What Are UVA’s Top 12 Science Discoveries of the Past Half-Century?

What Are UVA’s Top 12 Science Discoveries of the Past Half-Century?

Many terrific, game-changing discoveries and inventions have emanated over the years from the University of Virginia’s creative faculty, so it’s hard to name them all. From brain research to particle physics, from new ways to understand the cosmos to developing innovative treatments for disease and medical devices, UVA has done it all – and is doing more.

Here are a dozen notable examples from the last half-century.

Discovering Brain-Immune System Link

A stunning, textbook-changing, 2015 discovery by UVA neuroscientist Jonathan Kipnis, director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, found that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist.

The significance of the discovery lies in its ramifications for the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis. The discovery was cited as a major scientific breakthrough in lists such as Scientific American’s “Top 10 Science Stories of 2015,” Science Magazine’s “Breakthrough of the Year” and the National Institutes of Health’s director Francis Collins’ year-end review. Business Insider highlighted this as the biggest discovery ever made in Virginia.

Discovery of Bacteria as Ulcer Cause

Studies performed in the 1980s at Royal Perth Hospital and at UVA by Dr. Barry Marshall – a UVA School of Medicine research fellow, gastroenterologist and professor of medicine from 1986 to ’96 who returned to his native Australia – led to the identification of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori as a major cause of peptic ulcer disease, gastric carcinomas and mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue lymphomas.

Dr. Marshall won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine for this breakthrough research, which led to new treatments.

Discovering the Higgs Particle

UVA physicist Brad Cox played an important role in the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson at the $3.2 billion Large Hadron Collider in Europe. Considered one of the most significant scientific discoveries in decades, the finding confirmed the existence of the Higgs, the particle that gives mass to all other particles and, therefore, is the glue that holds together everything in the universe, from atoms to people.

In recognition of Cox’s contributions – which included service on several international scientific review committees and leadership at UVA in the design and construction of instruments in use on the Large Hadron Collider – Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Science Museum of Virginia named him a Virginia Outstanding Scientist for 2014.

Focused Ultrasound

Dr. Jeff Elias, a professor of neurological surgery and neurology, is known in some circles as the “Father of Focused Ultrasound” for the treatment of essential tremor, the most common movement disorder. Elias led an international clinical trial that tested the approach, which uses focused sound waves to disrupt circuits in the brain that cause uncontrollable shaking. It’s brain surgery without a scalpel, as there’s no need to cut into the skull. The procedure has been approved for the treatment of essential tremor by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Elias also is investigating its potential for managing the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease. The UVA Licensing & Ventures Group this year named Elias the Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year for his pioneering work.

In addition, focused ultrasound is being developed and tested for a variety of medical conditions, from neurological to urological diseases.

A HeRO to Detect Infections in Premature Infants

An innovative monitor invented at the UVA Health System, the HeRO, is used in hospitals across the country as an early warning system to detect deadly infection in tiny, prematurely born infants and for others at serious health risk.

In its early stages, sepsis, a severe bacterial infection, has few distinguishing symptoms, and it can escape diagnosis until too late. The illness accounts for half of the deaths among infants who require intensive care for more than a week.

UVA cardiologist Dr. J. Randall Moorman found that heart rate changes in babies appear 12 or more hours before the infants show clinical signs of illness. Moorman and his colleagues developed mathematical algorithms that analyzed the stream of data generated by the babies’ heart rate monitors, leading to the patented Heart Rate Observation System, or HeRO monitor. Using information already present at the bedside monitor, the algorithms determine the likelihood that an infant is developing illness, allowing for early intervention.

A Home Fertility Test

About 7 million couples in a year have fertility issues that make having a baby difficult. About half of the time, male infertility is the problem. The late John Herr, a professor of cell biology, urology and biomedical engineering who served as director of UVA’s Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health, focused his research on reproductive biology and made several breakthroughs toward developing a reversible contraceptive option for men and contraceptive vaccines for women.

His discovery of a sperm protein called SP-10 led to perhaps his best-known and most commonly used patented product, SpermCheck Fertility, a home sperm-count test for men available at drug stores across the country. The test allows users to know within 10 minutes the possible source of a couple’s fertility problems.

Herr also is listed as inventor on 64 issued patents and scores of pending patent applications throughout the world, and his legacy includes promising research shedding light on the fundamental nature of a variety of cancers and possible new routes to treatments.

Clean Water for the Developing World

A water purification tablet called MadiDrop+, developed at UVA and used by tens of thousands of people in 40 countries, is the brainchild of James Smith, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The continuously reusable ceramic tablet – small enough to fit in the palm of your hand – disinfects water by slowly releasing safe pathogen-killing silver ions. MadiDrop+ is designed for easy use; the tablet is simply set in a bucket of contaminated or potentially contaminated water, and within eight hours that water is safe to drink. A single tablet, which is priced for use by people with few financial resources, will treat up to 20 liters per day, enough safe drinking water for a large family. The durable tablet remains effective for daily use for one year.

MadiDrop is produced primarily for charitable organizations that aid people in developing nations and disaster zones.

A Heart Rhythm Solution

The Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center at UVA is one of the world’s premier centers for cardiovascular research. Its namesake, Berne, the late UVA physician and researcher, patented in 1987 a drug called Adenocard, which is used worldwide to treat heart arrhythmia.

Berne and laboratory fellow Luiz Bellardinelli discovered that the naturally occurring molecule adenosine plays a role in controlling blood flow to the heart and regulating heart rhythms. This led to the creation of Adenocard, which restores normal heart rhythm when someone suffers from sudden and potentially fatal arrhythmia.

Under Berne’s leadership, the major portions of the royalties from the patent were returned to UVA, and used to establish and endow the center that bears his name. The early work that led to Adenocard has spurred generations of new researchers and further advances in cardiovascular medicine at the center.

A New Understanding of Star Formation

A process called accretion plays a key role in star formation and contributes to the growth of supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. But how does it work?

UVA astronomer John Hawley, Hamilton and VITA Professor, and his colleague, former UVA astronomer Steve Balbus, solved a fundamental problem in astrophysics and transformed the field of accretion disk theory.

They determined that a mechanism called magnetorotational instability accounts for the process of accretion. The finding is so important it is now part of the standard theory of how black hole systems develop. Hawley also is known for work that transformed the use of computer simulations for astrophysics research.

For their work, Hawley and Balbus shared the 2013 Shaw Prize in Astronomy, Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. They split a $1 million award and received gold medals for “furthering societal progress, enhancing quality of life, and enriching humanity’s spiritual civilization.”

Surveying the Milky Way

Instruments designed and built by UVA astronomers for the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment, known as APOGEE, and installed at major observatories in New Mexico and Chile, are allowing astronomers worldwide to peer through dense cosmic dust scattered through the Milky Way and view stars at the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

UVA astronomers Steve Majewski and Mike Skrutskie and instrument scientist John Wilson built the infrared-sensitive spectrographs, allowing examination of the chemical composition and motions of hundreds of thousands of stars that otherwise would not be visible optically. Using data from their APOGEE instruments, astronomers are gaining new insights to how the Milky Way formed, how it is evolving, how similar other galaxies formed, and helping to identify potential planets in other solar systems.

Mass Spectrometry

Mass spectrometry is a powerful analytical technique that has led to advances in all fields of science, especially immunology, cell signaling, drug development, epigenetics and immunotherapy of cancer. Donald Hunt, University Professor of Chemistry and Pathology, is a pioneer in the field and is recognized for developing mass spectrometry instrumentation and methods for amino acid sequence analysis of the several hundred thousand proteins in the human body.

While mass spectrometry had its roots in physical chemistry, Hunt demonstrated early in his now half-century career that these tools could also be applied to living matter, and ultimately for biomedical uses, such as diagnosis and treatment of diseases, including cancers.

The winner of numerous awards for his groundbreaking research, Hunt is a co-inventor on more than two dozen patents and patent applications, has published more than 3,500 articles, and ranks among the top most highly cited chemists in the world.

Super Steel

Imagine a steel that is twice as strong as conventional steel and is exceptionally corrosion-resistant. And try to imagine it as amorphous – meaning, unlike most materials, it has a randomized arrangement of atoms and variable characteristics. That is what physics professor Joseph Poon and materials science professor Gary Shiflet invented.

The UVA Patent Foundation has since granted a global top-10 company the exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the amorphous steel, which can be used for making

electronic casings, corrosion-resistant structural coatings, surgical instruments and recreational equipment.


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