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

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes James Hury of TRISH, Serafina Lalany of HX, and Andrew Ramirez of Village Insights. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from space health to virtual collaboration — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

James Hury, deputy director and chief innovation officer of TRISH

James Hury joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the role of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of TRISH

Only about 500 humans have made it to space, and that number is getting bigger thanks to commercial space travel.

"If you look at all the people who have gone into space, they've mostly been employees of nations — astronauts from different governments," says James Hury of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're going to start to get people from all different ages and backgrounds."

Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer for Houston-based TRISH, and he's focused on identifying space tech and research ahead of the market that has the potential to impact human health in space. From devices that allow astronauts to perform remote health care on themselves to addressing behavioral health challenges, TRISH is supporting the future of space health. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

HX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston's nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of the local innovation ecosystem has named its new leader.

Serafina Lalany has been named Houston Exponential's executive director. She has been serving in the position as interim since July when Harvin Moore stepped down. Prior to that, she served as vice president of operations and chief of staff at HX.

"I'm proud to be leading an organization that is focused on elevating Houston's startup strengths on a global scale while helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," Lalany says in a news release. "My team and I will be building upon the great deal of momentum that has already been established in this effort, and I look forward to collaborating closely with members of our community and convening board in this next chapter of HX." Click here to read more.

Andrew Ramirez, CEO of Village Insights

Andrew Ramirez originally worked on a similar project 10 years ago. Photo via LinkedIn

Innovation thrives on collisions, but how do innovators connect without face-to-face connection? Andrew Ramirez and Mike Francis set out to design a virtual village to promote collisions and innovation, and their platform is arriving at an apt time.

"The world has changed," Ramirez says. "I feel like people are trying to find the right balance of the physical but also the productivity gain from being able to do things digitally."

Ramirez leads Village Insights as CEO and the new platform is expected to formally launch it's Open World platform next month. Click here to read more.

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