To most people, the word cholesterol conjures up images of bland diets, dangerous drugs, and heart attacks. To Jim Otvos, it conjures up the sound of bells. A keen-eared listener, he says, should be able to listen to a church chime and determine the size and number of the bells—just from the overall pitch and volume. Likewise, an astute physician should be able to pick out the patterns of size and number that distinguish harmless cholesterol from the kind that poses serious health risks.
That kind of thinking has earned Otvos the 1999 Columbus Foundation Award. He and his company, LipoMed, of Raleigh, North Carolina, have been honored with the $100,000 prize for developing the NMR LipoProfile, a cholesterol-testing process that improves a doctor’s ability to determine a patient’s risk of heart disease.
The NMR LipoProfile goes well beyond standard profiles of blood cholesterol. These tests measure the abundance of LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood. Epidemiological studies have shown that high levels of the first type are associated with a greater likelihood of heart disease, and high levels of HDL generally indicate a reduced danger. But almost half the people who get heart disease have normal cholesterol levels, while others with a poor profile remain disease-free.
So Otvos decided to find an easier method to gauge the size of the lipoproteins that carry cholesterol—a much more exact means of evaluating the risk. Lipoproteins are spherical particles that ferry cholesterol through the blood, and they come in three different classes: LDL (low-density lipoprotein), HDL (high-density), and VLDL (very-low-density). Within each class are particles of different sizes. Studies—including Otvos’s own—have shown that the size of these particles correlates closely with the severity of clogged arteries. A high concentration of small HDL particles and large VLDL particles, for example, puts carriers at greater risk of heart disease. Measuring the size of these particles is complicated, costly, and time-consuming.
Enter the NMR LipoProfile—and the bells. NMR is short for nuclear magnetic resonance, a technique that measures the pitch emitted by lipoprotein particles when they are struck by a strong pulse of radio waves. "The collection of lipoprotein particles of all sorts of sizes behave in an NMR machine exactly like bells of different sizes," explains Otvos. "We do nothing more than ring all those lipoprotein bells at one time and then collect the very complex sound signal that comes back at us. Then we unscramble that signal so that we can deduce how big the sound was from each different-size particle and how many particles there are in that size category."
The LipoProfile test, which can analyze a blood sample in less than a minute, has been available since January to a select group of cardiologists around the country, enabling them to allocate cholesterol drugs to those patients who most need them. "These are drugs that you need to take for the rest of your life, and they’re expensive," Otvos says. "So we can’t afford to put them in the water supply. They’ve got to be allocated on a more rational basis to really high-risk people." His view is shared by the Columbus Foundation, which notes that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans today. "Through the new measurement of lipoproteins, physicians may better match their treatments to a person’s specific heart-disease risk, which could potentially save thousands of lives a year," says Rosalyn Queen, chair of the foundation. "The LipoProfile is a critical discovery that may significantly improve the health and well-being of the world in the twenty-first-century."
The Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, the sponsor of the 1999 Discover Awards ceremony at Epcot in Florida, maintains a three-tiered Frontiers of Discovery—Past, Present, and Future—awards program. The program, which includes several competitions, recognizes and honors innovative thinking by American citizens of all ages. The $100,000 Christopher Columbus Foundation Award is bestowed on a living American who is currently working on a discovery that will significantly affect society and that needs additional funds to be realized. It is presented to an entrant in the Discover Awards for Technological Innovation. The foundation also awards the $100,000 Frank Annunzio Award to an American in recognition of his or her proven innovation that is already benefiting society. In addition, the foundation awards the $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant to a finalist team in the Bayer/National Science Foundation Award for Community Innovation program. This grant enables the team, of middle school students, to develop its community project. The foundation also sponsors the induction of innovative American students in the National Gallery for America’s Young Inventors.
Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation Evaluators Aviation & Aerospace Captain Jon A. McBride (U.S. Navy, Retired)—Cambridge Associates Ron Sega—Dean of engineering and applied science, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Richard L. Young—Builder and pilot of Wright Brothers aircraft replica
Computers & Networking Marc A. Auslander—IBM Fellow, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center Dwight M. Harris—Professor of physics and technology, Fairmont State College, West Virginia Rocco L. Martino—Chairman, XRT
Emerging Technology Jack McNamara—Director of corporate technical resources, Imation Jacob Mendelssohn—Technology Services Institute Neill S. Smith—Senior engineer, Vehicle Control Technologies
Energy Martha A. Krebs—Director, Office of Science, Department of Energy, Washington, D.C. Jonathan Woodward—Senior research scientist, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Environment John A. Kleppe—Professor, University of Nevada William L. Rutherford—Administrative vice president and treasurer, Forest Park Foundation
Home Electronics & Entertainment Samuel H. Fuller—Vice president of research and development, Analog Devices Sam Gil—Communications manager, Tasco Sales Venkatesh Narayanamurti—Division of engineering and applied science, Harvard
Imaging & Medical Diagnostics Marek Elbaum—President, Electro-Optical Sciences Michael Gottesman—Deputy director, intramural research, NIH Jerome P. Kassirer—Editor in chief, New England Journal of Medicine
Materials Peter Cardegna—Professor of physics and materials science, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York R. Kent Marsden—Director of administrative services, College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, University of Akron Ganapathiraman Ramanath—Assistant professor, materials science and engineering department, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York
Robotics Hadi A. Abu-Akeel—Senior vice president and chief engineer, FANUC Robotics N.A. George A. Bekey—Gordon Marshall Professor of computer science and director, Robotics Research Laboratory, University of Southern California Joseph F. Engelberger—Chairman, Helpmate Robotics
Transportation Lester A. Hoel—Professor of civil engineering, University of Virginia G. Andrew Lang—President, Blue Dot Rental Services Joe Lorio—Senior editor, Automobile