VR to the rescue

Houston Methodist is tapping into virtual reality technologies to ease the pain for cancer patients

Houston Methodist is researching the effect of virtual reality on cancer patients. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Virtual reality goes far beyond playing games with titles like Arizona Sunshine, Moss, Robo Recall, and Tetris Effect. VR also is playing an ever-growing role in health care settings. The global market for VR in health care could reach $3.8 billion in 2020, according to one estimate.

VR is touching all corners of heath, including robotic surgeries, training, pain management, and behavior modification, according to InterbrandHealth, a health care branding agency. And these technologies are happening right here in Houston.

Researchers at Houston Methodist Cancer Center are exploring whether exposure to nature, through either a real garden or VR, can ease pain and distress in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. This approach might decrease the need for prescription painkillers.

Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University are leading this test. Renee Stubbins, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, and Ashley Verzwyvelt, an infusion oncology nurse at the cancer center, proposed the research after several years of studying ways that nature can boost the healing process.

"Anything that affects our patients' comfort — including easing pain and anxiety, and possibly reducing the need for pain medications — is important to their recovery," Stubbins says in a release. "People have an innate connection to nature, and we hope the patients will respond positively."

Three dozen cancer patients receiving chemotherapy infusions every two weeks during at least six cycles will be randomly assigned to one of three rooms: a live-garden-view room; a window-less room, and a room where nature can be experienced through a VR headset.

Teaming up with Houston-based Skyline Art Services, local artist Gonzo247 produced a nature-inspired mural on a wall behind the live garden to create an immersive environment. The mural depicts a flowering garden, blue sky and sunset that enhance the live garden of Texas wildflowers in the foreground.

Researchers will measure pain, distress, blood pressure, heart rate, and saliva cortisol at the beginning and end of each infusion visit. Saliva cortisol, a hormone produced when the body is stressed, helps gauge a patient's condition.

"If this study proves that real or virtual elements of nature help the healing process, then it has potential to positively impact our patients," Verzwyvelt says. "Some of them are hesitant to take pain medication due to concerns of addiction and adverse side effects, so I'm excited to see the possibilities this kind of research could bring."

Houston Methodist Cancer Center says the VR experiment could have implications for treatment of an array of patients who are immobile or whose immune systems are compromised.

"We looked at multiple studies that showed exposure to nature can reduce stress levels and actually increase productivity and creativity," says Ann McNamara, associate professor in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M. "We want to see if we can reproduce those effects in a natural environment in virtual reality."

The study is being financed by the Center for Health & Nature, a joint initiative of Houston Methodist, Texas A&M and Texan by Nature, a nonprofit conservation group founded by former first lady Laura Bush. The Center for Health & Nature, housed at Houston Methodist Hospital, debuted in 2018.

"There's a gap in research regarding what nature factors lead to increased health, what exposure to nature means, and how much exposure is needed," Bush said when the center was announced.
Two researches at Texas A&M University have developed a diagnostic software for monitoring electrical equipment to prevent outages and even wildfires. Getty Images

The threat of wildfires is on most people's minds as Australia suffers from devastating, uncontrollable fires in its southeastern region. While Australia's fires are alleged to be caused by natural occurrences, some, like the California wildfires of late 2019, are caused by electrical malfunctions and sparks

Engineers at Texas A&M University have found a solution for preventing these electricity-caused wildfires — and the subsequently caused electrical outages — with their diagnostic software called Distribution Fault Anticipation, or DFA. The software can interpret variations in the electrical current on utility circuits — usually caused by issues with the equipment — that can cause outages or spark fires.

A Texas A&M research team — spearheaded by B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and research professor Carl L. Benner — is behind the DFA software.

The technology has been tested at over a dozen utilities in Texas over the past six years, according to a news release, and now two Californian utility companies — Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — will be testing DFA. In 2018, a state law from the California Public Utilities Commission began requiring utilities to submit Wildfire Mitigation Plans, per the release.

Up next: The researchers are preparing to test the software in Australia and New Zealand.

DFA's specific algorithms are based on and refined through 15 years of research. Russell and Benner liken DFA to the diagnostic tools cars use, and, comparatively, the utilities industry is way behind the times.

"Utility systems operate today like my 1950s Chevy," Russell says in the release. "They have some fuses and breakers and things, but they really don't have anything diagnostic. They don't have that computer under the hood telling them what's about to go wrong."

B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the research at A&M. Photo via A&M

Normal wear and tear on electrical equipment is inevitable, but it's hard for inspectors to visually see this damage. Until this DFA software, utilities had no choice but to react to failures or outages, rather than put money into prevention. The software allows for these companies to better see what could potentially cause issues. And, now with the ability to factor in dry conditions and weather, the software can even predict potential wildfires.

"Power is being turned off with nothing known to be wrong with a given circuit," Russell says in the release. "Utilities need a crystal ball, something telling them which circuit is going to start a fire tomorrow because it is already unhealthy. We are kind of that crystal ball."

DFA has the potential to prevent outages and devastation caused by wildfires, and it also is a huge economic solution for utilities companies — especially the ones reeling from the recent fires in California.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which is testing nine DFA devices, is the state's largest utility company and recently filed for bankruptcy due to a near $100 billion required from settlements following recent fires. By comparison, a DFA device costs only $15,000, according to the release.

"DFA is a new tool, allowing utilities to transform their operating procedures to find and fix problems before catastrophic failures." Russell says in the release. "Utilities operators need real time situational awareness of the health of their circuits…..DFA does that."