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New Reidy Center Researcher Energized by Studies of Bioelectric Interactions

Tom VernierTom Vernier

In his research as part of the small worldwide fraternity of bioelectric engineers - researchers who study the interaction between electric fields and living cells - Tom Vernier has had some success.

A potential skin cancer therapy that Vernier helped develop while working with the Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering in Los Angeles has reached the stage of clinical trials.

But Vernier, who joined Old Dominion University's Frank Reidy Center for Bioelectrics earlier this year as a research professor, is just as interested in the fundamental principles of biophysics that underpin these potential breakthroughs in the emerging field.

"As more of a fundamentals guy, I think it's important to not just know a procedure works, but to understand it, so that we can make it better," Vernier said.

"In order for us to address some of the things that concern people about the effects of electric and magnetic fields on living things, we need to get down to the fundamental physics."

Vernier brings two research thrusts to the Reidy Center from his previous position at the University of Southern California. He is an experimentalist in bioelectric processes - the interaction of living cells with electric fields, particularly very high-voltage, extremely short-in-duration pulses.

Vernier also does molecular modeling of predicted bioelectric interactions, down to the atomic level. "You have a model, then go and verify with experiments, which leads to improvements in the model. In bioelectrics, this is only beginning to happen," he said. "We haven't learned enough yet about these interactions, and our models are very simple. But it's important to get out of the era of empirical exploration and into systematic research based on molecular mechanisms."

The Mann Institute was established at the University of Southern California in 1998 as a nonprofit organization to bridge the gap between biomedical invention and the creation of commercially successful medical products that improve and save lives. USC was selected because it has a rich pool of biomedical talent on campus and around Southern California.

Yet for Vernier, coming to ODU offered the opportunity to join a larger team of researchers dedicated to bioelectrics. "There are only a handful of laboratories or centers in the world that concentrate on the interaction of electric fields with living cells. The Reidy Center is one of them," Vernier said.

"Having a chance to come to a center where a lot of people influential in this field are located was a great attraction to me."

Vernier is one of several world-renowned bioelectric researchers who have come to the university in recent months. Reidy Center director Richard Heller believes the addition of five talented researchers from around the world over the past year will help boost the bioelectric knowledge coming from the Reidy Center.

"This is why the expansion is so critical, to bring in some additional people, just to have good brains to be a part of the conversation. Because every time we talk about something, we come up with another concept we can do," Heller said.

ODU's Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics has as its mission increasing scientific knowledge and understanding of the interaction of electromagnetic fields and ionized gases with biological cells, and applying this knowledge to the development of medical diagnostics, therapeutics and environmental decontamination.

The objectives of the center are to perform leading-edge interdisciplinary and multi-institutional research, recruit top faculty and exceptional graduate students, support regional, national and international programs, and increase external funding and institutional visibility.