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Park, Lopes, and Kulkarni Receive Manning/IALS Innovation Awards

Park, Lopes, and Kulkarni
Park, Lopes, and Kulkarni

Chul Park and Mariana Lopes of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Ashish Kulkarni of the Chemical Engineering Department were three of the six UMass Amherst researchers who recently received Manning/IALS Innovation Awards of up to $100,000.

These translational grants from the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) are designed to advance applied research and development efforts from UMass-based faculty research groups in the sciences and engineering through the development of spin-out or startup companies and the out-licensing of UMass intellectual property.

Park is developing technology that enables aeration-free and energy efficient wastewater treatment. Lopes is researching germicidal optical fibers to prevent disease-causing biofilms in ​water, air, and medical devices. And Kulkarni is working on a novel supramolecular nano-therapeutic that can efficiently remove tumor cells.

“At UMass, we are dedicated to finding solutions to real-world problems that impact society and our planet,” says Sanjay Raman, dean of the College of Engineering. “The Manning/IALS Innovation Awards represent a vital investment in taking science and engineering discoveries from lab to market. We are incredibly proud of this year’s winners and are looking forward to seeing these exciting projects move forward on the path to commercialization.”

As Park says about the oxygenic photogranule (OPG) technology he is developing as his Manning project, “It has potential to fully transition wastewater treatment to a resource recovery system. OPGs are phototrophic microbial aggregations that facilitate aeration-free wastewater treatment, saving utilities up to 40 percent of energy budgets.”

Park explains that the highly digestible biomass in OPG technology can be gasified to generate more energy. Granular biomass enables effective solid/liquid separation and hence can make wastewater systems compact. The OPG process is also net autotrophic with potential to sequester atmospheric carbon.

“The UMass team aims to out-license the OPG technology for commercialization,” says Park. “To facilitate commercial licensing, this Manning/IALS project proposes to demonstrate substantial ‘de-risking’ of the technology, with evidence of a working industry scale pilot and differentiation of primary and secondary products. The proposed work will be carried out in liaison with commercial partners.”  

As Lopes explains about her Manning research project, “Optical Waters LLC (OWL) is a woman-owned startup, which aims to commercialize germicidal optical fiber (GOF) for the prevention of disease-causing biofilms [by distributing] ultra-violet radiation through tight channels.”

According to Lopes, pathogenic bacteria growth on surfaces creates health hazards and operational problems in water, air, and biomedical devices. In healthcare, for example, there are roughly two million hospital-associated infections annually, resulting in 99,000 deaths at a cost to hospitals of $28 billion to $45 billion per year.

Lopes says that chemical management of such infections works for a short duration (days), damages surfaces, and produces harmful by-products. By comparison, ultraviolet radiation is a chemical-free disinfection process, but it is nearly impossible to distribute UV light through the small channels prevalent in many devices.  

Lopes says one solution is the UV distribution method in OWL. As Lopes explains, “GOFs are ideal for use in medical equipment (endoscopes, catheters, and respirators), home devices (coffee makers and refrigerators), and water storage/distribution systems (pipes, bladders, membranes).”

According to Kulkarni, while describing his Manning research, “Immunotherapy is set to emerge as the future of cancer therapy," only about one of five patients currently achieves long-term benefit from immunotherapy because, as recent studies show, solid tumors are heavily infiltrated with tumor-associated macrophages, which create an immunosuppressive environment, contribute to tumor growth, and lead to metastatic spread.

To solve this problem, says Kulkarni, “We recently designed a novel colony stimulating factor 1 receptor (CSF-1R) inhibiting supramolecular nanotherapeutics that can re-educate tumor-associated macrophages to act aggressively against hard-to-treat tumors and additionally enhance their ability to eat the cancer cells efficiently.”

According to Kulkarni, “This is the first computationally designed macrophage-targeting agent that has shown a dramatic anti-cancer effect in murine models. Thus, it is poised as a best-in-class, single-agent, dual-action, macrophage immunotherapy.”  (December 2021)