Research roundup

3 Houston research groups dive into game changing COVID-19 projects

These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions. Photo via Getty Images

Researchers across Houston are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

Wastewater detection, mental illness effects, a software solution to testing — here's your latest roundup of research news in Houston.

Baylor College of Medicine working in a group to detect SARS-CoV2 in wastewater

A team of scientists are testing Houston wastewater for traces of SARS-CoV2. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

According to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, who are working in partnership with the Houston Health Department and Rice University, testing the city's wastewater for SARS-CoV2 can help predict where outbreaks are likely to happen.

In May, researchers analyzed wastewater samples that were collected every week from 39 sites in the city and found traces of the virus. The research project was directed by Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in a news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

The researchers will continue into 2021 and are working with the city and local governments on their findings.

"It's a cost effective way to gauge Houston's total viral load. It tracks well ahead of positivity rate, 10 days in some cases," sways Dr. Austen Terwilliger, director of operations at TAILOR, in the release. "At the moment, we are at the lowest viral levels since we started sampling, which is excellent news."

University of Houston researchers looking into effect of pandemic on mental illness

Michael Zvolensky, University of Houston professor of psychology, is studying substance abuse as a coping method amid COVID-19. Photo via UH.edu

While physical health and economic impacts of the coronavirus have been the focus of attention amid the pandemic, mental health effects are estimated to inflict more damage if not address, according to new research by Michael Zvolensky, University of Houston professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory/Substance Use Treatment Clinic.

Zvolensky has published two papers on his research discussing the psychological behavior issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic from a behavioral science perspective, according to a press release from UH.

"The impact of COVID-19 on psychological symptoms and disorders, addiction and health behavior is substantial and ongoing and will negatively impact people's mental health and put them at greater risk for chronic illness and drug addiction," reports Zvolensky in Behaviour Research and Therapy. "It will not equally impact all of society. Those at greater risk are those that have mental health vulnerabilities or disorders."

For those who 'catastrophize' the pandemic, Zvolensky explains in his paper, the impact from stress is increased — as is the possibility for substance abuse.

"That sets in motion a future wave of mental health, addiction and worsening health problems in our society. It's not going to go away, even with a vaccination, because the damage is already done. That's why we're going to see people with greater health problems struggling for generations," says Zvolensky in the release.

He evaluated a group of 160 participants on pandemic-related fear and worry and substance abuse as a coping method. The "results may provide critical clinical information for helping individuals cope with this pandemic," he says.

Bioinformatics research group at Rice University is designing novel SARS-CoV-2 test

Rice University bioinformatics researcher Todd Treangen has created a software solution for a COVID-19 test. Photo via rice.edu

Can software help save lives in this pandemic? A Rice University computer scientist thinks it's worth a shot.

Bioinformatics researcher Todd Treangen is working with a molecular diagnostics company to optimize the design and computational evaluation of molecular detection assays for viral RNA of SARS-CoV-2, according to a press release from Rice. Great Basin Scientific and the Rice researchers hope their work will streamline the development and commercialization of COVID-19 testing.

"This exciting collaboration with Great Basin will allow for computational methods and software developed in my research group to directly contribute to fast, sensitive and affordable detection and monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 and emerging pathogens," Treangen said.

The company, which is based in Salt Lake City, will use Treangen lab's novel bioinformatics software called OliVar to work on the diagnostic test. Great Basin Scientific is expected to seek emergency use authorization for the test from the Food and Drug Administration later this year.

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

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