research roundup

Several Houston-area life science research teams receive thousands in grants

It's pay day for several Houston-area research teams thanks to two grant programs. Photo via Getty Images

Several health innovation research teams across Houston are celebrating fresh funds to go toward the development of breakthrough technologies and research projects.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, check out who received this crucial funding and how their research and work can change the standard of care across the life science industry.

Reliant doles out $100,000 to two Houston Methodist critical care physician-scientists

Reliant announced that the recipients of the Reliant Innovation Fund will be two individuals within Houston Methodist Center for Critical Care in collaboration with Texas A&M's Engineering Medicine (EnMed) program.

"Meaningful innovation is core to us at Reliant and the work these institutions, physicians and students are doing is truly amazing," says Elizabeth Killinger, president of Reliant, in a news release. "We appreciate how Houston Methodist is making a lasting difference in our community by continuing to revolutionize medicine and we are honored to support them through the EnMed program."

Dr. Hina Faisal and Dr. Asma Zainab — along with the EnMed students who will support their work — will use the funds to advance their work. An anesthesiologist and critical care physician, Faisal will lead a project on 3-D-simulated virtual reality technology to prevent delirium in critically ill patients. Zainab, who specializes in cardiovascular ICU and focuses on respiratory failure and ventilator use, will lead a project to help personalize care in lung failure, creating models specific to each patient to avoid unnecessary pressure and injury caused by ventilators, per the release.

"Innovation is at the heart of what we do," says Dr. Faisal Masud, director of the Center of Critical Care at Houston Methodist, in the release. "Thanks to Reliant's generous contribution and ongoing support, we are able to seek out new ways to provide the best quality care for our most vulnerable patients while supporting our physicians, our students and their research."

Researchers at Rice University and Texas Medical Center institutions snag grants

Six research teams have received funding from Rice University's Educational and Research Initiatives for Collaborative Health, known as ENRICH. Established in 2016, the program focuses on connecting Rice faculty with TMC institutions to encourage collaboration. Last year, more than a fifth of Rice faculty were engaged in active collaborations with TMC research partners, according to a news release.

"Partnerships with TMC are an institutional priority, and they enable our faculty to translate their research to clinical practice, directly benefiting the Houston community," says Marcia O'Malley, special advisor to the provost on ENRICH and the Thomas Michael Panos Family Professor in Mechanical Engineering, in the release. "ENRICH has been instrumental in facilitating faculty engagement with TMC partners, reducing barriers to collaboration and investing institutional resources in new partnerships."

The Provost's TMC Collaborator Fund awarded $60,000 in grants to:

  • Jason Hafner '98, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice, and Carly Filgueira '09, assistant professor of nanomedicine and cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist Research Institute, to explore the development of an optical sensor for clinical detection of cholesterol.
  • Lan Li, assistant professor of history at Rice; Ricardo Ernesto Nuila, associate professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy at Baylor College of Medicine; and Fady Joudah, a poet, literary translator and physician at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, for a pilot study of community health care access that addresses larger questions about medical racism in Houston.
  • Oleg Igoshin, professor of bioengineering at Rice, and Anna Konovalova, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston's McGovern Medical School, to explore new targets for antibiotic treatment by probing the feedback loop between two important stress-response pathways in bacteria.
Additionally, Rice ENRICH and Baylor's Interdisciplinary Surgical Technology and Innovation Center (INSTINCT) awarded $60,000 in grants to:
  • Pulickel Ajayan, the Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering and chair of Rice's Department of Materials Science and Nanoengineering, and Crystal Shin, assistant professor of surgery at Baylor, for development of a self-charging, wireless microsensor capable of detecting changes in flow in blood vessels that have been replaced in heart bypass surgery.
  • Meng Li, Noah Harding Assistant Professor in Statistics at Rice, and Gabriel Loor, associate professor of surgery at Baylor, to study inflammation following lung transplantation and search for the cause of inflammatory responses that differ between men and women.
  • Vaibhav Unhelkar, assistant professor of computer science at Rice, and James Suliburk, associate professor of surgery at Baylor, to explore how artificial intelligence can augment surgical training.


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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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