Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Aug. 30, 2012 Volume 34, No. 2

Five research projects receive funding from Coulter partnership program

Alternate text

AWARDEES Li-Qun Gu, left, and Michael Wang are working on a method for early detection of lung cancer that eventually could save thousands of lives each year. Photo courtesy of the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center


Coulter project funds distributed through 2015

Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide, making research into its early detection a priority among scientists.

Two MU biomedical scientists are working on a method for early detection of lung cancer that eventually could save tens of thousands of lives each year. Li-Qun Gu, associate professor of biological engineering, invented the method, then collaborated with Michael Wang, associate professor of pathology and anatomical sciences, to develop it. The invention detects molecules in blood called microRNAs that suggest the presence of lung cancer about one year before the disease is symptomatic.

Early detection means cancer cells can be treated sooner, and the patient can expect a better prognosis. “This creates a much better outcome for the patient,” Wang said.

In June, MU officials announced that Wang and Gu’s cancer research and four other campus research projects would receive funding from the Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program at the University of Missouri. 

Below are the other MU scientists receiving project funding:

• Raghuraman Kannan, assistant professor of biological engineering, and Gerald Arthur, research assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences, are developing a companion diagnostic that qualifies patients for individualized chemotherapy.

• Sheila Grant, associate professor of biological engineering, and Richard White, assistant clinical professor of orthopaedic surgery, are working on improving tissue grafts for ACL patients.

• John Viator, associate professor of biological engineering, and Stephen Barnes, chief of acute care surgery at the School of Medicine, are developing a photoacoustic instrument that will aid doctors treating burn patients.

• Gan Yao, associate professor of biological engineering, and Judith Miles, professor emerita of child health genetics at the School of Medicine, are creating a way to assess neurodevelopmental disorders in infants at an early stage.

The funding comes from a $5.2 million grant agreement with the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation through the Translational Research Partnership. The funds support collaborative projects between biomedical engineers and clinicians, with the goal of taking biomedical research innovation to clinical practice.

In 2011, Coulter agreed to provide $200,000 in startup funds as well as $666,667 each year for five years, while MU kicks in $333,333 per year over the same period, totaling $5.2 million. Each research project this year will receive about $100,000.

A Coulter awards ceremony will be held 10 a.m. Friday in the Great Room of the Reynolds Alumni Center. All are invited to attend.

The funding helps fill a critical gap between patent-ready university research and when it becomes attractive to investors, said Jake Halliday, the Coulter Translational Partnership Program Director. During the gap, worthwhile projects can go bust due to fiscal constraints.

“Coulter ‘gap funding’ is expressly to enable MU researchers to do additional work on their innovations to move them from where they sit today to the point where they can attract the interest of venture capital sources or established biomedical companies willing to license and commercialize the technologies,” Halliday said.

Mizzou is one of about 15 American universities receiving the funding award. 

Wang and Gu have been researching the blood-test method for early detection of lung cancer for about two years. Last year, their research was published in the peer-reviewed journals Nature Nanotechnology and the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Pathology. 

The scientists examine blood plasma samples to detect changes in microRNA, which are microscopic ribonucleic acids released by lung cancer cells. When a panel of microRNAs is detected, there’s a good chance the cancer is present.  

The Coulter funds will help the scientists fine-tune detection of the blood molecule and perform clinical testing over the next year.

Currently, successful detection of microRNA occurs 80 percent of the time, Wang said. The big hurdle will be setting up clinical studies, he said. Participants must be current or former heavy smokers age 50 or older with no symptoms of lung cancer. The majority of lung cancer patients are smokers; 20 percent are nonsmokers.

Wang said the detection method could be widely accepted because it’s noninvasive and relatively inexpensive. Wang and Gu’s research may find applications in early detection of heart disease, diabetes and other forms of cancer, he said.

When will this technology be available as a routine screening in doctors’ offices? “That’s the million dollar question,” Wang said. “We need a large scale longer-term trial to verify the findings before moving to the medical laboratory.”

Contact Wang about clinical issues by emailing Contact Gu about biotechnology issues by emailing Contact Rebecca Rone about program topics by emailing