By Megan Hart
Kansas’ universities unveiled research initiatives that could change how vehicles gas up and diabetes is treated, hopefully while growing the economy at the same time.
Joe Monaco, associate director of strategic communications for The University of Kansas, said the role of research universities is evolving, with more emphasis on economic development in addition to teaching, conducting research and providing services such as medical care.
KU recently added the number of startups created and innovations brought to market to its list of metrics the Board of Regents uses to judge how well it is performing, Monaco said, and thus far 24 companies have been started with the university and private partners.
University research also has had an economic impact when companies license the right to use KU’s innovations in their work, Monaco said. KU has 159 license agreements, which brought in about $12 million in fiscal year 2013, he said.
“KU has made innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development one of our top priorities,” he said.
One of the most recent KU-related start-ups, Likarda, opened in July. Karthik Ramachandran and his Ph.D. mentor Lisa Stehno-Bittel developed a method of growing cells to create miniature organs that contain the different types of cells found in animal tissues. Pharmaceutical companies already have made grants for the research because of its potential for testing drugs, Ramachandran said, and the organs could treat or cure diseases in both humans and animals.
“It won’t look like a miniature pancreas, but it functions like an organ,” he said.
Likarda is focused on treating diabetes in cats and dogs by growing miniature pancreatic islets, which produce insulin. The process involves taking healthy cells from a deceased donor animal, Ramachandran said, creating the miniature islets they have dubbed “Kanslets” and injecting them into the recipient animal. They also are developing a gel that will coat the Kanslets, protecting the donated cells from the recipient’s immune system without the serious side effects associated with immune-suppressing drugs.
Most animals will be able to go at least one year without insulin injections after an islet transplant, Ramachandran said. Likarda is working with veterinarians in the Kansas City area to set up an animal organ donation network to facilitate transplants, he said.
“Some animals could thrive on it and never need another treatment, but some may need to come in for a booster,” he said.
The idea began with research at KU, Ramachandran said, and the university’s Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation and Bioscience and Technology Business Center helped to develop a business plan and find a team to support a startup. He and Stehno-Bittel used their own funds to launch Likarda, and it became self-supporting and hired three new employees this year, he said.
“I think the most exciting thing is getting to start from scratch,” he said.
Research at Kansas State University this year also has shown potential for an economic impact, including turning agricultural waste and less-valued crops into replacements for petroleum and even cement.
Praveen Vadlani, associate professor of renewable energy at K-State, is one of a group of researchers around the country working on a $6.5-million project to create the next generation of biofuels. The goal is to create biofuels that are close enough to traditional petroleum-based fuels to substitute for them completely, unlike corn ethanol, which most vehicles can only use when blended with gasoline.
The research is in its early stages, Vadlani said, but eventually sorghum and switchgrass could be used to create forms of diesel, gasoline, jet fuel and lubricants now made from petroleum.
Switchgrass is attractive because of its physical properties and usefulness in crop rotation, Vadlani said. Sorghum is grown for animal feed but isn’t widely eaten by people in the United States and needs less water than many other grains. Before fuels from those crops can make it to market, however, researchers have to consider economic and environmental factors, as well as how to make the process as efficient as possible, he said.
“It suits well for the western Kansas agriculture, and it’s not competing with the regular food market,” he said. “It’s very promising.”
Biofuels are just one important area of agricultural research, said John Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture at K-State. As the world’s population grows, farmers will need to produce more food for humans, animal feed and fiber for clothing, though inputs like land and water are finite. That means they have to produce as efficiently as possible and societies need to minimize waste, he said.
Some K-State projects include improving the system related to wheat, from genetics in the field to the most efficient baking methods; reducing food loss in the developing world, where as much as 40 percent of a crop may be lost before it reaches consumers; coming up with ways to irrigate more efficiently; and developing strains of sorghum that use less water, particularly for use in Africa, where people grind it into flour, Floros said.
“Our goal is to make the global food system as efficient, as effective as we can,” he said.
Since agriculture is such a large part of the Kansas economy, research on the global food system also will have local benefits, both through improving practices and encouraging young farmers to stay in state, Floros said.
“I think we’re the college that’s best prepared to help the state with its economy,” he said.