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UA touts record year of 300 inventions, from potential AFib treatment to flame-retardant plastic

Researchers at the University of Arizona shared details on more than 300 inventions with Tech Launch Arizona last year, the university announced. The 303 inventions reported by university staff to the school's  “commercialization arm” are the highest number ever disclosed to the group in its nearly 10-year history.

The 303 inventions were disclosed from July 1, 2021 through June 30 of this year to TLA, which helps researchers and faculty license and make money from their findings. Last year’s inventions included developments in treatments for muscle tremors and heart arrhythmias as well as flame-retardant plastics.

The record figure comes after Tech Launch stepped up contacts with faculty and researchers on campus, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Doug Hockstad, the group’s associate vice president, said.

He described the 300 invention mark as “an obvious milestone.”

“We knew we would eventually hit this mark,” he told the Tucson Sentinel. “But it's always been a goal.”  

The number of inventions is expected to continue its upward trend as the University of Arizona nears $1 billion in research spending, said Paul Tumarkin, a spokesman for Tech Launch Arizona.

One of these inventions that the group was told about in the past year comes from Prof. Sam Harris, from the Cellular and Molecular Medicine Department. Her findings may change the way conditions such as atrial fibrillation and tremors are treated.

Harris’ hypothesis is that those conditions could be treated by targeting a specific protein called Myosin binding protein-C.

Her research has found that when portions of the muscle fibers responsible for contraction, called sarcomeres, are exposed to calcium, the sarcomeres can alternate between contracting and relaxing under specific conditions. This alternating can occur when there’s a lack of the protein, she said, which may contribute to AFib and other conditions.

Current treatments focus on addressing “upstream” signals to the sarcomere such as calcium, she told the Sentinel. However, arrhythmias and tremors could be reduced or possibly eliminated by targeting the sarcomere directly and adding the protein to the cells, Harris hypothesizes.

Another invention disclosed during the past year is related to dealing with a byproduct of fossil fuels.

Roughly 10 years ago a UA-based research team led by Prof. Jeff Pyun discovered a way of converting elemental sulfur leftover from oil refineries into plastics. For decades, fossil fuel refineries have taken out the byproduct of elemental sulfur, preventing acid rain, but there was no “high value chemical product” for the roughly 70 million tons of elemental sulfur produced each year, said Pyun, a professor in UA’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department.

“The reason that this is really attractive is because there's so much of it made from oil refining and no uses for it,” he said. “It is so cheap, and certain countries or certain entities will pay you to just take the sulfur. It's a huge problem, as a waste product.”

The next step was to display the uniqueness of the plastics made from the sulfur.

“So then you have to demonstrate why are these special, right?” he told the Sentinel. “And that's because they have all of these sulfurs in their backbone.”

This led Pyun’s team to find uses for the plastics in lithium-sulfur batteries, night vision glasses lens and now flame retardant plastic. The latest development comes in partnership with the Italian energy company Eni, Pyun said.  

Most of the roughly 400 million tons of plastic produced each year are “very flammable,” he said, while the plastic the team produced does not burn nor cause a fire from dripping.

“And then even if it does drip, the drippings aren't also igniting other parts, right? Beyond the initial material,” Pyun said. “That's kind of surprising because sulfur itself is super flammable.”

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The partnership with Tech Launch Arizona is very valuable, he said, because without it, faculty and researchers at the university would be creating technologies without getting licensing or royalties for them.

The impact of Tech Launch can be seen in the jobs and successful companies it's created in the area, Hockstad said. The organization supported nearly 1,300 jobs in Arizona in fiscal year 2021, according to its economic impacts report. TLA is expected to create $4.7 billion in economic output in the next 10 years, the report said.

The greatest impact of the institution is that which it has on people, Hockstad said.

“In the end, more than anything, it’s how many people are affected by these companies, by these technologies and everything else,” he said.

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Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Tech Launch celebrated the opening of its new offices in The Refinery building on May 25. Mayor Regina Romero attended the event (center right), alongside the group's Associate Vice President Dave Hockstad (center).