The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard has been awarded a $12.3 million, four-year grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a treatment for sepsis, a commonly fatal bloodstream infection. Sepsis is a major cause of injury and death among combat-injured soldiers in the field, as well as patients in hospital intensive care units.The proposed treatment would involve a miniaturized, dialysislike device that could rapidly clear the blood of a wide range of pathogens, much as a living human spleen does, without removing normal blood cells, proteins, fluids, or electrolytes. This novel “Spleen-on-a-Chip” would be portable, self-contained, and easily inserted into the peripheral blood vessels of a septic patient or soldier.The award, which was announced Sept. 28, is part of DARPA’s Dialysis Like Therapeutics (DLT) program, which seeks to develop ways to dramatically decrease the morbidity and mortality of sepsis. Worldwide, more than 18 million cases of sepsis are reported every year, with more than 6 million resulting in death.“We are very proud to partner with DARPA to pursue a research effort that could potentially transform how we treat patients with sepsis and save lives by quickly cleansing blood free of pathogens while simultaneously treating with antibiotics,” says Donald Ingber, Wyss Institute founding director and principal investigator on the grant. “This is a tremendous example of how the Wyss Institute works to bring together outstanding faculty members, expert technical staff, interdisciplinary resources, novel technologies, and clinical partner institutions, such as Children’s Hospital Boston, to bear on critical medical problems.”The project also includes George Church, a Wyss core faculty member and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School; Joanna Aizenberg, a Wyss core faculty member and Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute; and Michael Super, a member of the Wyss Advanced Technology Team, as key co-investigators.Researchers plan to incorporate several of the Wyss Institute’s novel technologies in the proposed sepsis dialysis device. The sepsis therapeutic device will leverage recent Wyss Institute advances in organ-on-chip technologies in which key microstructural features of complex organs, such as the spleen, are replicated in microfluidic circuits using microfabrication techniques.Also key to the technology is the use of magnetic nano- and micro-particles coated with a human opsonin — a key component of the body’s innate immune response — that will remove pathogens from flowing human blood using magnetic forces. The opsonin is being genetically engineered to improve its already broad pathogen-binding capacity using directed evolution strategies developed at the institute.In addition, the sepsis therapeutic device will incorporate a “super” slippery surface that was developed by institute researchers as a novel material to prevent the adhesion of ice, crude oil, or even dirt. This technology, which is modeled after the slippery surfaces of carnivorous plants that trap insects sliding into the digestive juices of the plant, will be modified to prevent blood clot formation so that patients will not need to be treated with anticoagulants, such as heparin, when attached to the sepsis therapeutic device.The Wyss Institute is a division of Harvard University. Operating in collaboration with Harvard Schools, Harvard-affiliated hospitals, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Wyss Institute conducts broad interdisciplinary research into the principles that living systems use to build, control, and manufacture, and applies these insights to develop novel materials and devices in areas as diverse as architecture, medicine, robotics, manufacturing, and the environment.
By Faith PeppersUniversity of Georgia A late spring freeze followed by heavy rains were a blessing for some Georgia blueberry growers. But they brought more hard work to others, according to University of Georgia experts.The heavy rains delayed harvest of the southeast Georgia crop, causing some early concerns about highbush berry quality. “We had to work harder to make grade due to the heavy rains this spring, but it’s turning out to be good year for rabbiteye growers,” said UGA Cooperative Extension blueberry agent Danny Stanaland.“We grow two blueberry crops in Georgia – highbush and rabbiteye,” Stanaland went on to explain. The highbush crop in some areas of southeast Georgia, which is the state’s major commercial production area, “was hit hard by the late freeze and will produce only about 35 to 50 percent of the crop.” Robust rabbiteye cropFortunately, blueberry fans all over Georgia can expect a bumper crop from the rabbiteye variety. “It will be the largest crop of rabbiteye blueberries we’ve had in several years,” Stanaland said. That’s especially good news for Georgia’s 300 blueberry growers. The majority of the crop is rabbiteye variety, and about 10 percent of the total crop is highbush variety. “The highbush variety blooms and fruits early, making it more susceptible to the low temperatures and rain,” Stanaland said. “But, May 20 we finished harvesting highbush. That crop is gone.” Growers are now harvesting rabbiteye berries in three phases. “The early rabbiteye berries were wet and had some grading issues because it required more selective picking to get the good berries,” he said. “Now that it’s dry again, it’s much easier to harvest and grade, and fruit quality is very positive. We have the heaviest rabbiteye fruit set we’ve had in years. So, while we were short on highbush berries, we are going to be long on rabbiteye.”Pick-your-own timeIn the northern half of the state, where most blueberry operations are pick-your-own, growers are reporting larger-than-normal berries and an abundant crop, just in time for many markets to open this weekend. In 2008, Georgia blueberry growers harvested more than 14,000 acres of blueberries with an off-the-farm value of close to $61 million dollars, slightly above the five-year average. This year, growers expect to harvest between 12,000 and 14,000 acres, but that figure could surge as high as 15,000 to 20,000 acres, according to Stanaland and county Extension agent reports. About 75 percent of those acres are in southeast Georgia. Prices are holding steady in spite of the abundance of available fruit this year, which usually drives prices down. Growers are getting about $14 per flat — or $1.40 per pound — for fresh berries, only a shade lower than last year’s price.