custom health care

Houston health center tackles mental health with customization and tech for innovative solutions

NH Hospital's innovative approach to mental health is based on the patient's biochemical makeup and gene-environment interfaces. Photo courtesy of NH Hospital

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to medical care. NH Hospital is bringing innovative technologies and functional medicine to patients in the Houston area. Using patients' biochemical makeup, the medical provider has created a unique service for Houstonians seeking a multi-pronged approach to behavioral health and substance use disorders.

The past year has been an incubator for mental health issues. Pandemic isolation, social distancing, financial instability, racial reckonings, and a massive death toll have posed an enormous threat to the mental wellbeing of people around the world. Experts predict a long-term spike in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases as society grapples with the tragedies of the last year, but the toll is already here.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depression increased from 36.4 to 41.5 percent between Aug. 19, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021.

As the world waits for a moment to exhale after a catastrophic year, NH Hospital keeps busy serving patients struggling with both behavioral health and addiction during the pandemic. Outside of depression and anxiety, the facility also treats bipolar disorder, PTSD, codependency, and postpartum depression by using a multidisciplinary approach.

NH Hospital integrates traditional medicine with functional medicine with a mission of treating the root cause of an issue and not just the symptoms. From providing an on-site chef and nutritionist to stimulating patients with calming acoustic therapy, the facility blends unique treatment modalities that address the whole body rather than an isolated issue.

"With functional medicine, we find other avenues and ways to allow [patients] to heal and to change their behavior," explains Debbie Cormier, CEO of NH Hospital.

Using genetic markers as a roadmap to health

You can build the closet of Carrie Bradshaw's dreams online, buy bespoke cologne based on your body chemistry, monogram jewelry and clothing, and even get a Renaissance-style portrait of your family pet. Tailor-made options are ubiquitous; why not customize medical care?

"For years, the traditional way, we just gave people the same amount of meds, the same diets, the same everything," and wondered why some patients responded better or quicker than others, explains Cormier. For the unlucky patients who didn't get stellar results, she says doctors may have thought "they just have to deal with it" and wait. "We don't feel that you should have to just deal with it," she continues.

When treating a patient, NH Hospital doctors consider the genetic makeup of each patient to create a custom care plan. With tests as simple as a swab of the cheek, the facility can gather biochemical markers that can share valuable medical information like risk factors for diseases.

Cormier believes NH Hospital's ability to look at a patient's genetic background and "treat you as an individual," is a key factor that sets the facility apart. The hospital also focuses on understanding how your genes interact with your environment.

Think of gene-environment interactions as nature vs. nurture, an ideology that research suggests plays significant roles in the outset of mental illness. Genetic and environmental factors interact to influence phenotype, the observable characteristics you exhibit when your genotype and environment interact.

When these factors are off-balance, it can result in undesirable results. A 2001 study of Finnish twins studied the socio-geographic impact on adolescent alcohol use in urban and rural environments. While the frequency of alcohol use was the same in both settings, the factors that led adolescents to drink were entirely different. Genetic factors played a larger role in urban areas, whereas the shared environment had a greater influence in rural settings.

By applying various modalities based on genetic information, doctors aren't going in blind and "know you from the inside out," says Cormier.

When a patient comes in struggling with something as grappling as depression or anxiety, conditions they've seen an uptick in since the beginning of the pandemic, doctors will run a genetic test as well as traditional lab work. Cormier says some potential treatment paths may include photosynthesis therapy, hydration therapy and nutrition.

Dietetics meets tech

NH Hospital helps patients get micronutrient infusions, but its nutrition program provides an integrated approach to fueling the body with the help of a staff chef.

"We only have so much energy every day, and we choose how we use the energy but by getting your diet right, it starts to heal you in all kinds of ways," says Cormier.

While the physical repercussions of a poor diet like diabetes and heart disease are widely known, you may be surprised to hear that nutrition can affect mood disorders and harm brain cells. According to Harvard Health Publishing, refined sugars can lead to brain impairment, depression and oxidative stress — the free radicals produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells. By focusing on a patient's nutrition, "the person has a better chance to heal, not only from the issue that is brought to us but to overall feel good," she says.

Counseling, cryotherapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation and cocoon therapy therapies are just some of the other methods NH Hospital doctors use to treat their patients.

Cormier recalls the recovery of a patient who was experiencing depression and using a wheelchair due to pain in her knees. She gradually gained the ability to walk without pain again after a months-long treatment plan of cryotherapy and micronutrient infusions.

"She said that we really changed her life because we gave her back her life. Now she's walking a mile a day around her block and she's able to do daily moving. She said she hadn't done that in years," says Cormier.

A mission to heal

Outside of neuropsychology, NH Hospital offers medical detox with monitoring from trained professionals and therapy plans for patients coming off of alcohol, methamphetamine, heroin, opioids like fentanyl and other prescription drugs.

Since the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency in 2017, nearly 841,000 people have died of an opioid overdose. Like anxiety and depression, addiction is also on the rise during the pandemic. A CDC survey found that 13 percent of respondents began using drugs during the pandemic or increased their use of illicit substances.

NH Hospital doctors provide micronutrients among other aides to help "build [patients] up] before taking them off the drugs, says Cormier. "We're just trying to make sure the patient feels safe and that if we're doing all these things, we continue to move them in a positive direction instead of just letting them sweat it out," she says.

"Our leadership here is committed to doing what it takes to help people whether they have behavioral, medical, or whatever [condition] brings them through our doors so that we make them have a better life," says Cormier.

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This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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