A new AI-optimized COVID screening device, a free response resource, and more — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

Researchers across the Houston area are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

From a COVID breathalyzer to a new collaboration in Houston — here's your latest roundup of local coronavirus research news.

A&M System to collaborate on a COVID-19 breathalyzer

A prototype of the device will be used on the Texas A&M campus. Photo via tamu.edu

Researchers at Texas A&M University System are collaborating on a new device that uses artificial intelligence in a breathalyzer situation to detect whether individuals should be tested for COVID-19. The technology is being developed through a collaboration with Dallas-based company, Worlds Inc., and the U.S. Air Force.

The device is called Worlds Protect and a patient can use a disposable straw to blow into a copper inlet. In less than a minute, test results can be sent to the person's smartphone. Worlds Inc. co-founders Dave Copps and Chris Rohde envision Worlds Protect kiosks outside of highly populated areas to act as a screening process, according to a news release.

"People can walk up and, literally, just breathe into the device," says Rohde, president of Worlds Inc., in the release. "It's completely noninvasive. There's no amount of touching. And you quickly get a result. You get a yay or nay."

The university system has contributed $1 million in the project's development and is assisting Worlds Inc. with engineering and design, prototype building and the mapping of a commercial manufacturing process. According to the release, the plan was to test the prototypes will be tried out this fall on the Texas A&M campus.

"Getting tech innovations to market is one of our sweet spots," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release. "This breakthrough could have lasting impact on global public health."

Baylor College of Medicine researchers to determine cyclosporine’s role in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients

BCM researchers are looking into the treatment effect of an existing drug on COVID-19 patients. Photo via BCM.edu

The Baylor College of Medicine has launched a randomized clinical trial to look into how the drug cyclosporine effects the prevention of disease progression in pre-ICU hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drug has been used for about 40 years to prevent rejection of organ transplants and to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

"The rationale is strong because the drug has a good safety profile, is expected to target the body's hyperimmune response to COVID and has been shown to directly inhibit human coronaviruses in the lab," says Dr. Bryan Burt, chief of thoracic surgery in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, says in a press release.

Burt initiated this trial and BCM is the primary site for the study, with some collaboration with Brigham and Women's. The hypothesis is that the drug will help prevent the cytokine storm that patients with COVID-19 experience that causes their health to decline rapidly, according to the release.

The study, which is funded by Novartis, plans to enroll 75 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center who are not in the ICU. There will be an initial evaluation at six months but Burt expects to have the final study results in one year.

Rice launches expert group to help guide pandemic response

A new response team is emerging out of a collaboration led by Rice University. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University is collaborating with other Houston institutions to create the Biomedical Expert Panel, supported by Texas Policy Lab, to assist officials in long-term pandemic recovery.

"Not all agencies and decision-makers have an in-house epidemiologist or easy access to leaders in infectious disease, immunology and health communications," says Stephen Spann, chair of the panel and founding dean of the University of Houston College of Medicine, in a news release. "This panel is about equity. We must break out of our knowledge siloes and face this challenge together, with a commitment to inclusivity and openness."

The purpose of the panel is to be available as a free resource to health departments, social service agencies, school districts and other policymakers. The experts will help design efficient public health surveillance plans, advise on increasing testing capacity and access for underserved communities, and more.

"The precise trajectory of the local epidemic is difficult to predict, but we know that COVID-19 will continue to be a long-term challenge," says E. Susan Amirian, an epidemiologist who leads the TPL's health program, in the release. "Although CDC guidelines offer a good foundation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when managing a crisis of this magnitude across diverse communities with urgent needs."

Five research teams are studying space radiation's effect on human tissue. Photo via NASA/Josh Valcarcel

2 Houston research teams to receive support from local space health organization

out of this world

A Houston-based organization has named five research projects to advance the understanding of space radiation using human tissue. Two of the five projects are based in Houston.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, is based at Baylor College of Medicine and funds health research and tech for astronauts during space missions. The astronauts who are headed to the moon or further will be exposed to high Galactic Cosmic Radiation levels, and TRISH wants to learn more about the effects of GCR.

"With this solicitation, TRISH was looking for novel human-based approaches to understand better Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) hazards, in addition to safe and effective countermeasures," says Kristin Fabre, TRISH's chief scientist, in a news release. "More than that, we sought interdisciplinary teams of scientists to carry these ideas forward. These five projects embody TRISH's approach to cutting-edge science."

The five projects are:

  • Michael Weil, PhD, of Colorado State University, Colorado — Effects of chronic high LET radiation on the human heart
  • Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD of Columbia University, New York — Human multi-tissue platform to study effects of space radiation and countermeasures
  • Sharon Gerecht, PhD of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland — Using human stem-cell derived vascular, neural and cardiac 3D tissues to determine countermeasures for radiation
  • Sarah Blutt, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Use of Microbial Based Countermeasures to Mitigate Radiation Induced Intestinal Damage
  • Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Counteracting space radiation by targeting neurogenesis in a human brain organoid model

The researchers are tasked with simulating radiation exposure to human tissues in order to study new ways to protect astronauts from the radiation once in deep space. According to the release, the tissue and organ models will be derived from blood donated by the astronaut in order to provide him or her with customized protection that will reduce the risk to their health.

TRISH is funded by a partnership between NASA and Baylor College of Medicine, which also includes consortium partners Caltech and MIT. The organization is also a partner to NASA's Human Research Program.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions

Research roundup

As Houston heads toward the end of summer with no major vaccine or treatment confirmed for COVID-19, local research institutions are still hard at work on various coronavirus-focused innovations.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news.

Baylor College of Medicine genomics team to partner for local COVID-19 testing

Houston millionaire to start biotech accelerator for companies focusing on regenerative medicine

Two departments at BCM are working with the county on COVID-19 testing. Getty Images

Two Baylor College of Medicine institutions have teamed up to aid in local COVID-19 testing. The Human Genome Sequencing Center and the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research — under the leadership of BCM — are partnering with local public health departments to provide polymerase chain reaction testing of COVID-19 samples, according to a news release from BCM.

"We are pleased to work with the outstanding local government groups in this critical public health effort," says Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the HGSC and Wofford Cain chair and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, in the release. "We are proud of the tireless determination and expertise of our centers and college staff that enabled the rapid development of this robust testing capacity to serve the greater Houston community."

Baylor is among the testing providers for Harris County Public Health, and people can receive testing following a pre-screening questionnaire online.

"We are fortunate to have Baylor College of Medicine as a close partner during the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, in the release. "This is a challenging time for our community and as the need for increased testing capacity and getting results to residents faster has grown, Baylor has risen to the occasion. There are countless unsung heroes across Harris County who have stepped up to the plate during this pandemic and Baylor College of Medicine is one of them."

COVID-19 testing samples are collected from testing sites and delivered to the Alkek Center. After isolating the virus, genomic material is extracted and sent to the HGSC to quantitative reverse transcription PCR testing. Should the sample's RNA sequence match the virus, then it is positive for COVID-19. The sequencing must test positive three times to be considered overall positive.

Results are returned within 48 hours, and the lab has a capacity of more than 1,000 samples a day. Since May, the team has tested over 30,000 samples.

"We knew we had all the pieces to stand up a testing center fast – large scale clinical sequencing, experts in virology and molecular biology, and a secure way to return results to patients," says Ginger Metcalf, Human Genome Sequencing Center Director of Project Development, in the release. "We are also fortunate to have such great partners at Harris County Public Health, who have done an amazing job of gathering, tracking and delivering samples, especially for the most at-risk members of our community."

National Science Foundation renews Rice University funding amid pandemic

José Onuchic (left) and Peter Wolynes are co-directors of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics has been granted a five-year extension from the National Science Foundation. The grant for $12.9 million will aid in continuing the CTBP's work at the intersection of biology and physics.

The center — which was founded in 2001 at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to Rice in 2011 — is led by Peter Wolynes and José Onuchic.

"We have four major areas at the center," Onuchic says in a news release. "The first is in chromatin theory and modeling, developing the underlying mathematical theory to explain the nucleus of the cell — what Peter calls the 'new nuclear physics.' The second is to test ideas based on the data being created by experimentalists. The third is to understand information processing by gene networks in general, with some applications related to metabolism in cancer. The fourth is to study the cytoskeleton and molecular motors. And the synergy between all of these areas is very important."

Onuchic adds that an upcoming donation of a supercomputer by AMD will help the center's ongoing research into COVID-19 and four institutions — Rice, Northeastern, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston — are working collaboratively on the study,

"We're all set to move on doing major COVID-related molecular simulations on day one," he says in the release. "The full functioning of a center requires a synergy of participation. Rice is the main player with people from multiple departments, but Baylor, Northeastern and Houston play critical roles."

University of Houston offers free mental health therapy for restaurant workers

Texas restaurant workers can get free mental health care from a UH initiative. Photo via Elle Hughes/Pexels

Through a collaboration with Southern Smoke and Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the University of Houston Clinical Psychology program launched a a free mental health care program for Texas-based food and beverage employees and their children.

"During normal times this is a high stress industry where people work very hard in environments where they are just blowing and going all the time," says John P. Vincent, professor of psychology and director of the UH Center for Forensic Psychology, in a news release.

The program has 14 graduate students who converse with a total of 30 patients and meet weekly with supervisors at UH.

"This opportunity allows our clinical program to reach people in the community who usually don't have access to mental health services," says Carla Sharp, professor of psychology and director of clinical training, in the release.

For restaurant industry workers looking for help and care, they can visit the Mental Health Services page on Southern Smoke's website.

According to Vincent, this is just the beginning.

"We're discussing it," says Vincent in the release. "But as far as I'm concerned it can just keep going and going."

CHI St. Luke's Health has invested in around 40 of the Butterfly iQ devices that can be used to provide accurate and portable ultrasonography on COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of CHI St. Luke's

Houston hospital taps new tech to provide more accurate COVID-19 diagnostics and treatment

hand held

With such a dynamic virus like COVID-19 that affects patients with different levels of severity, the first challenge doctors face when treating infected patients is assessing the situation. CHI St. Luke's Health has been implementing a new technology that allows its physicians better access to that initial diagnosis.

Dr. Jose Diaz-Gomez, an anesthesiologist at CHI St. Luke's Health and ultrasonography expert, says the Butterfly iQ's portable ultrasonography technology has been a key tool in his team's point of care for COVID-19 patients. Over the past few years, ultrasonography equipment has been evolving to be more portable and more accurate. That's what the Butterfly iQ technology provides, and Diaz-Gomez says his team was quick to realize how the technology can help in diagnostics and treatment of coronavirus patients.

A traditional approach to examining a patient's lungs would mean radiography, but Diaz-Gomez says his team saw the opportunity ultrasonography and these new, portable devices had on providing more accurate and timely diagnostics.

"In conditions that are dynamic, you want to have a diagnostic tool that, over time as you're treating a patient, you can see meaningful changes — good or bad," Diaz-Gomez says. "The pandemic has enabled us to use — from the initial care to when they are on the ventilator — ultrasonography to see the changes in the patient's' lungs."

Jose Diaz-Gomez is an anesthesiologist at CHI St. Luke's. Photo courtesy of CHI St. Luke's

The Butterfly iQ device is different from its ultrasound predecessors in that it's built to be more accurate, portable, easy to use, and low cost (even being made available for commercial purchase). According to Diaz-Gomez, he could train someone on the device in just a few hours.

Ahead of the pandemic, CHI St. Luke's had 20 of these devices and now has doubled that initial fleet. Along with the other non-Butterfly iQ ultrasonography devices, Diaz-Gomez's team has access to 70 ultrasonography devices — 80 percent of which are dedicated to COVID-19 patients.

"Our institution was very supportive of bringing a very robust roll-out program for point-of-care ultrasonography during the pandemic," Diaz-Gomez says. "We were able to incorporate 40 ultrasound devices — the Butterfly system. Not only that, we actually implemented a very rigorous infection control process to make sure we do it in a safe manner. You don't want to bring tools that will be another source of transmission from patient to patient."

While this new technology is continuing to make a difference in St. Luke's COVID units, Diaz-Gomez is already looking forward to the difference the devices will make post pandemic.

"Whatever we will face after the pandemic, many physicians will be able to predict more objectively when a patient is deteriorating from acute respiratory failure," he says. "Without this innovation, we wouldn't have been able to be at higher standards with ultrasonography."

The device, with its portability, low cost, and ease of use, also has an application for telemedicine and at-home health, and that's something that's exciting for Diaz-Gomez. However, both in his COVID units or in the home setting, the device is only as good as the clinician who's interpreting the images paired with the other diagnostics.

"The integration of ultrasonography with the clinical practice itself — it has to go hand in hand," Diaz-Gomez says. "The clinical decision will depend on that integration."

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Texas named a top state for women-led startups

this one's for the ladies

Who runs the world? According to Merchant Maverick's inaugural Best States for "Women-Led Startups'' study, Texas is a great place for women to be in charge.

The Lone Star state cracked the top 10 on the list, earning a No. 6 spot according to the small business reviews and financial services company, which based the study on eight key statistics about this growing segment of the economy. Colorado (at No. 1), Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Montana were the only states to beat out Texas on the rankings—leading the Merchant Maverick team to conclude that "the part of the country that lies west of the Mississippi is great for startups led by women entrepreneurs."

Women-led startups in Texas received $365 billion in VC funding in the last five years, the report found. This is the seventh largest total among U.S. states. Too, about 20 percent of Texans are employed at woman-led firms, which is the fifth highest percentage among states. Roughly 35 percent of employers in Texas are led by women.

A few other key findings that work in female founders' favor: The startup survival rate in Texas is nearly 80 percent. And a lack of state income tax "doesn't hurt either," the report says.

Still there are shortcomings. On a per capita basis, only 1.27 percent of Texas women run their own business. The average income for self-employed women is also relatively low ranking among states, coming in around $55,907 and landing at 31st among others.

This is not the first time Texas has been lauded as a land of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. A 2019 study named it the best state for business opportunities for women. Houston too has proven to support success for the demographic. The Bayou City was named in separate studies a best city for female entrepreneurs to start a business and to see it grow.

Still, as many findings have concluded, the realities of the pandemic loom for all startups and small business owners. The Merchant Maverick study was careful to add: "The pandemic has changed the economic landscape over the past year, and often for the worse.

"This means that not every metric may be able to accurately gauge how a state might fare amidst the pandemic," the report continues. "To help factor in COVID's impact, we included some metrics that take 2020 into account, but it will be a while until we get a full picture of the pandemic's devastation.""

New downtown office tower will rise in bustling Discovery Green

new to hou

A new office tower will soon loom over the popular Discovery Green as the anchor of a new downtown district. Global development and construction firm, Skanksa, announced the new building at 1550 Lamar St. and its anchor tenant on January 13. The new 28-story, 375,000-square-foot Class-A office structure is dubbed 1550 on the Green, per a Skanska statement.

Global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright will relocate its Houston office in 2024 and acquire naming rights upon occupancy, according to a press release.

Bound by La Branch, Lamar, Crawford, and Dallas Streets, 1550 on The Green will feature extra-wide pedestrian zones with a canopy of trees, two tenant outdoor roof terraces, and wide views of the surrounding greenery.

International design firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group led the building's design; it is the company's first foray into Texas. BIG's design promises sustainability, energy efficiency, and an "airy" office environment for tenants, a release describes.

Some 7,000 square feet of retail space will greet first-floor guests. Michael Hsu Office of Architecture has been tapped to design the interior amenity spaces; those include a fitness center, rooftop event space and terrace, and community spaces.

The new 1550 on the Green tower is part of a new envisioned district that will be branded as Discovery West. The district will consist of 3.5 acres of mixed-use development boasting restaurants, retail, green space, and "world-class architecture," per a release.

Working with Central Houston Inc., Discovery Green, Bike Houston, the Kinder Foundation, as well as several brokers, Skanska and design firm of record, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, completed the master plan for Discovery West in early 2020.

Skanska has been noticeably active in the Houston office market, specifically with the development of Bank of America Tower, West Memorial Place I and II, and the future Discovery West. The company is behind the acquisition of a buzzy strip center in Montrose. Skanska also plans to multifamily to its Houston portfolio, the firm notes.

"As an organization that prides itself on building what matters to our communities, our team, made up of Houstonians, has been working alongside local stakeholders to develop a plan and a building that will transform this side of downtown Houston while still meeting the needs of the city," said Matt Damborsky, executive vice president for Skanska USA commercial development's Houston market, in a statement.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.