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Research gets gold

Research gets gold

Described as “the equivalent of a desktop version of a mainframe computer” the smart red Spinsolve machine sitting on a lab bench at Victoria University is evidence, say its designers, that the vision of the late Sir Paul Callaghan is coming to fruition.

Spinsolve is an early product resulting from a $4 million dollar investment in research being carried out by scientists at Victoria and Magritek, the Wellington-based company founded by Sir Paul which makes scientific instruments.

The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer can produce information on the structure of molecules in a fraction of the time, and at a fraction of the cost, that it takes to do the analysis on traditional equipment.

“It’s also portable (larger NMR spectrometers have to be housed in a special facility and are expensive to maintain) and beautifully simple to operate,” says Dr Robin Dykstra, a senior lecturer in Victoria’s School of Engineering and Computer Science.

“We are seeing the results of the foundation laid by Sir Paul—most of us working on this research completed our PhDs under Paul’s supervision and we are making a reality of his dream of using science and technology to create a world-class, home grown industry.

“Paul would have been exceptionally proud of the research we are doing and we are proud to be taking his work to the next stage.”

The project, which is led by Dr Dykstra and Dr Petrik Galvosas, senior research fellow in Victoria’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, has received a sought-after gold star rating from its funder, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, which indicates a very high standard of achievement in terms of science discoveries and impact.

“What we are aiming to do,” says Dr Dykstra, “is move Magnetic Resonance (MR) out of the lab and the clinic and open up possibilities for it to be used in a whole range of new industries such as oil and gas, geothermal, chemical processing and biotechnology.

“There is significant international interest in MR because it is non-invasive and rich in information. Our group has a real technology edge in this field.”

Made partly in Germany and partly in Wellington, Spinsolve is being continuously improved but the current version is already proving popular among researchers in educational facilities and pharmaceutical companies around the world.

“Its performance is less than the large, superconducting magnet-based machines but it’s perfect for those wanting quick turnaround to regularly monitor what they are doing,” says Dr Dykstra.

The highly-rated research project has a number of work strands—Spinsolve is at the commercialisation end of the spectrum while another initiative, led by Dr Galvosas, is early stage and exploratory.

He and his team of researchers, which includes a young scientist recruited from an internationally renowned research group in China, are investigating ways of applying knowledge about testing porous media (Magritek’s technology is already used for testing how porous rocks are) to detecting breast cancer.

“Tissue is porous,” says Dr Galvosas, “so in theory our technology can be used to track the way fluids move through the tissue, providing accurate information about its structure.

“Our vision is to develop a simple, portable device which would sit on a doctor’s desk and be routinely used for screening, alerting the doctor if there was abnormality in tissue which needed further investigation.”

The advantages, says Dr Galvosas, would be significant. “Current scanning systems carry some risk—we are aiming to develop a machine which is an alternative to X-ray and to MRI systems that use chemicals for improved imaging contrast which may not be tolerated by all patients.”

Dr Dykstra says a key strength underpins the success the research group is having.

“It is the benefit of a long-standing collaboration between Victoria University and Magritek. Between us, we arguably have the best capability in the world to take MR ideas from concept through to product that is successfully marketed worldwide.”

Craig Holmes, Senior Sector Manager of Manufacturing and Resources at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, says an additional strength of the Victoria-based research is that it will deliver a competitive advantage to a range of New Zealand businesses.

“The Government is committed to ensuring we invest in purpose-driven research that benefits New Zealand, which is exactly what this work is doing. Firms which supply services and technology to Magritek will benefit from this research by gaining knowledge that will lift their technological capability, and, in turn, increase their international competitiveness,” he says.


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