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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity. Photo via Getty Images

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

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