“This breakthrough technology has the potential to reshape the landscape of disease treatment and the future of research and development in the field of cell-based therapies." Photo via Getty Images

Rice University’s Biotech Launchpad has created an electrocatalytic on-site oxygenator, or ecO2, that produces oxygen intended to keeps cells alive. The device works inside an implantable “living pharmacy,” which the Rice Biotech Launch Pad team believes will one day be able to administer and regulate therapeutics within a patient’s body.

Last week, Rice announced a peer-reviewed publication in Nature Communications detailing the development of the novel rechargeable device. The study is entitled “Electrocatalytic on-site oxygenation for transplanted cell-based-therapies.”

How will doctors use the “living pharmacy?” The cell-based therapies implanted could treat conditions that include endocrine disorders, autoimmune syndromes, cancers and neurological degeneration. One major challenge standing in the way of bringing the technology beyond the theoretical has been ensuring the survival of cells for extended periods, which is necessary to create effective treatments. Oxygenation of the cells is an important component to keeping them alive and healthy and the longer they remain so, the longer the therapeutics will be helpful.

Other treatments to deliver oxygen to cells are ungainly and more limited in terms of oxygen production and regulation. According to Omid Veiseh, associate professor of bioengineering and faculty director of the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, oxygen generation is achieved with the ecO2 through water splitting that is precisely regulated using a battery-powered, wirelessly controlled electronic system. New versions will have wireless charging, which means it could last a patient’s entire lifetime.

“Cell-based therapies could be used for replacing damaged tissues, for drug delivery or augmenting the body’s own healing mechanisms, thus opening opportunities in wound healing and treatments for obesity, diabetes and cancer, for example. Generating oxygen on site is critical for many of these ‘biohybrid’ cell therapies: We need many cells to have sufficient production of therapeutics from those cells, thus there is a high metabolic demand. Our approach would integrate the ecO2 device to generate oxygen from the water itself,” says Jonathan Rivnay of Northwestern University, who co-led the study with Tzahi Cohen-Karni of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

The study’s co-first authors are Northwestern’s Abhijith Surendran and CMU’s Inkyu Lee.

Northwestern leads the collaboration with Rice to produce therapeutics onsite within the device. The research supports a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) cooperative agreement worth up to $33 million to develop the implantable “living pharmacy” to control the human body’s sleep and wake cycles.

“This breakthrough technology has the potential to reshape the landscape of disease treatment and the future of research and development in the field of cell-based therapies. We are working toward advancing this technology into the clinic to bring it one step closer to those in need,” says Veiseh.

A Rice research team is tapping into materials science to better understand Alzheimer’s disease, a UH professor is developing a treatment for hereditary vision loss, and a BCM researcher is looking at stress and brain cancer. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

These 3 Houston research projects are coming up with life-saving innovations

research roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on life-saving health care research thanks to new technologies.

Rice University scientists' groundbreaking alzheimer's study

Angel Martí (right) and his co-authors (from left) Utana Umezaki and Zhi Mei Sonia He have published their latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S. by 2060. A group of scientists from Rice University are looking into a peptide associated with the disease, and their study was published in Chemical Science.

Angel Martí — a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, and materials science and nanoengineering and faculty director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program — and his team have developed a new approach using time-resolved spectroscopy and computational chemistry, according to a news release from Rice. The scientists "found experimental evidence of an alternative binding site on amyloid-beta aggregates, opening the door to the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with amyloid deposits."

Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a main feature of Alzheimer’s, per Rice.

“Amyloid-beta is a peptide that aggregates in the brains of people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, forming these supramolecular nanoscale fibers, or fibrils” says Martí in the release. “Once they grow sufficiently, these fibrils precipitate and form what we call amyloid plaques.

“Understanding how molecules in general bind to amyloid-beta is particularly important not only for developing drugs that will bind with better affinity to its aggregates, but also for figuring out who the other players are that contribute to cerebral tissue toxicity,” he adds.

The National Science Foundation and the family of the late Professor Donald DuPré, a Houston-born Rice alumnus and former professor of chemistry at the University of Louisville, supported the research, which is explained more thoroughly on Rice's website.

University of Houston professor granted $1.6M for gene therapy treatment for rare eye disease

Muna Naash, a professor at UH, is hoping her research can result in treatment for a rare genetic disease that causes vision loss. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston researcher is working on a way to restore sight to those suffering from a rare genetic eye disease.

Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is expanding a method of gene therapy to potentially treat vision loss in patients with Usher Syndrome Type 2A, or USH2A, a rare genetic disease.

Naash has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Eye Institute to support her work. Mutations of the USH2A gene can include hearing loss from birth and progressive loss of vision, according to a news release from UH. Naash's work is looking at applying gene therapy — the introduction of a normal gene into cells to correct genetic disorders — to treat this genetic disease. There is not currently another treatment for USH2A.

“Our goal is to advance our current intravitreal gene therapy platform consisting of DNA nanoparticles/hyaluronic acid nanospheres to deliver large genes in order to develop safe and effective therapies for visual loss in Usher Syndrome Type 2A,” says Naash. “Developing an effective treatment for USH2A has been challenging due to its large coding sequence (15.8 kb) that has precluded its delivery using standard approaches and the presence of multiple isoforms with functions that are not fully understood."

BCM researcher on the impact of stress

This Baylor researcher is looking at the relationship between stress and brain cancer thanks to a new grant. Photo via Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Stress can impact the human body in a number of ways — from high blood pressure to hair loss — but one Houston scientist is looking into what happens to bodies in the long term, from age-related neurodegeneration to cancer.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems is assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His lab is located at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and he also is a part of the Therapeutic Innovation Center, the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Recently, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, awarded Boeynaems a grant to continue his work studying how cells and organisms respond to stress.

“Any cell, in nature or in our bodies, during its existence, will have to deal with some conditions that deviate from its ideal environment,” Boeynaems says in a BCM press release. “The key issue that all cells face in such conditions is that they can no longer properly fold their proteins, and that leads to the abnormal clumping of proteins into aggregates. We have seen such aggregates occur in many species and under a variety of stress-related conditions, whether it is in a plant dealing with drought or in a human patient with aging-related Alzheimer’s disease."

Now, thanks to the CPRIT funding, he says his lab will now also venture into studying the role of cellular stress in brain cancer.

“A tumor is a very stressful environment for cells, and cancer cells need to continuously adapt to this stress to survive and/or metastasize,” he says in the release.

“Moreover, the same principles of toxic protein aggregation and protection through protein droplets seem to be at play here as well,” he continues. “We have studied protein droplets not only in humans but also in stress-tolerant organisms such as plants and bacteria for years now. We propose to build and leverage on that knowledge to come up with innovative new treatments for cancer patients.”

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 AMDwill 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."

The Welch Foundation, led by Adam Kuspa, funds basic research across the state of Texas — research that's important both in and out of pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

Houston-based nonprofit leader believes COVID-19 will have long-term effects on important research

Q&A

It's Adam Kuspa's job to provide support to Texas researchers as they attempt to create innovative chemical and biochemical solutions for the betterment of mankind.

Formerly the dean of research at Baylor College of Medicine, Kuspa now serves as president of Houston-based Welch Foundation, which has, over the past several decades, provided nearly $800 million in research funding across the state.

Kuspa, through the organization, regularly sees revolutionary chemical discoveries being innovated in Texas across the 60 institutions he works with. It's usually an exciting job.

"I've spent my career, at least the last 15 years or so, helping other people do their research — before as being in research at Baylor College of Medicine," Kuspa tells InnovationMap. "I really enjoy enabling very, very smart people to do creative, innovative science. It's a lot of fun."

However, as the race to find a cure and vaccine to COVID-19 heats up, Kuspa — along with other researchers and scientists — is watching carefully to see how the disease and its to-be solutions will affect research and medical innovations as a whole.

"What people forget in the rush to get a drug out is that you could also make matters worse," he says. "Drugs don't automatically cure or are neutral. They can also do harm. So, you want to be careful not to make the situation worse."

Kuspa sat down with InnovationMap to discuss The Welch Foundation's mission, as well as some of his observations on potential cures for COVID-19 and what concerns he has.

InnovationMap: Tell me about the Welch Foundation and what role it plays in Texas?

Adam Kuspa: For over 65 years, the Welch Foundation has pursued its mandate based on Robert Welch's thought from the 1950s that chemistry was very important to the improvement of mankind. And so, our mandate is to fund foundational research in chemistry in the state of Texas, working through academic institutions throughout the state. We've done that consistently for the past 65 years through several programs.

IM: What type of research does the foundation fund usually?

AK: The research grant program gives grants to individual investigators, and we're doing about 300 to 400 continuously throughout the state of Texas. There's also block grants to departments to encourage students to become involved in chemical research. And we have other programs such as our endowed chair programs. We've given out about 40 endowed professorships, which support specific professors at individual institutions and their chemical research.

I should point out that chemistry research from our perspective is broadly defined and includes biochemistry of material sciences, et cetera. Currently our grant portfolio consists of 50 percent biomedical research grants, which is relevant to current current situation with COVID-19.

IM: How do you connect to Texas research institutions usually?

AK: We have fairly typical calls for applications for research grants or departmental grants and for our two award programs: the Welch Award in Chemistry, which is given out every year in Houston, and the Norman Hackerman Award, for junior faculty researchers in state of Texas.

A lot of the work is going out in the community to visit with the researchers and our academic institution partners. That, of course, has been curtailed, but typically we would visit any one of the 60 or so institutions that we support on a cycle of several years. So, that involves going to the chemistry departments, speaking with faculty, hearing how the research is going, and getting feedback on how our programs can be improved.

We also have an annual research conference, which unfortunately has been canceled this year, but typically draws 200 to 800 participants from around the state with speakers coming in around the world. This year, it was meant to be on neuroscience. Last October, the conference concerned genome editing. So, it's quite exciting, and the conferences, which are always held in Houston, are generally very well attended. They are a good way to start to interact with the scientific community in general.

IM: What has been the organization’s focus during the pandemic?

AK: We are obligated to fund foundational research in chemistry and allied fields, like biochemistry. So, we're not at liberty to fund development of therapies, for instance. However, I would say an interesting way to look at this is that we hear a lot about a search for a therapeutic for COVID-19 and, obviously, a search for vaccine — these begin with research.

Since it normally takes 15 to 18 years to bring a drug to market from first principles of how you're going to interrupt the human biology to effecting a cure, you're hearing a lot about testing existing drugs or their potential therapeutic effect on COVID-19. The reason we're able to do that is because we have a lot of drugs that are in the process of being developed and drugs that are already approved for human use. It's a lot more efficient to try to look at the potential utility of those already human-approved drugs and their potential effect on viral replication.

So, we sort of view our role as the Welch Foundation as funding that foundational research — either in drug development from a chemical perspective or in funding foundational work in how viruses attack the human body in the first place. And, although we give out grants for basic research, our investigators are pretty industrious. When there's a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of them turned their attention towards the problem at hand.

Another way that we've supported the general availability of potential therapeutics is that we've made a large grant to The Center for Drug Discovery at the Baylor College of Medicine directed by Martin Matzuck. And the reason we were interested in helping to get that center started is because they had an idea to make a drug discovery and development much more efficient and cost effective. That promotes a general capability of Houston and Texas in terms of being able to bring about potential therapeutics to wide range of diseases, but potentially for COVID-19 specifically.

IM: What’s the usual process of getting a drug from research stage to use?

AK: There are four phases of testing. Phase one is for safety, phase two is for dosing and potential efficacy, and phase three is for broad range of efficacy — large numbers of patients and trials that take hundreds of millions of dollars to perform. Approval by FDA occurs after phase three, but then there's actually a phase four study, which is following the drug for potential adverse effects once it is in common use by the public.

You may remember there's a drug called Vioxx — it's a very good pain reliever. But, in the phase four study, after millions of prescriptions were written already, it was found to cause rare heart problems and heart attacks. People were dying spontaneously, and it was hard to pin that specifically on Vioxx, but you can do it statistically from the phase four trial after the drug was introduced.

So, the reason you hear about hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 is because you sort of get the short circuit and skip those phases and jump right to phase four studies where you know it's basically safe and you roughly know how to dose. But what you don't though is how that approved drug can be used for particular indications like COVID-19 and how safe it is.

You can't actually jump the normal 18-year process, and with existing drugs you're still only at year 15, where you're got another few years to figure out how to actually use them in the context of the COVID-19.

IM: Scientists and researchers are working on solutions, but what are the challenges they are facing?

AK: That's a great question. Given that we have so many research grants around the state, we get input literally on an hourly basis from our grantees on the status of their research because of the interruption. And the short story is that all research has been shut down in the state of Texas except for research directly related to coronavirus.

Large biomedical research centers, which have hundreds of millions of dollars a year in external research funding going to cure a broad range of disease have shut all of their labs down, except for the few labs that are working directly on COVID-19. That includes vaccine discovery and production.

A lot of work has been wasted because often biological experiments take weeks and months of progression, and if can't complete the final steps, you'll have to start over.

IM: Do you think this will have a long-term effect on research?

AK: I think so. Science, as it turns out, is a very creative, human-interactive activity. It's actually much more social than people realize. It's not the individual scientist working at the lab bench only. It's a lot of travel, seminars given by out-of-town speakers, scientific conferences, gatherings of hundreds of people.

The annual neuroscience conference attracts 40,000 people every year from all over the world — and that's not happening. As far as we can tell, all scientific conferences have been canceled for the rest of 2020. When I talked to my colleagues and professors around the country, every out of town seminar has been canceled. So, the exchange of information that's been so vital to stimulate creativity and collaboration between laboratories isn't happening, and there are new venues have to be found to do that online. But there is going to be a limitation. I think people are adapting, and we'll just have to see how it unfolds.

The published literature is one to one-and-a-half years behind what's actually happening in the laboratory. So, the way people learn about what's going on — the failed experiments, the things you're trying out, the exciting new ideas — is generally through face-to-face interactions. And that happens by scientists traveling between universities and at conferences in the hallways between the formal sessions. That aspect is absolutely vital to the progress of science.

IM: What is something you want people to know about the basic research that the Welch Foundation is funding?

We need consistency and support for basic research because, during a pandemic, we want to have a cure, but we don't think about the hundreds of thousands of scientists across the country who are struggling to get funding for the basic research when there's not a pandemic.

Additionally, this basic research is also the engine for industry — particularly the biotech industry in Houston, and folks have been really working hard to try to ensure that there's an ecosystem for new companies to be formed out of Houston. I think part of the reason why we might survive this current oil glut as opposed to the mid 1980s is that the Houston economy is diversified with — not just with the port and NASA — but with biomedical research and patient care. In Houston, health care is the largest employer — it's larger than oil and gas. That kind of diversification is good for the economy and good for the innovation environment that people in Houston have tried really to make happen for the last 10 years or so.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

These four medical research projects are ones to watch in Houston. Getty Images

These are 4 medical innovations coming out of Houston institutions

Research roundup

Houston — home to one of the largest medical centers in the world — isn't a stranger when it comes to medical innovations and breakthrough research discoveries.

In the latest roundup of research innovations, four Houston institutions are working on innovative and — in some cases — life-saving research projects.

Houston Methodist study observes that strep throat germ is becoming resistant to antibiotics 

If the germ, group A streptococcus, continues to grow resistant to antibiotics, it can have a profoundly negative affect on the millions who get the illness annually. Photo via houstonmethodist.org

Researchers at Houston Methodist have discovered some troubling information about the strains of group A streptococcus that cause strep throat and a flesh-eating disease are becoming more resistant to beta-lactams antibiotics like penicillin.

James M. Musser is the lead author of the study and chair of Methodist's Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine. The study — which received funding from grants from the Fondren Foundation, Houston Methodist Hospital and Houston Methodist Research Institute, and the National Institutes of Health — appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, according to a news release.

"If this germ becomes truly resistant to these antibiotics, it would have a very serious impact on millions of children around the world," Musser says in the release. "That is a very concerning but plausible notion based on our findings. Development of resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics would have a major public health impact globally."

Musser and his team found 7,025 group A streptococcus strains that have been recorded around the world over the past several decades. Of those strains, 2 percent had gene mutations that raised the alarm for the researchers and, upon investigation, Musser's team came to the conclusion that antibiotic treatments can eventually be less effective — or even completely ineffective. This, Musser says, calls for an urgent need to develop a vaccine.

"We could be looking at a worldwide public health infectious disease problem," says Musser in the release. "When strep throat doesn't respond to frontline antibiotics such as penicillin, physicians must start prescribing second-line therapies, which may not be as effective against this organism."

University of Houston professor is searching for a way to stop persistent cells that cause chronic infections

University of Houston Professor Mehmet Orman is looking into cells that are able to persist and cause chronic illnesses. Photo via uh.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston, is looking into a specific type of persister cells that have been found to be stubborn and drug-resistant.

The research, which is backed by a $1.9 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, could answer questions about chronic health issues like airway infections in cystic fibrosis patients, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis, according to a news release.

"If we know how persister cells are formed, we can target their formation mechanisms to eliminate these dangerous cell types," says Orman in a news release.

Orman is looking into cells' self-digestion, or autophagy, process that is found to stimulate persister formation. Per the release, cells can survive periods of starvation by eating their own elements. Specifically, Orman will analyze self-digestion in E. coli.

"By integrating our expertise in bacterial cell biology with advanced current technologies, we aim to decipher the key components of this pathway to provide a clear and much-needed picture of bacterial self-digestion mechanisms," says Orman in the release.

Baylor College of Medicine is working to understand and prevent post-op kidney failure

operation

Some patients are predisposed to kidney injury following surgery, this study found. Photo via bcm.edu

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine are looking into the lead cause of kidney failure in patients who undergo surgery. Individuals who have heightened levels of suPAR protein — soluble urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor — have a greater risk of this post-op complication, according to a news release.

"suPAR is a circulating protein that is released by inflammatory cells in the bone marrow and produced by a number of cell/organs in the body," says Dr. David Sheikh-Hamad, professor of medicine – nephrology at Baylor College of Medicine and collaborating author of the study, in the release.

The study, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, conducted research on mice that were engineered to hive high suPAR levels in their blood. Compared to the control mice, the suPAR mice had more risk of kidney industry. These mice were given suPAR-blocking antibodies, which then helped reduce kidney injury.

"This protective strategy may be used in humans expressing high suPAR levels prior to contrast exposure, or surgery to decrease the likelihood of developing kidney failure," Sheikh-Hamad says in the release.

Rice University research finds expressing emotions during mourning is healthier

Christopher Fagundes of Rice University analyzed the emotions of 99 widows and widowers. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A new study done by researchers at Rice University finds that spouses that lose their husband or wife and try to suppress their grief are not doing themselves any favors. The study monitored 99 people who had recently lost a spouse, according to a news release.

"There has been work focused on the link between emotion regulation and health after romantic breakups, which shows that distracting oneself from thoughts of the loss may be helpful," says Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator, in a news release. "However, the death of a spouse is a very different experience because neither person initiated the separation or can attempt to repair the relationship."

The study included asking participants to respond to how they felt about certain coping strategies, as well as blood tests to measure cytokines levels‚ an inflammatory marker.

"Bodily inflammation is linked to a host of negative health conditions, including serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack," Fagundes says in the release.

The research, which was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, found that the participants who avoided their emotions suffered more of this bodily inflammation.

"The research also suggests that not all coping strategies are created equal, and that some strategies can backfire and have harmful effects, especially in populations experiencing particularly intense emotions in the face of significant life stressors, such as losing a loved one," adss Richard Lopez, an assistant professor of psychology at Bard College and lead author of the study, in the release.

What's the latest in tech research in Houston? Here are three revolutionary research projects happening right under our noses. Getty Images

3 Houston tech research projects changing health care, blockchain, and beyond

Research roundup

Tons of research happens daily at various Houston institutions — from life-saving medical developments to high tech innovations that will affect the greater business community.

In this Houston research roundup, three research projects from three Houston organizations are set to revolutionize their respective industries.

University of Houston researcher explores potential disruption in blockchain

blockchain

Getty Images

A huge technology question mark within business has been blockchain — how it'll affect the sharing of information and industry as a whole. But, one University of Houston professor and his Texas A&M University colleagues are looking into that potential disruption in a recent paper.

"It's an emerging technology. It's evolving," says Weidong "Larry" Shi, associate professor of computer science at UH, in a UH news release.

Funded by the Borders, Trade, and Immigration Institute, the research has developed into the paper, which was published in the International Journal of Production Research.

A key focus of the research is how blockchain will affect cargo entering the United States, and identifies six pain points within adapting blockchain for cargo management: traceability, dispute resolution, cargo integrity and security, supply chain digitalization, compliance, and trust and stakeholder management, according to the release.

"The wide adoption of blockchain technology in the global SC (supply chain) market is still in its infancy," the article reads. "Industry experts project that on average, it may take about six years for the widespread adoption of blockchain."

Blockchain has the potential to prevent fraud within the global supply chain, among other things.

"The data can't be changed. Everyone (along the supply chain) has a copy. You can add information, but you can't change it," Shi says in the release.

The U.S. Army taps Rice University for network research

Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University and the U.S. Army have joined forces for a five-year, $30 million research agreement to modernize the Army — specifically for developing next-generation wireless networks and radio frequency (RF) electronics.

"[The Army Research Laboratory] and Rice will match the right people and capabilities to meet specific challenges, and the cooperative agreement is structured to allow the Army to partner widely across our campus," says Yousif Shamoo, Rice's vice president of research and lead on the ARL partnership, in a recent news release. "One exciting aspect of this partnership is the broader societal benefits. The technologies we're starting with are needed for Army modernization and they could also benefit millions of Americans in communities that still lack high-speed internet."

Without going into too much detail, the two entities are working to advance the Army's existing infrastructure to create networks that can sense attacks and protect themselves by adaption or stealth. The technology has the potential to affect the Army as well as civilians, says Heidi Maupin, the lead ARL contact for the Rice partnership.

"We want to deliver the capability of quickly deploying secure, robust Army communications networks wherever and whenever they're needed," Maupin says in the release. "The technology needed for that will benefit the world by transforming the economics of rural broadband, reducing response times to natural disasters, opening new opportunities for online education and more."

Research out of Baylor College of Medicine advancing information known about vision

Photo via bcm.edu

For humans, seeing is pretty simple — just open your eyes. But the process our eyes go through extremely complex, and scientists have had a hard time recreating the process — until now.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the University of Tübingen in Germany have developed a novel computational approach that accelerates the brain's ability to identify optimal stimuli. The complete study by the scientists was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"We want to understand how vision works," says senior author Dr. Andreas Tolias, professor and Brown Foundation Endowed Chair of Neuroscience at Baylor. "We approached this study by developing an artificial neural network that predicts the neural activity produced when an animal looks at images. If we can build such an avatar of the visual system, we can perform essentially unlimited experiments on it. Then we can go back and test in real brains with a method we named 'inception loops."

To track neurons and how they work, the researchers tracked brain activity scanning thousands of images.

"Experimenting with these networks revealed some aspects of vision we didn't expect," says Tolias, founder and director of the Center for Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence at Baylor, in a release. "For instance, we found that the optimal stimulus for some neurons in the early stages of processing in the neocortex were checkerboards, or sharp corners as opposed to simple edges which is what we would have expected according to the current dogma in the field."

The research is ongoing and will only continue to help dissect how the brain sees and interprets visual elements.

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Texas again improves on annual ranking of most innovative states

making progress

It's another year of slow but steady progress for the Lone Star State on an annual report on the top states for innovation.

Texas ranked No. 14 with a score of 48.43 points on personal finance site WalletHub's Most and Least Innovative States in 2024 ranking. Last year, Texas ranked No. 15. The state has steadily inched up the list — Texas was No.16 on the list in 2022 and No. 17 in 2021.

According to the report, Texas had the following ranking across the following categories:

  • No. 19 – Share of STEM Professionals
  • No. 16 – Projected STEM-Job Demand by 2030
  • No. 25 – Eighth-Grade Math & Science Performance
  • No. 19 – Share of Science & Engineering Graduates Aged 25+
  • No. 13 – Share of Technology Companies
  • No. 31 – R&D Spending per Capita
  • No. 15 – Venture-Capital Funding per Capita
Source: WalletHub

The report analyzed the 50 states and the District of Columbia and how each performed across 25 key metrics and across two key dimensions, “Human Capital” and “Innovation Environment," per the report. The data was pulled from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Center for Education Statistics, United States Patent and Trademark Office, and other records.

“The most innovative states are especially attractive to people who have majored in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, as they offer abundant career opportunities and investment dollars, both for jobs at existing companies and for startups," says Cassandra Happe, a WalletHub analyst in the report. "These states also instill young students with the skills they need to succeed in the current workforce, skills which are useful whether or not they pursue a STEM career.”

The report's top 10 included:

  1. District of Columbia with a score of 71.65
  2. Massachusetts with a score of 69.93
  3. Washington with a score of 66.36
  4. California with a score of 65.63
  5. Colorado with a score of 63.93
  6. Maryland with a score of 62.41
  7. Virginia with a score of 59.86
  8. Delaware with a score of 54.58
  9. Utah with a score of 53.66
  10. New Jersey with a score of 53.2

Houston research team invents cost-saving innovation for automated drug dosing

groundbreaking tech

A team of Rice University researchers has built a technology that uses a $20 blood-glucose sensor to potentially automate dosing of practically any drug.

In a paper recently published in Nature, researchers in Caroline Ajo-Franklin’s lab shared that they were able to modify the inexpensive piece of equipment to detect afimoxifene, an estrogen inhibitor that is naturally produced by a patient’s body after taking the chemotherapy drug tamoxifen.

“The dream is to have technology similar to what’s available today for monitoring and treating variations in blood glucose, and have that be true for basically any drug,” said Ajo-Franklin, a bioscientist, cancer researcher and director of the Rice Synthetic Biology Institute in a press release from Rice University. “Millions of people use blood-glucose monitors every day. If we can use that same basic technology to monitor other drugs and biomarkers, we could move away from the one-size-fits-all dosing regimes that we’re stuck with today.”

The lead author of the study was postdoctoral research associate Rong Cai. She and the team tested more than 400 modified versions of the electron-releasing proteins (what creates the current that glucose monitors detect) until they found a version that reacted with afimoxifene. Essentially, they built an afimoxifene sensor that could reliably detect the presence of the drug.

According to Ajo-Franklin, her team is currently at work testing ways to identify drugs other than afimoxifene.

In a press release, Cai said, “The glucometer is the part that’s so well-developed. While our target is different, it’s just a matter of engineering and changing the protein on the inside. On the outside, everything will still be the same. You can still do the test with a strip or on your arm.”

Better still, she went on to say that because the signal is electrical, it can be sent to a phone or computer to be read and stored.

“That’s the part, that marriage between electricity and biology, that is very attractive,” Cai said.

Rice University synthetic biologists (from right to left) Caroline Ajo-Franklin, Chiagoziem Ngwadom and Rong Cai worked with Rice engineer Rafael Verduzco (left) to create and demonstrate a method of universalizing blood-glucose detection technology as a way of rapidly and inexpensively creating sensors that can monitor the dosing of chemotherapies and other drugs in real time. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Here's how much money Houstonians need in case of emergency

get to saving

With nearly 40 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, many Texans are scrambling to afford their basic needs. A new study on how much money you need in your emergency fund should be a wake-up call.

The report, from personal finance website GOBakingRates.com, suggests that residents living in Houston should be stockpiling a minimum of $17,461 to cover six months' worth of expenses in the event of an emergency.

The report analyzed the annual average expenditures and cost of living in the 50 most populous U.S. cities, and ranked them based on the estimated minimum emergency savings needed for three to six months to cover basic living expenses.

According to the study's findings, the average Houstonian's total expenditures add up to $34,828 per year. That includes the average cost of groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, healthcare, and other miscellaneous costs.

The minimum emergency fund estimates in Houston are:

  • For a 3-month emergency fund: $8,707
  • For a 4-month emergency fund: $11,609
  • For a 5-month emergency fund: $14,512
  • For a 6-month emergency fund: $17,414

Houston ranked No. 37 out of all 50 U.S. cities with the highest projected emergency funds, so it could be a lot worse. In San Francisco, for example, which is No. 1 on the list, you'd need to put aside $52,000-plus for a six-month emergency fund.

Since these estimates are "minimum," the actual figures for Houston could tick slightly higher. But even so-called affordable cities present a challenge.

"While the emergency savings you need will vary depending on the cost of living where you live, even in the most affordable major cities in America, $500 won’t be enough to keep you afloat for one month, let alone six," the report said.

In the event of a real emergency, Texans should search 211texas.org, the online database for Texas Health and Human Services, featuring information on food banks, electric bill assistance, domestic violence resources, and more.

Around Texas

The Texas city with the highest six-month emergency fund is, predictably, Austin (No. 13) where annual expenses average $52,052, or $17,224 more than Houston. In Austin, the minimum six-month emergency found would need to be $26,000.

Texans living in Arlington (No. 30), Dallas (No. 31), and Fort Worth (No. 32) would need nearly $19,000 saved up to cover six months of expenses.


In San Antonio (No. 38), the estimated six-month emergency fund adds up to a little more than $17,000. El Paso (No. 48) is the Texas city with the lowest amount of money needed for six months, at $15,005.

California cities dominated the top 10 with the highest annual expenses and highest emergency funds. San Francisco took the No. 1 spot, with average annual expenses at $104,729, and an emergency six-month fund of $52,365.

The top 10 U.S. cities with the highest estimated minimum six-month emergency funds are:

  • No. 1 – San Francisco, California ($52,365)
  • No. 2 – San Jose, California ($46,258)
  • No. 3 – Oakland, California ($38,106)
  • No. 4 – Los Angeles, California ($35,160)
  • No. 5 – Seattle, Washington ($34,455)
  • No. 6 – San Diego, California ($34,396)
  • No. 7 – New York, New York ($32,363)
  • No. 8 – Washington, D.C. ($32,132)
  • No. 9 – Long Beach, California ($31,528)
  • No. 10 – Boston, Massachusetts ($31,297)

GOBankingRates.com collected its data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey, cost of living indexes from Sperlings BestPlaces, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey.

The report and its methodology can be found on gobakingrates.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.