Freeze-drying allergens

Engineering professor Mike Matthews' career is ranging far beyond the confines of academia, and asthma sufferers everywhere can be thankful for that.

Matthews is chief technology officer of the startup CarboNix LLC, which utilizes technology he was involved in patenting at the University of South Carolina. The company is working to bring a new tool to the marketplace, one that eliminates some of the underlying causes of severe allergies and asthma attacks. It's a home treatment system that reduces the amount of allergy triggers in the environment there.

The heart of the system is carbon dioxide, CO2. For more than 10 years, Matthews has been working to harness the properties of carbon dioxide for a variety of applications.

"We originally started working with carbon dioxide for sterilizing engineered tissues," he says. "But we found that our CO2 technology can be used to remove or deactivate a broad spectrum of the common asthma triggers found in people's homes — in their carpets, their bedding, their upholstered furniture."

Cleaning up those triggers in indoor environments will help address a critical national need, says Matthews. And one group in particular should benefit.

"We'll remove a broad spectrum of allergens and triggers, things that are encapsulated in dust," Matthews says. "But we think we're particularly going to do something good for people with dust mite allergies — our system kills the dust mites and slows their re-infestation."

Matthews and his associates will develop a proprietary carbon dioxide system that functions something like a carpet steam cleaner, but with two distinct differences: Where a steam cleaner operates hot and wet, the carbon dioxide device operates cold and dry.

And it's "dry" cleaning in every sense of the word. No water is involved, and the carbon dioxide is removed completely.

"We can do not only carpeting, but mattresses, upholstery or other things that you would not want to contact with water or steam," says Matthews. "And we leave everything dry.

"Dust mites, like mold, love moisture. If one were to soak rugs with water, as is often done, and the backing gets wet, that humid environment is good for dust mites and mold and bacteria and other things that grow down there. But not with our technology."

With partner Al Quick, a '68 graduate of the College of Engineering, Matthews formed CarboNix as a means of commercializing the technology. They keep a boundary between the academic and commercial aspects of the work — which can be mutually beneficial.

"As a professor, I have to be very mindful of the students' needs first," says Matthews. "I can tell them the options that are available to them through undergraduate research, or paid work in this lab, or paid work as a company intern. And work with them to do what works best for their development."

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been a supporter with Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Matthews and Quick just earned a third SBIR grant from NIH, this one for nearly a million dollars to build a proof-of-concept vehicle that can go to homes and perform the cleaning service. They plan to begin offering the service in Columbia in the next year.

NIH is investing because of the potential to create a brand-new way of fighting asthma and severe allergies.

"We want to give doctors and patients a new intervention to help them reduce their attacks from asthma or severe allergies," says Matthews. "We provide something that no current interventions will do."

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Research reported here was supported by the National Institute Of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award numbers R43ES019790 and R43ES018014. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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