Princeton accelerates innovation through funding of six technologies with potential for societal impact

Six research discoveries with the potential to provide benefit to society have been awarded funding from the University's Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund, which aims to speed the development of innovative projects into real-world applications.

The projects address a range of societal challenges, from new treatments for cancer, hepatitis B and obesity, to pain-free intravenous injections and low-cost water purification. The funding, administered by the Office of the Dean for Research, supports proof-of-concept research, prototypes, or other studies to bring fundamental discoveries to the point where they can be developed through a spin-out company, established firm or other entity.

"Princeton's faculty and their research teams are making discoveries that have the potential to make a real difference in everyday lives," said Rodney Priestley, Princeton's vice dean for innovation. "Through the IP Accelerator Fund, Princeton is identifying some of the most promising technologies and giving them the extra push needed to bring these technologies to the public where they can meet needs in health care, the environment and other sectors."

"These six projects demonstrate the range of innovations coming from Princeton researchers that have the potential to benefit society in a variety of ways," said John Ritter, director of the Office of Technology Licensing, which oversees the selection of awardees by a committee of faculty and members of the technology investment community. "The IP Accelerator Fund assists in making University research ready for the kind of external investment that can bring these discoveries to the broader world."

The selected projects are described below.

Correcting metabolic syndrome through a new class of therapeutics

Alexei Korennykh, associate professor of molecular biology, and Joshua Rabinowitz, professor of chemistry and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics

enzyme schematic

The IP Accelerator Fund provides support for Princeton discoveries that have the potential to provide solutions to today's challenges. Awarded each year, the fund pays for additional research or development to make these innovations ready to attract further development by startup companies or other outside entities. One of the winning technologies this year aims to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke through treatments that inhibit the enzyme Nocturnin (pictured).

Obesity and high levels of fat in the blood are two indicators of metabolic syndrome, a constellation of factors that increases risk of heart disease, type II diabetes and stroke.

A collaboration between the research teams of Alexei Korennykh, associate professor of molecular biology, and Joshua Rabinowitz, professor of chemistry and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, aims to develop a new approach to controlling fat metabolism through the development of drugs that target an enzyme called Nocturnin, which governs tasks such as fat storage and energy usage. Building on discoveries about how Nocturnin regulates cell metabolism, the researchers are exploring small molecules that could become a new class of drugs capable of correcting metabolic syndrome.

With IP Accelerator Funding, the collaborators will develop a high-throughput screening approach to identify inhibitors of Nocturnin.

Automated I.V. injection device to simplify blood draws and treatments

Craig Arnold, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

A new technology that inserts intravenous needles via an easy-to-use automatic device could dramatically reduce the risk of vein damage and needle sticks in health care settings.

Craig Arnold, a faculty member in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and undergraduate co-inventor Miles Cole, Class of 2021, have formed the startup Invictis Technologies to develop a device called the Vertical Injection Technology Apparatus (VITA) that detects veins and inserts a needle through the skin directly above the vein. The precision injection is achievable through advanced imaging and sensing to determine exactly when the needle has punctured the vein.

With funding from the IP Accelerator Fund, the team will reduce the size and complexity of their initial prototype with the goal of attracting investors and strategic partners to bring this needed medical device to the public.

An improved delivery system for gene therapy

Esteban Engel, director of the Viral Neuroengineering Laboratory, Princeton Neuroscience Institute

mouse neurons

Researchers are working to repair faulty genes that cause neurodegenerative diseases by finding better ways to carry genes into neurons, which in this mouse brain are stained red.

Gene therapy offers the ability to replace a disease-causing gene with a new and functional version, but two of the major challenges are how to ferry large genes into cells and how to maintain the genes' activity. 

Esteban Engel and his team including Postdoctoral Research Associate Carola Maturana, are developing methods to improve the capacity of viruses — a common gene-delivery vehicle — to carry larger genes and to ensure that the new gene functions for a long period of time after a single-dose therapy. The Engel laboratory has created new types of promoters, which are DNA segments that turn on genes, to accomplish these goals. The new promoters are small and take up little room on the viral genome, making way for larger genes, and the promoters also lead to prolonged activity of the gene. The team has already shown the promoters work to ferry genes into the central nervous system.

The IP Accelerator Fund will enable the team to expand the use of the promoters to muscle, heart, liver and retina.

Cancer treatment options using immunotherapy

Yibin Kang, the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology

cancer cell

Princeton researchers are exploring ways to extend the benefits of immunotherapy to more cancer types, including breast tumor cells. 

Recent advances that boost the body's immune system to fight cancer have been extremely successful, but these therapies do not work for all patients nor against all tumor types.

Yibin Kang and his team in the Department of Molecular Biology propose to extend the benefits of immunotherapy to more cancer types. Recognizing that tumors subvert the immune system by miseducating a class of immune cells, known as T-regulatory cells, to suppress the anti-tumor immune response, the team plans to develop small molecules that can block this process.

With assistance from the IP Accelerator Fund, the researchers will identify molecules with potential to become drugs capable of stopping the tumor-induced immune suppression, thus shrinking established tumors and stopping their spread through the body.

Targeted identification of compounds blocking hepatitis B virus

Alexander Ploss, associate professor of molecular biology

Chronic hepatitis B virus affects more than 250 million people globally.

With the goal of developing a cure, molecular biologist Alexander Ploss and colleagues have identified vulnerabilities in the viral infection cycle that could be targeted by novel therapies. The team has developed a way to reconstitute an important viral life-cycle step in the laboratory, and then test small molecules for the potential to disrupt the life cycle.

With funding from the IP Accelerator Fund, molecules that show activity against HBV will be further tested in cell culture and animal models developed by the Ploss group. The goal is to identify inhibitors that work against all eight subtypes of the virus and that could become a cure for this chronic and deadly disease.

Low-cost water purification

Howard Stone, the Donald R. Dixon '69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

A technology with the potential to decrease the costs of water purification could help bring clean water to the estimated 660 million people worldwide who lack access to treated water.

Howard Stone and his team have developed a technology for removing contaminants from liquids using dissolved carbon dioxide, the same bubbly gas used in soda, thus eliminating the need for expensive filters.

The team next aims to demonstrate that the process produces results that meet the standards required for food and beverage processing and dialysis. The team also plans to show that the technology can remove waterborne pathogens such as bacteria and works on multiple contaminants at once. With this additional testing, the technology will be ready for further investment from external entities that provide clean water technology.