From stronger teeth to sharper eyes to a rewired brain, Oregon innovators are finding ways to keep us living longer and better.
BY JON BELL
Greta Binford (above), a biologist at Lewis & Clark College, draws venom from a rare Loxosceles sabina spider. Binford’s look into the diversity of spider venoms may one day lead to an antidote for spider bites — and possibly other medical innovations.
Who: Greta Binford, assistant professor of biology
What: Spider venom research
Where: Lewis & Clark College, Portland
In her research into the venom of brown recluse spiders, Greta Binford may not exactly be looking for the next miracle cure for erectile dysfunction — but there’s a chance she might find it.
A 20-year veteran of spider research, Binford has spent the past decade collecting and analyzing some 65 different species of the brown recluse in North, Central and South America and Africa.
Her work explores the incredible biodiversity of the recluse and its sister species, as well as their evolutionary history and venom diversity. It’s research that’s helping to better understand the molecular effects of spider bites and, hopefully, lead to an antidote. One Mexican company has used venoms milked from Binford’s spiders to come up with a promising treatment; if successful, it may be available in the U.S in a few years.
An arachnid-inspired little blue pill comes into play because other researchers are actually looking at the venom of one Brazilian spider to treat erectile dysfunction; other venoms have been found to correct heart fibrillations and induce insulin secretions. Binford says such findings merely scratch the surface potential of venoms. After all, there are some 40,000 species of spiders in the world and each one can have a mix of up to 1,000 chemicals in its venom.
“It’s just an undiscovered gold mine of novel chemistry,” Binford says.
Who: SAM Medical Products
What: Hemostatic agents and delivery systems
Though SAM Medical Products’ granular hemostatic agent, CELOX, is geared for gaping wounds with life-threatening blood loss, Steve Melia has found it handy for something a little more everyday.
“I use it when I cut myself shaving,” says Melia, vice president of sales and marketing for the Tigard-based SAM.
Morning nicks aside, the company’s bigger focus for the blood-clotting CELOX, which is derived from shrimp shells, is the emergency medical, law enforcement and military markets. In fact, this past fall SAM secured a $1.2 million contract with the Marines to develop higher-performance chemistries and delivery systems for CELOX. Apropos, considering uncontrolled bleeding currently accounts for nearly half of battlefield deaths before evacuation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The contract came in the wake of SAM’s earlier introduction of two other delivery systems — a dissolvable pouch and an applicator and plunger — that help EMTs and medics effectively apply CELOX into deep wounds such as bullet holes and knife cuts. The company also has developed a gauze roll, and some doctors have recently started using CELOX in cardiothoracic surgeries.
From here, Melia says SAM will focus on taking CELOX “to the next level” while developing other innovative products for the medical field. Among other recent additions: BursaMed dressings, which help prevent and reduce pressure ulcers, an affliction that reportedly costs the nation’s health-care system $11 billion a year.
Who: Chrissa Kioussi, assistant professor of pharmacology
What: Tooth enamel gene
Where: Oregon State University, Corvallis
A lot of people are going to be smiling about the work of Chrissa Kioussi and her colleagues.
After two years of federally funded research at OSU and France’s Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology, Kioussi and crew have identified the gene that produces tooth enamel. And yes, that means that someday we’ll probably be able to have our pearly whites refreshed with brand new enamel or, even better, brand new teeth.
“Everybody with dental problems will benefit from this work,” Kioussi says, noting that the cellular approaches in her work can also be applied to a range of tissue and organ research. “It will be nice to go to the dentist and be treated with your own natural enamel. I hope that I’ll be able to experience it myself.”
The researchers studied laboratory mice that had the Ctip2 gene turned off. The resultant teeth were crude and without a strong enamel coating. Now that scientists know more about the genetics behind the dental armor, they’ll likely be able to use stem cells to grow new enamel.
But don’t put down the toothbrush just yet. Kioussi says further research with mice will be needed to make sure the enamel-producing cells work as they should. Expect at least five more years, she says, before this breakthrough is ready for human choppers.
Who: Bend Research
What: Drug delivery technology
You can cross your heart and hope to die, but thanks to scientists at Bend Research, you may never have to stick a needle in your eye — at least not to deliver drugs for glaucoma.
“As you can imagine, that’s not a lot of fun,” says Rod Ray, chief executive officer of the 34-year-old Bend medical company.
Among its other innovations, Bend Research is developing new technologies for administering drugs to the eyes, including drops that contain powerful medicine in nanoparticle form. Ray says researchers there have also been working on ways to make drugs more soluble and to target them to specific sites in the body. The latter would not only reduce the amount of drug needed, but would also help ensure that, say, cancer drugs would head straight for a tumor.
“That technology is a really important one for fighting cancer,” says Ray.
Bend Research, which developed the popular one-dose antibiotic Zmax, recently left a 14-year exclusive partnership with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and is currently harvesting new relationships with biotech and drug companies around the world.
Ray says he sees the company continuing to make advances in the pharmaceutical realm and dabbling in the world of diagnostics. A possible next step: a new and better cholesterol test.
Who: Scott Frey, psychology professor
What: Brain adaptation research
Where: University of Oregon, Eugene
If Scott Frey is right about the human brain, we may be in for some monumental shifts in the treatment of everything from strokes to spinal cord damage.
Studying a handful of amputees who’ve been “cured” via hand transplants, Frey has learned that the brain is a mighty organizer. Not only does it reorganize itself after the limb is lost, but it then “re-reorganizes” itself when a new limb is attached. Feeling comes back and the brain begins processing signals from the new hand in the same region it did for the original hand.
“Our case presents the most compelling case that the brain can go back to the way it was,” Frey says.
The broader implication could theoretically mean that the brain would be able to rewire itself in, say, a paralyzed patient whose damaged spinal cord has been repaired by stem cells. Damage from strokes, concussive head injuries and diseases such as multiple sclerosis might also someday be abated with a better understanding of how the brain adapts.
Frey’s next wave of related research, funded by the Department of Defense, finds him recruiting arm and hand amputees to learn more about the brain’s role in phantom pain and the nearly 50% of upper limb amputees who reject prostheses.
“I would like to see us get a better understanding of these basic brain changes,” he says, “and the extent to which they can be reversed.”
Who: Neda Shamie, MD
What: Cataract and corneal surgery
Where: Legacy’s Devers Eye Institute, Portland
Oregon’s the right location for snowy mountains, microbrews and, apparently, afflictions of the eye.
“Oregon is a great place to be if you have an eye disease,” says Neda Shamie, a corneal and laser refractive surgeon at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital’s Devers Eye Institute.
Shamie is one of Devers’ surgeons who specializes in some of the latest and greatest procedures out there. One example: advanced intraocular lens surgery for cataracts, where surgeons implant premium lenses that restore vision to near 20-20 and usually render reading glasses unnecessary.
But where Shamie and Devers really shine is in the realm of the cornea. Her colleague, Mark Terry, revolutionized cornea transplants 10 years ago with a technique that replaces only the damaged layer of the cornea, not the entire thickness as had been standard practice. Shamie herself has done more than 100 of those surgeries since joining Devers in 2006.
The institute is also one of the only facilities in Oregon to offer artificial cornea implanting, a new option for high-risk patients who’ve had multiple regular implants fail.
“There are books that can be written on what’s to come,” says Shamie.