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Anti-Cancer Compound Shows Promise in Pre-Clinical Studies

Gary Piazza, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, leads the Drug Discovery Research Center at USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute.

An anti-cancer compound developed at USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute in Mobile may help patients with pancreatic and breast cancer.

Gary Piazza, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, and his team at the Drug Discovery Research Center at MCI developed MCI-715.

“MCI-715 was designed to inhibit the activity of a specific protein overexpressed in cancer cells that drives malignant progression, as well as resistance of cancer cells to conventional chemotherapeutic drugs,” said Piazza.

Pre-clinical studies with MCI-715 in Australia and Alabama have shown promising results.

Researchers at Curtin University in Western Australia studied MCI-715’s effectiveness against pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), a highly aggressive cancer for which chemotherapeutic drugs provide limited benefits and are associated with severe toxicities.

“We were able to show that by targeting this specific protein with the modified drug, it significantly decreased the spread of PDAC and slowed tumor growth,” said Marco Falasca, Ph.D., professor at the School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences at Curtin University.

The findings are significant because the pancreatic cancer protein is known to be resistant to chemotherapy. “Any discovery that can improve the survival rates of patients with pancreatic cancer and provide another treatment option is significant,” Falasca said.

In Alabama, Clinton Grubbs, Ph.D., a researcher with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, found that MCI-715 was effective in a pre-clinical model of breast cancer prevention to a level comparable to tamoxifen. Tamoxifen is widely used to prevent the progression of breast cancer in high-risk patients but also is associated with severe side effects.

“Based on these data, a second study is planned to further evaluate efficacy and toxicity in a more comprehensive manner,” said Grubbs, director of the Chemoprevention Center in the UAB Department of Surgery.

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama supports a joint grant that funds Grubbs’ and Piazza’s research.

The results of the two independent labs, along with studies at MCI, provide evidence that MCI-715 has promise. “These results support the need for further preclinical studies to further assess the efficacy and safety for the prevention or treatment of cancers,” Piazza said.

Tuskegee Researchers Find Promising Way of Capturing Carbon Dioxide

Donald White (left) is an engineering doctoral student at Tuskegee University, working with Dr. Michael Curry, associate professor of chemistry.

Scientists working at Tuskegee University have found a bio-based material that shows promise for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — a more immediate solution to climate change than revamping land and forestry usage or geo-engineering.

Dr. Michael Curry, an assistant professor of chemistry, and engineering doctoral student Donald White are working in a National Science Foundation-funded project with nanocellulose derived from agriculture waste products.

“Nanocellulose is a natural material that can be found in abundance on this planet,” says Curry. “Using this material to develop new technologies for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide will only push the boundaries of science toward the development of new systems that promote a cleaner and cooler atmosphere.”

Curry and White’s process uses “naturally occurring plant-based materials as filters to remove dangerous carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere,” the university reports.

Noting that carbon dioxide levels have risen dramatically ever since the Industrial Revolution, Curry links that rise to increasing global temperatures and the frequency of extreme weather events.

“We made this problem,” Curry says, “but by developing and employing the appropriate technology to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we can also make a better, healthier plant for centuries to come.”

Sen. Doug Jones to Keynote Israeli Tech Partnership Event

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, will give keynote remarks next week at a conference on creating technology partnerships between Alabama and Israeli businesses.

“Opportunities for Technology Partnerships Between Alabama and Israeli Businesses” is set for Tuesday, Aug. 20 from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Alabama Power Co. Auditorium, 600 18th Street North.

The event is being put on by the Birmingham Business Alliance, Conexx: America Israel Business Connector, the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation and Alabama Power Co. It will include an overview of Israel’s technology ecosystem and a panel of business leaders on doing business in Israel.

According to Conexx’s Barry Swartz, Israel is home to more start-ups than the entire European Union and is second only to Silicon Valley in terms of the volume of start-ups it produces. Technology like Waze, a GPS navigation software app now owned by Google, and Mobileye, which was purchased by Intel for $15.3 billion in 2017, were created in Israel. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and others all have a major presence in the country.

Swartz says there will be individuals on hand to facilitate a relationship between Israel and Alabama companies looking to explore Israel’s innovation and technology, as well as possible mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures and alliances.

The event is free but does require registration.

Promoting Entrepreneurship with New Collaboration

A push by The University of Alabama to promote entrepreneurship throughout the Tuscaloosa region is increasing with a realignment of resources to better support innovators.

The Bama Technology Incubator, an on-campus laboratory space, will change its name to Edge Labs, serving as a counterpart to The Edge, a 26,000-square-foot, off-campus business incubator that opened in February as a collaboration among UA, the city of Tuscaloosa and the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama.

Edge Labs features laboratories and equipment that new businesses need, as well as the technical infrastructure that will help UA faculty, researchers and students develop and test processes and prototypes that can be translated into products for the marketplace.

“Among the strategic goals of The University of Alabama is improving the impact of activities that positively affect regional economic development,” says UA President Stuart Bell. “This restructuring of our resources will go a long way toward meeting that shared goal.”

The name change to Edge Labs represents a shift of purpose for the facility.

“The goal of this change is to further align the ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship on the UA campus and in the Tuscaloosa area,” says Russell Mumper, UA vice president for research and economic development. “This partnership is a collaboration between UA’s Office for Research and Economic Development and the Culverhouse College of Business.”

The university’s Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute, or AEI, is a program managed by the Culverhouse College of Business, and will integrate Edge Labs into an overall suite of resources to support new and established business growth.

“There will now be a pipeline that directly connects the new and established entrepreneurs and business advisors at The Edge with the technical experts who are in place at Edge Labs,” says Theresa Welbourne, executive director of AEI.

The Edge, located about 1.5 miles from the UA campus, is an $11.7 million facility that includes 20 offices, 100 workstations and several conference rooms, all offered to entrepreneurs, people seeking to build their businesses and individuals who need networking and working space. The Edge Labs is located on the northern end of the UA campus, close to the Ferguson Student Center.

For more information on AEI, visit entrepreneurship.ua.edu.

Inside the Life of a Private Detective in the Digital Age

Computers speed up records searches, but they don’t replace the value of face-to-face views of people and places, says Max Hansen. Photos by Brad McPherson

A Daphne, Alabama conference room houses a display like no other. The trophy case contains surveillance tools, data recovery systems and spy gadgetry of all descriptions. With tracking devices, bugging equipment and pinhole cameras, it is like stepping into James Bond’s attic, except 007 is fiction. Baldwin Legal Investigations is real.

How real? “Give me your name and birthdate,” says the firm’s owner and CEO, Max Hansen. I did. Fifteen minutes later, he presented a 52 page “Story of Emmett.”

The half-inch thick volume in single-spaced text includes every house I have lived in and current owners, automobiles I have owned, 20 neighbors and contact information. Listed also are 20 friends with phone numbers, my relatives, interests, hobbies, credit history, cell phone numbers, email address and previous arrests (none).

Thumbing through my report, Hansen speaks what you want to hear from a private investigator — “You’re a pretty boring guy.”

For others the verdict is different.

The “scatter” or “shotgun” report is an example of computers empowering detectives. Gathering the same information just 10 years ago required weeks of pounding the pavements. Today the process is digitally done in minutes.

State licensing was a catalyst. “It’s been a game changer,” says Barry Hodgens, of Hodgens Investigative Services in Cropwell, near Birmingham. He refers to the Alabama Private Investigation Regulatory Act, a relatively new law empowering state detectives with some pretty cool search engines and more. But Hodgens, an investigator primarily covering personal injury, wrongful death and industrial accidents, adds that, though the law is a good start, it’s not the end.

“We need to beef it up,” says Jonnie Munn, president of the Alabama Private Investigators Association and head of Corporate Special Services Inc. in Birmingham. Referring to the state regulations, he adds, “It is lacking.”

In addition to being APIA president, Munn’s private investigative work includes workers compensation, injuries, surveillance and background checks. He notes, “Under current requirements, one must take a test, pay the fee and prove U.S. citizenship to be a licensed private investigator in Alabama. But the legislation should include minimum standards, an apprenticeship license, at least two years’ experience in related fields and/or a combination of education in criminal justice, law enforcement or political science.”

He adds that the APIA hopes to submit a proposal covering all of the above to the Alabama Legislature by next year’s session. “We want to offer training and bring in new people, but we also want our people required to obtain the training to be professionals.”

“With the exception of Mississippi, Alabama is the only nearby state that does not have similar training and standard requirements,” Munn says. Hopefully, according to APIA, that will soon change.

But Alabama’s private investigators are benefiting from tools now available electronically, along with old fashion gumshoe work.

A tiny video camera just above the clasp on this pen can be a valuable tool for a private eye.

“Once I have your name and birthday, I’ll find you,” claims Hansen, whose agency work includes 17 to 23 capital murder cases annually. “We use a variety of search/database tools,” he adds, referring to services like Tracers, TLO and IRBsearch — many available only to licensed private detectives and law enforcement officers.

“We do the same work we have always done — track, gather information, report it to clients,” says Hansen, acknowledging electronic tools of the trade. “But with computers, we do it much faster.”

The private eye eyes a lot. Cases are an assortment: insurance fraud, domestic relations, industrial and automobile accidents, wrongful death, embezzlements, missing persons, child support, homicides and more. Some detectives cover a wide variety. Others specialize, such as in insurance fraud. Some are hired for expertise in specific skills like building and installing custom tracking devices not much bigger than a postage stamp that can track a car anywhere in North America.

With the computer came the digital detective. Many search engines are only available to licensed professionals. But others are free, and one is referred to by detectives as “the gift that keeps on giving” — social media.

“The beauty of Facebook is that we don’t have to look for the information,” Hansen notes. “You give it to us. It would amaze you the amount of information we glean from social media sites without having to dig for it.”

Barry Hodgens agrees. “To most people, services like Twitter and Facebook are social media outlets. To us it is a resource tool, continuously updated by the people using it.

“No matter how much warning they receive, people do not realize or care that social media posts never go away. They still will say anything online.”

And police and other investigators, with some training and skills, can find patterns in those social media posts, the PIs say. They look not just at the suspects but also whom they hang out with online. Detectives search what suspects are posting, where they go online and what they do while there.

However, all detectives interviewed adamantly stated that, regardless of the digital tools used, nothing replaces old fashioned boots on the ground. “At the end of the day, you still have to be a good interviewer and know how to read people,” says Hodgens, whose 30 years of job experience includes the FBI. “I need to physically see a car crash site and must see the witnesses to determine their truthfulness.”

And even though many tools in the detective’s arsenal are available to the public, knowing how to legally obtain information from bugging devices and tiny hidden microphones and cameras is something the public does not understand. Using such gadgets without a license can be illegal. New detectives learn that, but not overnight.

The training is demanding. Hansen notes, “I sometimes worry that younger, new detectives use computers as a crutch. It is a tool, not the end-all, in good private investigative work.

“We hire people in our firm with criminal justice degrees, law enforcement backgrounds or both,” adds the investigator with 28 years’ experience. “Our people spend a year in-house apprentice training.”

“The job is not for everybody. It’s a tough slot to fill,” he continues. “You must have self-confidence and you cannot be timid.”

Good interviewing, writing and data collecting skills are essential. “I cannot emphasize enough to my people — verify, verify, verify. The information you gather, decisions you make, reports you produce will change someone’s life — good or bad — forever,” Hansen warns.  “I never forget that.”

Munn adds, “In our business we talk to a wide variety of individuals — doctors, professionals, felons, drug addicts, you name it. A good investigator must know how to read people who don’t always want you reading them.”

Detectives interviewed agreed: Gone are the days of trenchcoat-wearing private eyes, except in movies. Hollywood reminisces the romance of days when Humphrey Bogart engaged in shootouts with people he was tailing.

“My insurance carrier would not go for that,” says Hansen. “But back in the day, this business was like the wild, wild West as far as qualifications were concerned. Basically all you had to do was say ‘I’m a private detective,’ and you were one.”

Even if the job is tamer now, there are still risks, Barry Hodgens notes. “You don’t always go in the best neighborhoods. I have experienced situations where I feared for my life. There are times I wear body cams.”

Detectives often work in the same environment police do. But as Hansen says, “When a private detective is in a bad situation, we can’t call for back up. There is no back up.”

But, at the end of the day, the rewards are great. To many, the world of detective work is in their blood, fascinating and a rewarding endeavor where no two days are the same. On Monday, the task is embezzlement charges. On Tuesday, a homicide. Who knows what the week may bring?

“But I love what I do,” Hansen says. “Every day is different, and every day you help people. We help see that justice is served.”

Emmett Burnett and Brad McPherson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and McPherson in Mobile.

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