June 24, 2019

Interdisciplinary research pushes science in new directions

Work being funded by Purdue University's Discovery Park brings together scientists from diverse fields to address difficult problems

Bridget Tonnsen Bridget Tonnsen
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A completely new approach to discovering pharmaceutical biologics to fight infectious diseases, new therapies for autism, and exploring a newly discovered intermediate between classical and quantum computing are the latest interdisciplinary projects underway at Purdue University's Discovery Park.

These were the projects selected as winners in Discovery Park's 2019 Big Idea Challenge, a program that provides seed funding for interdisciplinary teams at Purdue pursuing bold solutions to address global challenges:

Fast-paced discovery of treatment for infectious diseases

Rainer Fischer, President’s Fellow in the Life Sciences at Purdue and
senior executive for innovation and discovery at the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute, is leading a team to create a new paradigm for discovering pharmaceutical biologics.

Biologics are natural or synthetically made biological materials such as antibodies, enzymes, growth factors, etc., which are used as therapies instead of the more traditional smaller molecules. Biologics are at the forefront of the modern pharmaceutical industry, accounting for more than 50 percent of revenue, with an annual value approaching $300 billion, Fischer says.

Biologics however, are expensive to identify and manufacture, with costs averaging $2 billion for each candidate, and a development time of 15-18 years. "The discovery of biologics is hampered by the use of old-fashioned methodologies," Fischer said.

Fischer and his team are working to reduce the time to market by 2-3 years by harnessing and combining life sciences and engineering tools such as advanced micro-fluidics and high throughput screening with technologies, including advanced algorithms, data mining, high-performance computing and machine learning.

"I always tell my students, 'Nature is the best engineer and has solutions for almost any scientific challenge,'" Fischer said. "We want to use samples from immune survivors and use these tools to identify and manufacture these protective molecules faster."

Bringing precision health to autism patients

Bridget Tonnsen, assistant professor of clinical psychology and director of the Neurodevelopmental Family Lab, has been working the past few years to identify early symptoms and behavioral- and biological-markers of autism, using a family-friendly telemedicine approach that allows the participants to monitor and report from their homes. The project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, utilizes the PANDAbox, an in-home parent-administered neurodevelopment assessment kit available from Purdue.

Autism emerges from a complex intersection of many factors, including genetics, exposures and environmental conditions, but to this point most of the published work on autism looks at risk factors independently, Tonnsen said.

"What makes our work unique is our emphasis on looking at how risk factors intersect within an individual. In other words – why does one child with a certain exposure develop autism features, whereas another child with the same exposure does not?"

The varied causes of autism and the multiple ways in which autism manifests itself in individuals has led to a saying in the field: "If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism." It is impossible, and unfair, to generalize — which highlights the need for personalized, precision medical approaches.

Tonnsen and Purdue researchers Anne Sereno, professor of biomedical engineering and psychological sciences, and Mandy Rispoli, professor of special education and co-director of the Purdue Autism Research Center, hope to develop a precision medicine approach to intervening in autism cases by developing the Purdue Omnityping Kit for Individualized Treatment, or POcKIT.

"I think tele-health is the future and we need to develop resources to allow that to happen," Tonnsen said. "The key is to ask, 'How can we package this so that families will do it.'"

Exploring a new alternative to classical and quantum computing

Joerg Appenzeller, Purdue's Barry M. and Patricia L. Epstein Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and scientific director of nanoelectronics in the Birck Nanotechnology Center, has put together a team of researchers to explore a new area that is creating excitement in computer engineering.

Probabilistic bits, commonly known as p-bits, are a new conceptual intermediate between standard computing bits and the q-bits used in quantum computing. Quantum computing is the new frontier of computing, offering the potential (and threat) of making obsolete much of our current cybersecurity and cryptography, but also the potential to help address many of the scientific challenges that exist today. But q-bits are famously difficult to produce, and quantum computers currently must operate at temperatures approaching absolute zero.

P-bits, as Purdue's Supriyo Datta has put it, are "like a poor man's q-bit." P-bits can operate at room temperature and hold the potential to allow researchers, such as Appenzellar's team, to create next-generation computers without requiring the level of complex engineering that quantum computing appears to require.

For the 2019 Big Idea Challenge, Discovery Park received 41 proposals from 280 faculty members at Purdue, representing 11 colleges and 57 departments. The proposals were required to align with the major areas of research: global sustainability, global health, digital/quantum/nanoelectronics, and global security and defense innovation.  Discovery Park’s inaugural 2017 Big Idea Challenge winning projects have produced to date a 10:1 return on investment from the program’s original investment  through grants from various federal and industrial organizations.

About Purdue University

Purdue University, a top public research institution, offers higher education at its highest proven value. Committed to affordability, the university has frozen tuition and most fees at 2012-13 levels. Purdue has about 40,000 students at its West Lafayette campus and is ranked 21st for public universities by U.S. News and World Report. With 25 alumni who became astronauts, including the first and last person on the moon, Purdue is called the “Cradle of Astronauts.” Committed to pursuing scientific discoveries and engineered solutions, Purdue has streamlined pathways for faculty and student innovators who have a vision for moving the world forward.

About Discovery Park 

Discovery Park is an open laboratory for interdisciplinary collaboration focused on global challenges. Our mission is to accelerate world-changing interdisciplinary research, enrich transformative education and advance the translation of innovation to commercialization activities of faculty, students and staff. 

About the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute

The Indiana Biosciences Research Institute (IBRI) is an independent, nonprofit discovery science and applied research institute currently targeting diabetes, metabolic disease, poor nutrition and related health data science. Inspired by the state and Indiana’s leading life sciences companies, research universities and philanthropic community, the IBRI is building a world-class organization of researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs to catalyze scientific discovery and its application, resulting in improved health outcomes for patients. For more information and donation or collaboration opportunities, please go to: www.indianabiosciences.org 

Writer: Steve Tally, 765-494-9809, steve@purdue.edu, @sciencewriter 

Sources: Cliff Wojtalewicz, assistant director, Discovery Park; 765-496-3961, cliffw@purdue.edu  

Mark Craft, executive director, Engagement, Communications and External Affairs, IBRI, 317-670-2270, mcraft@indianabiosciences.org  

Rainer Fischer, fische70@purdue.edu 

Bridgette Tonnsen, 765-494-6754, btonnsen@purdue.edu 

Joerg Appenzellar, 765-494-076, appenzeller@purdue.edu

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