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New technologies developed at UW-Madison

University Of Wisconsin-Madison : 13 December, 2002  (Technical Article)
This tip sheet, a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides a quick summary of some of the latest campus research to find real-world application through the assistance of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Contact numbers are listed for all items.

Nothing conveys the hue of extreme anger or embarrassment like the red of beets. Now, a new finding suggests beet red may signify something else: cancer protection.

A team of researchers led by UW-Madison food scientist Kirk Parkin has shown that beet pigments may boost levels of proteins, called phase II enzymes, that help detoxify potential cancer-causing substances and purge them from the body.

In a study published in the Nov. 6 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the team tested four color varieties of beets: white, orange, red and dark red. Only extracts from the red beets triggered higher levels of the protective enzymes.

'It turns out that the active fraction [of beet extract] is highly enriched in red beet pigments,' called betalains, says Parkin. 'But the fraction contains multiple pigments, so if a specific pigment is responsible for the effect, we don't know what it is yet.'

The group demonstrated the effect by using a well-established mouse liver cell assay that models human liver function. The National Institutes of Health endorses the assay as one of 12 principal techniques for screening possible new cancer preventive agents.

Preventive is the key word, Parkin emphasizes. 'Elevating phase II enzyme levels is useful in preventing the initial stages of carcinogenesis, but not in treating the effects of cancer that has been allowed to progress.'

Parkin's next needs to show that beet pigments can be absorbed by the body in sufficient amounts to protect against cancer. In support of this possibility, he points out that roughly 15 percent of people naturally absorb large amounts of betalains - a harmless condition that announces itself in the form of dark red urine.

Alarming as beet red urine may sound, it's a promising phenomenon. 'It means that when beet pigments are absorbed, they aren't transformed metabolically by the body,' Parkin says. 'So the [phase II enzyme-inducing] agent we've tested in the assay is going to be the same one present in the body.'

A patent application covering Parkin's discovery has been filed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the patent management agency of the UW-Madison.


Arsenic in drinking water is a problem just about anywhere in the world, particularly in developing parts of Asia. In an effort to ensure safer drinking water worldwide, researchers at the UW-Madison have developed an adsorbent that can remove arsenic from water faster and more cheaply than current methods.

Most of the tap water we drink comes from aquifers underneath the ground. This groundwater carries with it arsenic, just one of the many metals and minerals that are released from rocks. To remove arsenic, a contaminant that, when ingested in moderate concentrations over time, can cause skin disorders, tumors, breathing problems and organ damage, groundwater is filtered through treatment systems that contain small, porous particles called activated alumina. These particles catch molecules of arsenic as water passes over them.

But, according to Jim Park, a civil and environmental engineering professor, the small pore size and small surface area of the activated alumina particles limit the number of arsenic molecules that the particles can trap.

Developing a more effective and economical method, he says, is necessary to enable many water treatment systems, especially those in rural areas, to meet new Environmental Protective Agency regulations. Those regulations lowered the limit of arsenic in drinking water from 50 to 10 parts per billion. Meeting this new standard with the current method, says Park, will cost treatment plants an estimated $1.5 billion, which could translate into $1,900 increases in annual water bills for customers in some areas.

To help treatment plants meet the new regulation in an economical way, Park and UW-Madison graduate student Min Jang have developed a particle that more effectively adsorbs arsenic from water as it's being treated. The particle, made from a mesoporous media developed by Mobil scientists in 1992, could be used anywhere from wells to treatment plants to home-faucet filters. It is patented by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Unlike the particles of activated alumina, Park's particles are bigger and have larger pores that are all the same size. They're also coated with metal oxides that react only to arsenic - a quality, he says, that could keep many healthful minerals, usually removed by activated alumina, in the water. By changing the surface chemistry, Park says the material can be used to remove other water contaminants, such as phosphorous, nitrate or mercury.

When Park's group compared the two arsenic adsorption methods, activated alumina and the coated material, they found that the new material could remove twice as much arsenic at a rate 15 times faster, and the cost of manufacturing was 70 percent less.

'Arsenic in drinking water is a worldwide problem, especially in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, where people suffer from such contamination,' says Park. 'One of the reasons we wanted to develop this more efficient, less expensive method was so many people could benefit.'


Milk does the body good, especially when it comes to detecting human ailments. According to a new development by UW-Madison researchers, concentrated milk provides a tissue-mimicking material that could improve the field of medical imaging.

Physicians rely on magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound to detect birth defects in fetuses, blocked blood flow and tumors. To ensure the highest quality of performance, the greatest accuracy and the best resolution of images, radiologists calibrate the machines by using phantoms - liter-sized boxes containing water-based gels designed to mimic the structure and properties of human tissue.

'Phantoms can tell you what the limitations are of particular machines,' explains Ernest Madsen, a professor of medical physics.

But, as Madsen points out, some of the materials used in phantoms don't mimic tissue adequately because of limited physical properties that affect how ultrasound waves travel through tissue, interact with it and, ultimately, image it.

To develop a better model, Madsen and his colleague Gary Frank concentrated cow's milk, which has many of the same properties as human tissue, and mixed it with a hot solution that congeals into a gel. By adding a preservative, they created a tissue-mimicking product with a shelf life of more than 10 years.

'In making phantoms, we try to represent the patients,' Madsen says. 'By developing more realistic tests of performance, we not only allow the periodic monitoring of the imaging quality of hospital ultrasound machines, but also contribute to advances in imaging technology.'

The milk-based material, patented by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, is already contained in thousands of phantoms distributed to hospitals and research laboratories worldwide.
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