Researchers showcase university invention at Smithsonian Innovation Festival
MANHATTAN — The spark of invention burned brightly for two Kansas State University researchers at the annual Smithsonian Innovation Festival in Washington, D.C.
Xiuzhi “Susan” Sun, university distinguished professor of grain science and industry and biological and agricultural engineering, showed her patented PepGel, a biomaterial with special properties, to more than 22,500 festival visitors. T. Annelise Nguyen, associate professor of toxicology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, also attended the festival to share applications of the groundbreaking biomaterial.
The Sept. 26-27 festival was at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History, which sponsored the event in partnership with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Kansas State University was one of 20 companies, universities, government agencies and independent inventors selected by a juried panel to showcase patented inventions to curious attendees.
The Innovation Festival was designed to display passion and persistence and to inspire visitors. Jeffrey Brodie, deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, said the inventors showed members of the public that they have a role to play.
“You don’t have to wait for someone else to come up with something — you can actually do it. It energized the public to think about these ideas,” Brodie said. “We want to demonstrate the power of inventors and invention to address challenges in our lives historically, currently and in the future.”
For Sun, the festival offered an opportunity to engage with various audiences.
“I always feel very rewarded and learn a lot when I realize how much effort it can take to make a complicated subject into a simple explanation — that is art,” Sun says. “The event was great, and I enjoyed every element, but my favorite part was interacting with the public, sharing what this invention is about, and telling stories about how this could impact their lives.”
PepGel, which was patented in September 2014, is a hydrogel made from peptides, which are strings of amino acids. Amino acids are vital nutrients that combine to form proteins such as muscles. Sun — who has long examined plant proteins and lipids structure and has created a number of materials from them — linked new combinations of amino acids together to form PepGel.
The gel has the ability to transform from a gel to a liquid then back to a gel. When force is exerted on the gel through shaking, stirring or drawing it into a syringe, the nanofiber matrix in the gel breaks apart, and it becomes a liquid. When the force stops, the matrix comes back together to become a gel again. This process is known as its “self-healing” property.
This special property means the gel has many applications. Because it can assume a liquid form, it is injectable, and because it reverts to its gel form after injection, it can deliver drugs, cells or other therapies into the body and hold them in the desired location for sustained release.
PepGel also provides an excellent medium in which researchers can grow cells. Nguyen has used the gel to grow breast cancer tumors to examine drug toxicity and cellular communication in cancer cells. Growing tumors in 3-D is superior to using Petri dishes, in which cells flatten, and PepGel’s self-healing property simplifies transferring cells from place to place. The gel can be formulated to include necessary nutrients so the cells grow well.
At the festival, Nguyen was surprised by the diversity of the audience and its warm reception of the product.
“It was rewarding to receive encouragement from the public about our work in cancer research with the invention; in some instances, I received hugs from teachers, cancer survivors and family members affected by cancer,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen said she had already received an email from a high school student who visited the festival and asked about summer research opportunities at the university.
Sun said she hoped the message of the festival was inspiring and inclusive.
“Invention or innovation is not limited by culture or nationality or gender,” Sun said. “Everyone has the potential to become an inventor or innovator — every inventor has his or her recipe — but I think it is very important to keep passion and persistence for your goal, have hypotheses for solutions using nontraditional approaches, and be curious about the reasons behind any detailed phenomena or observations.”