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Rice team develops complex wearables that can navigate users through Houston

A team at Rice University is designing wearable technology that can be used for navigation for users with visual and auditory impairments. Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University

A group of Rice researchers have tapped into the sense of touch to improve how wearable technology can communicate with its user.

Barclay Jumet, a mechanical engineering PhD student at Rice working in the labs of Daniel Preston and Marcia O’Malley, published the findings in the August issue of “Device.” The study outlines the group's new system of haptic accessories that rely heavily on fluidic control over electrical inputs to signal or simulate touch to a wearer. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Rice University Academy of Fellows, and the Gates Millennium Scholars Program.

The accessories include a belt and textile sleeves, which deliver haptic cues like vibration, tapping and squeezing through pressure generated by a lightweight carbon dioxide tank attached to the belt. The sleeve contains up to six quarter-sized pouches that inflate with varying force and frequency, depending on what is being communicated to the wearer.

Marcia O'Malley (from left), Barclay Jumet and Daniel Preston developed a wearable textile device that can deliver complex haptic cues in real time to users on the go. Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University

The team says the wearables have uses for those with visual and auditory impairments and offer a slimmed-down design compared to other bulky complex haptic wearables. The wearables are also washable and repairable, which gives them more everyday uses.

To test the system's usability, the team guided a user on a mile-long route through Houston, signaling haptic cues for forward, backward, left or right through the devices.

“In the future, this technology could be directly integrated with navigational systems, so that the very textiles making up one’s clothing can tell users which way to go without taxing their already overloaded visual and auditory senses—for instance by needing to consult a map or listen to a virtual assistant,” Jumet said in a release from Rice.

O’Malley, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the system could also work in tandem with Cochlear implants and make lip-reading easier for users in noisy environments by directing users to sources of sound.

Jumet also sees uses outside of the medical space.

“Instead of a smart watch with simple vibrational cues, we can now envision a ‘smart shirt’ that gives the sensation of a stroking hand or a soft tap on the torso or arm,” he said in the release. “Movies, games and other forms of entertainment could now incorporate the sense of touch, and virtual reality can be more comfortable for longer periods of time.”

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A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

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