April 22, 2013 — Faculty at the University of Utah make hundreds of inventions every year – everything from chemical processes and surgical devices to wheelchairs – but only the best researchers and inventors win the annual Distinguished Innovation and Impact Award. The award, now in its third year, is presented to exceptional faculty who have applied their research to serve the public through innovative new products.
Winners of this year’s Distinguished Innovation and Impact Award are Dale Clayton, Ph.D., a professor of biology, and Ric Harnsberger, M.D., a professor of radiology. Their contributions are vastly different – Clayton invented a device for killing head lice, while Harnsberger is revolutionizing the world of medical publishing. But what they have in common is a passion to help others by applying and commercializing their research.
“Faculty at the University of Utah have made enormous contributions to most fields of study, and there is a growing trend for faculty to commercialize their research, so it is extremely hard to select only a few to receive this award,” says Glenn Prestwich, a presidential professor of medicinal chemistry and founder of the Entrepreneurial Faculty Scholars, the group that selects the award winners.
Clayton’s story of how he invented the LouseBuster – a portable device that kills lice with heated air – illustrates the serendipity of basic research.
He has been fascinated by host-parasite interactions since he was a child. In particular, he studies the interactions between lice and pigeons. This research has broad – and often unexpected – applications, such as shedding light on early human evolution and why some species of parasites go extinct. Clayton came to the University of Utah in 1996 with this passion, and a series of mishaps led to his breakthrough invention.
Clayton’s research requires breeding lice on pigeons, but when he moved to Utah he discovered the lice were dying. Through persistence and imagination, Clayton discovered the lice were dying because of the dry climate in Utah, and he quickly realized he could use dry air to kill lice and make “clean” birds for experiments. About the same time, his children got head lice, which further fueled his motivation.
“The negative results of the lice dying in our dry climate proved to be more of a positive than a negative,” Clayton says. “That’s the beauty of academic research – you can follow your nose.”
Clayton and a team of student researchers first published their findings in the prestigious journal Pediatrics in 2006. Commercial development of the LouseBuster soon followed with support from the Utah Centers of Excellence Program. Through extensive testing, Clayton and his colleagues created all the necessary components to deliver the right amount of air at the right temperature, and for the right amount of time, to kill head lice and their eggs. The device was a big improvement on existing technologies – like specialized combs and shampoos – that can be time-consuming, toxic and which don’t kill eggs.
The LouseBuster was cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2009 and patented in 2010. It is currently marketed in 35 states and 21 countries by Larada Sciences, Inc. a Utah company that Clayton co-founded to develop the technology.
“I am very proud of the LouseBuster, because it’s an invention that is helping a lot of people,” Clayton says. “So far, we have put hundreds of devices on the market and treated about 50,000 people.”
Harnsberger was before his time when he started working on a project that became Amirsys, an innovative medical reference company he spun out of the University of Utah. The company’s premier product, STATdx, is an industry leader that has been licensed to 98 percent of radiology residency programs in the United States and used by over 30,000 radiologists in their daily work.
He came to the University of Utah in 1978 to study and practice radiology, with a focus on the head and neck. Harnsberger has become a leading authority in this area, publishing over 200 articles and 10 books in the past 25 years. When working with publishers, he became frustrated with the book industry, how it operated and how slowly it moved, and he turned this frustration into a business opportunity.
Harnsberger launched Amirsys in 2001 as a digital publishing company, but it was far from a traditional enterprise. Forming the core of the company are a web-based, authoring system and a database that contains every chapter, radiology image or color graphic the company ever published. All expert content is created using templates and is digitally tagged for easy searching. Equally important is Harnsberger’s network of academic physician contributors that now number in the hundreds. The result is a powerful resource for medical professionals who want easy access to the best information available to make a diagnosis.
More than 10 years later, Harnsberger’s foresight and publishing innovations have paid off in the form of multiple e-products (STATdx, ImmunoQuery, RADPrimer and AnatomyOne) used at the point-of-care by physicians worldwide. All these products are driven by data-based, expert content covering topics spanning radiology, pathology and anatomy. Altogether, the products contain about 20,000 case studies and 300,000 images – or the equivalent of roughly 2,500 books.
“I am a classic accidental CEO,” Harnsberger says. “I never imagined I would manage a company that produced innovative healthcare information solutions, but my passion for sharing information and helping patients drove me in this direction.”
The winners of the Distinguished Innovation and Impact Award will be honored during the University of Utah commencement on May 2 at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more about commencement at www.commencement.utah.edu.