WisBusiness: The weirder side of WARF’s patents

By Brian E. Clark

Over the past eight decades, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, has helped patent and manage discoveries that have profoundly affected human health.

And, some might say, human history.

It started with research by UW-biochemistry professor Henry Steenbock, whose work in the 1920s lead to the eradication of the rickets, a childhood bone disease.

And just six years ago, WARF patented research by UW-Madison scientist Jamie Thomson that isolated human embryonic stem cells and has the potential to yield treatments and cures for hundreds of diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s.

But not every patentable discovery can be that earth-shattering. What about the thousands of other patents obtained by WARF?

Some of them, WARF administrators acknowledge, can seem a bit goofy at first blush.

Here’s a rundown on a few offbeat discoveries that have been managed by WARF in recent years.

  • Mechanical Leech – Believe it or not, parasitic leeches are still used in medicine to promote blood flow in tissue following surgery. And while they work, they are downright yucky.

    So, a team of scientists at the Middleton Memorial Veterans and UW-Madison developed a tiny medical device that replaces the bloodsucker.

    Not only is it more pleasant to work with, but the device disperses an anticoagulant drug, is insatiable and won’t fall off and reattach itself to another part of the body.

  • Laser Cheese Slicer – Under the "only in Wisconsin" category, Xiaochun Li, a mechanical engineering professor and laser expert, and graduate student Hongseok Choi, adapted "cold laser machining" technique, primarily used in laser eye surgery, to the task of cutting cheddar.

    They contend their idea can be a clean, precise and cost-effective way to cut cheese commercially, especially into very thin slices.

  • Hair Ball Zapper – Bezoars, the scientific name for hairballs, can be more than a nuisance for cats and their owners. They can make felines sick.

    Last year, Mark Cook, an animal scientist at UW-Madison, and a team of researchers came up with a nutritional hairball disolver that breaks up the fats that hold the balls together. While the food-grade fat emulsifier doesn’t eliminate the hairballs, it can trim their size by 50 percent.

    Nestlé Purina holds an exclusive license to the technology and has incorporated it into a new hairball-control cat food formulas that is now on store shelves.

  • Dog Knee Limberer – Just like their human masters, pooches can have joint problems. A new device developed by researchers at the UW-Madison Veterinary Medicine can help vets detect movement in weakened ligaments – especially in big dogs – before they rupture.

    The minute that happens, according to surgeon Mandi Lopez, arthritis sets in. Early detection could lead to preemptive surgery, which could restore the function of the ligament before it is destroyed and cannot be completely repaired.

  • Fast Plants – Watching plants grow can be, well, boring.

    But with Brassica rapa, the Latin name for a variety of wild mustard, it takes only 35 days to go from seed to seed-producing plant. Which makes it ideal for classrooms and a cash cow, so to speak, for WARF and the university.

    According to Andy Cohn, WARF spokesman, this relative of the cabbage is one of the biggest money-makers for the foundation, "one of the top 10 performers in recent years." It brings in buckets of money each year to fund further research efforts at the university.

    The little plant developed by Paul Williams, a retired UW-Madison botany professor, is the so-called "speed demon" of the plant world.

    It was first developed as a research tool for biologists anxious to see the real-life manifestations of their genetic tinkering. Over the past dozen years, it blossomed into one of the most successful and widely used organisms in science classrooms worldwide.

    The diminutive brassica developed by Williams has become a phenomenon in the world of science education. Textbook publishers and science curriculum developers are beating paths to Williams’ door.

    Williams estimates that Fast Plants are now used by as many as 10 million students each year. Nearly 70,000 teachers have been trained in their use as learning tools and every day requests for seeds, instructional materials and training pour in to Fast Plants headquarters in Science House on the UW-Madison campus.

    Fast Plants have even been lofted into orbit, flying six missions in specialized growth chambers aboard the space shuttle, the International Space Station and Russia’s MIR as part of NASA’s extensive classroom education projects.

    The educational value of Fast Plants, like their worth as research tools, lies in their ability to cycle quickly from seed to seed-producing plant. Given their rapid-fire life cycle, it is possible for students to track genetic and other changes through several generations in a given school term.