Research roundup

3 cancer-fighting innovations coming out of Houston institutions

From a new cancer-detecting device to a digital resource for childhood cancer survivors, here are some cancer-fighting innovations from Houston. Getty Images

Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear lab coats. Almost daily, it seems there's a new breakthrough or discovery for life-saving innovations.

These three cancer-related innovations are coming out of Houston, and they are ones to watch.

University of Houston's biosensor for prostate cancer reoccurrence

Dmitri Litvinov, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is on a mission to bring an effective, low-cost test for prostate cancer recurrence to doctor's offices everywhere. Photo via uh.edu

Researchers from the University of Houston have teamed up with their colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to try to get a biosensor that can detect the recurrence of prostate cancer into the doctor's office.

The research is funded by a $399,988 grant from the National Science Foundation and led by Dmitri Litvinov, principal investigator and professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH.

"Such tests exist in clinical laboratories, but there remains a critical need for inexpensive, versatile and high-sensitivity diagnostic platforms which can bring the performance to the point of care or doctor's office," says Litvinov in a release.

The biosensor platform would be less than $3 per test — an alluring fact for patients and health care providers — and would function more or less like a pregnancy test, but without a simple positive or negative response. Rather, the test can assess how much prostate-specific antigen is in a patient's blood

"Our technology has potential to help improve survival rates with more accessible, affordable and easier testing," Litvinov says.

Rice University's study that points to new cancer-fighting drug

José Onuchic co-authored a study that's opening doors for a new approach in cancer drug development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that a cancer-linked version of the protein mitoNEET can shut the gateways of mitochondria cells that supply chemical energy.

José Onuchic, a physicist and co-director of Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, co-authored the paper and noted that the gateways, called voltage-dependent anion channels, or VDACs, typically open and shut to allow the passage of metabolites and other small molecules between mitochondria and the rest of the cell.

"The VDAC channel transports all types of metabolites between the cytosol and the mitochondria," says Onuchic in a release. "Dysfunction of this channel is involved in many diseases including cancer and fatty liver disease."

Co-author Patricia Jennings, a structural biologist at UCSD, explains in the news release.

"The discovery that mitoNEET directly gates VDAC, the major porin of mitochondria, as well as the accompanying structural analysis and predictions for this interaction, affords a new platform for investigations of methods to induce cancer cells to commit cell suicide, or apoptosis/ferroptosis, in a cancer-specific, regulated process," she writes.

The study opens doors for a new approach to cancer-treating drugs.

"Fine-tuning a drug that specifically alters the redox-state of interaction between VDAC and mitoNEET would allow the development of new weapons to battle multiple cancers," Onuchic says.

Baylor College of Medicine's digital tool for childhood cancer survivors

Baylor College of Medicine has created an online resource for childhood cancer survivors. Photo via bcm.edu

Childhood cancer survivors face a lifetime of obstacles to overcome, and Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Cancer Center have developed a resource to help these patients have the best quality of life in remission.

Passport for Care, a free online resource, features a "survivorship care plan" for the patient, his or her doctor, and family members. The program's new Screenings Recommendations Generator tool can provide a childhood cancer survivor with potential late effects and how to manage their care.

"This tool is especially helpful for patients who have moved on to other doctors who they did not see as a child and who might not be familiar with their particular treatment and the subsequent health risks," says Dr. David Poplack, founder of the Passport for Care and associate director of the Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers, in a news release. "It helps physicians understand their patient's history and know how to address future health problems."

Over 37,000 cancer survivors are using Passport for Care at 138 clinics around the world. Additionally, patients can also register through the Screenings Recommendations Generator.

Passport for Care is funded by the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, as well as through a grant from Hyundai Hope on Wheels.

"We created Passport for Care with the goal of empowering survivors in their healthcare decisions," Poplack says. "Their care doesn't end when cancer treatment is over. Survivorship care is a lifelong journey."

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Building Houston

 
 

Stroke patients have a new hope for arm rehabilitation thanks to a team from UH. Photo courtesy of UH

Almost 800,000 people in the United States suffer from a stroke annually — and the affliction affects each patient differently. One University of Houston researcher has created a device that greatly improves the lives of patients whose stroke affected motor skills.

UH engineering professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal developed a next-generation robotic arm that can be controlled by the user's brainwaves. The portable device uses a brain-computer interface (BCI) developed by Contreras-Vidal. Stroke patient Oswald Reedus, 66, is the first person to use a device of this kind.

Reedus lost the use of his left arm following a stroke that also caused aphasia, or difficulty speaking. While he's been able to recover his ability to speak clearly, the new exoskeleton will help rehabilitate his arm.

When strapped into the noninvasive device, the user's brain activity is translated into motor commands to power upper-limb robotics. As patients like Reedus use the device, more data is collected to improve the experience.

“If I can pass along anything to help a stroke person’s life, I will do it. For me it’s my purpose in life now,” says Reedus in a news release from UH. His mother and younger brother both died of strokes, and Reedus is set on helping the device that can help other stroke patients recover.

Contreras-Vidal, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen distinguished professor, has led his device from ideation to in-home use, like with Reedus, as well as clinical trials at TIRR Memorial Hermann. The project is funded in part from an $813,999 grant from the National Science Foundation’s newly created Division of Translational Impacts.

"Our project addresses a pressing need for accessible, safe, and effective stroke rehabilitation devices for in-clinic and at-home use for sustainable long-term therapy, a global market size expected to currently be $31 billion," Contreras-Vidal says in the release. "Unfortunately, current devices fail to engage the patients, are hard to match to their needs and capabilities, are costly to use and maintain, or are limited to clinical settings."

Dr. Gerard E. Francisco, chief medical officer and director of the Neuro Recovery Research Center at TIRR Memorial Hermann, is leading the clinical trials for the device. He's also chair and professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. He explains that TIRR's partnership with engineering schools such as the Cullen College of Engineering at UH and others around the nation is strategic.

“This is truly exciting because what we know now is there are so many ways we can induce neuroplasticity or how we can boost recovery,” says Francisco in the release. “That collaboration is going to give birth to many of these groundbreaking technologies and innovations we can offer our patients.”

Both parts of the device — a part that attaches to the patient's head and a part affixed to their arm — are noninvasive. Photo courtesy of UH

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