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Students Win Collegiate Inventors Competition

October 19, 2004

Shad Thaxton, a Northwestern doctoral student, and Jwa-Min Nam, a recent graduate of Northwestern who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, are the 2004 graduate student winners of the Collegiate Inventors Competition, a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Thaxton, Nam and their advisor Chad Mirkin, George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry, have invented a new technology that allows them to find miniscule amounts of microscopic biological materials, useful in medical testing. Because their invention, which they call “bio barcode amplified detection systems,” is so much more sensitive and precise than previous types of tests, it could be used to detect chemical signs of Alzheimer’s disease or types of cancer far earlier than conventional tests.

Thaxton and Nam receive a $25,000 prize, and Mirkin receives $5,000. This is the second year in a row that students of Mirkin’s have won a prize in the competition.

The invention stems from the recognition that tiny bits of protein control many types of bodily functions, both normal and abnormal. Abnormal conditions can often be diagnosed by detecting bits of protein. Hard-to-diagnose conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to mad cow disease are hard to pinpoint because there are very few proteins in blood or other biological samples, especially early on in the course of the disease.

Working together, Thaxton, Nam and Mirkin figured out a way to attach bits of iron to the specific protein molecules they seek. They also used nanosized gold particles to attach numerous bits of DNA, which is so easy to spot and identify that they dubbed this DNA as their “bar code.” By using magnets to attract the bits of iron, the inventors conducted simple tests on samples and then looked for the bio barcodes.

Competition winners were announced Oct. 2. One undergraduate winner, one graduate winner and one grand prize winner were selected from 14 finalist teams, selected earlier from 120 original entries from universities around the world.

Now in its 15th year, the Collegiate Inventors Competition is an international competition designed to encourage college students to be active in science, engineering, mathematics, technology and creative invention. This prestigious challenge recognizes and rewards the innovations, discoveries and research by college and university students and their advisors for projects leading to inventions that can be patented. The National Inventors Hall of Fame is located in Akron, Ohio.

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