Fresh funds

Houston researchers receive $3.2 million grant to enhance fetal monitoring technology

Two Houston hospitals — Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine — have received funding from the National Institutes of Health. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thousands of cases of fetal growth restriction occur annually that can lead to complications at birth. In order to get a better idea of condition and to develop better monitoring technology, the National Institutes of Health has granted $3.2 million to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital.

The researchers are tasked with developing "an improved way to evaluate umbilical venous blood flow using 3D and Doppler ultrasound techniques" in small fetuses, according to a release from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Our research team will initially validate the accuracy and reproducibility of new 3D volume flow measurements and then develop corresponding reference ranges in normal pregnancies," says Dr. Wesley Lee, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor, in the release.

"Detailed observations of fetal growth, heart function, and circulatory changes will be made in over 1,000 small fetuses with estimated weights below the 10th percentile," Lee continues. "The results will be correlated with pregnancy outcomes to identify prenatal predictors of clinical problems in newborns."

The grant will fund a five-year investigation collaboration between the two Houston hospitals, as well as the University of Michigan, Perinatology Research Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health, and Human Development and GE Healthcare.

FGR is a condition that affects fetuses that are below the weight normal for their gesticular age — usually in the 10th percentile of weight or less, according to Stanford Children's Health. Underlying issues with placenta or umbilical cord can increase the risks of the condition and causes of FGR can range from blood pressure problems to drug and alcohol use.

Affected fetuses can be at risk of stillbirth or neonatal death. Babies that overcome FGR complications at birth are predisposed to developmental delay and the development of adult diseases such as obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and stroke, according to the release.

According to Dr. Lee, identifying these FGR and at-risk fetuses can benefit their health in infancy as well as throughout their lives.

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Houston-based imaware, which has an at-home COVID-19 testing process, is working with Texas A&M University on researching how the virus affects the human body. Getty Images

An ongoing medical phenomenon is determining how COVID-19 affects people differently — especially in terms of severity. A new partnership between a Houston-based digital health platform and Texas A&M University is looking into differences in individual risk factors for the virus.

Imaware, which launched its at-home coronavirus testing kit in April, is using its data and information collected from the testing process for this new study on how the virus affects patients differently.

"As patient advocates, we want to aid in the search to understand more about why some patients are more vulnerable than others to the deadly complications of COVID-19," says Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, in a press release. "Our current sample collection process is an efficient way to provide longitudinal prospectively driven data for research and to our knowledge, is the only such approach that is collecting, assessing, and biobanking specimens in real time."

Imaware uses a third-party lab to conduct the tests at patients' homes following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines and protocol. During the test, the medical professional takes additional swabs for the study. The test is then conducted by Austin-based Wheel, a telemedicine group.

Should the patient receive positive COVID-19 results, they are contacted by a representative of Wheel with further instructions. They are also called by a member of a team led by Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and laboratory scientist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, to grant permission to be a part of the study.

Once a part of the study, the patient remains in contact with Fischer's team, which tracks the spread and conditions of the virus in the patient. One thing the researchers are looking for is the patients' responses to virus complications caused by an overabundance of cytokines, according to the press release. Cytokines are proteins in the body that fight viruses and infections, and, if not working properly, they can "trigger an over-exuberant inflammatory response" that can cause potentially deadly issues with lung and organ failure or worse, per the release.

"We believe strongly in supporting this research, as findings from the field can be implemented to improve clinical processes-- helping even more patients," says Wheel's executive medical director, Dr. Rafid Fadul.

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