Project 3 – Research Translation Activities

Development of the teabag extraction technique


Porous Extraction Paddle (PEP)

The teabag extraction technique began with the challenge to extract large urine samples furnished by pregnant women in Puerto Rico for chemical analysis in Boston. Such chemical analyses could potentially provide insight into the ways exposure to Superfund sites contribute to the high incidence of preterm birth in Puerto Rico. The extraction needed to be as simple as possible. A teabag technique was selected as a convenient way to accomplish the extraction, analogous to the use of passive bag samplers to extract surface waters in the environment. However, a more sophisticated extraction was required, including efficient agitation of the bag in the urine. Caging the bag and attaching it to the shaft of a stirring motor solved this problem in a simple way.

Interaction with several companies was important in bringing this technology into practice, and this led to donations of instrumentation from Accu-Seal, materials from Industrial Products, and reagents from Sigma- Aldrich along with discounts from other companies.  Since the method is a new technique, a patent application has been filed.  In the course of writing the patent application, other ideas for its use emerged such as purification of drinking water for the consumer. Potentially the technique has some advantages over the gravity filtration techniques such as the Brita, since the teabag could be a greener technology, cost much less, avoid the problem of bacterial growth, and take better advantage of specialized ingredients able to remove arsenic. Bringing these advantages to the attention of companies involved in water purification led to the formation of a new company, DEBX-TEK LLC, to further develop and market these products. We have an exhibit on this work at invention fair in Texas. At the same time, a collaboration has emerged with an engineer at Northeastern University who plans to study and improve the technology via Capstone Projects, through which undergraduate students conduct novel research under the supervision of NEU faculty. This parallel academic and industrial development has opened up the possibility of submitting a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) application, which is underway. These STTR grants, along with Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, are congressionally-mandated set-aside programs for U.S. small businesses to engage in research and development that has a strong potential for commercialization.  These grants are excellent vehicles for research translation activities.


Introduction of a novel mass tag

To test the exposome in urine, high sensitivity and high specificity is required.  Two of the problems that stand in the way are as follows. The first one is the vast number of ordinary metabolites in urine that tend to block the view of the exposome. The second problem is the variation in mass spectral response of different kinds of exposome chemicals. One way of minimizing both of these problems is to develop a family of mass tag reagents to selectively label and enhance the response of different subgroups of the exposome. Ideally these tags also facilitate structurally-specific fragmentation of the analytes in the mass spectrometer to give an additional boost in specificity.  With these criteria in mind, we built a parent mass tag that can label a diversity of compounds, and serve as a precursor for subgroup reagents. A provisional patent application has been filed on this invention, and contacts are being made with companies who market detection reagents.  Increasing sensitivity and specificity in chemical detection is also important in forensic science, so we have submitted a White Paper to the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency (part of the Army) to bring this technology into that area. Since the mass tag enhances the response of DNA monomers, and environmental damage to DNA contributes to cancer, we are preparing a grant application to the National Cancer Institute, in collaboration with molecular biologists at Northeastern University, the University of Vermont, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania.  In a further extension of this technology, we have received a grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture entitled “Comprehensive Assay for Carcinogens in Food.”


Additional comments

It is exciting to find ways to work collaboratively with other academics, industry and government.   This enriches and broadens our work, and makes it more likely to have an impact.