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."

A&M's Research Integration Center, which will house data and act as an innovation hub for innovators and military specialists, is expected to be completed next fall. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University approves $60.3M for military innovation project

gig 'em

Texas A&M University is in the process of building a $200 million, multi-building facility just off its main campus in College Station and Bryan, Texas. As of this week, the project has fresh funds from the A&M Board of Regents to continue on with construction.

The board approved a $60.3 million projects at the George H.W. Bush Combat Development Complex, or BCDC, on the RELLIS Campus in Bryan, according to a press release from the university. According to a news release from the university, $22.5 million approved will go toward hypersonic and directed energy testing range called BAM — which stands for Ballistic, Aero-Optics, and Materials. At one kilometer long and two meters in diameter, BAM is expected to the largest enclosed hypersonic testing facility in the nation.

"There will be no other place like it in the world," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release.

BAM's construction is scheduled to begin in February — with completion by October 2022.

The other $37.8 million of the recent funds approved will go toward for a vehicle test track called the Innovation Proving Ground, or IPG. That's set to break ground in May 2021, and completion is expected a year later.

In addition to the construction at the BCDC, A&M's RELLIS Campus is also working on a few military innovation projects. Construction is currently underway on the Research Integration Center, or RIC, that will house all the data for the BCDC and act as a place to meet and collaborate for innovators and government personnel. The three-story innovation hub broke ground in October 2019 and is expected to be completed in the fall of 2021.

The complex is being supported by an initial $135 million investment from the state of Texas, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, and the Texas A&M University System. The U.S. Army Futures Command, or AFC) will invest up to $65 million over five years.

The plans come from a collaboration between the AFC, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, other military branches, NASA, and other federal agencies, according to a release.

"Some universities talk about, 'Here's what we are going to do for you,'" says Sharp, in a release. "At Texas A&M, we ask, 'What do you want us to do for you?'"

Texas A&M's RELLIS campus sits about 10 miles down the road from the main campus. Photo via tamu.edu

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

These 5 Houston-area research institutions have bright minds at work to battle COVID-19

research roundup

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.

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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco