Research Equipment for the Next Generation

John and Ryan with their equipment.

John Harkness and Ryan Todd want to make lab equipment practical, affordable and beautiful.

Postdoctoral fellow John Harkness and scientific assistant Ryan Todd were working in Barbara Sorg’s neuroscience lab on the WSU Vancouver campus when they ran into an expensive equipment problem.

They were investigating sleep deprivation in rodents by examining how structures surrounding neurons, called perineuronal nets, change throughout the day and during periods of limited sleep. They believe perineuronal nets are important for regulating neural plasticity and could be important in storing memories—with potential clues for treating various addictions.

They needed “sleep deprivation boxes,” which prevent mice or rats from sleeping for a period of time. The Sorg lab hypothesizes that neurological changes occur from lack of sleep that makes the brain more susceptible to drug addiction. Once a rat is sleep deprived, the researcher can measure drug-seeking behaviors over time and see how perineuronal nets are involved.

Although these boxes are available commercially, they cost upwards of $3,000 apiece. Multiplied over the number of devices needed for a study (typically 6 to 24), the cost is prohibitive for a small lab’s budget.

“We don’t have that equipment, so Ryan and I started building it,” Harkness said.

Inventing from necessity

Their prototype is “really simple,” Todd added, “but it does what we need, and better than anything else on the market.”

To measure the effects of sleep deprivation in the brain, Sorg wanted the animals to be kept awake but without stressing them. Harkness and Todd’s solution was simply to use the rat’s home cage instead of a specialized sleep deprivation box, and just to add a little wheel in the middle (called an agitator trolley) that runs back and forth so the rat has to keep out of its way. The box is roomy enough for the rat’s food and water. “Nothing in the rat’s environment has changed,” Harkness said.

Todd did the mechanical engineering for the project, and Harkness coded the computer that can control up to eight devices simultaneously. The trolley can be remotely operated from a researcher’s desktop computer, a laptop and even a smartphone. The box is installed on a platform, next to a small computer that controls the agitator trolley.

“It’s easy to repair, adjust and clean,” Todd said. A researcher could easily add monitoring equipment to see what’s happening in the rat’s brain while the device is running.

Empowering the future of science

Harkness and Todd worked with WSU’s Office of Commercialization on a preliminary patent. Then, realizing that other researchers could also benefit from using the device, they applied for a Commercialization Gap Fund award. They received $50,000, which will fund the continued development and validation of the device, and help them bring it to market.

In addition, Harkness and Todd founded a company, Rewire Neuroscience, to bring the product to market. “Our vision for this company is that it’s built around the future of neuroscience,” Harkness said. “We want to help early career investigators build their own equipment that’s customizable and cheaper than what’s available now.” (For more information, see Rewire Neuroscience on Facebook.)

News about their work first appeared on the ResearchNow! website for WSU Vancouver. Rewire Neuroscience has the distinction of being one of very few companies to spin off from research on the WSU Vancouver campus.

“This is a really exciting venture for the investigators, the neuroscience program and WSU Vancouver,” said Christine Portfors, associate vice chancellor of research and graduate education and a professor of neuroscience.

Rewire Neuroscience has also developed an online publication called the Journal of Abstracts ( Young researchers are already seeking it out. Researchers can upload their science posters—work often done in grad school but seldom recognized beyond—to the Journal of Abstracts and get their work seen before the long process of publication in a traditional journal can take place.

“It’s part of empowering the future of science,” Harkness said. “It’s difficult for students to get their names out there before they have a lot of publications. Graduates and undergraduates present a lot of posters at conferences. Then the posters die in a box, and the data never sees the light of day again.”

“I see this as bridging that gap between the work a lot of people do in labs that might go unseen, and their next job or grad school,” Todd said. “They can now send a link to someone who can look at all of the posters they’ve been on, and potentially collaborate with them.”

Harkness, who earned his doctorate at Oregon Health and Science University, and Todd, who has a master’s degree in whole systems design from Antioch University in Seattle, are a good pair. “We both appreciate the challenge of coming up with these ideas and piecing things together, as opposed to going out and spending a lot of money on something that may or may not meet our needs,” Todd said. “We’d rather design and build something that meets our needs exactly.”

Much of the lab equipment currently available was designed two or three decades ago. “There is a real need for neuroscience equipment that is inexpensive and very user friendly,” Portfors said.

Harkness and Todd hope to reduce the expense of lab equipment by developing products that are simple in design and easy to use. “We also want to modernize lab equipment by using technology typical in everyday devices, such as wireless printers and smartphones,” Todd said.

And while they love the thrill of invention, they also love the research and discovery it enables. “Science is where our passion is,” Harkness said. “We’re just excited to do it better.”

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This article is summarized from Northwest Crimson & Gray Magazine

Northwest Crimson & Gray is the semiannual magazine of WSU Vancouver, produced to highlight the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in Southwest Washington. To read the full story, download or view the Spring 2017 issue online (PDF). You can also subscribe for free.