Spark Award winners illuminate tumours

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Winners of the 2020 Spark Award: Helma Wennemers and Matthew Aronoff. (Photograp

Winners of the 2020 Spark Award: Helma Wennemers and Matthew Aronoff. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Martin Rütsche)

Making tumours visible so that surgeons can cut only as much as necessary: this is the goal of an invention by chemical biologists Helma Wennemers and Matthew Aronoff. For their achievement they have received the Spark Award, with which ETH recognises the most innovative invention with the most commercial potential of the past year.

"I can hardly believe that we were chosen," Helma Wennemers says. "I’m very proud of Matt, who has been the driving force behind our invention." Wennemers, Professor of Organic Chemistry, worked with Matthew Aronoff to develop a fluorescent marker intended to make the surgeon’s task easier. For their achievement, the two researchers have received the 2020 Spark Award.

ETH Vice President Detlef Günther says, "The fluorescence marker is an outstanding innovation in diagnostic medicine. Thanks to this invention, diseased tissue can be made visible." Günther will present the award to the pair of inventors at ETH Industry eWeek - a virtual ETH event for industry taking place on September 23, 2020.

This invention is not something the two scientists stumbled upon by accident. "For ten years, we’ve been performing research on collagen in my lab, with a view to a fundamental understanding this protein at the molecular level and thereby laying the foundation for medical applications," Wennemers explains.

Abnormal production of tissue

The body needs collagen to create tissue. In cases of cancer and various fibrotic conditions, however, tissue production goes into overdrive. To make this abnormal production of tissue visible, the research team turned to the enzyme LOX, which initiates the cross-linking of collagen in tissue. Their marker accumulates where LOX is active, thereby showing the surgeon where the pathologically altered tissue is located.

"Our innovation has now reached a level at which we can realistically hope that it will help patients in the future," Wennemers says. The next steps towards applying the invention in real life have also already been taken. Aronoff says: "We hope to complete the key steps in the patent application process by the end of the year and are currently reviewing the possibility of a spin-off."

Wennemers and Aronoff’s invention had to meet a very high bar to win this award, given the quality of the four other projects nominated. ETH Zurich recorded a total of 185 inventions last year.

The winning technology

Illuminated tumour tissue: In fibrotic diseases or cancerous tumours, an uncontrolled amount of tissue often forms. This process involves the enzyme LOX, which initiates the cross-linking of collagen proteins into tissue. Matthew Aronoff and Helma Wennemers use LOX to make tumour tissue visible. They have developed a fluorescent marker that accumulates where LOX is active, which should allow surgeons to distinguish the tumour from healthy tissue during operations.

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The other finalists

Printed implants: To replace injured bone or cartilage after accidents or operations, Elia Guzzi and Mark Tibbitt have developed a bio-ink for 3D printing implants made of collagen or cells. The ink is thin during printing and thickens as soon as it leaves the print head. UV radiation or heat is then applied to provide the implant with the desired elasticity, in line with the tissue properties.

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Vaccinating animals against Salmonella: Breeding animals often suffer from diarrhoea caused by Salmonella, but since the bacterium is constantly changing, previous vaccines quickly become ineffective. Wolf-Dietrich Hardt, Emma Wetter Slack and Médéric Diard have developed a vaccine that exploits this genetic modification. Their vaccine triggers an immune response that directs the evolution of Salmonella in such a way that the only survivors are harmless pathogens that are also difficult to transmit to other animals.

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Pay faster with bitcoin: Customers often have to wait several minutes while a payment with cryptocurrencies is being processed, which is why such currencies are only rarely used in everyday transactions. This led Srdjan Capkun and his research group to develop the payment concept Snappy. To eliminate the wait for the buyer, an amount is deposited with the seller as collateral until the payment process is complete. As soon as the transaction is concluded, the collateral is released.

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Ultrasharp tips for atomic force microscopy: Atomic force microscopes (AFM) are standard in research, where they are used to scan the surfaces of samples in the nanoworld. In the process, their fine probe tips wear out and become contaminated, so they have to be changed often. Amit Kumar Sachan and Renato Zenobi have now developed probes made of metal wire using a microelectronic process. Their process is faster and cheaper than the previous production method, which involved etching silicon.

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