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It's electric

Updated: July 19, 2013 - 8:18 am

Posted: July 12, 2013

In laymen's terms, what is bioelectrics and why should the business community be interested?

The simplest definition is it's the use of external electric fields to manipulate biological cells or systems. So we can essentially apply a field of a certain characteristic to activate a cell or we could tell a cell - like a cancer cell - that it should be dead. Or we could use different parameters to get molecules from the outside of the cell to the inside of the cell; we could deliver DNA, or drugs or protein. So we could do things for cancer therapy, stimulate blood vessel formation or stimulate an immune response. There are all sorts of things that can be done with that.

We also have ways of doing things for the environment.

So, we could take contaminants out of the air, take contaminants out of exhaust, decontaminate surfaces - in other words, kill bacteria or other microorganisms. So with respect to business, when you start thinking about all of these applications, all of them have direct impacts on business. This can be for potential products, commercialization. It can range from instrumentation to therapeutics to environmental applications. All of those can be done with new companies and existing companies, and we can work with them in a variety of ways.

The indirect implications are the advances in health care. So we could have workers miss less time from work, make them healthier. So that would be an advantage for businesses as well.

So where is the field?

It's maturing right now. It has really started to take off in the last two to three years. There are a lot of clinical trials that are going on right now. We're part of an international consortium of 11 bioelectric centers. Three institutions founded it - one from Japan, one from Germany and then us - and we're still considered the coordinating center, the lead center in this consortium. In 2005 when all this started happening, meetings had maybe 15, 20 people. Last year, at our meeting in Japan, we had 200 people attend it. And it wasn't just consortium members, so the word is getting out that there's a lot that can be done.

The applications, as they're growing, are attracting more people into the field. And I think to some extent, people are starting to use the technologies and aren't necessarily considering themselves in bioelectrics.

How would you all rank yourselves in the field nationally, even internationally?

You want my biased opinion or my unbiased opinion? I think we're still the best; we're the top. There are others that are trying to catch up to us. But the one thing that really sets us apart - and I think the current expansion [of researchers] has enhanced that further - is that we're very diverse.

So we have engineers, physicists and biologists all together, and they're very strong individuals. In their own right, they would be very highly ranked in their fields and we have them here in our center. The other centers could be strong in engineering, strong on the biological side. But nobody has it on both other than us.

And I think the evidence of that is the other centers still send their students and post-doctoral researchers to us for months at a time to get trained and to find out what we're doing here. We still have our doors open, but it gets tougher and tougher to do that as it gets more and more competitive. Our purpose is to educate and train people in this area. I think that's the evidence, and there's no doubt, at least in bioelectrics, that we are looked at as the leaders.

Our patent position also makes us the leaders. We have a very strong patent position, so if anybody wants to get into this field, they'd pretty much have to go through us.

How did you get to this position?

That's a tough question to answer because I think there's a lot of different story lines and timelines on that.

But I think it goes back to [Eminent Scholar Emeritus] Karl Schoenbach and [Professor] Stephen Beebe talking about doing ultra-short pulses. I think that happened in the early 2000s.

Then Karl, at ODU, started talking to some people about setting up a center. But at that time, it was just really focused on that small part of the bioelectric field, which is the use of nanosecond pulses. Then Karl recruited a few people, and in 2008 I came and brought what I had been working on, which was the gene transfer. So that brought the microsecond, millisecond pulses into the center. Then we started expanding our plasma science and brought people in for that.

So we didn't just expand in a focused area, we broadened it, and that's why we're the most comprehensive center.

Now why was that done? That's a whole different question. I think the pioneers in this field - whether it's Karl or me or whoever they may be, not just at ODU - are people who are strong-willed, strong-headed, who believed that something could be done.

I think at the very beginning - 10, 15 years ago - we all were told that we were crazy. That you can't take electric fields and do that to cells and you certainly can't apply them to people because there's no way it could be done safely. But what it took was for those of us to continue to say, "Really?" When somebody throws out a challenge and then you say, "I'll show you." And it's a risk, because you gamble on your career basically. Then all the people around the world who have gone through the same types of things said, "We're going to do it," and I think that's how the field has grown.

We can do so much, and I think we've only scratched the surface for what the power of the [electric] fields is. And the entrepreneurs are starting to notice. We're getting a lot of inquiries and a lot of different proposals for how to bring this to market and how to commercialize all of this.

What are some of the potential applications?

I think it's whatever you can imagine. As far as a gene-based approach, anything we've tried we've gotten to work. If you can identify the protein that you need to correct a situation or disease, we can come up with a way to deliver that in an appropriate way. When it comes to manipulating cells directly, we are finding different ways.

For example, if you have cells or tissues - the obvious one is cancer but there are other areas where you have growths that aren't supposed to be there - you can ablate, or destroy that cell or tissue with the nanosecond pulses.

We're working on ways now with picosecond where we could actually do it without invasively going into the body. We could actually project them into the deeper tissue without having to put needles into the tissue.

So the question ends up now with commercialization, which we have people inquiring about. Whether they take the global concept and they control all the applications or we work with them on specific applications and build them the instrumentation. That's what we're trying to haggle through right now. Whether it's trying to go with a huge partner and have them develop everything or go with multiple partners. I mean, there will be multiple partners anyway, like environmental won't interact with the medical and the gene therapy will be different from nanosecond ablation. But in the global sense in each one of those areas, what we're trying to work out is how do we proceed.

Are you leaning toward one way or the other?

I can't say because we're in negotiations right now and I don't want to give away our strategies. I can tell you that it depends on the independent deal. Obviously, if we're going to give everything, we're going to expect a lot more.

I think, for a university, it becomes harder to go application by application by application because we have to find so many partners and we have to do it over and over again each time. So in that sense, it would be easier to go with one big partner - provided they have the means to develop it all.

On the downside of that, you're putting all your eggs in one basket and if they fail, you're back to square one. So we're cautious on that line. Right now, we're dealing with both. We have partners and additional potential partners for specific applications. We're also talking with a couple of companies about bringing everything into one area, and that's a hard thing. We're just starting discussions on that.

Are you drawing any lessons from anywhere or are you learning on your own?

We're trying to. I think our new technology transfer person, Brent Edington, is very good at this. He's done this a lot. He's done his own startups. He's done these types of deals - small and big. So I think he is a really good resource for us at the university level. But I think every university goes through this; everybody's looking for the Gatorade that's going to bring them millions upon millions of dollars. And really, for the most part, this stuff all fails. Trying to get something to product and making a lot of money is not the easiest thing.

I think what we have going for us is our diversity. We have so much that all we need is one to work for us to really get back our investment. I think we have several areas that have the potential to be big. That kind of helps us take more of a risk than we normally would and be willing to do our own investments in the technology and not just take any deal.

Explain the benefits of a university partnering with a company for any endeavor.

For companies to set up their own [research and development arm] is very expensive. So you'd have to first off get the people. Then you'd need the resources and the right environment and equipment. So it's easier, especially for younger companies, to come to a university and say, "Hey, I'm interested in pursuing this area. I think you guys have the right expertise," and then just contract with us for us to do the research work for them. On the flip side, if we have something that we don't have the ability to develop into a product, a company could come along and say, "OK, I can take that and move that," and then we could help them with the research side of that development and help educate their marketing force or things of that nature. Or even their employees - they could take courses here and learn.

And as far as the money goes?

That's always the tough question because we're supposed to be purist academics, you know, no conflicts and not trying to hype products and so forth - which is not necessarily true. The reality of the society we live in is if you want something that's going to push forward and help people, then it's got to be done in a commercial setting.

For a university, if we come up with a discovery and get a partner, the partner develops it and basically gets a license from us. So the university will get a licensing fee and royalties back.

I think there's a lot of potential for what we have to be, not the mega-hit like a Gatorade, but somewhere in between that and bring back millions to the university. That could turn around and help drive more research and discovery here, could help offset all the costs we incur through the patents and all the costs we incur for things that don't work. It could also set up more endowments to bring in more people like Dr. John Catravas and Dr. Michael Kong.

It benefits us on so many different levels, including prestige and recognition. These types of things come out of the research, where our papers come out, go into good journals and people see the name Old Dominion University. You start to make some of these business deals, or products come out or cancer treatment - something happens and it was discovered and developed here, people say, "Wow, ODU, they have some really good stuff going on.' It's just this spiraling up.

Other areas of the university get to grow as well. It helps with recruitment of faculty, recruitment of students, recruitment of post-docs - it just builds it up. And with donors and legislators, they want to know, "OK, why should we invest in this university?" They always ask, "What's unique?" Well, I don't think you can get more unique than this center.nib

The Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics at Old Dominion University almost certainly has greater international recognition than the school itself, center director Richard Heller said. That's because it is one of the pioneers in bioelectrics - the interaction between electric fields and living cells - and continues to be a leader in the maturing field.

Founded in 2002, the center employs about 50 people and has annual expenditures of about $4 million. Heller, who worked at the University of South Florida before becoming director here in 2008, spoke about bioelectrics, its applications and the center's interactions with the business world - which have been heating up lately.