From retrieving precious metals to improving MRIs, four UB projects land new R&D funding

Two images of tiny green specks of organic matter on a black surface. The image on the right shows branch-like structures in the organic matter.

Exosomes are tiny, pouch-like vesicles that are secreted by cells and that could be used as tools for delivering drugs and treating disease. In this image series, UB researchers used a novel technology called the EXO-CODE platform to engineer exosomes (right) with the ability to form more capillary-like structures in endothelial cells than unmodified exosomes (left). The capillary-like structures promote development of new blood vessels, which is important for tissue regeneration. This is one example of how the EXO-CODE platform can be used to tailor exosomes for a wide variety of uses. Credit: Therapeutic Biomaterials Lab at the University at Buffalo

The projects will receive a total of $134,000 from UB’s Bruce Holm Memorial Catalyst Fund

Release Date: April 16, 2018

“The Holm Fund is an important component of UB’s commercialization efforts. To date, $680,000 has been invested in 15 technologies, with six licensed to UB startups and one to a Buffalo-based medical device company.”
Jeff Dunbar, director of Tech Transfer
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — High-tech scavengers that recover precious metals used in manufacturing.

A new technique for loading useful chemicals into organic pouches that can be released in the body to treat disease.

Safer contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

A better method for screening medicines for harmful effects on the heart.

The Bruce Holm Memorial Catalyst Fund at the University at Buffalo has awarded a total of $134,000 to four UB research teams to advance development of these technologies.

Established by an anonymous donor in 2011, the fund supports commercializing the inventions and discoveries of UB faculty and students. The new awards will enable university scientists to develop prototypes, conduct efficacy studies and complete other projects that demonstrate the market potential of their technologies — an important step toward attracting support from investors and corporate partners.

“Helping bring useful products to market faster and smarter — that’s the excitement of the Holm Fund,” says Venu Govindaraju, PhD, UB vice president for research and economic development. “These UB innovators are trying to solve important challenges in health care, advanced manufacturing and other industries. This fund supports their efforts in commercializing new technologies and benefits Western New York’s growing innovation economy.”

“The Holm Fund is an important component of UB’s commercialization efforts. To date, $680,000 has been invested in 15 technologies, with six licensed to UB startups and one to a Buffalo-based medical device company,” says Jeff Dunbar, director of UB’s Technology Transfer team.

The UB researchers receiving new funding are:

Steven T. Diver, PhD

Professor of Chemistry
UB College of Arts and Sciences


Diver has received $40,000 to develop a small library of materials that act as metal scavengers. These new materials are used to recover precious metals after they are used as catalysts in industrial processes.

The technology could improve the efficiency of pharmaceutical production, petroleum refining and other operations by enabling factories to retrieve and redeploy the catalysts used. Efficient metal recycling enhances the sustainability of catalysis and reduces production costs.

With the Holm award, Diver’s team is creating a silica gel cartridge that will capture metals by using a unique molecule synthesized in Diver’s lab: an isonitrile ligand that binds strongly to most transition metals. Preliminary testing has shown that this user-friendly scavenger technology can effectively recover catalysts containing metals such as ruthenium, palladium, nickel, iridium and rhodium.

The discovery and use of the isonitrile agents and their use as scavengers resulted from research sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The Holm Fund will enable Diver and his team to move forward with commercializing this technology.

Juliane Nguyen, PhD

Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences
UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences


Nguyen has received $33,000 to advance a novel approach for loading useful molecules into exosomes, which are tiny, pouch-like vesicles that are secreted by cells and that could be used as tools for delivering drugs, treating disease and even regenerating tissue.

Nguyen’s lab is developing methods and materials, collectively known as the EXO-Code platform, for stocking exosomes with RNA, peptides, proteins or small molecules. The technique involves marking cargo such as RNA with molecular tags called EXO-Codes, and then introducing these tagged compounds into cells. Once inside, the EXO-Codes act as zip codes, causing the cells to direct the cargo into exosomes that are then released from the cell.

The new funding will allow Nguyen’s team to optimize this technology and test its utility in tissue regeneration. The platform is expected to have broad applicability in a wide variety of fields, including cancer treatment, drug delivery, vaccination and cosmetics. This technology has been optioned by a biotech company, giving the firm the right to license and commercialize the platform.

Janet Morrow, PhD

Professor of Chemistry
UB College of Arts and Sciences

Morrow has received $28,000 to develop iron-based contrast agents that doctors can use to obtain clear images of tumors and bodily organs through MRI.

The technology could provide an alternative to the gadolinium-based complexes that have traditionally been employed in MRI. Recent studies have found that gadolinium can accumulate in patients’ brains, prompting safety concerns in the health care industry and among regulatory agencies worldwide.

Morrow’s lab has created a suite of complexes that employ iron, which occurs naturally in the blood. Her team will use the new funding to optimize the effectiveness of these agents by adding chemical groups to the complexes that facilitate the distribution of the imaging agents to target areas of the body.

A startup company Morrow co-founded, Ferric Contrast, has recently gained momentum, landing a $225,000 Small Business Technology Transfer award from the National Science Foundation and winning $50,000 in the FuzeHub Commercialization Competition.

Glenna Bett, PhD

Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Randall Rasmusson, PhD

Professor of Physiology and Biophysics
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences


Bett and Rasmusson have received $33,000 to improve a safety screening technique for identifying pharmaceuticals that cause harmful cardiac side effects. The method integrates electronics with heart muscle cells to measure how drugs affect the heart’s electrical activity.

The new funding will enable the scientists to test how an enhanced version of their technology performs.

The researchers provide screening and analysis to clients through their startup company, Cytocybernetics, which recently received a $1.5 million Small Business Technology Transfer award from the National Institutes of Health.

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