UB researchers receive $100K in SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund awards for medical research

A technician loads a patient into an MRI machine.

Leslie Ying is developing a method to improve the speed of MRI scanning.

Release Date: May 22, 2014 This content is archived.

“It’s hard to understand exactly how a catalyst works. And I like to know how things work. ”
Steven Diver, professor and associate chair of chemistry
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Leslie Ying is improving magnetic resonance imaging. Steven Diver is developing a faster, more efficient way to synthesize drugs.

Both University at Buffalo researchers will receive $50,000 each from the statewide SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF), which cultivates innovation by speeding the commercialization of high-impact SUNY inventions.

The projects are two of five selected from across the SUNY system and announced last month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, SUNY and the SUNY Research Foundation. Here’s a closer look at the UB projects.

A quicker, less redundant MRI scan

Medical imaging is the magic of looking inside the body without making a cut. But it’s only as good as the picture you get — the better the picture, the better the doctor can understand what’s wrong with the patient.

One of the most widely used forms of medical imaging, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) draws on physics, math and engineering, says Leslie Ying, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical engineering at the University at Buffalo.

“My role is computation,” she says. “I develop innovative algorithms for MRI to make the image look better.”

Better images are one thing, but Ying’s goal is to make it happen more quickly.  “The issue with images and speed is that the patient has to stay in the scanner — motionless — for a period of time,” she says. Sometimes that means patients are asked to hold their breath.  Other times, doctors may want to look at an organ that can’t be stilled, such as a beating heart.

Shorter times can also mean cost savings, Ying says. So her challenge is, she says: “Can I significantly reduce this period of time?”

Ying’s method uses a complicated algorithm to generate an image from only a small portion of the data that is commonly collected. That leaves another aspect of the challenge: Can Ying’s method produce the same image quality as a longer scan? 

A lot of data in an image — whether an MRI scan or a vacation photo — is redundant, Ying says. In digital photography, people often compress image data with a file format such as JPEG, thus allowing a smaller file size with minimal quality loss.

Ying’s method is analogous to that, except that it predicts image redundancies in a process she calls compressed-sensing. “The idea is that we don’t acquire all the information in the first place,” she says. “We anticipate what compression will do and we only look for those points.”

To do that without guessing, Ying’s method uses a model to start with.  Then she needs only a few data points to complete the info. “Our technique improves the speed of scanning,” Ying says, noting that her work has validated the algorithms used in her methods and has demonstrated proof of concept.  

Now, with the TAF funding, Ying and her team will test her method in an MRI scanner — “to see really how long it takes. A few seconds? A minute? We need to be able to demonstrate to vendors what we can offer.”

Ying will work with colleagues at GE Healthcare in Wisconsin (Ying was formerly at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) to run the tests.

“I have always been fascinated by what medical imaging can do. I want to contribute directly to that,” Ying says. “If an algorithm is too complicated it’s not going to work. I try to find the balance and fill the gap between academic work (mathematical theory) and industrial practice (medical imaging).”

Scavenger resins recover expensive metal reagents

Building the drug molecules used in modern medicine involves complex organic chemistry. Anything that makes chemical synthesis faster, cheaper and purer is a boon.

A professor and associate chair of UB’s chemistry department, Diver is developing technology called “metal scavenger resins” that could do all three.

One very commonly used chemical reaction in making drugs is what Diver calls a transition metal-catalyzed reaction. “Minute quantities of metal allow us to make carbon-carbon bonds in unique ways,” he says. Meaning there’s an opportunity to create unique molecules and potentially new medicines, simply by selecting the right catalyst for the application.

The transition metals include palladium, platinum and a handful of others.  Just a tiny bit of these elements can kick-start — or catalyze — the desired chemical step in the synthesis.

“It’s a very important topic in modern chemical synthesis,” Diver says, because it makes the process much more efficient.  Older chemical processes included steps to add functional groups to drive the next step in the synthesis and then more steps later to remove those functional groups.  Transition metals do this in the blink of an eye and sidestep the need for the extra steps. With them, chemists gain efficiency and have greater control over the reaction.

But questions remain. “There are different states of catalysts — some active, but most are not active,” Diver says. “It’s hard to understand exactly how a catalyst works. And I like to know how things work.”  

Questions like this have driven Diver’s research since 1997 when he arrived at UB. Nine years ago, he teamed with Jerry Keister, a UB chemistry professor, to piece together what’s happening in transition metal-catalyzed reactions.

In order to analyze the step-by-step process of a chemical reaction, Diver and Keister used an isocyanide to arrest the catalytic reaction at different times. Isocyanide acts as a metal scavenger, which is akin to sticking a magnet in a sack of nails; it grabs all the metal in a solution and stops the reaction cold.

Diver realized that industry would be interested in their methods for a different reason — to remove metal from synthetic reactions.

In pharmaceutical manufacturing, tiny amounts of precious and expensive metal reagents add up to serious cost.  Also, pharmaceuticals are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and purity is important for a medicine that’s administered to millions of people.  One of the regulations specifies limits of metals allowed in drugs for human use.

Diver and his team then attached isocyanide — the metal scavenger — to silica gel, which is like a very fine sand, and to use this invention to rapidly quench a chemical reaction and pull out the metal catalyst. The chemical reaction mixture could simply be stirred with the material or allowed to pass through the scavenging material, thereby removing the metal.

“It’s such a simple idea,” Diver says. “It’s one of those things that once you find it, you think, ‘Why hadn’t this been done before?’”

With the TAF funding, Diver plans to rigorously evaluate how well the technology pulls palladium — the most widely used transition metal catalyst — from chemical reactions used by the pharmaceutical industry.  Next he hopes to test how it works with different metal catalysts and whether he can tweak the technology to work on larger volumes with better metal capture.

“We have plenty of interest from industry,” Diver says. “Our potential partners include a few multinational companies that are major stakeholders in the metal scavenging market. Each has a separate niche and all have industrial clients who look to them for help in selecting the right metal scavenger for the job.”

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