Tag: Philanthropy

Southern Research aims to speed drug discovery with 3-D bioprinting

Inside a Southern Research lab, a new 3-D bioprinter is silently stitching together a gelatin structure that mimics a human tumor, the device’s precise movements directed by a computer program’s highly detailed geometry.

In the future, Southern Research scientists will be able to use this tumor model, created with realistic three-dimensional architecture and implanted with living cells, as a revolutionary kind of testing platform to accelerate drug discovery efforts.

“Additive manufacturing technologies have the potential to improve how we develop drugs, which today is a hugely expensive process that too often fails,” said Stacey Kelpke, Ph.D., program manager for medical device technologies at Southern Research.

“With 3-D bioprinting, we can create models using human cells in a tumor that is structured just like you would see in someone’s body, increasing accuracy when drug candidates are being evaluated,” she added.

Southern Research additive manufacturing
Southern Research’s Stacey Kelpke shows Birmingham businessman Gene Robinson a computer image of an object being created by the 3-D Bioplotter. Robinson’s donation made the purchase possible.

Southern Research acquired its EnvisionTEC 3-D Bioplotter in June, thanks to a generous gift from Birmingham businessman Gene Robinson, who has become a champion of the game-changing potential of 3-D printing technologies. In further support of Alabama business, Southern Research purchased the Bioplotter from SWIGRO, an Auburn, Alabama-based company that is focused on additive manufacturing.

Robinson’s $100,000 donation was paired with $50,000 in federal grant funding to complete the purchase of the device capable of printing three-dimensional structures with biomaterials. Only a small number of the specialized devices are in use across the Southeast.

“Without Gene, none of this would have happened,” Kelpke said. “His vision will help advance drug discovery and development at Southern Research as we work to uncover new insights against a whole range of diseases and new therapies to combat them.”


Rebecca Boohaker, Ph.D., assistant fellow in Southern Research’s Oncology Department, said plans are already under way to integrate the 3-D Bioplotter into a sweeping range of future drug discovery research projects.

“We’re developing a skin model to test topical-based drugs that would protect against harmful agents that can be absorbed through the skin,” she said. “We can develop a 3-D lung model for cystic fibrosis for compound testing. That is aside from what I was initially interested in – tumor models. We can also develop 3-D models in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.”

During a recent visit to Southern Research, Robinson got an opportunity to see the 3-D Bioplotter in action, as the device meticulously built the structure of a miniature human brain, layer upon layer, in a demonstration.

Robinson, who has invested in an additive manufacturing company in Auburn, wants his gift to Southern Research to inspire other Alabama business leaders to make donations to spread the adoption of 3-D printing technology across the state. He’s also eager to see Alabama solidify its position as an emerging hub for the development of additive technologies.

“The business leaders of Alabama need to get behind this. We’re No. 1 in football, but that only goes so far. I want us to be No. 1 in additive manufacturing,” Robinson said.

Southern Research 3-D Bioprinting
Southern Research’s 3-D Bioplotter creates precise three-dimensional objects based on computer designs like this one of a miniature human brain.

Robinson, who founded the medical device company IMS in Birmingham, said he was interested in helping Southern Research acquire the 3-D Bioplotter because the device can make an impact.

“Since I sold my company in 2014, I have just been looking for something significant to do, something that can make a difference. You know, people donate to all kinds of causes, but what will make a difference? That’s what I asked myself. Then I called Stacey,” he said.


Thanks to its potential to industrialize the production of 3-D human tissues, Kelpke said bioprinting technology can help researchers address problems that have slowed drug development. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says current methods of delivering new drugs can take decades, cost billions of dollars, and fail about 95 percent of the time.

Today, for example, researchers use 2-D cell models for testing potential drugs for activity against certain diseases, Kelpke said. But the cell-to-cell interaction can be quite different when the compound is tested in animal models. There are also issues with testing results derived from animal studies, which can be misleading or disappointing.

As a result, most drug candidates fail in clinical trials because they are shown to be unexpectedly ineffective or toxic, despite encouraging results in early testing.

To accelerate the technology’s development, the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences has established a bioprinting project so its scientists can develop 3-D laboratory-grown human tissue models that can be produced efficiently and at scale.

At Southern Research, Kelpke and Boohaker are assessing the full potential of the 3-D Bioplotter for the Birmingham-based organization’s Drug Discovery team.

The potential seems unlimited. In addition to realistic tumor models, Kelpke said the device could be used to print cartilage for joint replacements. It also has potential in unlocking the mystery of how to get medicines for Alzheimer’s past a barrier that blocks the path to the brain.

“For us, it’s really just imagine how you can use it, and you can build a 3-D structure and validate it,” Boohaker said.

Robinson wants his gift to Southern Research to spark a movement to make Alabama a leader in this transformational technology.

“I just hope that business leaders across Alabama will take a moment and start investigating additive manufacturing technologies and seeing how they can embrace it for their companies, how they can invest in additive companies, or how they can embrace it for the state of Alabama,” he said. “We don’t want to lose this opportunity.”

Are you interested in joining Gene Robinson as a catalyst for discoveries that will change the world? Click here to donate.

Southern Research 3-D bioprinting
Southern Research’s 3-D Bioplotter creates an object based on a design controlled by a computer program. Southern Research plans to use the device to accelerate its drug discovery work.

Southern Research moving ‘green chemistry’ team to new Birmingham lab

Southern Research announced today that it has moved a team of scientists working to develop promising clean-energy technologies from North Carolina to a new state-of-the-art laboratory it is opening on the organization’s downtown Birmingham campus.

The research team, led by Amit Goyal, Ph.D., has devised cost-efficient, environmentally friendly methods to produce valuable industrial chemicals from sources such as waste materials and harmful carbon dioxide.

“These leading-edge technologies hold significant potential for commercialization and relocating our talented scientists to an ultra-modern laboratory in Birmingham will help them advance their important work,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO of Southern Research.

“We are committed to supporting the research being conducted by Amit’s team because it fully aligns with Southern Research’s core mission – finding innovative solutions to make the world a better place,” Tipton added.

Southern Research is investing $1 million to outfit an existing 7,200-square-foot building on its Southside campus as the Sustainable Chemistry and Catalysis Laboratory. Work is under way to install pilot-scale chemical reactors and other equipment at the facility. Funds raised through the recent Change Campaign effort are also helping to drive this important project forward.

The lab is expected to be operational by mid-February, and Goyal’s team, comprised of eight researchers, is already working full-time in Birmingham, according to Corey Tyree, Ph.D., senior director in Energy & Environment (E&E) at Southern Research.

“This will be a world-class lab where brilliant inventors are creating new technologies that offer a better way of manufacturing everyday products,” Tyree said. “This group is doing award-winning work, and now that work will be carried out right here in Birmingham, where Southern Research has made many groundbreaking discoveries in its history.”


Green Chemistry Southern Research
Amit Goyal leads a Southern Research working on promising clean-energy technologies that is being relocated from North Carolina to a new lab in Birmingham.

Goyal and his team have developed a method to convert biomass sugars into acrylonitrile, the chemical building block of carbon fiber, which is increasingly used in airplanes, automobiles and other manufactured products because of its strength and light weight.

The Southern Research process to produce acrylonitrile for high-performance carbon fiber is around 20 percent cheaper than conventional production methods and sustainable, lowering greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 40 percent.

Goyal’s team has also developed a process to transform CO2 into high-value chemicals known as olefins, which are used to make a sweeping range of products such as packaging, plastics, textiles, paints and electronics.

Energy-intensive methods are currently used to produce ethylene and other widely used chemicals in the olefin family, so the Southern Research technology could yield significant environmental benefits while also converting a greenhouse gas.

“This relocation represents an exciting and important opportunity to capitalize on significant Southern Research infrastructure and the scientific community in Birmingham,” said Goyal, director of Sustainable Chemistry and Catalysis for Southern Research. “This puts science at the heart of everything we do because our long-term success depends on improving R&D productivity and achieving scientific leadership.”


Mayor Randall Woodfin welcomed Goyal’s team to the city where Southern Research works to discover and develop new medicines, tackles engineering challenges for major government agencies, and researches energy and environmental technologies.

“Birmingham is increasingly becoming a key location for world-class research and a place where important discoveries are being made on almost a daily basis,” Mayor Woodfin said. “Southern Research’s decision to move its ‘green chemistry’ scientists to a new lab in the city will add to this momentum. I look forward to seeing their work advance in Birmingham.”

As a result of the team’s relocation, Southern Research has closed its office in Durham, North Carolina. The organization’s Environmental Technology Verification team, led by Tim Hansen, P.E., will continue to operate from the city, evaluating new clean technologies around the world.

Tyree said the decision to close the Durham office will yield cost savings and increase efficiency for the non-profit organization. The move also unites the Sustainable Chemistry team with other E&E researchers in Birmingham, who focus on issues such as energy storage systems and solar panel durability.

Southern Research opened the Durham office in 1992 to support work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which at the time operated a major research and development facility in Research Triangle Park.

In recent years, the work in Durham has focused primarily on various green energy technologies from the U.S. Department of Energy and other customers, making the location in North Carolina less necessary than when it was tied to the EPA work.


Southern Research’s inaugural Change Campaign advances key research programs

Founded in 1941 as a non-profit organization dedicated to improving lives throughout Alabama and beyond, Birmingham-based Southern Research and its scientists and engineers have made significant contributions to multiple fields in its history – including infectious disease, clean air, space exploration and national defense.

But in fall 2018, Southern Research elected to highlight its multi-faceted efforts in neuroscience, cancer research and “green” chemistry through the inaugural Change Campaign, a peer-to-peer fundraiser generating funds to support ongoing research efforts.

“Our passion at Southern Research is driven by hope: hope for a cure, for a cleaner, greener Earth and for lives to be changed – and ultimately saved,” said Southern Research President and CEO Art Tipton, Ph.D. “Donations to the Change Campaign allow us to continue to explore important scientific breakthroughs within high-risk, high-reward endeavors that are many times difficult to fund through traditional government grants.”

Southern Research
Researchers representing the three pillars under the Change Campaign: Amit Goyal (sustainable chemistry), Rebecca Boohaker (cancer research) and Rita Cowell (neuroscience). Image: Mary Margaret Smith)

Fundraising under the Change Campaign, which relied on volunteer “Change Agents,” began in September and lasted for 30 days. The campaign climaxed on Oct. 11 with a community event called the “Evening of Change” on the grounds of Southern Research’s downtown Birmingham campus.

The one-month initiative ultimately raised more than $200,000 while simultaneously building awareness of the organization’s groundbreaking work in select fields.

“Southern Research’s mission is simple – make the world a better place. Our teams are passionately developing innovative technologies that positively impact real-world problems. We cannot progress our efforts – or be successful – without the support of our partners and the community,” said Southern Research Development Officer Brynne MacCann.

The Change Campaign’s showcase of the following three pillars of scientific inquiry under way at Southern Research included:

  • Neuroscience: This department is devoted to discovering effective central nervous system therapies to prevent, treat or cure neurological diseases and mental health disorders. Investigators are exploring the underlying mechanisms of neuronal cell death and dysfunction in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, ALS and schizophrenia.
  • Cancer Research: Since Southern Research began its cancer research program in 1946, its scientists have saved countless lives through the development of effective chemotherapy techniques, the discovery of seven FDA-approved anticancer drugs and the testing of many medicines now on the market. Today, researchers are evaluating new treatment targets, investigating how to activate the immune system to kill tumor cells, and developing potential new anticancer drugs.
  • Green Chemistry: The goal of Southern Research’s work in sustainable chemistry is to develop environmentally friendly and cost-efficient methods for making valuable chemicals or products from materials essentially considered to be waste. Researchers have devised ways to convert waste biomass sugars into the building block of carbon fiber, as well as to transform harmful carbon dioxide into chemicals needed to make everyday products.

    Southern Research
    Southern Research President and CEO Art Tipton speaks at the Change Campaign’s ‘Evening of Change’ event. (Image: Mary Margaret Smith)


Southern Research’s staff of nearly 400 workers is structured along four operating divisions: drug discovery, drug development, engineering and energy and environment. Besides the Birmingham research complex, it operates laboratories and offices in Maryland, Georgia and Texas.

The organization has and will continue to pursue entrepreneurial and collaborative initiatives to develop and maintain a pipeline of intellectual property and innovative technologies that positively impact real-world problems.

In keeping with this commitment, Southern Research has also worked closely with BioAlabama in 2018, helping the trade organization bring more visibility to Alabama’s growing biotech ecosystem and the incredible work being done in the state. The industry’s impact on the state has been calculated at more than $7 billion annually.

Southern Research launches philanthropic outreach with $500,000 gift

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Southern Research, a non-profit organization marking its 75th year of operation in 2016, today launched a broad-based philanthropic outreach initiative that includes a significant employee giving campaign.

The Southern Research employee give campaign is targeting $1 million in contributions over five years to fund innovative research programs, needed capital improvements, equipment purchases, and other potential uses.

To kick start the campaign, former President and CEO John A. “Jack” Secrist III, Ph.D., has pledged a donation of $500,000 to create the Encourage Innovation Fund. The fund will be used to enhance the organization’s ability to attract talented researchers and to help them thrive once they’re on board.

Secrist is a noted scientist who retired from Southern Research in 2013 after 34 years, including seven as its top leader. His research focused on the development of new anticancer, antiviral and antibacterial agents, and he is the co-inventor of clofarabine, an FDA-approved treatment for pediatric leukemia.

“Southern Research has played a prominent role in efforts to discover more effective treatments for cancer, make man’s journeys into space safer, and develop new technologies for a cleaner environment,” Secrist said. “From its beginning, the organization has been a hotbed of innovation, and supporting it today means that it will continue to make important contributions well into the future. We appreciate being part of that future.”

To show their firm support for the initiative, Southern Research’s entire leadership team – comprised of 33 officials, from the CEO to the director level – has agreed to participate in the employee give campaign.

Before today’s public announcement, the employee give campaign had quietly generated commitments totaling $145,000, all from the organization’s leadership team. Coupled with Secrist’s substantial contribution, Southern Research is making a strong push toward the campaign’s $1 million goal.


In addition, Southern Research is taking steps to reconnect with the philanthropic community and with donors whose generosity enabled the organization founded in Birmingham in 1941 to become a world leader in cancer research and make noteworthy advances in other fields including clean energy, vaccine development and engineering.

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Southern Research seeks charitable donations to complement its traditional funding stream of research grants and contracts secured from government and commercial sponsors.

“As we celebrate our 75th anniversary, and beyond, we’re looking forward to reengaging with the philanthropic community and with donors who have helped Southern Research make a difference in the world,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO. “In fact, our cancer research program, which has been instrumental in saving countless lives with drug discoveries and therapeutic breakthroughs, got its start in 1946 with a single $25,000 philanthropic gift.”

As part of this outreach, Southern Research recently brought Brynne MacCann on board to provide administrative and tactical support to the organization’s fund-raising strategy. MacCann previously served as vice president for development at the McWane Science Center, and, prior to McWane, in development roles at the Birmingham Museum of Art and the MS Society.

Today, Southern Research’s four operating divisions focus on drug discovery, drug development, engineering, and energy and the environment. Its staff of more than 400 scientists, engineers and researchers work at facilities in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland and Texas.

Southern Research was incorporated on Oct. 11, 1941, as the Alabama Research Institute, and its name was changed three years later to reflect its regional focus. Over the years, the organization has conducted work on behalf of the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, major aerospace firms, utility companies, and many others.