Houston-area researchers are innovating health and wellness solutions every day — even focusing on non-pandemic-related issues. Getty Images

Researchers across the world are coming up with innovative breakthroughs regarding the coronavirus, but Houston research institutions are also making health and wellness discoveries outside of COVID-19.

Here are three from Houston researchers from a muscular atrophy study from outer space to a research project that might allow blind patients to "see."

Houston Methodist's research on muscular atrophy in astronauts

Scientists are studying the effect of certain drugs to help preserve muscles in astronauts. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist/Facebook

Houston Methodist researcher Alessandro Grattoni and his team published research on muscular atrophy in astronauts. The research was published in Advanced Therapeutics and focused on his 2017 RR-6 muscle atrophy study that was conducted on the International Space Station.

While the current standard practice for astronauts maintaining their muscles is working out over two hours a day, the research found that use of drugs could also help preserve muscles. On a SpaceX refuel mission, mice that were implanted with a "Nanofluidic Delivery System" were sent up to space and monitored, according to a report. The device gradually released small doses of formoterol, an FDA approved drug for use in bronchodilation that has also been shown to stimulate increased muscle mass.

University of Houston researcher tracking fear response to improve mental health treatment

The research could help advance wearable devices. Photo via uh.edu

University of Houston researchers are looking into the way the body responds to fear in order to enhance mental health treatment. Rose Faghih, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Dilranjan Wickramasuriya in the Computational Medicine Lab (CML) are leading the project.

"We developed a mixed filter algorithm to continuously track a person's level of sympathetic nervous system activation using skin conductance and heart rate measurements," writes Faghih in the journal PLOS One. "This level of sympathetic activation is closely tied to what is known as emotional arousal or sympathetic arousal."

When this sympathetic nervous system is activated — sometimes known as the "fight or flight" response — the heart beats faster and more oxygen is delivered to the muscles, according to a press release. Then, the body begins to sweat in order to cool down.

"Using measurements of the variations in the conductivity of the skin and the rate at which the heart beats, and by developing mathematical models that govern these relationships, CML researchers have illustrated that the sympathetic nervous system's activation level can be tracked continuously," reports Faghih.

This algorithm could be used in a wearable electronic device that could be worn by a patient diagnosed with a fear or anxiety disorder.

Baylor College of Medicine's vision-restoring research

What if a device could see for you? Photo from Pexels

When someone loses their vision, it's likely due to damage to the eyes or optic nerve. However, the brain that interprets what they eyes sees, works perfectly fine. But researchers from Baylor College of Medicine have worked on a thesis that a device with a camera could be designed and implemented to do the seeing for the blind patient.

"When we used electrical stimulation to dynamically trace letters directly on patients' brains, they were able to 'see' the intended letter shapes and could correctly identify different letters," says Dr. Daniel Yoshor, professor and chair of neurosurgery in a press release. "They described seeing glowing spots or lines forming the letters, like skywriting."

Through a study supported by the National Eye Institute with both sighted and blind people using implanted devices, the investigators determined that the process was promising. According to the release, the researchers identified several obstacles must be overcome before this technology could be implemented in clinical practice.

"The primary visual cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, contains half a billion neurons. In this study we stimulated only a small fraction of these neurons with a handful of electrodes," says said Dr. Michael Beauchamp, professor and in neurosurgery, in the release.

"An important next step will be to work with neuroengineers to develop electrode arrays with thousands of electrodes, allowing us to stimulate more precisely. Together with new hardware, improved stimulation algorithms will help realize the dream of delivering useful visual information to blind people."

Houston researchers are commercializing their organ 3D printing technology, a local hospital has a tiny medical device with a big impact, and more in health tech. Jordan Miller/Rice University

3 health technologies developed in Houston that are changing the industry

Game changers

There's a huge opportunity for breakthrough medical technology in Houston thanks in large part to major universities, the Texas Medical Center, and other resources within health care startups.

From a new tiny implant that can deliver medicine into the patient remotely to printable human tissue, here are three health technologies coming out of Houston innovators to look out for.

Houston Methodist's tiny drug delivery implant

This tiny implant can have a big effect on patients. Courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist nanomedicine researchers have developed an implant the size of a grape that can deliver medicine via a remote control. The device has applications in arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease treatment.

The battery-powered nanochannel deliver system uses Bluetooth technology and can dole out continuous, predetermined dosages for up to a year without refills. A proof-of-concept for the device published in Lab on a Chip.

"We see this universal drug implant as part of the future of health care innovation," says Alessandro Grattoni, chair of the nanomedicine department at Houston Methodist. "Some chronic disease drugs have the greatest benefit of delivery during overnight hours when it's inconvenient for patients to take oral medication. This device could vastly improve their disease management and prevent them from missing doses, simply with a medical professional overseeing their treatment remotely."

The devices can be programed for different dosage sizes and different release settings, which affect the voltage for the medicine delivery.

Houston Methodist has a number of new technologies it's introduced into its hospital system — click here to read about a few more.

NurseDash's resourceful scheduling tool

Houston-based NurseDash is the Uber of staffing nursing shifts in medical facilities. Photo via nursedash.com

Filling open nursing shifts has always been a challenge for hospitals and medical centers, and they've been forced to rely on outsourced companies to coordinate nurses to fill the shifts. NurseDash puts the power back in the hands of freelance nurses and the medical institutions that want to hire them.

Andy Chen, former CFO for Nobilis Health Corporation and co-founder of NurseDash, says the standard practice is hiring these agencies to fill shifts, and, while they promise to send someone, they don't even know who they'll be sending for a shift just hours away. This antiquated system prioritizes who comes in first, rather than a nurse's specialties or qualifications.

Since its debut, NurseDash, which is based in Houston's Galleria Area, has attracted 40 facilities in Houston, including hospitals, surgery centers, and senior living, and about 400 nurses. Chen says he isn't sure just what to call his technology yet, but compares it to the ride hailing of Uber or Lyft and calls it "a virtual bulletin board."

The company has already expanded beyond Houston to northeast Ohio, which the founders say has a similar competitive dynamic to the Houston market. The next goal is to hit the rest of the top 10 largest cities in the United States. To read more about the app and startup, click here.

Volumetric's human tissue-printing technology

Rice University bioengineer Daniel Sazer prepares a scale-model of a lung-mimicking air sac for testing. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

In a world where organ transplants means an incredible amount of time, money, and patience, there might soon be another option on the operating table. Volumetric is a startup that came out of a human tissue-printing technology developed at Rice University.

Jordan Millar developed the 3D printer in his lab at Rice, and still has ongoing research within the technologies. However, Miller says he very strategically chose to launch a for-profit company in 2018 — mainly, to provide access.

"If we want to do translational research, commercialization is important," reasons Miller. "We need to build the market to get that technology into the world."

Right now, the device is printing scaled down organs, and a contraption that looks a bit like a futuristic beehive, graced the cover of the May 3 issue of the journal Science. It's a working air sac complete with blood vessels, the beginnings of a technology that is perhaps only a decade from being implanted in humans. To read more about Volumetric, click here.


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Houston doctors recognized among top creative leaders in business

winners

This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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Samsung sets sights on nearly $200 billion expansion in Texas

chipping in

As it builds a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor, tech giant Samsung is eyeing a long-term strategy in the Texas area that could lead to a potential investment of close to $200 billion.

Samsung’s plans, first reported by the Austin Business Journal, call for an additional $192.1 billion investment in the Austin area over several decades that would create at least 10,000 new jobs at 11 new chipmaking plants. These facilities would be at the new Taylor site and the company’s existing site in Northeast Austin.

The first of the 11 new plants wouldn’t be completed until 2034, according to the Business Journal.

“Samsung has a history already in the Austin market as an employer of choice, providing high wages, great benefits, and a great working environment. All of this will be on steroids in the not-too-distant future, creating a historic boost to the already booming Austin economy,” John Boyd Jr., a corporate site selection consultant, tells CultureMap.

Samsung’s preliminary plans were revealed in filings with the State of Texas seeking possible financial incentives for the more than $190 billion expansion. The South Korean conglomerate says the filings are part of the company’s long-range planning for U.S. chipmaking facilities.

Given that Samsung’s 11 new plants would be decades in the making, there’s no certainty at this point that any part of the potential $192.1 billion expansion will ever be built.

Last November, Samsung announced it would build a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor to complete its semiconductor operations in Northeast Austin. Construction is underway, with completion set for 2024. Boyd proclaimed last year that the Taylor project will trigger an “economic tsunami” in the quiet Williamson County suburb.

The Taylor facility, which is expected to employ more than 2,000 people, ranks among the largest foreign economic development projects in U.S. history. The impact of a nearly $200 billion cluster of 11 new chipmaking plants would far eclipse the Taylor project.

The Taylor factory will produce advanced chips that power mobile and 5G capabilities, high-performance computing, and artificial intelligence.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.