Students Win for Inexpensive Eco-friendly Tampon Applicator

Product is touted as cheaper, more comfortable and less wasteful

Inspired by their work with a nonprofit that provides menstrual products for homeless women, a Clemson student and recent graduate took home first place in this year’s Spark Challenge, sponsored by the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. Their product, a reusable tampon applicator, is touted as cheaper and more comfortable to use than its competitors and results in less waste going to landfills.

Claudia Sisk, a senior bioengineering major, and Marissa Jansen, who graduated in May with a health science degree, won $2,500 for their product, Nature’s Gift, which is designed to include an insertion sheath and rod made of hygienic material. It would cost $25 and come in two sizes to accommodate cotton inserts with various levels of absorbency, ranging from light to ultra.

About 7 billion tampons and their applicators are thrown out every year in the United States, and Nature’s Gift would aim to help reduce waste, Sisk and Jansen said. Each device would last about two years, bringing its average monthly cost to about $1.04. The cotton inserts, sold separately, would run another $3.50 a month.

Nature’s Gift customers could expect to spend a grand total of $4.54 a month on menstrual health products, compared to the average monthly cost of $13.25, Sisk and Jansen said. The team is targeting anyone who menstruates, especially young women who are concerned about their ecological footprint.

In the annual Spark Challenge, student teams work with mentors to develop a product and then build a business plan to bring it to market. Each team selected for the competition gets $500 in seed money. Teams pitch their ideas to a panel of judges.

The idea for Nature’s Gift came out of the Homeless Period Project, a national nonprofit that provides menstrual products. Jansen was a co-founder, and Sisk was a member. Their adviser on Nature’s Gift was professor of bioengineering Sarah Harcum.

Next steps include developing a prototype and applying for a provisional patent, Jansen said. “If we can get it through that hurdle, I think we’ll have a really good shot at taking it further.”


Natural Killers: Using the Body’s Cells to Target Breast Cancer

Study lays groundwork for possible new immunotherapy for the world’s most commonly diagnosed cancer

It sounds like a plot from a Quentin Tarantino movie — something sets off natural killers and sends them on a killing spree.

But instead of characters in a movie, these natural killers are part of the human immune system, and their targets are breast cancer tumor cells. The triggers are fusion proteins developed by Clemson University researchers that link the two together.

“The idea is to use this bifunctional protein to bridge the natural killer cells and breast cancer tumor cells,” said Yanzhang (Charlie) Wei, a professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences. “If the two cells are brought close enough together through this receptor ligand connection, the natural killer cells can release what I call killing machinery to have the tumor cells killed.”

It’s a novel approach to developing breast cancer-specific immunotherapy and could lead to new treatment options for the world’s most common cancer. About 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer during their lives. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women in the U.S.

Immunotherapy harnesses the power of the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells.

“Very simply, cancer is uncontrolled cell growth. Some cells will become abnormal and have the potential to become cancer,” Wei said. “The immune system can recognize these abnormal cells and destroy them before they become cancer cells. Unfortunately for those who develop cancer, the immune system is not working very well because of gene mutations and environmental factors.”

Most breast cancer targeting therapies target one of three receptors: estrogen, progesterone or epidermal growth factor. However, up to 20 percent of breast cancers do not express these receptors. Wei and his researchers targeted prolactin receptors. Prolactin is a natural hormone in the body and plays a role in breast growth and milk production. More than 90 percent of breast cancer cells express prolactin receptors, including triple-negative breast cancer cells.

One part of the bifunctional protein is a mutated form of prolactin that still binds to the prolactin receptor but blocks signal transduction that would promote tumor growth. The other part is a protein that binds to the prolactin receptor and activates the natural killer cells.

Wei is now seeking funding for an animal model study to confirm the results. If successful, it could move to human clinical trials.

One big question is whether the bifunctional protein will bring natural killer cells to healthy cells in the body that also express prolactin receptors and kill them, too, causing severe side effects.

“It is my dream that someday we can create a group of these bifunctional proteins that could be used for other cancers by shifting the target molecule,” Wei said.


Shifting Perspectives

Work in Charleston seeks to honor cultural heritage through conservation

Conservators at Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston have been working on preserving the Civil War-era Hunley submarine for a number of years. Now, there’s another vessel to be preserved. And this one is far older.

With a new project involving a Native American dugout canoe that has been carbon dated as more than 4,000 years old, the center is hoping to shift the conversation and process of conservation by incorporating cultural groups on the front end of the project to help guide the conservation of cultural heritage items, providing those groups with direct access and authority over their cultural heritage.

When the team was asked to take on the canoe’s conservation, the first thing they did was to begin working on a way to recognize the rights of the Native American communities of South Carolina “to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions,” as defined in Article 31 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In late May, the conservation team hosted a consultative event with eight Native American tribes in South Carolina where tribal representatives viewed the canoe and heard about options for conservation. The team then opened the floor for discussion on next steps for the 

canoe — giving the tribes full control over how this item from their cultural heritage would be cared for moving forward.

The tribal representatives agreed that conservation was of the utmost importance and approved a plan for the canoe’s conservation. Now the hands-on work with the canoe begins — the Clemson team will begin conservation treatment of the canoe, which is expected to take several years to complete.


Building Tomorrow’s Road Map, Today

The MTSA team

The Master of Transportation Safety Administration team includes Bruce Rafert, Philip Pidgeon, Kim Alexander, Ralph Elliott and Terecia Wilson

Clemson launches first-of-its-kind Master of Transportation Safety Administration

Age 18 marks a turning point in many people’s lives. Kim Alexander was no different. A stand-out athlete and point guard on the girls’ basketball team, she had recently earned a scholarship to attend a local college.

That all changed in one moment. In May of 1979, Alexander was involved in a single-vehicle, run-off-of-the-road crash in Oconee County, South Carolina. Doctors told her family she had sustained a spinal cord injury, leaving her as a C5/6 quadriplegic.

Today, Alexander serves as the founder and chair of Clemson’s Institute for Global Road Safety and Security and directs the first-of-its-kind Master of Transportation Safety Administration. The work of Alexander and her colleagues not only impacts the lives of their students, but it also makes a difference for motorists everywhere, delivering safer roads and more secure transportation systems nationwide.

Alexander’s journey to this point was not a straight one — hospitals and rehabilitation centers helped her learn to navigate the world in a wheelchair and consider her future. She began sharing her story with teenagers in high schools and at conferences, focusing on making wise decisions, living safe lives and overcoming obstacles. Questioning how she could make a lasting difference, she followed her brother, Steve Alexander ’79, to Clemson, where she earned a B.S. in marketing, M.Ed. in guidance and counseling, and Ed.D. in curriculum development, risk perception and educational leadership. In 1990, she was hired as a program information coordinator in the Department of 4-H and Youth Development. This six-month grant led to others and a position as an Extension associate and director in 1993.

“I wanted to do something very creative in education and something that, regardless of my physical condition, I could sit around the table with others, and we could do it together,” said Alexander.

Professional development in transportation safety has long been an issue, and this program is unique in addressing that need.

More than 40 years after her crash, Alexander is clinical associate professor, founder and chair of Clemson’s Institute for Global Road Safety and Security. She has resumed her point-guard role as director of the first-of-its-kind MTSA degree program, which launched in 2019 and graduated its first cohort in August.

Developed in coordination with a technical advisory committee of prominent national leaders in the field of road safety, and offered exclusively online, MTSA is a two-year, 30-credit hour, non-thesis interdisciplinary program that addresses the need for a road safety workforce capable of deploying evidence-based strategies and best practices supported by ongoing research. With the rise of autonomous vehicles and connected infrastructure, the world of road safety is even more crucial. The goal is to build safer communities, which will reduce vehicle crashes and ultimately save lives.

“The significance of the MTSA program cannot be understated,” said Elizabeth Baker, regional administrator emeritus of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Professional development in transportation safety has long been an issue, and this program is unique in addressing that need.”

With specific expertise in a variety of disciplines and professional backgrounds, MTSA students include members of law enforcement, emergency management, education, planning and design, public health, injury prevention, communications, marketing, public policy, driver and vehicle services, transportation finance, and grants administration. Jennifer Homendy, recently confirmed as chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, is in the MTSA program.

“Sitting in this wheelchair has given me a different vision than I probably would have had if I had been on my feet,” said Alexander. “It’s given me a clear perspective that life is fragile and that bringing together people who have the same passion and commitment to saving lives can create something that will leave a lasting impact. I truly believe this program will result in a much safer world.”