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2 months ago

Alabama’s burgeoning bioscience industry buoyed by research universities like UAH

With the help of in-state research universities like the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH), Alabama’s bioscience industry is rapidly becoming an economic driver, according to a recent report from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

In a press release on Wednesday, UAH discussed how the industry’s boom is a “rising tide” that “lifts all boats.”

The Yellowhammer State’s research universities account for $631 million in bioscience-related research and development (R&D) expenditures annually, which is equivalent to a whopping 69 percent of all academic R&D in Alabama. This is also well above the national average. In what is perhaps explained by Senator Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) influence on federal government appropriations, the state’s research universities receive nearly $298 million in funding every year from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Public sector leads the way

UAH, especially, has seen success with NIH funding and this is no accident. In 2012, the university codified as a priority its intention to become a recognized leader in the area of biotechnology education and research in “Expanding Horizons–A Strategic Plan: 2013-2020.” Pursuant to that priority was the need to increase expenditures and funding from sources like the NIH, which would support the collaborative efforts of UAH’s academic and institutional research units.

Today, the Huntsville university is well on its way to achieving that lofty objective. Since the strategic plan’s formulation, UAH has received more than $2 million in NIH funding, while making available several new biotechnologies for the marketplace through its Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC).

These concrete successes include the development of anti-fungal technologies, a method of extracting lipids from algae without dewatering, a microfabricated oligonucleotide synthesis tool, a chemically assisted rapid algae harvesting technique, a technique to produce recombinant proteins for crystallization using polymerase chain reaction-based gene synthesis, over the counter rapid detection of chlamydia, a novel T-cell immunotherapy that uses nanoparticles and a new way to deliver nucleic acids using a polyethylene imine-cytokine conjugate.

Private sector shares in the successes

The public university’s bioscience boom has also paved the way for several startups to spin off. Gene Capture, which has successfully demonstrated a completely new process for rapidly determining the genetic signature of a pathogen, is the brainchild of Dr. Krishnan Chittur, a professor emeritus in UAH’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, UAH biology professor Dr. Joseph Ng, UAH adjunct professor Dr. Mark Pusey, and UAH alumnus Jeff Dowell.

Gene Capture’s disposable test cartridge is about the size of a smartphone and can analyze a human or animal sample to detect the presence of a broad range of specific bacteria, viruses or fungi in less than an hour.

Dr. Ng is also the founder of iXpress Genes, which specializes in protein services and instrumentation, and protein and genetic engineering research, and enjoys exclusive access to a suite of hyperthermophilic genomes from the deep-sea vents of the Atlantic Ridge. Both companies are located on the campus of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, a not-for-profit biotechnology organization co-founded by UAH alumnus Jim Hudson and located in Cummings Research Park.

Kannan Grant, the OTC’s director, said, “North Alabama has a very robust and thriving defense and aerospace industry, but with the same mindset and expertise, we can diversify our economy by continuing to develop an equally robust biotechnology industry. We have done exceptionally well and need to continue on that trajectory – and our efforts should not just stop with biotechnology. We need to look at other industries as well, such as automotive, software, cybersecurity, and alternative energy technologies.”

Huntsville and UAH are mutually beneficial

For Dr. Jerome Baudry, endowed Pei-Ling Chan Eminent Scholar and professor in UAH’s Department of Biological Sciences, the opportunities afforded by both the university and its location in the thriving city of Huntsville have been integral to his ability to use high performance computing to push drug target-and-hit discovery into prediction of pre-clinical and clinical outcomes.

“I moved my research laboratory to UAH to leverage an academic and industrial R&D environment that is unique in the nation, thanks to UAH, the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology, and the many biotech companies in Cummings Research Park and beyond. By integrating my own academic R&D laboratory with industrial partners, I have seen the differences it makes to do my research here at UAH and in the Huntsville community,” Baudry outlined.

Baudry is far from the only doctor with this type of story. Dr. Surangi Jayawardena, an assistant professor of chemistry, has been able to successfully harness the resources of both UAH and the surrounding community to further her research designing point-of-care rapid diagnostic kits for pathogenic bacteria and exploring anti-infective nanotherapeutics to treat nosocomial infections.

“I synthesize my own nanomaterials and make the surface modifications to do biological conjugation to target microorganisms,” she explained.

In return, her rarefied skill set, like Dr. Baudry’s, not only enhances the university’s reputation but also that of the entire North Alabama region.

“I’m really glad to be here at UAH, because I bring a different angle to research, one that is geared toward medical applications,” Jayawardena added.

Strengthened by its research prowess, UAH’s academics are now fueling Alabama’s workforce

Complementing its impressive research efforts are the university’s academic programs, which serve as a much-needed pipeline for the region’s workforce. Today’s students – and tomorrow’s bioscience pioneers – have seven to choose from: Bachelor of Science degrees in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry, in biology with concentrations in microbiology and biochemistry, and in chemical engineering with a concentration in biotechnology; Master of Science degrees in biology and in chemistry; and doctoral degrees in biotechnology science and engineering and in nursing science with a concentration in omics.

Additionally, starting in the summer of 2019, a joint program with the Capstone College of Nursing at the University of Alabama – the Nursing Science Ph.D. – is poised to be the first online program of its kind as well as the first joint Nursing Science Ph.D. program in the state.

“An omics revolution is occurring in healthcare, and nurses are in a key position to be part of interdisciplinary teams who make scientific discoveries in biology at the molecular level that impact human health and the environment,” Dr. Pam O’Neal, an associate professor in UAH’s College of Nursing, advised. “Breakthroughs in disease treatment and health promotion with personalized medicine approaches will change the future of healthcare. With this program, we are on the frontier of exploring methods to improve and manage health by investigating genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, epigenomics, pharmacogenomics, microbiomics, and exposomics.”

Impact on Alabama’s aerospace industry

Also, laser-focused on the frontier of healthcare, and in niche Huntsville fashion, is the College’s Nursing and Aerospace Committee. Since 1970, it has been involved in space programs and research activities, partnering with not just UAH’s Colleges of Science and Engineering, but also with commercial and federal entities like the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

“The College has played a significant role in the history of aerospace nursing with its ties to the formation of the Space Nursing Society and given the current conditions of nursing and the aerospace industry. And it will continue to play a significant role in shaping this specialty by conducting research, collaborating with other institutes, and increasing humanity’s knowledge about advances in aerospace nursing,” Dr. Azita Amiri, an assistant professor of nursing and the committee’s chair, said.

The bottom line

While there are seemingly endless examples to share about the ways UAH has endeavored to fulfill its commitment to be a recognized leader in biotechnology, what binds them all together is vision – the university’s mission to be a preeminent, comprehensive, technological research-intensive institution known for “inspiring and instilling the spirit of discovery, the ability to solve complex problems, and a passion for improving the human condition.”

This, in turn, is combined with a much larger vision, one that sees the region and the entire state of Alabama at the forefront of the bioscience industry and growing through the support of trade organizations like BIO Alabama (which represents the state’s bio-related industries), research scientists, and clinicians. With entities like these working hand-in-hand, Alabamians hope that the strikingly upward trend of the last decade will continue well into the future, to the benefit of current and future generations.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

10 hours ago

Hoover protest leader calls for nationwide boycott of all stores, restaurants with locations at Riverchase Galleria

Carlos Chaverst, Jr., the president of the Birmingham Justice League and self-proclaimed leader of protesting in Hoover, on Tuesday called for a nationwide boycott of all stores and restaurants with locations at the Riverchase Galleria.

In a press release, Chaverst said, “In addition to protests resuming throughout the City of Hoover, The Justice League is attempting to coordinate efforts with grass roots organizations all over the country to boycott the stores and restaurants that are inside the Riverchase Galleria if their demands for justice and transparency are not answered! Those stores include Bath & Body Works, Belk, Dave & Busters, Express, Gap, GNC, H&M, JC Penney, Macy’s, Old Navy, Sears, Victoria’s Secret, and Von Maur just to name a few.”

He called this “broadening the scope of the boycott,” while adding protests will continue “escalating.”

Chaverst has been the face of protests since a Hoover Police officer shot and killed Emantic “E.J.” Bradford, Jr. on Thanksgiving night at the Galleria.

Chaverst listed the following demands in his Tuesday press release:


1. We want those individuals who knowingly lied about the events of Thanksgiving night leading to the murder of Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford, Jr. to resign or be terminated immediately!
2. We want Hoover to ask for a Justice Department investigation into its own police department for mistreatment of minorities (citizens AND officers on the police force).
3. We want a “Citizens Review Board” with subpoena power created by the City of Hoover.
4. We want to know the status (paid or unpaid?) of the officer that killed “EJ” Bradford and we want the City of Hoover to keep it’s word of having weekly updates.

To be clear, while Hoover officials apologized for initially misidentifying Bradford as the shooter of an 18-year-old and 12-year-old at the Galleria on the night of his death, there has been no public assertion by the Bradford family or their attorney that officials “knowingly lied.”

It should also be noted that Chaverst has accused the city of not sending out a weekly update this week, hence his last point in demand number four. However, the city and the police department did in fact issue that update as a joint press release on Monday, which was reported by Yellowhammer News and outlets across the state.

The investigation into Bradford’s death and the entirety of the Galleria tragedy is currently entirely out of Hoover’s jurisdiction and control, with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s (ALEA) State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) handling the case.

While Chaverst spearheads the protests themselves and acts as the public face of “the movement,” the Nation of Islam’s Birmingham leader, student minister Tremon Muhammad, is leading the boycott as part of a greater “war.”

In addition to Chaverst’s press release, he also took to Facebook to request that people donate money and items to the protesters, including bandanas, facemasks, first aid kits and “healthy snacks.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

13 hours ago

Proposed Waters of the United States guidelines praised as good for Alabama farmers, landowners

Federal officials proposed new Waters of the United States (WOTUS) guidelines on Monday to help protect farmers and landowners from intrusive government regulations, per a release from the Alabama Farmers Federation.

In their proposal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers clarified federal authority under the Clean Water Act.

Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell applauded the newly proposed definition, which excludes ditches from regulation unless they contribute flow to a perennial or intermittent stream.

“The proposed rule is good news for Alabama farmers and restores common sense to Clean Water Act enforcement,” Parnell said.


He continued, “For several years, farmers, businesses and homeowners have lived under the threat of government intrusion and costly penalties due to overaggressive actions of the Obama-era EPA. We appreciate the Trump administration, current EPA administration, Alabama’s congressional delegation and our state attorneys general for standing by farmers and landowners as we’ve fought back against the WOTUS rule.”

Under the proposal, federally regulated areas would include traditional navigable waters, tributaries to those waters, some ditches, certain lakes and ponds, impoundments of jurisdictional waters and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters.

The proposal also details non-waters of the U.S., such as areas that only contain water during or in response to rainfall, many ditches (including most roadside or farm ditches), prior converted cropland, stormwater control features and waste treatment systems.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall also thanked the EPA and Corps for investing time in a common sense rule that will allow farmers to comply with the law while protecting water resources.

“Clean water is our way of life. Preserving our land and protecting our water means healthy places to live, work and play,” Duvall outlined. “We believe this new Clean Water Rule is rooted in common sense. It will protect our nation’s water resources and allow farmers to farm.”

Today’s announcement is the second part in a two-step process to review and revise the definition of WOTUS consistent with President Donald Trump’s February 2017 executive order. The first step was initiating a repeal of the Obama administration rule, which was put in place in 2015 but is only in effect in 22 states because of a barrage of state lawsuits challenging it.

Various courts upheld the challenges and postponed the law from going into effect within the boundaries of a bevy of states, including Alabama.

A 60-day comment period on the second part of the process, proposing the revised rule, is now underway.

The EPA and the Corps will hold an informational webcast January 10 and will then host a listening session on the proposed rule January 23 in Kansas City, Kansas.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

13 hours ago

Greg Reed: A Medicaid program built around families and communities

The elections of November 6 are over, and now, in Washington and in Montgomery legislators again take up the task of governing. As the leader of Alabama’s 27 Republican state senators, my focus is on working with other lawmakers and Governor Kay Ivey to make state government more efficient and to keep job growth strong.

Reforming the state’s Medicaid program is one of the toughest challenges we face in the coming year. Medicaid, the federally-mandated health insurance program for pregnant women, children, low-income adults, the elderly and the disabled, is by far the largest line item in the state’s General Fund — Medicaid by itself accounts for 37 percent of all non-education state spending and its budget for the current year is $755 million. For context, state prisons consume 23 percent and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (state troopers) uses 2.5 percent of non-education spending.


The aging of America’s population as the Baby Boomers retire puts enormous stress on government-run health insurance programs like Medicaid. About 10,000 Boomers retire every day, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2035, the number of adults aged 65 and older in America will outstrip the number of children under the age of 18. In Alabama, the population of folks aged 65 and older is expected to grow by 25 percent between now and 2025. This coming demographic tidal wave threatens to swamp a number of government programs, including Medicaid.

For the past five years, I have worked with Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar to craft a new health care model that better serves the growing number of senior citizens in Alabama who are in Medicaid’s long-term care. Thankfully, this year Alabama received approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Washington to move ahead with the Integrated Care Network (ICN). This reform will offer senior citizens on Medicaid additional health care choices and is projected to save, over the long run, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Here is how the ICN will work: in October of this year, the state Medicaid agency partnered with an Alabama health care provider that will now serve the medical needs of the 23,000 senior citizens who are receiving Medicaid’s long-term care services, 70 percent of whom are in nursing homes. By partnering with an expert health care provider based in Alabama, Medicaid can offer its long-term patients better care — and thus allow more Medicaid recipients to stay longer in the comfort of their own home.

Medicaid recipients can still opt for a nursing home, and no benefits are changed under this new system. But by partnering with a health care provider that is an expert in managed care, Medicaid can bend the cost curve down, offer improved health care, and give more of Alabama’s senior citizens an opportunity to stay a little longer in their homes and communities.

For my wife and me, one of the greatest privileges in life is spending time with our parents — and as the years have passed, we, like so many Alabama families, have discussed the future and begun to plan for the day when our parents will need additional help.

As a legislator, I think often about how the policies that I vote on will affect the lives of my friends and neighbors. The Integrated Care Network is just getting started, but I am optimistic that this reform will improve the quality of life for many families in Alabama and put Medicaid on a sounder financial footing.

Greg Reed (R-Jasper) is the Alabama Senate Majority Leader and represents Senate District 5, which is comprised of all or parts of Winston, Walker, Tuscaloosa, Jefferson and Fayette counties.

14 hours ago

Sessions makes first speech since resigning as attorney general, still supports Trump’s agenda

MONTGOMERY — Speaking at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce’s 146th annual meeting on Tuesday, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered his first public remarks since leaving President Donald Trump’s administration.

Despite his forced resignation and having been on the raw end of several Trump tweets and public comments this year, Sessions graciously made clear that he still supports the work the president is doing, praising the administration’s successes and some ongoing agenda items in a roughly 20-minute speech. He did not directly address speculation that he could run to return to the United States Senate in 2020.

He did, however, add some levity to the situation, with the crowd of approximately 600 enjoying a few trademark Sessions jokes.

“I’ve had a few ups and downs in the last two years,” Sessions remarked while thanking Bishop Lawson and Cheryl Bryan, who were in attendance. “And every now and then, it’s good to know your bishop is praying for you.”


A couple of minutes later, Sessions spoke on some federal issues of note.

“On the Make America Great Again front, I will cite these words from Friday’s Wall Street Journal: Wage growth matched the highest rate in nearly a decade and unemployment held at its lowest rate in nearly half a century at 3.7 percent. This is the lowest rate since 1969,” Sessions outlined.

He continued, referring to his wife sitting some yards away from him, “That’s when Mary and I married – 1969.”

Sessions then spoke about the benefits of getting people working again across the nation, while saying that the workforce participation rate still needs improvement.

“So, personally, I’m attempting to chill out a bit,” Sessions said, transitioning away from speaking on the economy.

“You can be sure that I don’t follow the tweets as closely as I used to,” he added to great laughter and a smattering of applause.

Sessions added, “Having served in the Department of Justice for almost 15 years plus 20 on the [Senate] Judiciary Committee, I well knew that AG’s frequently face difficult choices and decisions which, almost inevitably, create some controversy. But this very public adventure, I gotta say, exceeded my expectations.”

The former attorney general and United States senator then continued to emphasize that he remains supportive of Trump and their shared agenda.

“I’m proud of President Trump’s policy agenda and to have had a part in it,” Sessions said. “He is driven to succeed and much of his frustration arises from his inability to move the bureaucracy to achieve what he believes oughta be achieved fast enough.”

Perhaps quoting Kanye West for the first time, Sessions commented, “[Trump] has dragon energy. Think that’s a good description of it, really.”

He then talked about his “love” for the Department of Justice, outlining the successes of his tenure in a similar manner to his speech in Hoover this fall.

“I poured my heart into our work and was pleased to be able to advance the president’s policies, which were my policies and good for America,” Sessions explained.

After listing some of the many accomplishments of his time as attorney general for several minutes, Sessions said that the DOJ’s recent work was just one way that “the rule of law” was being affirmed.

“First, and of monumental importance, the president continues to nominate the best group of highly qualified federal judges ever, in my opinion,” Sessions advised. “These judges understand that they adjudicate under the constitution – they’re not above it. And they know they are to be neutral umpires.”

In a timely manner with Tuesday’s announcement that Ben Shapiro will speak at the University of Alabama during the spring, Sessions also touched on his support of free speech on campuses.

“We’ve defended free speech on campus. Goodness gracious, [it’s] hard to believe the attacks on speech on campus,” Sessions said.

After getting into the weeds a little on more ways the DOJ defended the constitution under his watch, Sessions concluded his remarks.

“[W]e have the greatest legal system in the history of the world,” Sessions outlined. “This government, and especially the attorney general, must give his best effort every day to uphold and defend this heritage we have been so blessed to receive.”

“To that end, as God has given me the ability, I have been dedicated. I am satisfied our work has met the highest standards. Thank you for your friendship, your understanding, your support and for allowing me to represent the great people of this fabulous state. I love it. And of the United States. Thank you all and may God bless America and God bless this great state,” he concluded.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

15 hours ago

Ledbetter: Around a ’75 percent’ chance higher gas tax passes

The gas tax may be a foregone conclusion if you listen to the leadership of the Alabama legislature.

Infrastructure needs are undoubtedly a priority heading into the next legislative session; how they get addressed is the battle we will see fought out.

A gas tax of up to 12 cents a gallon has been discussed, but according to Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, the target for a tax increase in Alabama is more likely to be in the six to 10 cent range, which could raise between $180 million and $300 million dollars a year.

While appearing Tuesday on WVNN’s “The Dale Jackson Show,” Ledbetter was optimistic about the chances of the tax passing legislation.

Without any particular promises made, he referred to the need for a “clean bill” that he believes makes the passage easier.


In spite of that desire, there are pressing needs in every part of the state and constituents will want their needs addressed, but he agreed that every caveat carved out weakens the bill and makes it less likely to pass.

In the interview, Ledbetter signaled a strategy that will be unveiled to convince Alabama voters that a gas tax increase isn’t that bad and surrounding states have higher taxes so we should increase ours as well, arguing it would be a “reasonable” tax.

Ledbetter stated, “You know Georgia did 26 on gas, 29 on diesel with a five dollar lodging fee.”

“We’re not gonna do that,” he added.

Ledbetter then continued to point out Alabama’s higher tax neighbors, “Tennessee put 10 cents on, Louisiana put 18 cents on. I think we’re going to be more reasonable with what we do and we need to do it for the right reasons.”

A strategy for the gas tax is being unveiled before our eyes: using county commissioners to lobby legislators for a higher gas tax and compare Alabama’s taxes to our neighbors.

Will it work? Ledbetter said there is around a 75 percent chance it will.


@TheDaleJackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN