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."

Houston-area researchers are innovating health and wellness solutions every day — even focusing on non-pandemic-related issues. Photo via Getty Images

3 research innovations in health care to know about in Houston

Research roundup

Researchers across the world are coming up with innovative breakthroughs regarding the coronavirus, but Houston research institutions are also making health and wellness discoveries outside of COVID-19.

Here are three research innovations from Houston scientists from a new cardiac medical device to artificial intelligence-driven predictive technology for cirrhosis patients.

University of Houston's new implantable cardiac device

A UH researcher has designed a flexible device that can collect key information on the human heart. Photo via UH.edu

Cardiac implants and devices like pacemakers are either made with rigid materials that don't do the moving, beating heart any favors or the devices are made with soft materials but sacrifice the quality of information collected.

Researchers led by Cunjiang Yu, a University of Houston professor of mechanical engineering, have reported in Nature Electronics a new rubbery patch designed to collect electrophysiological activity, temperature, heartbeat and other indicators, while being flexible against the heart.

Yu, who is also a principal investigator with the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, is the author of the paper says it's the first time a device has both been flexible and accurate. The device, which generates energy from heart beats and doesn't need an external power source, can both collect information from multiple locations on the heart — also known as spatiotemporal mapping — but it can also offer therapeutic benefits such as electrical pacing and thermal ablation, according to the researchers.

"Unlike bioelectronics primarily based on rigid materials with mechanical structures that are stretchable on the macroscopic level, constructing bioelectronics out of materials with moduli matching those of the biological tissues suggests a promising route towards next-generational bioelectronics and biosensors that do not have a hard–soft interface for the heart and other organs," the researchers wrote. "Our rubbery epicardial patch is capable of multiplexed ECG mapping, strain and temperature sensing, electrical pacing, thermal ablation and energy harvesting functions."

Yu has worked on the development of fully rubbery electronics with sensing and other biological capabilities, including for use in robotic hands, skins and other devices.

Baylor College of Medicine's new tool to predict outcomes of cirrhosis

A new statistical model created from artificial intelligence can more accurately predict cirrhosis outcomes. Image via bcm.edu

Currently, the standard of care for cirrhosis patients is limited because physicians can't accurately predict long-term outcomes. But this might be changing thanks to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, the Michael E. DeBakey Veteran's Affairs Medical Center, and the Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness and Safety (IQuESt).

According to their study are published in JAMA Network Open, the researchers developed a model using a blend of artificial intelligence and traditional statistical methods to produce a score better predicting mortality in cirrhosis.

"When we see patients in the clinic we want to guide them about their long-term outcomes. We wanted to create a tool using machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve the accuracy of prognosis, while maintaining ease of use in the clinic," says Dr. Fasiha Kanwal, the author of the study and professor of medicine and section chief of gastroenterology at Baylor, in a news release.

The scientists used data collected from patients at 130 hospitals and clinics — such as demographics, comorbidities, underlying risk factors and severity of liver disease — as well as comprehensive laboratory tests and medication data to create three different statistical models to predict risk of mortality.

"Machine learning and artificial intelligence is important. It did help us find the right risk factors to use, but we didn't need to use very complex models to get there. We were able to create the CiMM score that will work easier in the clinic and is more predictive of mortality than the existing method," says Kanwal.

The Cirrhosis Mortality Model (CiMM) performed the best and most accurately and was more predictive than the current prognostic model, known as the Model for End Stage Liver Disease with sodium (MELD-Na).

"This tool could make a big difference in providing patient-centered care. The CiMM score could be reassessed every time a patient comes into the clinic," Kanwal said. "Previously, we were unable to predict anything long term. But the CiMM score could give us an idea of how to manage disease for one, two and three years out."

UTHealth's $11 million grant to study multi-drug resistant infection factors

A local multi-institutional research team has received millions to study drug resistance. Photo via Getty Images

A program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston has received an $11 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to conduct this five-year study on why some critically ill patients develop multidrug-resistant infections.

The Dynamics of Colonization and Infection by Multidrug-Resistant Pathogens in Immunocompromised and Critically Ill Patients will enroll patients at both Memorial Hermann Hospital-Texas Medical Center and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

According to a news release, the research team will seek to explain the microbial, clinical, and antimicrobial resistance factors of three major multidrug-resistant pathogens: Vancomycin-resistant enterococci, Enterobacterales producing extended spectrum β-lactamases/carbapenemases, and Clostridioides difficile. Note: all three pathogens are resistant to antimicrobial treatment such as antibiotics.

"We want to learn more about how these three classes of organisms colonize the gastrointestinal tract of critically ill patients and, eventually, cause infections in these patient populations," says Dr. Cesar A. Arias, the study's principal investigator and professor of infectious disease at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

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

3 Houston research groups dive into game changing COVID-19 projects

Research roundup

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.

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.

The University of Houston, a Tier One research institution, has a few ongoing projects focusing on treating or preventing COVID-19. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

University of Houston researchers studying COVID-19 prevention and treatment

research roundup

Researchers across the country are focusing on all things COVID-19 — from biotherapies and treatment to vaccines and prevention. A handful of researchers based out of the University of Houston are doing their best to move the needle on a cure or reliable vaccine.

Here are three research projects currently ongoing at UH.

UH pharmacy professors take it back to basics

UH College of Pharmacy professors Gomika Udugamasooriya (left) and Bin Guo are studying how the virus enters the human body. Photo via uh.edu

When thinking about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, two UH pharmacy professors are looking at how the virus enters the body. Then, this information can help develop protection of that entry point.

"The human entry of coronaviruses depends on first binding of the viral spike proteins to human cellular receptors that basically offer a cellular doorknob," says Gomika Udugamasooriya, associate professor of pharmacological and pharmaceutical sciences, in a press release. "The virus latches onto the specific human cellular receptor, ACE2, and sneaks inside to replicate itself within the cell to spread throughout the body."

Now, the goal of new drugs and vaccines is to protect that ACE2. Udugamasooriya is working with Bin Guo, associate professor of pharmaceutics, on this research, which is in the initial screening levels and identified drug-lead validations. They are working to apply their unique cell-screening technology to identify specific synthetic chemical drug leads called peptoids that can bind to ACE2 receptor, according to the release.

"Peptoids are easier to make, compatible with biological systems and economical to produce," says Udugamasooriya.

Duo aims to create inhalation vaccine for COVID-19

Navin Varadarajan, UH engineering professor (left), and pharmaceutics professor Xinli Liu, pharmaceutics professor, are collaborating on development and testing of a COVID-19 inhalation vaccine. Photo via uh.edu

If the disease itself is airborne, can't the vaccine be too? That's what M.D. Anderson Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Navin Varadarajan looking into.

"For airborne pathogens, the nasal mucosa is the first point of defense that needs to be breached," says Varadarajan in a news release. "Mucosal immunity and vaccines are fundamentally important for a wide range of pathogens including influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the current SARS-CoV-2."

Varadarajan is focusing on the spike protein to protect at virus entry. These proteins are known for building strong immune responses, flexibility and scalability, and absence of infectious particles. He is working with Xinli Liu, associate professor of pharmaceutics.

"As with any vaccine, a variety of factors determine their efficacy including the antigen used for electing a response, the adjuvants and immunomodulators, the efficient delivery of the antigen to appropriate target cells, and the route of vaccination," Varadarajan says.

The man with three different vaccine options

UH Professor Shaun Zhang is in the process of developing three COVID-19 vaccine candidates for injection. Photo via uh.edu

Shaun Zhang, director for the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, usually works on developing treatment or vaccines for cancer and viral infection. Now, he's switched gears to work on three different vaccine candidates for COVID-19.

"The data collected from our studies show that our vaccine candidates can generate neutralizing antibodies, which can protect cells from infection by SARS-CoV-2 when tested in vitro," says Zhang in a press release. "We are now working on further improvement for the vaccine design."

Zhang's approach is neutralizing antibody production, and he's tapped into using "subunit vaccine containing either the entire spike protein or the receptor binding portion, which helps the virus enter the target cell, and delivered either by DNA formulation or by a herpes simplex virus-based vector," according to the release. Low cost and simplicity are two priorities for Zhang's work.

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Houston Black-owned beauty biz gets major holiday shout out from Oprah

favorite things

Every holiday season, Oprah Winfrey and her elves work hard to put together her namesake list of Favorite Things. The 2020 list of must-have gifts highlights Black-owned or led businesses, including a Houston-based beauty line, 54 Thrones.

For the past six years, Oprah's Favorite Things are available for purchase in the Oprah's Favorite Things storefront exclusively on Amazon, including the 54 Thrones African Beauty Body Butter Collection Gift Set.

The limited-edition Holiday Deluxe Tin contains five individually packaged African Beauty Butters. The Beauty Body Butters are infused with African-grown, pure, and organic plant botanicals which help protect, soothe, and nourish the skin. These Beauty Butters nourish and revitalize the skin; repair dry, tired, or cracked skin; and hydrate the body, hands, elbows, and feet.

Founder Christina Funke Tegbe was inspired by her Nigerian aunt and the tubs of shea butter she sent from Nigeria. In 2015, Tegbe left the corporate world of high-powered consulting and founded 54 Thrones, named after Africa's 54 countries.

This year, more than 50 of the 72 featured products on the Oprah list come from Black-owned businesses, according to Amazon.

"As so many continue to look for ways to support Black lives any way they can, we found dozens of absolutely gorgeous gifts from Black-owned businesses that we wanted to share and celebrate as part of this year's Favorite Things," said Winfrey, via Amazon.

Founder of 54 Thrones, Christina Funke Tegbe. Photo courtesy of 54 Thrones

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: New technologies are improving lives of those living with type 1 diabetes

Guest column

Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease where insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are mistakenly destroyed by the body's immune system. Insulin is vital in controlling blood-sugar or glucose levels. Not only do you need proper blood-sugar levels for day-to-day energy, but when blood-sugar levels get too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia), it can cause serious problems and even death. Because of this, those with T1D are dependent on injections or pumps to survive.

The causes of T1D are not fully known, and there is currently no cure; however, advancing technologies are making it easier to live with T1D.

Monitoring

Those who have had T1D for decades might recall having to pee into a vial and test reagent strips in order to check their blood-sugar levels. Thankfully, this evolved into glucometers, or glucose meters. With a glucometer, those with T1D prick their finger and place a drop on the edge of the test strip, which is connected to the monitor that displays their results. Nowadays, glucometers, much like most T1D tech, can be Bluetooth enabled and sync with a smartphone.

From there, scientists have developed the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) so that those with T1D can monitor their blood sugar 24/7. All you need to do is insert a small sensor under the skin. The sensor then measures glucose levels every few minutes, and that information can then be transmitted to smartphones, computers and even smart watches.

Monitoring blood-sugar levels is vital for those with T1D, particularly because it helps them stay more aware of their body, know what to do and even what to expect, but they also have to actively control those levels by injecting insulin. Think of a monitor as the "check engine" light. It can tell you that there may be a problem, but it won't fix it for you. To fix it, you would need an injection or a pump.

Pumps and artificial pancreas

The development of insulin pumps has made a huge impact on the lives of those with T1D and parents of children with T1D by making it easier to manage their blood-sugar levels. 50 years ago, the prototype of the insulin pump was so large, it had to be a backpack, but with today's technology, it is about the size of a smartphone. The pump is worn on the outside of the body, and it delivers insulin through a tube which is placed under the skin. Insulin pumps mimic the way a pancreas works by sending out small doses of insulin that are short acting. A pump can also be manipulated depending on each person's needs. For example, you can press a button to deliver a dose with meals and snacks, you can remove it or reduce it when active and it can be programmed to deliver more at certain times or suspend delivery if necessary.

One of the most recent and trending developments in T1D research is the artificial pancreas, or more formally referred to as the automated insulin delivery (AID) systems. Essentially, the artificial pancreas is an insulin pump that works with a CGM. The CGM notifies the insulin pump of your blood-sugar reading, which acts accordingly to restore your blood sugar to the target level. The artificial pancreas allows those with T1D to be even more hands off, as it does essentially everything: It continuously monitors blood-sugar levels, calculates how much insulin you would need, which can be done through smart devices, and automatically delivers insulin through the pump.

Living with T1D is a 24/7/365 battle; however, the advances in technology make it easier and safer to live with the disease. Organizations like JDRF play a huge role in investing in research, advocating for government support and more.

November was National Diabetes Awareness Month, and this year is particularly special for JDRF, as it is the 50th year of the organization. JDRF was founded in 1970 by two moms. The community grew to include scientists, lobbyists, celebrities and children—all determined to improve lives and find cures.

Bound by a will stronger than the disease, this year during National Diabetes Awareness Month (NDAM), JDRF celebrates "The Power of Us." We are reflecting on the power of our community and reminding ourselves and the public of how far we've come in the fight against T1D.


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Rick Byrd is the executive director of the JDRF Southern Texas Chapter.

Houston startup closes $5M seed round led by Austin VC

Fresh funds

It's payday for a Houston startup that is housed out of the new Halliburton Labs. Nanotech Inc., which material science for fire-proofing and insulation, has announced the close of its $5 million seed round.

According to NanoTech's news release, Austin-based Ecliptic Capital led the investment round. Additionally, the deal also resulted in the conversion of a simple agreement for future equity, or SAFE, that was previously issued to Halliburton Labs.

"The investment from Ecliptic Capital will allow us to scale our business to achieve our mission of fireproofing the world and reducing global energy consumption. Additionally, our participation with Halliburton Labs provides us with the support of a Fortune 500 company." says NanoTech's CEO Mike Francis in the release.

Based in Austin, Ecliptic Capital is a fund focused on early-stage startups and supports a wide range of technologies across neglected geographies and industries.

"Ecliptic is proud to partner with NanoTech as the company's founding institutional investor," says Mike W. Erwin, founder of Ecliptic Capital, in the release. "We're excited to work with the company and leverage our operational expertise to rapidly scale this impactful, world-changing technology. We look forward to a new world where NanoTech accelerates the thermal management market from science-fiction to science-fact."

Halliburton Company chose NanoTech among a round of contenders to be the first participant of their 12-month program located at their Houston headquarters. Halliburton provides Nanotech with its own office space, access to Halliburton facilities, technical expertise, and an extensive network to accelerate their product to market.

'We are thrilled to see a Halliburton Labs participant secure their first round of financing, and congratulate the Ecliptic and NanoTech teams,' says Scott Gale, Halliburton Labs executive director, in the release. 'We are confident in the path forward as they work towards achieving a clean energy future.'

NanoTech's proprietary technology has the ability to be utilized for various industries — including commercial construction, chemical plants, oil and gas, aviation, utilities and much more — for eco-friendly spray-on insulation and fireproofing.

"As a company, we are just scratching the surface on where our technology will be used and can't wait to see the business scale." adds Mike Francis.