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

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 nonprofits can receive free tech help from big bank's batch of experts

Tech Support

Though it's been around since 2012, JPMorgan Chase's Force for Good program feels especially vital right now. The project connects Chase employee volunteers with hundreds of nonprofits around the world to build sustainable tech solutions that help advance their missions.

Even better, Houston and Dallas nonprofits have a leg up in the selection process. Organizations located in or near one of Chase's tech centers get priority, and that includes H-Town and Big D.

The government-registered nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises (we're talking everything from food banks to theater companies) selected to participate will have access to a team of up to 10 highly skilled technologists, who will spend approximately four hours per week advising over an eight month period.

Each nonprofit is asked to propose the specific project that would benefit from technology guidance, and it needs to be something the organization can maintain when the project period is over.

"We have more than 50,000 technologists at JPMorgan Chase around the world and they're passionate about giving back," says Ed Boden, global lead of Technology for Social Good programs. "Force for Good gives our employees the opportunity to utilize their unique skills while also learning new ones, to build technology solutions for the organizations that need it most."

If you're the director, CEO, or other person in charge at a nonprofit and you still have questions about Force for Good, Chase has put together a free webinar to help explain further.

These webinars cover the overall program experience and application process, and it's highly recommended that nonprofits watch before applying. The live webinar dates (with Texas times) are June 2 from 1:30-2:30 pm and June 8 from 10:30-11:30 am.

A pre-recorded webinar will also be available for nonprofits to review after the live webinar dates.

Since 2012, Force for Good has worked with over 320 organizations in 22 cities, contributing over 190,500 hours of knowledge and skills.

"It is a great program that can provide strong impact for nonprofit organizations that need technology help," says Chris Rapp, a Dallas-based Chase executive. "As a father and husband of two Dallas artists, I am a huge believer in helping the arts grow and hopefully we can help do this through Force For Good."

The application process opened on May 28, with a deadline to submit by July 10.

2 corporations write checks to go toward Houston hospital's COVID-19 efforts

money moves

Two Houston companies have doled out cash to a Houston hospital's efforts in driving innovation during the pandemic as well as moving forward in a post-COVID-19 world.

Houston Methodist received $500,000 from Houston-based Aramco Americas and $130,000 from Houston-based Reliant. Aramco's gift will go toward funding ongoing research on convalescent plasma therapy as a treatment for COVID-19 and Reliant's donation will create the Reliant Innovation Fund.

"The challenges that we have and will continue to face with the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the need for fresh ideas to combat this disease and treat those who have been affected," says Dr. Faisal Masud, medical director of the Center for Critical Care at Houston Methodist Hospital, in a news release from Reliant. "Innovating is at the core of what we do at Houston Methodist, and this generous gift from Reliant will make a difference for patients both now and for years to come."

According to the release, $100,000 will go toward supporting students in the Texas A&M University's Engineering Medicine program, which combines engineering and medical courses to allow for students to receive a master's in engineering and a medical degree in four years. Currently, A&M is renovating a building in the Texas Medical Center that will be the future home of the program.

"The EnMed program is educating a new type of physician — one with an engineering background and a forward-thinking, innovative medical mindset. Reliant's partnership and donation will allow our students to innovate for the dynamic needs on today's clinical front lines," says Dr. Timothy Boone, director of the Houston Methodist Education Institute and Associate Texas A&M Dean, in the release.

The other $30,000 of Reliant's gift will go towards expanding the hospital's patient-centric mobile app, CareSense, which Houston Methodist has used to connect with COVID-19 patients after they have left the hospital.

Aramco's donation will be used to support Houston Methodist's plasma research on COVID-19 treatment. The hospital was the first academic medical center in the United States to get FDA approval for this type of treatment on COVID-19 patients.

"Convalescent plasma therapy has been effective in other infectious diseases and our physician-scientists are working to develop it into a first-line treatment for COVID-19," says Dr. Dirk Sostman, president at the Houston Methodist Academic Institute, in a news release from Aramco.

The treatment collects blood from recovered COVID-19 patients and infuses the plasma into currently ill COVID-19 patients in hopes that the recovered patient's plasma can provide the antibodies for the ill patient to fight off the disease.

"Houston Methodist Hospital is a world-leader in healthcare as well as research and development," says Mohammad S. Alshammari, president and CEO of Aramco Americas in the release. "Our donation is an opportunity to support the innovative work occurring there in support of the Houston community and to contribute to long-term medical solutions for this global health crisis."