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A Texas vitamin hub

Biotin, also known as vitamin H, is an essential nutrient not produced anywhere in the United States. Researchers at Stephen F. Austin University (SFA) hope to change that and have patented a production process that could help to produce biotin domestically.

Biotin, which is necessary for metabolizing fats and amino acids and for cell growth, plays a huge role in the U.S. food supply. Humans cannot naturally produce biotin, so they ingest it in foods such as liver, salmon, bananas and carrots as well as vitamin supplements. Biotin is also a major additive in animal feeds.

“Not having biotin affects our food chain from chickens on up,” says Bea Clack, associate professor of biotechnology at SFA. “It’s an essential nutrient with a limited supply.”

The SFA process involves a bacterium that produces the biotin, and U.S. production would tap into a more than $65 million global biotin market, with prices hovering around $10 a gram.

“It’s a major commodity,” says Clack. “The United States uses 50 to 80 metric tons of biotin annually.”

Former SFA students Alan Youngblood and Jennifer Edwards worked with Clack in developing the process. A patent was issued to Youngblood and Clack in 2008. The biotin process has attracted Archer Daniels Midland as a potential commercial partner for large-scale production that could start by late 2010.

For more information, contact Bea Clack, (936) 468-6908.


Support hose for the heart

An experimental device from Sunnyvale, California-based Paracor Medical Inc. aims to strengthen hearts damaged by congestive heart failure. The HeartNet is an elastic alloy mesh designed to help a damaged heart continue beating. Stretching the HeartNet around the pumping chambers of the heart takes about 90 minutes and is done under general anesthesia while the heart is beating.

When the HeartNet is “released,” it tries to constrict back to its original size, which creates a gentle “squeeze” around the heart. Recovery time in the hospital typically lasts five to six days.

Congestive heart failure occurs when the left ventricle – the heart’s main pumping chamber – can no longer pump enough blood to deliver adequate oxygen throughout the body. As the heart continues to enlarge, it gets weaker. The mesh gently hugs the heart, compressing it to help it pump more efficiently.

Many of the 51 patients who have received the HeartNet device showed substantial improvement in heart structure and function within one to three months, with some eventually returning to work.

For more information, visit Paracor Medical Inc.


“Fracture Putty” for battlefield wounds

Among the most common combat injuries are badly broken legs. Often seen in the aftermath of roadside bombings, such wounds are repaired with pins, bone grafts and months of physical therapy.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) seeks a better way to treat these traumatic injuries, and a Texas-based biomedical engineering team has taken up the challenge. DARPA seeks a material that, when packed around a fracture, would function as load-bearing bone and eventually, as the patient’s natural bone regenerates, degrade into harmless byproducts that can be absorbed by the body.

The Texas team includes researchers from Rice University, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the Methodist Hospital and Texas A&M University.

“This research could revolutionize the treatment of bone fractures both in civilian clinics and on the battlefield,” says Rice University’s Dr. Antonios Mikos, a principal investigator for the project.

For more information, contact Dr. Antonios Mikos.


Water in a paper bottle

Each day, Americans throw out 60 million plastic bottles. About 86 percent end up in trash landfills. Ohio-based international design firm Brandimage – Desgrippes & Laga has created the “360 Paper Water Bottle,” which is 100 percent recyclable.

Made from food-safe and fully recyclable materials, the 360 Bottle is produced using less energy than its plastic counterparts, without losing the ability to hold your drink. Its paper packaging stands up to a broad range of liquids.

Brandimage named the container “360” to reflect its holistic design, says Brandimage Managing Director Jim Warner, who designed the bottle in the company’s New York office.

“Instead of just styling polymer in a slightly different way, we wanted to travel 360 degrees and restart the thinking and shift the paradigm of containing water from beginning to end,” he says.

The product is still in its early concept stage.

For more information, contact Jim Warner, or visit Brandimage – Desgrippes & Laga.


Rain-tolerant grain

Flood-tolerant rice could help feed millions worldwide. Pamela Ronald and a group of researchers at the University of California - Davis used precision breeding, a combination of genetic engineering and conventional genetic modification, to introduce a specific gene to traditional rice.

The challenge was “to identify the gene that conferred the trait and then to introduce it precisely into locally adapted varieties,” says Ronald.

About half the world's population relies on a rice-centered diet. If rice crops suffer, it can mean starvation for millions. Rice fields are flooded, usually to kill weeds. The rice plants themselves, however, do not like to be submerged for long periods. Conventional rice dies after three days of complete flooding.

The rice is now being grown by farmers in Bangladesh and India, where 4 million tons of rice are lost each year to flooding – enough rice to feed 30 million people. It could be used in the United States, but it has not been tested yet, Ronald says.

For more information, contact Pamela Ronald, or visit the UC Davis website.

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