Annual Report 2018: Transforming Lives through Research
Widely regarded as one of the world’s top technological research universities, Georgia Tech focuses its vast research resources on mapping out new solutions and working hand-in-hand with industry and government to create the next big breakthrough or to tailor collaborations focused on solving the most challenging problems.
Steve Cross Retires as EVP for Research
For the past 15 years, Steve Cross has played a transformative leadership role in guiding the growth and evolution of Georgia Tech’s research enterprise — first as vice president and director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and, for the past eight years, as Tech’s first executive vice president (EVP) for research. Cross’ June 2018 retirement as EVP marked the end of an era characterized by robust growth and a sharpening of focus.
During Cross’ time as EVP, Georgia Tech’s research and economic development programs grew dramatically. In Fiscal Year 2017, the Institute reported $824.8 million in annual research and other sponsored program expenditures, including more than $100 million in industry research, a record for Georgia Tech. Cross has helped bring together GTRI, the Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2), interdisciplinary research institutes (IRIs), and other research-active and support units to focus on measures that emphasize quality, diversification of the revenue base, and innovative ways to make it easier for government, business, and industry to partner with Georgia Tech.
“Steve’s leadership has helped to make the tagline ‘what does Georgia Tech think’ truly relevant,” said President G.P. “Bud” Peterson. “Under his leadership, Georgia Tech’s colleges and schools, and GTRI are collaborating as never before with significant joint work in cybersecurity, health analytics, robotics, and many other areas. While Steve always credits the faculty, students, and staff who make great things happen here, his tireless and enthusiastic leadership deserves significant recognition for these and many other accomplishments.”
In June, the Institute announced that Chaouki T. Abdallah, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Mexico, would succeed Cross as EVP, effective mid-August. Abdallah earned master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech in 1982 and 1988, respectively. At New Mexico, he conducted research and taught courses in the general area of systems theory with a focus on control and communications systems.
“Dr. Abdallah has a proven track record as an administrator, scholar, and researcher, along with experience collaborating with industry, government, and community partners,” said Peterson. “As a Tech alumnus who has remained engaged with the Institute, he brings a unique perspective. We’re looking forward to working with him to enhance Georgia Tech’s basic and applied research and maximize economic impact.”
Engineering Research Center Helps Expand Use of Therapies Based on Living Cells
One of many significant outcomes of Steve Cross’ years of visionary leadership is the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarding nearly $20 million to a consortium of universities led by Georgia Tech to support a new Engineering Research Center (ERC) that will work closely with industry and clinical partners to develop transformative tools and technologies for the consistent, scalable, and low-cost production of high-quality living therapeutic cells. Such cells could be used in a broad range of lifesaving medical therapies now emerging from research laboratories.
The NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies (CMaT) aims to revolutionize the treatment of cancer, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and other disorders by enabling the broad use of potentially curative therapies that utilize living cells — such as immune cells and stem cells — as “drugs.” Examples of these highly promising therapies include T-cell-based immunotherapies for blood cancers and a gene-modified stem cell therapy approved in Europe for a form of the so-called “bubble boy” syndrome.
To facilitate the widespread application of these cutting-edge emerging treatments, CMaT will develop robust and scalable technologies, innovative analytical tools, and engineering systems that will enable industry and clinical facilities to reproducibly manufacture efficient, safe, and affordable cell-therapy products. The center, one of four ERCs announced in September 2017 by the NSF, will also develop improved models for a robust supply chain, storage, and distribution system for these therapeutic cell products.
Supporting the vision and goals of CMaT is a new Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)-compliant facility located within the existing Marcus Center for Therapeutic Cell Characterization and Manufacturing (MC3M). The new GMP was dedicated last June. The Marcus Center and the new GMP provide the infrastructural foundation for CMaT.
“This initiative has the potential to change the way we think about medical treatments, to change the way we think about medicine, and the way we approach cures for different diseases,” said President G.P. “Bud” Peterson. “Here, we will develop the tools and technologies to produce these cells at lower cost, more rapidly and for more people.”
“Unlike pharmaceuticals and other products now used in medical treatments, cells are living entities whose properties can significantly change depending on nuances in the way they are grown, stored, or otherwise manipulated,” said Krishnendu Roy, director of CMaT and the Robert A. Milton Chair professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. “The center will develop new engineering tools and scalable methods to better characterize, expand, differentiate, separate, transport, and store high-quality cells so they provide consistent therapeutic effects, allowing them to be used in standardized therapies by clinicians to serve large numbers of patients worldwide.”
Georgia Smart Communities Challenge Strives to Improve Quality of Life
Georgia Tech is providing leadership for the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge, also known as Georgia Smart, a competition bringing together industry and public agencies to support communities in their efforts to implement cutting-edge technologies.
Announced in June, the winners of the Georgia Smart competition are the cities of Albany and Chamblee and the counties of Chatham and Gwinnett. In September, these four local governments embarked on year-long projects to address housing blight, traffic and transportation woes, and sea level rise along Georgia’s coast. A Georgia Tech researcher will advise and conduct research in support of each group’s goals. This work will continue through September 2019.
Each team has received $50,000 in grants and $25,000 from Georgia Tech in research support. The selected communities each raised an additional $50,000. A Georgia Tech researcher is advising each team and conducting research in support of their needs and goals.
“Creating and implementing smart communities is hard work and it’s difficult,” said Debra Lam, managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Tech. “But we know we’re on the right path when we are purposely empowering local communities with data and technology.”
Georgia Power is the lead sponsor of the program, with additional financial support from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Biochemical Culprit Could Merit Enhanced Alzheimer’s Research Efforts
The mass pursuit of a conspicuous suspect in Alzheimer’s disease may have held back research success for decades. Now, a new data analysis that has untangled evidence amassed in years of Alzheimer’s studies encourages researchers to refocus their investigations.
Heaps of plaque formed from amyloid-beta that accumulate in afflicted brains are what stick out under the microscope in tissue samples from Alzheimer’s sufferers, and that eye-catching junk has long seemed an obvious culprit in the disease. However, data analysis of the cumulative evidence doesn’t support giving so much attention to that usual suspect, according to a Georgia Tech study.
Though the bad amyloid-beta protein does appear to be an accomplice in the disease, the study has pointed to a seemingly more likely offender, another protein-gone-bad called phosphorylated tau(p-tau). What’s more, the Georgia Tech data analysis of multiple studies done on mice also turned up signs that multiple biochemical actors work together in Alzheimer’s to tear down neurons, the cells that the brain uses to do its work.
Informaticist and biomedical engineer Cassie Mitchell studies Alzheimer's disease by statistically analyzing data produced by dozens of peer-reviewed published Alzheimer's studies. She looks for correlations between the presence of biochemical factors and cognitive decline.
In addition, the corrupted amyloid-beta that appeared to be acting more directly in concert with p-tau in the sabotage of brain function was not tied up in that plaque. In the lineup of the biochemical suspects examined, principal investigator Cassie Mitchell, assistant professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, said the data pointed to a pecking order of culpability.
“The most important one would be the level of phosphorylated tau present. It had the strongest connection with cognitive decline,” Mitchell said. “The correlation with amyloid plaque was there but very weak; not nearly as strong as the correlation between p-tau and cognitive decline.”
Mitchell has gained some impressions of how biomedical research may need to tackle Alzheimer’s slippery biochemical labyrinth.
“When we see multifactorial diseases, we tend to think we’ll need multifactorial treatments,” Mitchell said. “That seems to be working well with cancer, where they combine chemotherapy with things like immunotherapy.”
Also, Alzheimer’s diagnosticians might be wise to adopt their cancer colleagues’ early detection stance, she said, as Alzheimer’s disease appears to start long before amyloid-beta plaque appears and cognitive decline sets in.