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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DivInc's newest accelerator based in Houston will support Web3 companies with a social impact. Photos courtesy of DivInc

A Texas-based accelerator focused on helping BIPOC and female founders on their entrepreneurial journeys announced the inaugural class for its newest accelerator.

DivInc's DWeb for Social Impact Accelerator, a 12-week intensive hybrid program sponsored by Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, will mentor nine companies, all of whom integrate Web3 technologies into their impact entrepreneurship. Participating startups will have access to the Ion’s resources and receive a non-dilutive $10,000 grant to use during the course of the program.

Cherise Luter, marketing director at DivInc, says the Austin-based development program instead chose Houston to host this inaugural cohort because they have a secure partnership with the Ion and other premiere partners in the area, including Mercury, JP Morgan, and Bank of America.

“The team that we already have in place in Houston is so strong, we thought, this would be a great place to launch this concept and then from there determine if we want to launch it in Austin,” Luter says.

Amanda Moya, director of programs for DivInc, says this accelerator will truly be hybrid, enabling entrepreneurs from around the country to benefit from quality virtual mentorship and four weeks of in-person training.

“We want to really engulf them in the Houston innovation ecosystem, to let them know that this is also a landing pad if they are ever to move or travel around and come back to Houston,” Moya mentions.

One Houston-based startup, CultureLancer, will be participating in the program. A career-focused platform that matches students from HBCU with companies looking to hire in the fields of business development, data analysis, marketing, and operations, CultureLancer provides students with project-based learning opportunities.

Brianna Brazle, CultureLancer founder and therapist, says after discussing with friends and family members their struggles to get hired post-graduation she uncovered an underserved market of people in need of career guidance.

“That’s a problem that has been existing and then after doing more research I learned historically about 56%, year over year, of college graduates find themselves unemployed or underemployed,” Brazle explains. “My first solution to this problem was a hybrid marketplace.”

The rest of the inaugural cohort includes one to two entrepreneurs from the following companies:

  • Craftmerce, based in Dallas, is a B2B technology platform that brings African artisans and mainstream retail partners together through distributed production, enterprise management, and financing tools.
  • Instarails is working to simplify cross border payments through their app which provides the option to make instant global payments regardless of currency.
  • Looks for Lease, a Los Angeles based wardrobe rental company is combating the carbon emissions brought on by the fashion industry through their circular consumerism business model which operates on an AR platform.
  • Motherocity is an app that allows postpartum moms to track their mental and physical health through personal insights, experiential data, data science, and artificial intelligence, all the way through the first year after giving birth.
  • Salubata combines sustainable fashion and tech through their shoes made from old plastic bottles and integrating an NFT component that allows access to new shoe designs for customers.
  • Seed At The Table is a crowdfunding platform connecting marginalized founders with non-accredited investors, founded by a former Goldman Sachs investment manager.
  • Tribe is a mental health mobile app aiming to make mental healthcare affordable and accessible to black people through their directory of black therapists whose patients can directly book appointments within the app.
  • Subler, which was founded by a Los Angeles high school board member, is a digital marketplace that allows schools to rent out their unused spaces to local community groups.

The program will run from Sept. 18 until their demonstration day which is scheduled for Dec. 7 at the Ion.

DivInc, which runs several accelerators across Texas, originally partnered with the Ion in 2020. The organization introduced its new DWeb program earlier this year.

Last month, DivInc also introduced its inaugural cohort to another new diversity-focused accelerator. The 2023 Clean Energy Tech accelerator program sponsored by Chevron and Microsoft is currently ongoing.

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