Blackwell Group’s Infection Disrupter Garners WARF Innovation Award

A new oat offering tasty ways to lower cholesterol and compounds capable of disrupting serious bacterial infections earned top honors in this year’s Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Innovation Awards program.

The BetaGene Oat, developed by UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences researcher John Mochon, was celebrated for its improvement over standard varieties and its potential to expand the oat market to products that could claim the cholesterol-lowering benefits of its soluble fiber, beta-glucan. The BetaGene oat is one of a few varieties to exhibit consistently high levels of beta-glucan — up to 8 percent content by total fiber weight.

The plant may be of particular importance to Wisconsin agriculture; in recent years, state farmers have led the nation in the production of oats. The BetaGene variety results from 15 years of natural breeding techniques and possesses capabilities for normal breeding, seed and tissue production.

Currently, 89 percent of oats for the consumer market end up as oatmeal. However, the potential for the new BetaGene variety includes use in other food products that might incorporate the grain as a means of achieving heart-healthy label claims. On average, BetaGene oats are 2 percent higher in beta-glucan than other oat varieties on the market; that 2 percent advantage translates into a 20 percent boost in beta-glucan levels when the oats are processed into food products.

“This project has been years in the making, but we felt the natural breeding techniques were important and would aid consumer acceptance of a grain that also offers proven health benefits,” said Mochon, small grains breeding program manager in the agronomy department. “We are honored by the recognition from WARF and are excited about the prospects for BetaGene to make a difference.”

Professor Helen Blackwell
Professor Helen Blackwell

The peptide-based compounds capable of disrupting serious bacterial infections are the work of Helen Blackwell, a UW-Madison chemistry professor, and collaborators Danielle Stacy and Yftah Tal-Gan. The researchers focused on the “quorum-sensing” ability of bacteria — the signaling process bacteria use when enough are present to begin multiplying, forming toxic biofilms and producing tissue degrading enzymes.

Blackwell’s team chose Staphylococcus aureus for its work because staph infections result in a wide range of problems, including skin ailments, heart valve inflammation, toxic shock syndrome and serious hospital-acquired infections. In recent years, staph infections have demonstrated growing resistance to antibiotics, including the “last resort” drug vancomycin.

Blackwell’s compounds disrupt the ability of staph bacteria to signal to one another by interfering with AgrC signal receptors and undermining group coordination. In the case of the staph strain responsible for toxic shock syndrome, the signaling interference reduces toxin production by more than 80 percent and the compounds may be combined with antibiotics for synergistic benefit.

“We appreciate this recognition and the support we have received from throughout campus as we continue our work,” Blackwell said. “We are scaling up our ability to synthesize these compounds and look forward to next steps in the process to develop effective treatments to help people fight off these debilitating infections.”

The WARF Innovation Award winners were chosen by an independent panel of judges from among more than 350 invention disclosures submitted to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation over the past 12 months. The winning inventions each receive an award of $5,000, with the funds going to the UW-Madison inventors named on the breakthroughs.

Other finalists included:

  • Josh Coon and Alex Hebert for NeuCode, custom-tagged reagents for mass spectrometry;
  • David Wood and Somayeh Sardashti for SuperTag, a compressed computer cache that improves capacity and reduces energy use;
  • Bruce Klein, Tristan Brandhorst, Thomas Sullivan and Marcel Wuethrich for a vaccine that promises to prevent infection by a wide variety of pathogenic fungi;
  • James Dumesic and Jeremy Luterbacher for a method of producing soluble carbohydrates such as glucose, xylose and other sugars from biomass; and
  • Padma Gopalan, Daniel Sweat, Jonathan Choi and Myungwoong Kim for block co-polymer chemistry that enables smaller and more efficient integrated circuits.

Story by Jennifer Sereno, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation