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Bioluminescence Technology from UT Named a Top Innovation of 2013

Category: Research

KNOXVILLE – Technology that lights up cells to enable study of the effects of drugs and monitor disease is among The Scientist magazine’s top 10 innovations of 2013. It’s also a University of Tennessee technology and licensed by a Knoxville-based startup company.

Technology using humanized bacterial luciferase developed by UT researchers and licensed by 490 BioTech, founded by two UT Knoxville faculty members and two then-graduate assistants, is ranked sixth on the magazine’s list. For more about the innovation list, visit

“The development of this technology originated more than ten years ago, and with hard work by past graduate students and key financial support from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and UTRF, it evolved into a marketable product that can be used to make pharmaceutical drugs safer, better and cheaper,” said Steven Ripp, co-founder and chief operating officer of 490 BioTech and research associate professor at UT Knoxville. “Being recognized as a top 10 technology is a significant milestone for our company, and it will greatly assist in mainstreaming our product toward better disease management and improved health care.”

The 490 BioTech founders and judges for the innovations rankings say this breakthrough has huge implications for improving drug efficacy and real-time modeling of disease. It also saves time and money and is more effective in providing data to scientists.

“This is a significant new addition to the bioluminescent assay tool kit in widespread use in pharma and academia,” said one judge. Another said: “It transitions a critical tool from the bacterial to the mammalian world—magic!”

Most bioluminescent tests for drug toxicity or efficacy start with cells being injected with chemicals that temporarily generate a light signal, but the signal only lasts a few minutes and allows scientists to get brief snapshots of what is happening in the cell. The technology from 490 BioTech genetically modifies the cells so they are bioluminescent in response to specific stimuli that can be monitored over time. The technology allows scientists to watch the cells in real time, gather more comprehensive data, ask new questions and generate information that was not possible before.

The technology was first patented in 2002. Research conducted on the project was the subject of dissertations by then-graduate assistants Dan Close, now Eugene P. Wigner fellow in the Biosciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Stacey Patterson, now assistant vice president for research and director of research partnerships for the UT System. The fourth founder, Gary Sayler, is a Beaman Distinguished University professor and director of the UT Center for Environmental Biotechnology and the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Biological Sciences.

490 BioTech was founded in 2011, and the technology was licensed in 2012 from the UT Research Foundation.

“This is a prime example of the kind of innovation occurring at a top-level public research university. It started as an idea in a lab at the University of Tennessee, and it’s since developed into a technology that has the potential to improve lives around the world,” said David Washburn, president and CEO of UTRF. “After years of hard work and research, it’s great to see the 490 Biotech team receiving this kind of recognition, and we’re excited about where the company is headed.”

For more information about 490 BioTech, visit

For more information about the technology, visit

Category: Research