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These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions. Photo via Getty Images

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

Wastewater detection, mental illness effects, a software solution to testing — here's your latest roundup of research news in Houston.

Baylor College of Medicine working in a group to detect SARS-CoV2 in wastewater

A team of scientists are testing Houston wastewater for traces of SARS-CoV2. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

According to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, who are working in partnership with the Houston Health Department and Rice University, testing the city's wastewater for SARS-CoV2 can help predict where outbreaks are likely to happen.

In May, researchers analyzed wastewater samples that were collected every week from 39 sites in the city and found traces of the virus. The research project was directed by Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in a news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

The researchers will continue into 2021 and are working with the city and local governments on their findings.

"It's a cost effective way to gauge Houston's total viral load. It tracks well ahead of positivity rate, 10 days in some cases," sways Dr. Austen Terwilliger, director of operations at TAILOR, in the release. "At the moment, we are at the lowest viral levels since we started sampling, which is excellent news."

University of Houston researchers looking into effect of pandemic on mental illness

Michael Zvolensky, University of Houston professor of psychology, is studying substance abuse as a coping method amid COVID-19. Photo via UH.edu

While physical health and economic impacts of the coronavirus have been the focus of attention amid the pandemic, mental health effects are estimated to inflict more damage if not address, according to new research by Michael Zvolensky, University of Houston professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory/Substance Use Treatment Clinic.

Zvolensky has published two papers on his research discussing the psychological behavior issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic from a behavioral science perspective, according to a press release from UH.

"The impact of COVID-19 on psychological symptoms and disorders, addiction and health behavior is substantial and ongoing and will negatively impact people's mental health and put them at greater risk for chronic illness and drug addiction," reports Zvolensky in Behaviour Research and Therapy. "It will not equally impact all of society. Those at greater risk are those that have mental health vulnerabilities or disorders."

For those who 'catastrophize' the pandemic, Zvolensky explains in his paper, the impact from stress is increased — as is the possibility for substance abuse.

"That sets in motion a future wave of mental health, addiction and worsening health problems in our society. It's not going to go away, even with a vaccination, because the damage is already done. That's why we're going to see people with greater health problems struggling for generations," says Zvolensky in the release.

He evaluated a group of 160 participants on pandemic-related fear and worry and substance abuse as a coping method. The "results may provide critical clinical information for helping individuals cope with this pandemic," he says.

Bioinformatics research group at Rice University is designing novel SARS-CoV-2 test

Rice University bioinformatics researcher Todd Treangen has created a software solution for a COVID-19 test. Photo via rice.edu

Can software help save lives in this pandemic? A Rice University computer scientist thinks it's worth a shot.

Bioinformatics researcher Todd Treangen is working with a molecular diagnostics company to optimize the design and computational evaluation of molecular detection assays for viral RNA of SARS-CoV-2, according to a press release from Rice. Great Basin Scientific and the Rice researchers hope their work will streamline the development and commercialization of COVID-19 testing.

"This exciting collaboration with Great Basin will allow for computational methods and software developed in my research group to directly contribute to fast, sensitive and affordable detection and monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 and emerging pathogens," Treangen said.

The company, which is based in Salt Lake City, will use Treangen lab's novel bioinformatics software called OliVar to work on the diagnostic test. Great Basin Scientific is expected to seek emergency use authorization for the test from the Food and Drug Administration later this year.

Josh Pherigo at GHP used data to look into what tech specialties are thriving in Houston — and what niches have shown promising growth. Photo via LinkedIn

Greater Houston Partnership researcher identifies the city's top tech specialties

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 48

When you look at Houston's venture capital investment patterns, what do they tell you? To Josh Pherigo, research director of data analytics at the Greater Houston Partnership, it paints a picture of what tech and startup niches are thriving.

Based on PitchBook data, Pherigo put together an analysis of what industries within Houston are attracting the most investments. The study came out of the fact that Houston's hold on oil and gas is going to shift as the industry goes through the energy transition. Since O&G is such a crucial part of Houston's economy, the city will have to see a rise in new industries to remain competitive with its economy.

"The idea was to look at the innovation ecosystem and see what the technologies are that are doing well here at at attracting VC funding," Pherigo says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And by seeing how well certain technologies are doing, we'll be able to see if these are some areas that have some natural competitive advantages in Houston's economy that we can then use to spur growth in the next few decades — and even just out of the recession we're in right now."

The report found that life science and oil and gas currently attract the most VC investments in Houston, but Pherigo found potential in a few other industries like B2B payments technology — Houston-based fintech startup, HighRadius recently raised $125 million.

The study, which also compared Houston to Austin and Dallas, found that there was a cleantech war emerging between Austin and Houston. While Houston's ecosystem has a greater presence of cleantech startups, Austin cleantech is still bringing in more VC investments. However, in Houston, between new corporate incubators and Greentown Labs entering Houston, the city is creating a lot of infrastructure for this industry.

"It's going to be interesting over the next few years to see how Houston can position itself as the leader in Texas for this, because they are going to have a lot of competition from Austin," Pherigo says.

Pherigo goes into more detail about what he found interesting in the report, and even dives into what the data shows for the future of Houston's tech specialties in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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."

Three health and tech research projects coming out of the Houston area have received grants to continue their work. Getty Images

These 3 Houston-area researchers receive millions in grants for ongoing innovation projects

Research roundup

Money makes the world go 'round, and that's certainly the case with research projects. Grants are what drives research at academic institutions across the country and fuel the next great innovations.

These three projects coming out of Houston-area universities were all granted multimillion-dollar sums in order to continue their health tech, cancer-prevention, and even electric vehicle battery research projects,

University of Houston's $3.2 million grant for its next-generation micro CT scan

Associate professor of physics Mini Das developed a better way to approach CT scans. Photo via uh.edu

In an effort to improve imaging and lower radiation, Mini Das, associate professor of physics at the University of Houston, is moving the needle on introducing the next generation of micro computed tomography (CT) imaging. Das recently received a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to help move along her work in this field.

"This has the potential to transform the landscape of micro-CT imaging," says Das in a news release.

Das is responsible for developing the theory, instrumentation and algorithms for spectral phase-contrast imaging (PCI) that allows for lower radiation with higher image details, according to the release.

"Current X-ray and CT systems have inherent contrast limitations and dense tissue and cancer can often look similar. Even if you increase the radiation dose, there is a limit to what you can see. In addition, image noise becomes significant when increasing resolution to see fine details, often desirable when scanning small objects," says Das.

Rice University researcher's $2.4 million grant to advance on car batteries

This company’s machine learning programs are making driving in Houston safer — and cheaper

A Rice University scientist is looking to optimize car batteries. Pexels

A Rice University scientist is working toward improving batteries for electric vehicles. Materials scientist Ming Tang and his colleagues — backed by a $2.4 million grant from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium — are working on a project led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, which will run for 36 months and will focus on low-cost and fast-charging batteries.

"Traditional battery electrodes are prepared by the slurry casting method and usually have uniform porosity throughout the electrode thickness," says Tang, an assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering, in a news release. "However, our earlier modeling study shows that an electrode could have better rate performance by having two or more layers with different porosities.

"Now with the Missouri University of Science and Technology and WPI developing a new dry printing method for battery electrode fabrication, such layered electrodes can be manufactured relatively easily," he said. Tang's group will use modeling to optimize the structural parameters of multilayer electrodes to guide their fabrication.

The academics will also work with a manufacturer, Microvast, that will assemble large-format pouch cells using layered electrodes and evaluate the electrochemical performance against the program goals, according to the release.

"The public/private partnership is critical to steer the research performed at universities," Tang says. "It helps us understand what matters most to commercial applications and what gaps remain between what we have and what is needed by the market. It also provides valuable feedback and gives the project access to the state-of-the-art commercial battery fabrication and testing capabilities."


Texas A&M faculty member's $5 million grant for cancer research

Tanmay Lele of Texas A&M University is looking at how cells react to mechanical forces in cancer. Photo via tamu.edu

Tanmay Lele, a new faculty member in Texas A&M University's Department of Biomedical Engineering, received a $5 million Recruitment of Established Investigators grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) in May to research how cancer progresses.

More specifically, Lele's research focuses on mechanobiology and how cells sense external mechanical forces as well as how they generate mechanical forces, and how these mechanical forces impact cell function, according to a news release from A&M.

"The nuclei in normal tissue have smooth surfaces, but over time the surfaces of cancer nuclei become irregular in shape," Lele says in the release. "Now, why? Nobody really knows. We're still at the tip of the iceberg at trying to figure this problem out. But nuclear abnormalities are ubiquitous and occur in all kinds of cancers — breast, prostate and lung cancers."

Lele will work from two laboratories — one in College Station and one in the Texas A&M Health Science Center's Institute of Biosciences & Technology in Houston. THe will collaborate with Dr. Michael Mancini and Dr. Fabio Stossi from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Like any other basic field, we are trying to make discoveries with the hope that they will have long-term impacts on human health," Lele says.

Firms with real options thrive in uncertain situations because they have the flexibility to change their operations in a way that can amplify the effects of good news and dampen the effects of bad news. Photo via Getty Images

Houston researcher looks into why some companies thrive in volatile markets

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Volatile markets look a lot like high-stakes poker games. Wild swings make it hard to chart a course to profitability, inevitably forcing some firms to fold. At the same time, there are always investors and firms that come out as big winners. So is there is a secret to drawing a winning hand in bad times?

Working with colleagues Evgeny Lyandres of Boston University and Alexei Zhdanov of Pennsylvania State University, Rice Business professor Gustavo Grullon hypothesized that the secret to surviving market volatility has to do with managers' ability to adjust operations. The more flexibility managers have to change the course of their firms, the reasoning went, the greater the likelihood of surviving market volatility, and in some cases taking advantage of it.

Consider Amazon, founded in 1994 with the goal of becoming "the world's most consumer-centric company, where customers can come to find anything they want to buy online." From its start as a bookstore, the company turned into an ultra-diversified behemoth that can shrug off vast swings in the market. Despite high volatility in recent years, Amazon's stock price increased roughly 39 percent, from $1,901 to $2,641, over the past year.

Grullon and his colleagues theorized that having more real options ⁠— managerial choices about tangible assets such as inventory, machinery or buildings ⁠— boosts firm value in a whole range of volatile circumstances, whether demand-based, cost-based or profit-based. Firms that have these options ⁠— Amazon, for example ⁠— can act fast to mitigate bad news by changing operating and investment strategies. They might cut production, shutter operations or delay investments. Companies without these tools basically have to ride fate's rollercoaster.

To test their theory, the researchers compared firms with a plethora of investment opportunities to those with more modest real options. They analyzed returns data from 1963 to 2018 from The Center for Research in Security Prices and from Compustat ⁠— a database of financial, statistical and market information about active and inactive U.S. companies.

Grullon and his team found there was measurable value in having more real options. A bigger spread of real options allowed managers to change strategy as soon as new information arrived. The greater the number of real options, the greater the flexibility managers had at their disposal when the market got volatile.

Developing Amazon-type options and diversified assets, naturally, takes years of sweat, trial and a measure of luck. Companies that do best at creating such opportunities, the researchers note, tend to be highly sensitive to changes in volatility to begin with, leading to more opportunities to adapt. Overall, the team found, volatility-return relation was much stronger in industries already characterized by plenty of growth and strategic options. High-tech firms, pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies, for example, show especially strong resistance to idiosyncratic volatility.

In other words, while volatile markets can resemble high-stakes poker, there are a few predictable rules. When the chips are down, companies that are lucky enough to hold diversified assets, have varied investment options and can shuffle resources quickly will be the strongest players at the table.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Gustavo Grullon, a professor of finance at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

UH has found a way to instantly zap COVID-10. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

University of Houston designs device that instantly kills COVID-19

ZAPPING COVID-19

While the world rushes to find a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists from the University of Houston have found a way to trap and kill the virus — instantly.

The team has designed a "catch and kill" air filter that can nullify the virus responsible for COVID-19. Researchers reported that tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8 percent of the novel SARS-CoV-2 — which causes COVID-19 — was killed in a single pass through the filter.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, collaborated with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, plus other researchers to design the filter, which is described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics.

Researchers were aware the virus can remain in the air for about three hours, which required a filter that could quickly remove it. The added pressure of businesses reopening created an urgency in controlling the spread of the virus in air conditioned spaces, according to UH.

Meanwhile, to scorch the virus — which can't survive above around 158 degrees Fahrenheit — researchers instilled a heated filter. By blasting the temperature to around 392 F, they were able to kill the virus almost instantly.

The filter also killed 99.9 percent of the anthrax spores, according to researchers.

A prototype was built by a local workshop and first tested at Ren's lab for the relationship between voltage/current and temperature; it then went to the Galveston lab to be tested for its ability to kill the virus. Ren says it satisfies the requirements for conventional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

"This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Ren, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics at UH and co-corresponding author for the paper, in a statement. "Its ability to help control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society."

Medistar executives are also proposing a desk-top model, capable of purifying the air in an office worker's immediate surroundings, Ren added.

Developers have called for a phased roll-out of the device, with a priority on "high-priority venues, where essential workers are at elevated risk of exposure — particularly schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as public transit environs such as airplanes."

The hope, developers add, is that the filter will protect frontline workers in essential industries and allow nonessential workers to return to public work spaces.

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East Houston development launches smart city initiative with new hire

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A 4,200-acre master-planned development that's rising on the east side of town has created a new role within their executive suite to drive innovation and a new smart city initiative.

Houston-based real estate developer, McCord, has hired Nick Cardwell as vice president of digital innovation. In the newly created role, Cardwell will be tasked with bringing data-driven solutions, digital transformation, and other smart city innovation to Generation Park.

"Sensor technology, machine learning, and big data capabilities have exploded in the last decade and are rapidly outpacing the built world," says Ryan McCord, president of McCord, in a press release. "Bolting this digital future onto aging cities is no easy task. With Generation Park, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start from the beginning and rapidly prove up hardware and software technology solutions, at a massive scale."

Both the size of the development — which is larger than Google's Sidewalk Labs project in Canada and Toyota's Woven City in Japan, according to the release — and location are what provides Generation Park with this opportunity for smart city technology.

"Generation Park, while being physically many times larger than most smart city projects, also benefits from being located in a more physically, socially, and economically diverse test bed of a notoriously low-regulation part of the United States — Houston, Texas," McCord continues.

As the development is currently still being worked on, McCord's current focus right now is tapping into data to drive project and design decisions.

Cardwell has a background in technology and was previously overseeing operations and engineering at Austin-based construction software company, Bractlet.

"McCord's vision for Generation Park is the future of commercial development, pushing digital innovation into the forefront and leveraging cutting-edge technologies throughout their portfolio. I am beyond thrilled to join the McCord team and help make that vision a reality," says Cardwell, in the release. "Through the use of experiences, data, and collaborations, we will accelerate learnings and, in turn, advance resources that will truly improve people's lives."

Nick Cardwell has been hired as vice president of digital innovation at McCord. Photo courtesy of McCord

Houston lab develops game-changing supplement for cell heath

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Rajan Shah, an MIT-trained chemical engineer, brought his patented manufacturing process 20 years in the making and from an ocean away to Houston with one goal in mind: to take what he calls the body's "master antioxidant" to market.

Known as Continual G, Shah's product packs the supplement known as Glyteine into a powder form that when mixed with water can be consumed as a citrus-flavored beverage. Glyteine is known to increase cellular glutathione levels in the body, which can boost immunity, support sports activity and recovery, and address a variety of oxidative stressors that impact the body and brain as humans age.

Shah and a team of four at his INID Research Lab in Cypress are the only company in the world producing the dipeptide in this accessible format.

"The fact that the only way to increase cellular glutathione is with Glyteine has been known for almost 40 years," Shah says. "The problem is how to make it in a way which becomes cost effective so that it can be sold and people can afford to buy it."

It was this problem that Shah and a team at the University of New South Wales in Australia spent about 13 years tackling, as the creation the Glyteine — which requires the rare catalyzation of enzymes — would leave researchers with expensive byproduct that would result in high costs for little product. But in 2005, the university was awarded a patent for the manufacturing process the group developed that essentially eliminated waste. Instead, they were able to recycle the by product to create even more of the powerful protein.

"Only when we could solve these problems did it become affordable. Then you are using your raw materials to produce your product and nothing else. We were able to recycle," Shah explains. "That is what took the time and that is what made it affordable cost wise."

Next the group spent years scaling the production of the compound and learning how to best deploy it to a customer base. Initially, the group hoped to simply sell the protein to large supplement companies, such as GNC. But when they were met with reservations due to the product's newness, they pivoted.

Houston's large pool of chemical manufacturing workers and easy access to water (a key ingredient in Continual G's production) attracted the Aussie-based scientist. And in 2017, Shah took the practices from down under to the Bayou City just days before Hurricane Harvey hit.

Today the group is producing about a quarter of a million packets of Continual G each month with the help of an outsourced, Texas-based manufacturer who assists the group of engineers in transposing the compound into a drinkable powder. They operate out of a state-of-the-art, 14,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and hope to scale up again.

"Everyone involved with this endeavor has a heartfelt commitment," Shah adds in a statement. "Glyteine has profound implications for human health. That alone has made it well worth the effort to overcome every challenge we have faced and continue to face."