outcomes that are truly significant for mankind and which improve the human condition," said Jenke. "It's my hope that one day, a Young Investigator will go on to a distinguished career in the sciences that culminates in becoming a Nobel Laureate."