Research in local labs promise to improve future
Research in local labs promise to improve future
By Marion Renault
The Columbus Dispatch
In laboratories of the future, computer models will replace the rats and petri dishes of experiments past.
Individual lab benches could disappear as increasingly expensive and sophisticated equipment becomes a community resource shared by scores of scientists.
And sophisticated analysis that takes weeks or months will go the way of gene sequencing, dropping to a fraction of the time and effort.
“We're really seeing an unprecedented change in how research is done today," said Caroline Whitacre, senior vice president for research at Ohio State University. "There are just revolutions taking place in instrumentation; it’s lightning speed revolution.”
We took a peek into some of the laboratories in Ohio already setting the example for research of the future.
Real-time DNA testing
Researchers are betting on DNA profiling as the next step in law enforcement’s trajectory toward technology-based crime investigation.
Within the next two decades, investigators could tote handheld devices that can generate genomic profiles — and maybe even 3D renderings — in real-time using DNA traced at crime scenes.
And Battelle wants to write the manual for that technology.
“That’s our goal: to set Ohio up as the standard,” said Mike Dickens, applied genomics and biology manager at Battelle.
The method, called massively parallel sequencing, involves slicing and dicing cleaned up DNA into small bits. By analyzing all the pieces simultaneously before stitching the results back together, the entire genome sequencing process takes a day or two instead of weeks.
Dickens' lab is aimed at harnessing it to sequence human remains and DNA evidence from missing persons cases in Ohio, which sees 60,000 such cases each year, he said.
Versions of MPS are used to analyze the environmental impact of oil operations and to trail polar bears by the DNA sloughed off in their paw tracks.
“The amount of data coming off of this is incredible,” said Dickens. “The technology is continuing to turn over. We need to stay at the horizon or before it.”
Spine disorders eventually affect four out of five people in the U.S. — a country that spends more than $100 billion annually on lower-back injuries alone.
So Dr. William Marras would like to see the cutting-edge technology developed at Ohio State's Spine Research Institute make its way to hospital rooms and doctors’ offices sooner rather than later.
“All the stuff we do now, all these research projects we do, are pretty much research or experimental," said Marras, the institute's executive and scientific director. "Our goal is to translate these things that’ll actually help patients.”
On one side of the sprawling institute, researchers watch a screen burst into fuzzy rainbow chaos, illustrating which muscles fire as a lab assistant hoists luggage left to right.
Sensors dotting his body also measure the stress exerted on his spine tissues as he moves.
By monitoring workers' bodies at work in real time, researchers can figure out how companies can prevent injury and decrease stress on workers’ bodies.
Using the modelling, researchers at the institute worked with Honda to reduce the company's North America injuries by 70 percent over five years.
On the lab’s other side, CT or MRI scans are turned into computer models of a patient’s spine.
Those, in turn, can be sent to 3D printers so a surgeon can hold a model of their patients’ spine in their hands, instead of relying on a flat X-ray image.
It will take years and years for that to go mainstream, though, Marras said.
“Right now it’s pretty person-intensive to do this," he said. “We hope to roll this out to everyone in the United States."
A vault of plants
A biological vault guards the seeds of almost a million varieties of food crops in Spitsbergen, Norway.
The Doomsday Vault, as it's sometimes called, protects the world’s agricultural biodiversity from humanity’s worst-case scenarios.
In Columbus, a less ominous but similarly spirited research center collects and preserves the genetic diversity of plants that enhance the environment but are not made for consumption.
The Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center is the only of its kind in the country's network of plant and crop repositories stretching from Miami to Arizona and Alaska.
“As breeders develop new plants, they stray further from the raw material,” said Pablo Jourdan, the center's director and horticulture associate professor.
If floriculture and nursery breeders are jewelers, he said, the seed library stocks them with gold and diamonds. Only the jewels in its vaults are a catalog of a thousand different pristine plant species, among them petunias, marigolds, begonias and orchids, for example.
Every day, the center's small staff and student workers collect, clone and germinate plants. They monitor their growth rate over time, and test their disease resistance. They X-ray seeds.
The technology, for now, is nothing cutting-edge — though Jourdan mused that perhaps down the road, some of the cataloguing will include storing DNA.
But its mission is entirely anchored decades into the future, Jourdan said.
Labs of the future may not be actual places at all.
More and more research spaces are creating artificial, computerized laboratories through virtual and augmented reality.
At Battelle, a team of engineers is helping the Department of Defense dry-run modular robots designs in a virtual world before they’re manufactured or deployed.
One way to check million-dollar instruments is to spend big bucks checking their success in real-world conditions and hoping they pass all the tests without failing or breaking.
But with modeling technology painstakenly crafted by the Battelle team, the military can use virtual simulations to run thousands of tests overnight.
Across the research institute's campus, another lab is also learning to incorporate virtual reality into their research on human centric-design.
The U lab focuses on medical products such as surgical robotics or drug delivery methods.
A decade ago, if researchers designed corticosteroid injections for arthritis, they would invite patients into their facilities and observe them from behind a glass window.
Now, they're starting to hand subjects a pair of VR goggles that can place them in their own home. Or if they're testing military medical equipment, they replicate the sounds and sights of a combat zone.
"There’s this ability to be normal rather than putting them in a sterile lab and asking them to pretend," said Jennifer Simkins, a designer for Battelle. “Nothing is going to replace real life, but this gets us that much closer."
She said their team of engineers and designers have only begun to explore how virtual reality could transform their lab experiments.
“Right now, we’re spitballing," Simkins said. "We can't even imagine the potential uses for it."
At least one scientific pipe dream has remained largely untouched: travel to other planets.
At NASA Glenn Research Center outside of Cleveland, engineers are carrying out the work that underpins the work toward that mission.
At the Center’s Zero Research Gravity Facility, scientists harness a slim moment of freefall to test physical processes like combustion and the behavior of water under weightless conditions.
Experiments at the facility last exactly 5.18 seconds — the time it takes for a pod to travel 112 miles per hour down a drop tower before crashing into a 15-foot-deep bed of Styrofoam pellets.
“There’s nothing else really like it in the U.S.,” said facility manager Eric Neumann, who said the site has conducted 5,000 such drops since 1966.
These days, the Zero Gravity Facility is focused on fire safety experiments for the international space station, where a limited amount of oxygen renders the environment more flammable.
“We’re going to need to know about habitation on spacecraft before we go to the moon or Mars,” Neumann said. “You can't really throw on a spacesuit to escape a fire.”
Similarly, there’s no use in voyaging to nearby planets if it’s impossible to travel once you've landed, said Phillip B. Abel, deputy branch chief of Glenn's Tribology & Mechanical Components Branch.
In the lab where Abel works, a giant sloping hill is coated in special sediment that allows NASA to test extraterrestrial rovers on conditions similar to a lunar surface.
Using video imaging, engineers can measure climbing ability and wheel sinkage and position of rover designs.
“Wherever we end up going, how you get around once you’re there is something we need to work on,” Abel said. “It’s a long wait for AAA to show up.”
Helping people move
Pretty soon, the Center for Automotive Research could be a misnomer.
“We really, these days, don’t even say the term automotive anymore; it’s really mobility,” said research specialist David Cooke. “How people move around is changing at a very rapid pace.”
CAR — and other research hubs exploring the future of U.S. mobility — is undergoing a massive change in direction.
The center now splits its attention across the industry’s three most transformative trends: autonomous and connected cars, ride-sharing networks and the electrification of vehicles.
Now psychologists weigh in on how modern consumers think about vehicle ownership. Civil engineers explore optimal charging infrastructure. Computer engineers help develop computer simulations to test vehicles long before they hit the test track.
Within decades, automobile production could be geared entirely toward mass producing cars for ride-sharing. Or consumers could begin to check out vehicles like library books: a bike for the work commute, a mid-sized electric vehicle for the grocery run, a larger hybrid for cross-country road trips.
"There are a lot of industries that are not traditionally automotive that are becoming a huge part of the game," Cooke said.