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From miracle drugs to the NFL, U of M faculty, friends and alumni are leaving their mark with crafty inventions.

Inventing minds
by John Draper

Prescription drugs developed in Dr. W. Harry Feinstone's laboratories in the 1930s helped save thousands of lives during World War II, but to really get to know the world-renowned researcher, one must find him- or herself on a very miniscule level — one that might even require the use of a microscope.

  Feinstone

Dr. W. Harry Feinstone (left) was honored for his many contributions to the U of M with an honorary degree from the University. Above, Feinstone visits with U of M Director of Donor Relations, Dr. Dan Beasley.

For some 80 plus years, Feinstone's daily vocabulary has included such words as molecules, picograms, cells, milligrams — the list goes on and on but somehow always refers back to what the former U of M distinguished professor does best: life-saving research.

"When I first started research in the '30s, research was done on the organismal level," says Feinstone. "Today work is not only done on the cellular level, but on a molecular level."

Small matters, yes, but with huge results in Feinstone's case.

While infections cost thousands of lives during World War I, "miracle" sulfa drugs developed in Feinstone's labs are credited with saving thousands of wounded soldiers in World War II.

Sulfa drugs, which preceded antibiotics to cure infections, provided the first example of a true chemotherapeutic agent that could be given to overcome infectious diseases.

"Nothing like that existed before," says Feinstone, who, with his trademark Honduran cigar in hand, remains a close friend of the University after retirement.

Feinstone's research on sulfa compounds continued after graduation from The Johns Hopkins University in 1939 when he started a laboratory for American Cyanamid Co. For years, most of the clinically useful sulfa drugs came out of his labs.

Feinstone went on to develop more than 400 therapeutic products, including the main ingredient in Anahist, the first product marketed for treatment of cold symptoms. He also held the patent for the basic active ingredient of the antacid Di-Gel.

"More serious drug research, including patented vaso- and bronchodilator compounds and other infectious disease chemotherapeutics, was the area I worked in for most of my productive life," says the noted researcher.

Feinstone came to the United States with his family shortly after World War I. In 1976 he retired as president of Plough Laboratories at which time he joined the U of M. In 1984 he helped institute the W. Harry Feinstone Chair of Excellence in Molecular Biology, the first of what are now 26 Chairs of Excellence at the U of M. His scientific expertise and financial resources have greatly aided in the U of M's growth.

McCauley's calling

As long as he can remember, Lee McCauley has been in pursuit of the "thinking computer," from the days when he marveled at the way Captain Kirk could carry on conversations with the USS Enterprise's on-board and all-so-human computer.

"When I was 12, my mom gave me a Texas Instruments 994A computer," says McCauley, a U of M assistant professor of computer science. "It was one of the systems you could plug cartridges into, with a whopping 32K of memory. It was essentially a hulking keyboard you'd hook up to your TV. Well, I'd get magazines in the mail that would have computer programs. This was way too early for CDs. They'd just print the pages and pages of code for you in the magazine, which I would then type into my system. Of course, you'd always make mistakes so you'd have to go back and fix it."

McCauley
 

U of M Professor Lee McCauley and other faculty at the University have created an interactive information kiosk that may one day show up in hotel rooms around the world.

Thus started his career in artificial intelligence. Specifically, many of the programs he'd pull from the magazines were for simple games, but they were no fun to play on one's own. "My brother wasn't any good, so I figured I could program the computer to play with me. So, I'd program in so that the alien spaceships in the game would actually try to dodge my shots and not just move around randomly."

McCauley's latest AI project is an intelligent, interactive information kiosk for the entrance to the U of M's FedEx Institute of Technology. The kiosk introduces itself and offers assistance to visitors, who can ask questions and get answers about everything from the history of an organization to directions within the building.

A computer-generated avatar, which is connected to a simple camera and microphone, can identify guests who are within an interactive radius. The microphone is accurate enough to drown out background noise and fixate on a voice. Once the system makes "eye contact" with the guest, it will engage them and invite them to ask their question. Researchers from across the U of M campus helped with the project.

"It will recognize proper names and translate words into questions," says McCauley. "While it may not have an answer for every question, the emulation process is good enough to make people think it understands everything."

The kiosk may not be as impressive as the Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it was no mean feat to put together. "Speech recognition is the toughest part," McCauley says. "Just think about all the many times we as humans misunderstand one another and have to repeat ourselves. People talk in so many varied ways."

McCauley's excited about the commercial applications of the kiosk technology. "I like to think that it could be a kind of brick-and-mortar Google in malls and other such places," he says.

To that end, he's partnering with the U of M's School of Hospitality and Resort Management to turn one of the rooms in the campus' Holiday Inn into an "intelligent accommodation."

"You'd walk into the room, and the TV would act as your kiosk. You'd talk to it, asking it where to find the nearest Chinese restaurant or how to find Graceland or whatever," says McCauley.

Although he's a dedicated fan of science fiction, McCauley says he doesn't see computers ever getting to the level of the personable USS Enterprise's computer.

"Mainly because I don't think we need it," he says. "When you think about creating something as intelligent as a human, you have to say, ‘Well, that's all well and good, but we already have plenty of humans.' It's not that I'm morally against it or anything, but the market won't steer it there and we'll get along just fine without it."

A silver lining

McMinnville, Tenn., is a sleepy Bible-belt town — not much happens after dark. But in the Dillon home in the 1960s, young John Dillon III (BSME '94) found reason on occasion to stay up. His otherwise exacting mother would ease her bedtime strictures each time there was an Apollo or Gemini launch scheduled. The black-and-white TV would illuminate the living room, as young John, as close to the screen as his mother would allow, would watch, enthralled.

  Dillon

After a dune buggy accident in 1981, alumnus John Dillon III (right) had to learn to read, write and talk again. He later used his experience as a brain surgery patient to help design an apparatus that makes walking easier for children with disabilities.

Those spaceship launches left an indelible mark on Dillon, but it wasn't until a strange set of circumstances came to pass that his young fascination with space turned into a career — a career that has also yielded an invention that helps children with disabilities.

In 1981 an accident in a dune buggy in Florida that caused severe head trauma left him fighting for his life. As his mother and sister sped to the hospital, Dillon underwent brain surgery.

After seven hours of surgery, and a weeklong coma, Dillon awoke to find he would have to learn how to read, write and talk again. Four months of intensive therapy followed and he moved back to Tennessee.

Five years later Dillon turned the accident into a godsend for others. He returned to then-Memphis State University to earn a mechanical engineering degree. While in school, he used his experience as a brain injury patient and the knowledge he was obtaining at the U of M to help develop the Miracle Walker, a patented user-propelled walking apparatus that assists children with disabilities to move about under their own power. The Magic Walker helps children with cerebral palsy by increasing muscle strength and by producing greater lung capacity.

"When we presented the finished device, it was especially exciting for me to show the results of my work, because the presentation took place exactly 13 years to the day after my brain surgery," Dillon explains.

Since 1999 Dillon has worked as a mechanical engineer for AJT & Associates Inc. in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The company provides support to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center for design and modification of spaceship launch complexes, Shuttle and spacecraft processing and solid rocket motor booster facilities.

Dillon, who credits U of M Professor John Hochstein for taking him under his wing as a student, says, "An inventor should never think with a narrow window. Always think past the limit, do not stop thinking that the concept/design is completed and cannot be improved. I believe I was blessed to stay alive from my automobile accident in 1981 and that God has more work for me to do."

Making "Gaines" in the NFL?

Marcus Gaines isn't your typical patented Memphis resident. Graduating from the U of M in 1997 with a bachelor's in marketing, Gaines headed south to work as a blackjack dealer at a Tunica, Miss., casino.

But that hasn't stopped him from dreaming big — even if his biggest idea to date came in couch-potato mode.

Gaines was watching a football game on TV one day and took note of how much energy the referees were expending running the first-down markers up and down the field. At the time, he also happened to be playing with his laser light key chain.

"I thought, ‘What if they had a laser light that showed where the first down was?' They wouldn't have to hold up the game any more."

This wasn't his first idea for an invention, but this one he would pursue.

"I got tired seeing ideas I had thought of come out a little while later from someone else," he says.

He received his patent from the U.S. Patent Office in 2004 and is in the process of working through a marketing company to sell the invention to the NFL.

"It is an idea that makes sense from many different standpoints," Gaines says. "Not only would it speed up games, the laser would provide a more accurate measurement of first downs. Those are definitely two things the NFL needs."

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