Plastics expert wins $500K Lemelson - MIT award
Thursday, 26 June 2008

AP, BOSTON  -- Consumers have environmentally friendlier plastics, patients in clinical trials have a new device to treat clogged arteries and we all might get disease-treating nanoparticles inside our bodies thanks in part to the work of one man, the winner of this year's Lemelson-MIT Prize.

The $500,000 prize to chemistry professor Joseph DeSimone was to be announced Wednesday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The prize recognizes people who turn their ideas into inventions that help change the world.

''The breadth of his inventions, and his ability to leverage his expertise across all these disciplines is really amazing,'' said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT program.

DeSimone, 44, has appointments as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at North Carolina State University.

He said in a telephone interview that his interest in chemistry blossomed during his childhood in suburban Philadelphia, in part because of a chemistry set. It belonged to his younger sister.

''Maybe it was just jealousy in wanting to have something she had that made me move in that direction,'' DeSimone said.

He said he was drawn in the 1990s to the emerging field of ''green'' chemistry and the search for environmentally friendly ways to make plastics.

That interest helped him develop a process to reduce pollutants left over from manufacturing high-performance plastics with applications such as nonstick cookware and insulation for wires and cables.

DeSimone's process involves substituting carbon dioxide for an acid normally used in the manufacturing process. This eliminated a chemical that can linger in the bloodstream and the broader environment, creating a potential human health risk.

DuPont Co. has licensed DeSimone's technology and built a $40 million plant that uses the technique in Fayetteville, N.C.; it went online in 2002.

DeSimone also teamed up with a Duke University cardiologist, Dr. Richard Stack, to craft an alternative to the metal that's normally used in coronary stents -- tiny mesh tubes that have been implanted in millions of people worldwide to hold arteries open after doctors push back the fatty deposits clogging them.

The stents can help prevent heart attacks and avoid the need for open-heart surgery. Doctors, however, have become increasingly worried over data showing that newer model metal stents coated with drugs can slightly increase the risk of potentially fatal blood clots forming months or years after the devices are inserted.

DeSimone and Stack developed so-called bioabsorbable stents made of a polymer that can hold arteries open while the body slowly heals. After about two years, the stent dissolves in the body, potentially reducing the risk of clotting.

After artery-clearing surgery, ''the artery needs to stay open, but the body needs to heal itself,'' DeSimone said. ''So why have a permanent stent inserted?''

The technology is now in clinical trials, but has yet to receive regulatory clearance.

DeSimone also has waded into the field of nanotechnology -- creating materials at the atomic or molecular scale.

His research team formed templates from synthetic material to mass-produce minuscule engineered particles that can be released in the body. Scientists hope to someday use the templates to custom-design and manufacture nanoparticles to aid in disease diagnosis and treat conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

''We're taking a technique from the semiconductor industry, and morphing it so it's useful in nanomedicine,'' said DeSimone, who plans to use the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT award to support additional scientific ventures.

The prolific inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, founded the nonprofit Lemelson-MIT Program in 1994.

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