"It's a pasta maker," said Barry Margulies, a biology professor who presides over the Towson University lab.
No joke. When it occurred to Margulies' graduate researcher that Williams Sonoma might have the answer to their prayers, it was a major breakthrough for the lab's efforts to treat one of America's most prevalent sexually transmitted diseases.
"I work in herpes," said Margulies, smiling a second later as he realized that sounded funny.
He's a jovial character who talks with his feet propped on his desk and decorates his office with pennants and balls from the Philadelphia teams he has cheered since his youth. A Janis Joplin CD peeks out from beside his keyboard.
Using the pasta maker, Margulies and his students make long strands of rubbery material that look like spaghetti noodles. The "noodles" are made of medical-grade silicone, blended with the drug Denavir.
Margulies said they could be the key to long-term, minimally invasive treatment of herpes simplex viruses type 1 and type 2. Inject one bit of the drugged silicone spaghetti in a strategic location, he explained, and the symptoms of the virus could be neutralized for up to five years.
At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Margulies studied under Robert Langer, one of the nation's leading experts on time-release medication. As a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, he immersed himself in virology. The research insight that changed his career path combined the two experiences.
The idea struck him 20 years ago in graduate school. What if herpes patients didn't have to pop a pill or rub cream on their skin every day? What if the medication could be bound to a substance that would release it into the patient's body gradually?
Langer said the medications weren't good enough at the time, but when Margulies revived the idea more than a decade later, his mentor said it could work. The idea seemed so simple that he couldn't believe no one had tried it.
He has pursued the research since 2005, and his tests have found that in mice, the silicone implants reduce the recurrence of herpes. His lab is working on feline tests with counterparts from the University of California, Davis, and the early results are positive. Margulies has a patent pending on the silicone implants.
He has yet to test the implants on human subjects, and with several important questions — where does the drug go in the body when released and where is the optimal point of injection? — yet to be answered, he's not sure when that will happen. The effort might be out of his hands, licensed to a major drug company, by the time clinical trials begin.
"Sometimes, it's frustrating," he said of the protracted development period. "But I know that our sights are set on helping people."
Margulies has taught at Towson since 2001.
He knows some people might be surprised that a product of MIT and Hopkins is performing serious science at former commuter university with a lab staffed mostly by undergraduates. But he said he loves Towson's emphasis on teaching and on engaging students who are only a few years out of high school.
Shamsuddin Khan, a junior who works in the herpes lab, calls Margulies "fatherly" in the way he nurtures student input and fields endless questions. "If I keep asking something, many things one after another, he never feels tired," Khan said. "He keeps talking, applying many different ways to make lessons easier."
Through his work in the lab, Khan said, he has evolved from a scared novice to a scientist with plans to "do something big for the benefit of mankind."
Some of the key insights in developing the implants, such as the pasta maker revelation, have come from students.
"They think it's funny when I say, 'Your ideas can be as good as mine,'" Margulies said. "But the difference is just experience, and actually, experience can put blinders on you sometimes."
Definition: Sexually transmitted disease caused by the herpes simplex viruses type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). Most genital herpes is caused by HSV-2.
Prevalence: 1 out of 6 Americans ages 14 to 49 has HSV-2 infection.
Treatment: There is no cure. Sufferers can take antiviral medications to shorten and prevent outbreaks or daily suppressive therapy to help reduce transmission.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention