PUNXSUTAWNEY — Two Punxsutawney men recently received one of the first Golden Goose Awards for a discovery that was initially discovered in 1968.
Eugene White and Rodney White, both from Punxsutawney — actually the Juneau area — along with Della Roy and the late Jon Weber, performed a study of the pore structure of tropical coral which led to the development of an ideal bone graft material that is used commonly in surgery today.
Eugene, who lives in Punxsutawney, said the Golden Goose Award, spearheaded by U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, and Charlie Dent, celebrates researchers whose seemingly odd and obscure federally funded research yielded discoveries which benefit society.
Both Eugene and Rodney White traveled to Washington Sept. 13 to receive the Golden Goose Award.
Cooper countered the mentality of the Golden Fleece Award that was developed by the late Senator William Proxmire, which highlighted government rip-offs, said Eugene.
Eugene said basic research funding is shrinking all over, and there's not a lot of money available to do research.
"I'm hoping that by publicizing our award, this will encourage students from Punxsy to realize that it doesn't matter where you're from, you can make a difference just like two guys from Juneau — myself and Rodney — who went on to careers in science and medicine," Eugene said, adding that he graduated from Punxsutawney High School in 1951 and barely made the top third of students in his class.
Eugene said he attended college at Penn State DuBois for his freshman year and transferred to the main campus in State College beginning his second year.
"Joann (Peaches) Reitz and I went to State College and spent the next 25 years there," he said.
Eugene said in his junior year, he began working as a part time technician in the research lab after he received his bachelor’s degree in geology, master’s in mineralogy and eventually obtained his Ph.D. in solid state technology.
"I began working as a research assistant after I received my bachelor’s degree, he said.
Eugene said his job in 1962 was to set up the electron microprobe and scanning electron microscope (SEM) at PSU.
"I worked with all of the major materials companies in the northeast," Eugene said, adding that Penn State had the only electron microscope at that time.
He said he had examined virtually everything that was man-made at that time while working in research.
Jon Weber, a marine geologist, would bring in samples from collections of coral and sea urchins to be examined under SEM.
He said the porosity of the samples showed a unique appearance.
"If you could shrink yourself, you could enter into coral on one side and walk through it and come out of the other side," he said.
"When you cut into a beef bone, you'll see that the inside is porous just as the coral is," Eugene said, adding there was nothing being made by man at that time that came close to the structure of bone, as the coral materials did.
He said the research lab looked to see if coral could be parlayed into some type of useful material other than limestone.
"We began doing the obvious thing, which was making three-dimensional copies of the coral structure," he said. "The easiest thing to do was to impregnate it with silicone and dissolve the calcium carbonate, which allowed us to make polymers and ceramics and turn it into materials that could be used for all kinds of things."
Eugene said in the winter of 1970, Rod White was home for Christmas break in Juneau, and they were talking about the fact that he had the SEM lab set up at Penn State and he was a professor there.
They discussed coral, and Eugene invited him to come work at Penn State.
Rod attended Syracuse University on a full football scholarship.
"He used his football skills to get into pre-med," Eugene said.
Eugene said Rod’s coach made sure all of his players had part-time jobs in the off season, and he was able to work.
"I told Rod that I had a lab with an SEM, instead of working on the loading dock, as the coach wanted him to. I invited him to come to Penn State and work as a technician, and I taught him how to use the scanning microscope," Eugene said.
As long as Rod carried 4.0 GPA, he was in good standing with the football program, Eugene said.
"While he was at Penn State, Rod could see the usefulness of copying the coral structure and its usefulness for its medical applications and potential," he said.
Rod went back to Syracuse and worked with Dick Cheroff at the Syracuse University animal testing lab.
Rod returned to Syracuse, where Dr. Watts Webb was the head of the surgery department, and he discussed the research with Webb and implanted 4 millimeters of silicone and polyurethane in animals to test it as coronary bypass, Eugene said.
He said they decided to publish their findings in Science Magazine in 1973.
"A friend of mine said we should patent our findings," he said.
"We just got in under the deadline for filing a patent, as you have a year to do so after you publish, or you lose your chance," Eugene said, adding that they were granted the patent in June of 1975.
He said Casey Jones was an editor associated with The New York Times at the time, and once a week, he would write about the latest patents.
Jones referenced their patent, which resulted in other newspapers writing about it.
Then, there was quite a flurry of activity with other major newspapers across the U.S. reading his column and writing about it in their own columns, Eugene said.
Professor Rustun Roy was Eugene's mentor and head of the materials Research Lab, where he worked late in the evening, and Roy also worked late in the evening.
Roy had just read an article in a paper about how to convert wood to petrified wood (silica), sparking an idea in Eugene's mind.
"It should be possible to take coral and convert it to hydroxyapatite (bone mineral)," Eugene said.
Roy developed a process for putting chunks of coral into high-pressure vessels with ammonium phosphate solution, he said.
Eugene said if heated to 150 degrees Celsius, a reaction takes place where the carbonate is exchanged for phosphate.
When the vessel is opened, the contents look exactly like the hydroxyapatite that went in, he said.
Eugene said surgeons turned their attention to bone mineral replacement, and the hydroxyapatite looked superior and became the experimental implant of choice.
Then at PSU, intellectual properties staff tried to get others interested in its patent technology, but there were no takers, he said.
Eugene said by this time, Rod had finished his medical degree at Syracuse and did his internship in Torrance, Calif., at Harbor General Hospital.
Rod spoke with senior resident Dr. Mike Peter, and told him what had been done at PSU, and Syracuse agreed that no one was interested in it.
"So we formed our own company called Replam Inc.," Eugene said, adding that Peter was a good salesman and took the lead in 1976.
"He talked to Miles Thompson in management at Johnson & Johnson, who agreed to invest $325,000 for two years," he said.
He said Replam was going to produce enough hydroxyapatite for its animal implant studies.
During that time, the FDA was tightening controls on what doctors put in patients, he said.
"The hoops to jump through were escalating, causing the cost to increase to $100,000, and Johnson & Johnson decided the costs were too high," he said.
Eugene said Peter went to Brentwood and Assoc. venture capital group, which agreed to put money into it, giving it 51-percent ownership of a new company called Interpore International, which replaced Replam.
There are so many roadblocks most patents don't go anywhere, Eugene said, adding that it was almost 20 years before it hit the market as a bio-medical product.
Eugene said today, hydroxyapatite is used throughout the body to repair defects and used as a quick healer for bone repairs. Hundreds of thousands of people, and possibly millions, have benefited from it.
Eugene, for many years, tested hydroxyapatite products in a lab in Canoe Ridge, above Rossiter, to make sure each batch was true.
He said most people would never guess that such important testing on a product like this took place for all of those years in Canoe Ridge.
He said that it goes to show what a graduate from Punxsutawney High School can accomplish if he or she puts his or her mind to it.
He left PSU in 1976 as a tenured professor and had open heart surgery before moving to Canoe Ridge.