Houston researchers are working to provide COVID-19 solutions amid the pandemic. Getty Images

Since even the early days of COVID-19's existence, researchers all over the world were rallying to find a cure or potential vaccine — which usually take years to make, test, and get approved.

Houston researchers were among this group to put their thinking caps on to come up with solutions to the many problems of the coronavirus. From the testing of existing drugs to tapping into tech to map the disease, here are some research projects that are happening in Houston and are emerging to fight the pandemic.

Baylor College of Medicine evaluating potential COVID-fighting drug

Human Body Organs (Lungs Anatomy)

Baylor College of Medicine has identified a drug that could potentially help heal COVID-19 patients. Photo via bcm.edu

While Baylor College of Medicine has professionals attacking COVID-19 from all angles, one recent discovery at BCM includes a new drug for treating COVID-caused pneumonia.

BCM researchers are looking into Tocilizumab's (TCZ), an immunomodulator drug, effect on patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and Harris Health System's Ben Taub Hospital.

"The organ most commonly affected by COVID-19 is the lung, causing pneumonia for some patients and leading to difficulty breathing," says Dr. Ivan O. Rosas, chief of the pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine section at BCM, in a news release.

TCZ, which has been used to successfully treat hyperimmune responses in cancer patients being treated with immunotherapy, targets the immune response to the coronavirus. It isn't expected to get rid of the virus, but hopefully will reduce the "cytokine storm," which is described as "the hyper-immune response triggered by the viral pneumonia" in the release.

The randomized clinical trial is looking to treat 330 participants and estimates completion of enrollment early next month and is sponsored by Genentech, a biotechnology company.

Texas A&M University leads drug testing

A Texas A&M University researcher is trying to figure out if an existing vaccine has an effect on COVID-19. Screenshot via youtube.com

A researcher from Texas A&M University is working with his colleagues on a short-term response to COVID-19. A vaccine, called BDG, has already been deemed safe and used for treatment for bladder cancer. BDG can work to strengthen the immune system.

"It's not going to prevent people from getting infected," says Dr. Jeffrey D. Cirillo, a Regent's Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, in a news release. "This vaccine has the very broad ability to strengthen your immune response. We call it 'trained immunity.'"

A&M leads the study in partnership with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, as well as Harvard University's School of Public Health and Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp last week set aside $2.5 million from the Chancellor's Research Initiative for the study. This has freed up Cirillo's team's time that was previously being used to apply for grants.

"If there was ever a time to invest in medical research, it is now," Sharp says in the release. "Dr. Cirillo has a head start on a possible coronavirus treatment, and I want to make sure he has what he needs to protect the world from more of the horrible effects of this pandemic."

Currently, the research team is recruiting 1,800 volunteers for the trial that is already underway in College Station and Houston — with the potential for expansion in Los Angeles and Boston. Medical professionals interested in the trial can contact Gabriel Neal, MD at gneal@tamu.edu or Jeffrey Cirillo, PhD at jdcirillo@tamu.edu or George Udeani, PharmD DSc at udeani@tamu.edu.

"This could make a huge difference in the next two to three years while the development of a specific vaccine is developed for COVID-19," Cirillo says in the release.

Rice University is creating a COVID-19 map

Researchers at Rice University's Center for Research Computing's Spatial Studies Lab have mapped out all cases of COVID-19 across Texas by tapping into public health data. The map, which is accessible at coronavirusintexas.org, also identifies the number of people tested across the state, hospital bed utilization rate, and more.

The project is led by Farès el-Dahdah, director of Rice's Humanities Research Center. El-Dahdah used open source code made available by ESRI and data from the Texas Department of State Health Services and Definitive Healthcare.

"Now that the Texas Division of Emergency Management released its own GIS hub, our dashboard will move away from duplicating information in order to correlate other numbers such as those of available beds and the potential for increasing the number of beds in relation to the location of available COVID providers," el-Dahdah says in a press release.

"We're now adding another layer, which is the number of available nurses," el-Dahdah continues. "Because if this explodes, as a doctor friend recently told me, we could be running out of nurses before running out of beds."


Texas Heart Institute is making vaccines more effective

A new compound being developed at Texas Heart Institute could revolutionize the effect of vaccines. Photo via texasheart.org

Molecular technology coming out of the Texas Heart Institute and 7 HIlls Pharma could make vaccines — like a potential coronavirus vaccine — more effective. The oral integrin activator has been licensed to 7 Hills and is slated to a part of a Phase 1 healthy volunteer study to support solid tumor and infectious disease indications in the fall, according to a press release.

The program is led by Dr. Peter Vanderslice, director of biology at the Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratory at Texas Heart Institute. The compound was first envisioned to improve stem cell therapy for potential use as an immunotherapeutic for certain cancers.

"Our research and clinical colleagues are working diligently every day to advance promising discoveries for at risk patients," says Dr. Darren Woodside, co-inventor and vice president for research at the Texas Heart Institute, in the release. "This platform could be an important therapeutic agent for cardiac and cancer patients as well as older individuals at higher risk for infections."

University of Houston's nanotech health monitor

UH researchers have developed a pliable, thin material that can monitor changes in temperature. Photo via uh.edu

While developed prior to the pandemic, nanotechnology out of the University of Houston could be useful in monitoring COVID patients' temperatures. The material, as described in a paper published by ACS Applied Nano Materials, is made up of carbon nanotubes and can indicate slight body temperature changes. It's thin and pliable, making it ideal for a wearable health tech device.

"Your body can tell you something is wrong before it becomes obvious," says Seamus Curran, a physics professor at the University of Houston and co-author on the paper, in a news release.

Curran's nanotechnology research with fellow researchers Kang-Shyang Liao and Alexander J. Wang, which also has applications in making particle-blocking face masks, began almost 10 years ago.

Universities need to make sure all faculty who want to work with the private sector have a chance to succeed, regardless of their gender or discipline. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

UH experts weigh in on the funding gap for female researchers

Houston voices

The researchers had a hypothesis. Women faculty, they predicted, would be more successful than their male counterparts at earning private funding – from industry, from nonprofit groups, from charitable endowments. That was about relationships, after all, an area where the popular literature suggests women excel.

The numbers told a different story.

A review of faculty research funding conducted by the Center for ADVANCING Faculty Success at the University of Houston – funded by the National Science Foundation to help recruit and retain female faculty, and especially women of color, in STEM fields – found that women and men had similar success rates when competing for funding from federal agencies. With industry funding, however, the disparities were greater.

"It's about networking," says Christiane Spitzmueller, an industrial psychologist and managing director of the UH center. "Men do more of that. Women aren't primed as much for networking and self-marketing."

No one tracks the numbers nationally, and not all universities report a gender disparity. What is clear is that working with industry and nonprofit groups has drawn new attention in academia amid concerns about stagnant or dropping levels of federal research funding and increasing academic interest in finding solutions to some of society's thorniest problems. To take full advantage of the opportunities, universities need to make sure all faculty who want to work with the private sector have a chance to succeed, regardless of their gender or discipline.

Opportunity knocks

Industry needs these partnerships, too.

"Companies are realizing to be competitive, particularly in high-tech domains, they can't rely on only their internal resources," says Jeff Fortin, associate vice president for research and director of Research and Industrial Partnerships at Pennsylvania State University. "They have to look to universities and other external sources to fill that pipeline of innovation."

Some researchers are already fully engaged with industry. Others aren't interested.

Then there is the middle group. "They would like to engage more with companies," Fortin says. "They haven't done it much, and they need more help, explaining how the process works, the contracting."

His office – and those at other universities seeking to increase their interactions with the private sector – can help.

How to approach industry

Research administrators can help by developing policies for intellectual property, licensing and royalty issues that arise from academic-industry partnerships. Companies want to know how those issues will be handled upfront.

Ultimately, however, it's about the individual faculty member. And it requires persistence.

"The big thing is not to sell yourself short," says Rebecca Carrier, professor of chemical engineering at Northeastern University. "Maybe they're not going to be interested in precisely what you want to work on, but they might be interested in a variation of it."

Look for common goals. And prepare for a different type of relationship.

What to expect

Federal funding agencies generally require an annual report, with little or no interaction at other times. Not so with industry funding.

"When you're working on a project industry cares about, you may report in every six months, or conduct monthly or biweekly teleconferences. You may collaborate with their researchers. You may send your students to their site," says Elyse Rosenbaum, Melvin and Anne Louise Hassebrock Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. Rosenbaum also is director of the Center for Advanced Electronics through Machine Learning, a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center.

Sometimes the work is about solving a specific industry problem, whether that's high workforce turnover or limiting methane emissions on oilfield drilling rigs. Sometimes, as Samira Ali, an assistant professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, discovered with her first industry grant, the goal is more global.

Ali is directing one of three centers that are part of a $100 million, 10-year initiative from Gilead Sciences Inc. to address HIV/AIDS in the southern United States.

The payoff

Ali had never worked with industry funding, but the project was a good fit with her research interests. It also wasn't something the federal government would be likely to fund, making the partnership a pragmatic choice.

Another benefit? Carrier, who is director of the Advanced Drug Delivery Lab at Northeastern, says connecting with industry ensures she remains focused on real-world problems.

Working with the private sector is a constant reminder of the end goal – in Carrier's case, finding answers to questions about the mucosal barrier in the intestine, with an eye toward enhancing the absorption of medications and nutrients, as well as understanding links between the gut and overall health.

"It's important to stay in touch and in tune with people who are trying to make a product so that I know what I'm doing matters," she says.

The 411 in industry funding

What type of projects?

  • Short-term, often for a period of one year
  • Practical, focused on a specific product or project
  • Industry support for basic science is unusual but not unheard of

How is it different for government funding?

  • Generally less money, for a shorter period of time
  • Fewer restrictions but can require more flexibility
  • More contact, from biannual or monthly conference calls to sending researchers to work at the company, or having their researchers come to your lab
  • A new vocabulary. Terms understood to mean one thing by researchers and federal funding agencies may be used differently by industry

How to connect?

  • Network. Attend conferences that are important to the industry with which you'd like to work.
  • Educate yourself about the problems a particular industry needs to solve, and think about what solutions you may be able to offer
  • Be persistent and don't be afraid of rejection
  • Take advantage of personal connections – friends, neighbors and former classmates who work in industry may help you connect on specific projects

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Jeannie Kever works with the UH division of research as a senior media relations specialist.

There's no "I" in team, but getting your coworkers on the same "we" perspective can be tough. Here's why it's important, according to Rice University's research. Pexels

Rice University research shows what your company can learn from gamers about teamwork

Houston Voices

You just got a promotion — along with a brand-new work team whose members barely speak to one another. But first-rate cooperation is essential if you're going to deliver for your client. So you decide to spend a month getting to know each of your workers.

One is competent but bitter, frustrated by years of small mistakes by a colleague, mistakes that add to her own workload. Another, the one making the mistakes, seems so distracted he may as well be working at another company. Others have their own quirks. And to make matters worse, another department is set to merge its employees with your creaky, cranky team in a few months. How are you going to understand all these individuals, much less get them into shape as a unit?

For many managers, training and reading can help provide guidance. Others may hire an outside consultant and resort to team-building activities. But where does that outside expertise — not to mention training and reading — come from? It's based on academic research.

Rice Business professor Utpal Dholakia and colleagues René Algesheimer of the University of Zurich and Richard P. Bagozzi of the University of Michigan are among the scholars updating what we know about the dynamics of group decisions. Starting with classic group behavior theory, the scholars developed a series of sociologically-based models for analyzing small teams.

To better understand the existing shared intentions and attachment between teammates, Dholakia and his colleagues used a novel set of questions to survey 277 teams of computer gamers, each comprised of three people. They ran the survey responses through variations of a classic model called the Key Informant, which depends on the observations of group members about the social relationships inside a group.

Next, the researchers applied a sociological theory called Plural Subject Theory, focused on what's known as "we-attitude." That's exactly what it sounds like: verbally and actively treating an endeavor as a group project.

The core of this theory, the notion that successful teams frequently use collective pronouns when they discuss themselves and cognitively conceive of themselves as "we," has been heavily studied. Groups whose members think in terms of "we" act more cohesively and are measurably more committed to collectively reaching their goal.

To enhance the way these attitudes are measured, Dholakia created multiple variations of a new model. These differ from previous models because they include information not just from a "key informant," but from every member of a group. The researcher asks group members questions about themselves, their impressions of others in the group, their impressions about how others in the group think of each member and impressions about the group as a whole. This longer, more elaborate approach offers fresh insights about a group's shared consciousness — which provides a valuable new research outcome.

The professors found that this revision of classic key informant model generally worked the best of the various group-analysis models they tested — even improving on the original key informant approach. Future researchers, Dholakia notes, should consider the context of the team situation to decide which configuration of members is best to analyze.

So the next time you find yourself nonplussed by a chaotic group dynamic at work, remember you are in time-honored company — and that help is out there. By updating the key informant model, Dholakia and his colleagues have added to the analytical toolbox something that can help whip that team into shape. Whether it's an army of accountants or a network of hospital workers, Dholakia writes, the first step to creating a real team is analyzing which intentions they truly share.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Utpal Dholakia is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Texas startup’s at-home COVID-19 test finally approved by feds

CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE

After its earlier effort was tripped up, Austin-based startup Everlywell on May 16 finally gained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch its at-home coronavirus test.

In a May 18 release, Everlywell says the self-administered test will be available later this month. The company, which specializes in at-home tests for an array of conditions, is the first to receive approval from the FDA for an at-home coronavirus test that's not associated with a lab or a manufacturer of diagnostic products.

The FDA's emergency authorization allows Everlywell to work with a number of certified labs that process authorized tests, rather than just a single lab.

"The authorization of a COVID-19 at-home collection kit that can be used with multiple tests at multiple labs not only provides increased patient access to tests, but also protects others from potential exposure," Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says in a release.

Everlywell's at­-home test determines the presence or absence of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID­-19 illness. Everlywell's test kit uses a short nasal swab and includes:

  • A digital screening questionnaire reviewed by a healthcare provider.
  • Instructions on how to ship the test sample to a lab.
  • Digital results within 48 hours of the sample being received by the lab.
  • Results reviewed by an independent physician.

Anyone who tests positive test will receive a telehealth consultation. All positive test results are reported to federal and local public health agencies when mandated.

On March 23, Everlywell was supposed to start shipping 30,000 coronavirus test kits to U.S. consumers. But before a single test was sent, the FDA blocked distribution of at-home, self-administered tests from Everlywell and other companies. After that, Everlywell pivoted to supplying coronavirus tests to health care providers and organizations.

As with the company's previously approved coronavirus test, Everlywell says its test for individuals is sold at no profit. The $109 price covers costs such as overnight shipping to a lab, lab-processing fees, and kit components. Some health insurers cover coronavirus tests.

Everlywell says it's working with members of Congress to enable companies that are neither healthcare providers nor labs to be directly reimbursed by health insurers. The startup also is exploring how its coronavirus test could be made available for free.

"Widespread access to convenient testing will play a crucial role in the country's ability to address the pandemic and prevent overburdening our healthcare facilities. As the national leader in connecting people with high­-quality laboratory testing, we are committed to fighting the spread of this virus in America," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, says in the Everlywell release.

The company continues to supply its coronavirus tests to qualified healthcare organizations and government agencies.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

These 3 Houston research projects are revolutionizing health science

Research roundup

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."