Principles of Biomedical Science Students Make a Pitch

Students in Endeavor High School’s Principles of Biomedical Science Class presented proposals to Dr. Doug Stafford, Director of the Milwaukee Institute of Drug Discovery, on Tuesday.  Students were tasked with designing a device or developing a therapy for the monitoring or treatment of diabetes and presenting to a “mock panel” to seek funding to further their research and development.

Group one was composed of Izzy Beltz, Elizabeth Kuckkan, Maya Roberts, and Isabelle Wangerin.  They proposed the Diabetic Leader Meter, which is a bracelet that emits radio waves to indirectly measure glucose levels in the blood, in vivo, by bouncing the waves off of sodium ions present in sodium-glucose linked transporters (SGLTs)  in order to qualitatively estimate the glucose levels.  They used a 3-D printer to design a prototype bracelet that would eventually include radio emitters and a display screen to communicate readings with the patient.

Although they admit that their proposed method of utilizing radio waves is not accurate enough to prescribe insulin doses, it would give an instantaneous reading that is accurate enough to suggest dietary or exercise changes that can be applied immediately to help to correct glucose spikes or drops in order to reduce the need for insulin injections.  The bracelet would sound an alarm and make suggestions as to what to eat or drink in order to balance glucose levels without having to take another insulin shot.  The food and exercise suggestions are calibrated and customized with the help of the family doctor in order to account for the patient’s unique body metabolism, as well as food and exercise preferences in order to make it a solution tailored to the specific needs of the patient.  This treatment would require a detailed initial setup and subsequent bi-annual monitoring in the doctor’s office.

Dr. Stafford remarked that scientists have been chasing the dream of glucose testing without a finger prick for decades and, if successful, this would be an amazingly significant product.  “The test strips alone are a multibillion dollar industry and this would save insurance companies billions of dollars annually.”  He acknowledged the need for normalizing the sodium levels and properly calibrating for the individual as significant hurdles, but was impressed with the groups idea of indirect measurement using a decades old technology to measure sodium using radio waves in order to estimate the glucose levels.

“Their approach was innovative.  It isn’t accurate enough for determining insulin injections, but if successful, the impact on patient education would be significant.”
– Dr. Doug Stafford

Group two was made up of Meghan Percefield, Ransom Collupy, Emily Mitchell, Becca Leinstock, and Bella Braatz.  They proposed a genetic therapy, Galectin Protein Protector (GPP), that aims to apply lessons learned from the treatment of brain tumors to protect beta cells in the pancreas in an attempt to design a therapy to treat type 1 diabetes.  Through research, they discovered that galectin-1 that forms around some brain tumors effectively hide it from the body’s immune system, thus allowing it to grow uninhibited.  In type-1 diabetes the body’s own immune system attacks the beta cells found in the pancreas.   The main function of beta cells is to produce and secrete insulin, which is the hormone responsible for regulating glucose levels in the blood, thus when destroyed by the immune system, the body’s ability to regulate glucose levels is compromised.  Through targeted genetic therapy, they believe that it is possible to isolate the gene that produces galectin-1, introduce it early in the life of a patient with type-1 diabetes by delivering it directly into the pancreatic cells before the beta cells are destroyed, and thus potentially inhibit the body’s attack on those cells by cloaking them in a manner similar to the brain tumor.

Dr. Stafford was impressed with the connection that the group made between the cloaking nature of galectin-1 on brain cells and its potential application to protecting the pancreatic beta cells.  “Galectin-1 has been used in other immune-suppression therapies quite successfully, and theoretically this has promise.  That is quite clever.”  The greatest hurdle identified by the group and reiterated by Dr. Stafford is making sure that the introduction of galectin-1 into the pancreas would not travel in the body and cause unintended consequences, such as, hiding cancerous cells that also can be hidden by galectin-1, or even suppressing the immune system and thus making the patient susceptible to any number of other infections.  However, he also felt that due to the very specific function of the pancreas, it was certainly possible that research could lead to solutions to these problems.

Dr. Stafford spent the hour listening to presentations, giving feedback, and making suggestions to the groups on how they might proceed in a real-world situation.  He was particularly impressed with the students’ ability to look at research from different fields and a variety of therapies and apply them to develop a unique diabetic solution.  “That’s exactly how science works and the successful labs are the ones who have people that can think across disciplines just like that.”

With over 20 years of experience, Dr. Stafford has been in biomedical product companies with senior management responsibilities in research and development, manufacturing operations, regulatory and clinical affairs, organizational development, patent licensing, and finance.  He is the inventor on over a dozen biomedical patents, and has formed numerous public and private research collaborations.

Dr. Stafford is the Director for the Milwaukee Institute of Drug Discovery and the Director of the Southeast Wisconsin Applied Chemistry Center-of-Excellence state of the art laboratory that was created to enhance relationships between the UW System and Wisconsin businesses. Part of their focus is on rethinking science education to focus more on the process than the content. This philosophy is consistent with Endeavor’s philosophy and the direction that universities in general are heading.

As Endeavor was looking for potential partners and collaborators to enhance our students¹ learning and experience, we partnered with Dr. Stafford to write some grants and his interest in our efforts expanded.  He has graciously offered to present various seminars for our students related to his fields of expertise, and the potential for our students to participate in a variety of projects and experiences through UW-Milwaukee and/or the SE Wisconsin Applied Chemistry Labs are being explored.