Fueled by $500,000 a year from the fund, U brain researchers are hoping to turn nano ideas into mega results.
The project appears blandly nondescript. "Nanowire Tetrodes."
But what it seeks to do -- develop a wire so thin it can harmlessly penetrate the cell of a neuron to listen to what happens when a rat makes a decision -- could make a lot of noise if successful. Such knowledge could form the foundation for all kinds of therapies.
To turn an idea into tiny wires requires funding, however, said University of Minnesota researcher A. David Redish.
Enter the Wallin Discovery Fund, which will award $500,000 annually to launch promising research projects at the U. Redish's project is one of the first four to get money from the fund, another legacy of the late Win Wallin, a former Medtronic CEO whose decades of philanthropy throughout Minnesota have supported education and innovation.
"This kind of project is in the middle ground, short of the big federal grants," Redish said. "How can we fund this middle ground project for a year? This Wallin thing is that middle ground, and that's what is so rare."
Set up by the late Win Wallin and his wife, Maxine, the fund provides an annual $500,000 gift to the university to support the kinds of new ideas that can struggle to get off the ground.
Researchers often scour the funding landscape for seed grants from smaller trusts or organizations, but they can be difficult to get. Larger sources, such as the National Institutes of Health, often require more data about a project's effectiveness before awarding grants.
Lance Wallin, one of Win Wallin's sons, said the idea behind the fund is to help neuroscience researchers make "enough progress to submit grant applications to larger funding entities to get bigger dollars."
Redish said he is convinced his idea will work. Now, with $90,000 from the Wallin fund, he gets a chance to prove it.
Wallin funds will also help Kenneth Baker, an assistant professor of neurology, and Marilyn Carroll, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, see if deep brain stimulation can help foster recovery from cocaine addiction. Their project received a $125,000 grant.
Another $150,000 went to Gulin Oz and his project: "Noninvasive Assessment of Cerebral Energetics in Neurodegeneration." Dr. Yasushi Nakagawa received $135,000 to study "Afferent Control of Cortical Neurogenesis in the Mouse."
Baker said deep brain stimulation is being used to treat Parkinson's disease, depression and chronic migraines.
Carroll said there has even been some study of its effect on treatment-resistant alcohol addiction. So, why not look at whether it can help millions of Americans suffering from drug addiction?
"We just don't have a treatment for it, and people are dying," she said.
Said Baker: "Unfortunately, current options for the treatment of addiction are limited and the risk of relapse is high even after prolonged abstinence. We're hoping to change that."
Small wires, big hopes
Figuring out why people decide to take drugs -- or make any decision -- is at the heart of Redish's research.
"It's about reading the mind," he said. "By understanding the mechanism of decision-making, we can understand how it goes wrong."
He hopes his nanowire tetrodes provide insight.
The brain emits electrical signals. "If we have a wire near that electrical signal, we can listen to it," he said.
When rats turn left or right, when they choose one type of food pellet over another, the wires pick up different signals. But those signals come from clusters of cells, he said.
What if they could identify signals from a single cell? What if, he said, they could hear the machinery inside a single cell?
John Ferguson, a biomedical engineer who worked with Redish, developed a way to create a wire so small it could go through a cell membrane without damaging it. Redish said he believes that the wire will be robust enough to pick up signals from a moving animal without being dislodged.
"Now, we're not just asking how the engine works," he said. "But how the spark plug works."
The Wallin Foundation and Wallin Education Partners have awarded thousands of scholarships to enable students from low-income families to attend college. It was a similar desire to help remove obstacles -- this time for university researchers -- that led Win and Maxine Wallin to create the Discovery Fund, said Brad Wallin, another son.
"This project was right down his alley," Brad said of his late father, the onetime chairman and CEO of Medtronic. "He wanted to make sure we did it, so we did."
When the time came to look at promoting life science research at the university, he focused on neuroscience because that is where university officials said they needed the help, Brad Wallin said.
The hope now is that "if we can fund 50 to 100 projects over the next 10 years, one or two can hit a home run."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428