Work space

Houston scientist creates a DIY lab concept for flexible and efficient work

The DIY lab, called the eVOLVER, costs $2,000 less than a comparable setup. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Every scientist needs his or her own space, and each discipline calls for different types of tools and space requirements. Caleb Bashor, a professor at Rice University, along with seven colleagues, created a DIY lab to further research efforts based at the university.

Stemming from the need of a more customized study, Bashor and his team created a setup that combines the control of automated cell-culturing systems that can run continuously for months with the scale of high-throughput systems that grow dozens of cultures at once, according to a news release issued by Rice University.

The DIY lab, eVOLVER, comprises three modules: a customizable "smart sleeve" housing and interface for each culture vessel, a fluidic module that controls movement of liquid in and out of each culture vessel, and a modular hardware infrastructure that simplifies high-volume bi-directional data flow by decoupling each parameter into individual microcontrollers.

"The prototype 16-chamber version of eVOLVER described in the new paper cost less than $2,000, cheaper than what a lab might pay for a single continuous culture bioreactor," Bashor says in the release.

Bashor, who has been at the university since 2017, has worked in science for 15 years and received his post doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he met many of his colleagues that collaborated on eVOLVER.

"If you don't have something to do the job in the lab, you go and you build it," says Bashor. "It might take a few rounds of building and rebuilding, but eventually you get around to having it be something that gives you what you want. In this case, it's something a lot of different academic labs want now, we have actually given this out to dozens of labs."

The DIY initiative has made waves throughout the Rice student body, Bashor shares with InnovationMap. One graduate student, Brandon Wong, tasked to help with the project has shared a how-to for the DIY lab online.

"It's a basic research tool, it's exciting," says Bashor. It's something that can be leveraged for a lot of great research projects inside of the university."

Bashor and his team in the bioengineering department support lead cellular and biomolecular engineering research, which led them to create the lab.

"We turned to DIY electronics and we decided to build it ourselves," Bashor tells InnovationMap. "The process took about three years. We had to learn all of the tools that were out there for doing DIY work and a lot of these tools have showed up in the last ten years."

Rice University's department of bioengineering is a member of the Texas Medical Center and hosts interdisciplinary training programs at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine, according to the school's website.

"This is one of the biggest centers in the world for immunotherapy, particularly clinical immunotherapy, and so we're working with people who do immunotherapy using my special engineering techniques, which mostly involve engineering the way that cells behave to try to more effectively kill cancer," says Bashor.

Caleb Bashor and his associates created the lab. Photo courtesy of Rice University

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Building Houston

 
 

Last month was National Diabetes Awareness Month and Houston-based JDRF Southern
Texas Chapter has some examples of how technology is helping people with type 1 diabetes. Photo courtesy of JDRF

Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease where insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are mistakenly destroyed by the body's immune system. Insulin is vital in controlling blood-sugar or glucose levels. Not only do you need proper blood-sugar levels for day-to-day energy, but when blood-sugar levels get too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia), it can cause serious problems and even death. Because of this, those with T1D are dependent on injections or pumps to survive.

The causes of T1D are not fully known, and there is currently no cure; however, advancing technologies are making it easier to live with T1D.

Monitoring

Those who have had T1D for decades might recall having to pee into a vial and test reagent strips in order to check their blood-sugar levels. Thankfully, this evolved into glucometers, or glucose meters. With a glucometer, those with T1D prick their finger and place a drop on the edge of the test strip, which is connected to the monitor that displays their results. Nowadays, glucometers, much like most T1D tech, can be Bluetooth enabled and sync with a smartphone.

From there, scientists have developed the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) so that those with T1D can monitor their blood sugar 24/7. All you need to do is insert a small sensor under the skin. The sensor then measures glucose levels every few minutes, and that information can then be transmitted to smartphones, computers and even smart watches.

Monitoring blood-sugar levels is vital for those with T1D, particularly because it helps them stay more aware of their body, know what to do and even what to expect, but they also have to actively control those levels by injecting insulin. Think of a monitor as the "check engine" light. It can tell you that there may be a problem, but it won't fix it for you. To fix it, you would need an injection or a pump.

Pumps and artificial pancreas

The development of insulin pumps has made a huge impact on the lives of those with T1D and parents of children with T1D by making it easier to manage their blood-sugar levels. 50 years ago, the prototype of the insulin pump was so large, it had to be a backpack, but with today's technology, it is about the size of a smartphone. The pump is worn on the outside of the body, and it delivers insulin through a tube which is placed under the skin. Insulin pumps mimic the way a pancreas works by sending out small doses of insulin that are short acting. A pump can also be manipulated depending on each person's needs. For example, you can press a button to deliver a dose with meals and snacks, you can remove it or reduce it when active and it can be programmed to deliver more at certain times or suspend delivery if necessary.

One of the most recent and trending developments in T1D research is the artificial pancreas, or more formally referred to as the automated insulin delivery (AID) systems. Essentially, the artificial pancreas is an insulin pump that works with a CGM. The CGM notifies the insulin pump of your blood-sugar reading, which acts accordingly to restore your blood sugar to the target level. The artificial pancreas allows those with T1D to be even more hands off, as it does essentially everything: It continuously monitors blood-sugar levels, calculates how much insulin you would need, which can be done through smart devices, and automatically delivers insulin through the pump.

Living with T1D is a 24/7/365 battle; however, the advances in technology make it easier and safer to live with the disease. Organizations like JDRF play a huge role in investing in research, advocating for government support and more.

November was National Diabetes Awareness Month, and this year is particularly special for JDRF, as it is the 50th year of the organization. JDRF was founded in 1970 by two moms. The community grew to include scientists, lobbyists, celebrities and children—all determined to improve lives and find cures.

Bound by a will stronger than the disease, this year during National Diabetes Awareness Month (NDAM), JDRF celebrates "The Power of Us." We are reflecting on the power of our community and reminding ourselves and the public of how far we've come in the fight against T1D.


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Rick Byrd is the executive director of the JDRF Southern Texas Chapter.

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