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

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

Here are three from Houston researchers from a muscular atrophy study from outer space to a research project that might allow blind patients to "see."

Houston Methodist's research on muscular atrophy in astronauts

Scientists are studying the effect of certain drugs to help preserve muscles in astronauts. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist researcher Alessandro Grattoni and his team published research on muscular atrophy in astronauts. The research was published in Advanced Therapeutics and focused on his 2017 RR-6 muscle atrophy study that was conducted on the International Space Station.

While the current standard practice for astronauts maintaining their muscles is working out over two hours a day, the research found that use of drugs could also help preserve muscles. On a SpaceX refuel mission, mice that were implanted with a "Nanofluidic Delivery System" were sent up to space and monitored, according to a report. The device gradually released small doses of formoterol, an FDA approved drug for use in bronchodilation that has also been shown to stimulate increased muscle mass.

University of Houston researcher tracking fear response to improve mental health treatment

The research could help advance wearable devices. Photo via uh.edu

University of Houston researchers are looking into the way the body responds to fear in order to enhance mental health treatment. Rose Faghih, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Dilranjan Wickramasuriya in the Computational Medicine Lab (CML) are leading the project.

"We developed a mixed filter algorithm to continuously track a person's level of sympathetic nervous system activation using skin conductance and heart rate measurements," writes Faghih in the journal PLOS One. "This level of sympathetic activation is closely tied to what is known as emotional arousal or sympathetic arousal."

When this sympathetic nervous system is activated — sometimes known as the "fight or flight" response — the heart beats faster and more oxygen is delivered to the muscles, according to a press release. Then, the body begins to sweat in order to cool down.

"Using measurements of the variations in the conductivity of the skin and the rate at which the heart beats, and by developing mathematical models that govern these relationships, CML researchers have illustrated that the sympathetic nervous system's activation level can be tracked continuously," reports Faghih.

This algorithm could be used in a wearable electronic device that could be worn by a patient diagnosed with a fear or anxiety disorder.

Baylor College of Medicine's vision-restoring research

What if a device could see for you? Photo from Pexels

When someone loses their vision, it's likely due to damage to the eyes or optic nerve. However, the brain that interprets what they eyes sees, works perfectly fine. But researchers from Baylor College of Medicine have worked on a thesis that a device with a camera could be designed and implemented to do the seeing for the blind patient.

"When we used electrical stimulation to dynamically trace letters directly on patients' brains, they were able to 'see' the intended letter shapes and could correctly identify different letters," says Dr. Daniel Yoshor, professor and chair of neurosurgery in a press release. "They described seeing glowing spots or lines forming the letters, like skywriting."

Through a study supported by the National Eye Institute with both sighted and blind people using implanted devices, the investigators determined that the process was promising. According to the release, the researchers identified several obstacles must be overcome before this technology could be implemented in clinical practice.

"The primary visual cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, contains half a billion neurons. In this study we stimulated only a small fraction of these neurons with a handful of electrodes," says said Dr. Michael Beauchamp, professor and in neurosurgery, in the release.

"An important next step will be to work with neuroengineers to develop electrode arrays with thousands of electrodes, allowing us to stimulate more precisely. Together with new hardware, improved stimulation algorithms will help realize the dream of delivering useful visual information to blind people."

University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark, which operate in tandem every summer, have had to re-imagine their accelerator programs in light of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of OwlSpark and RED Labs

Houston university accelerators launch latest cohort virtually due to the coronavirus

online only

It'll be a different kind of summer for two early-stage, university-affiliated accelerator programs that work in tandem to grow a cohort of startups.

University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark are re-imagining their programs this summer to make the most out of a virtual accelerator, which begins today, May 21, with 17 teams of startups.

"No doubt that COVID-19 will have a big impact on our program," says Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark. "In the long run, there will always be the likely requirement of human-to-human interaction in the startup world — particular when it comes to generating business, meeting with customers, and securing investments — but from the training aspect, I think we are going to be able to provide something of value."

Smith says she has worked with Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs, in preparing for this virtual programming in order to maintain the same level of support for the startups by using tools like Zoom, Skype, the Google Suite, and more.

McCormick, who is also an instructor at UH, has had the opportunity to test out having guest speakers in her class last semester and found that the virtual aspect was an opportunity to reach speakers that would otherwise be unavailable to come to campus.

"With challenges comes opportunities, and I think we're going to be able to deliver the same impactful content that we want to, just in a different way," McCormick says.

One challenge for the cohort will be conducting the customer engagement part of the experience virtually. Founders, Smith says, will have to focus on online customer discovery. Similarly, the startup pitch training will have to pivot to focus on pitching to a webcam.

"We've worked hard to design an experience around the reality that they are currently navigating, because it's a different reality right now," Smith says.

"Our primary goal is to create a culture of advocacy among our two cohorts, but also to help them develop some personal resiliency," Smith continues. "Challenging times reveal character in people and helping them develop some personal resiliency skills is going to come along with some of the things we are working with this summer."

The two programs were planned to have a new home in The Cannon Tower downtown this summer, which would have allows for face-to-face networking and collaboration. McCormick says they've planned virtual trivia, socials, and lunches to try to recreate the camaraderie of working together in a remote capacity.

"There's potential that we'll have some events in person, but that's really based on the guidance of our universities," McCormick says. "We'd love to have some opportunities in person, but it's really a matter if what's safe, and we're not going to require it."

Also new this year for Class 8 is a pilot program that incorporates startups from another university. Eight of the 17 teams in the cohort are from UH, while the other nine are representing Rice. However, through a partnership with the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University, three of Rice's teams hail from A&M.

"It's an experiment to expand the program by inviting other university teams," Smith says, adding that the partnership also allows the accelerator to tap into A&M's network of advisers. "Depending on the data at the end of the summer and the experience and value add, we'll evaluate whether or not that's something we want to continue doing."

The new virtual nature of the program allows for remote access for those founders based in College Station, as well as the founders who, due to campus shutdowns, were sent home mid semester in light of COVID-19.

The recruiting process was also done virtually, and McCormick says she did see a decrease in applications compared to last year — but the quality of the applicants was strong.

"There were definitely some difficult decisions," McCormick says. "The teams that did apply were a high caliber. They were really dedicated to going through the program — whatever it might looked like."

The program takes place over 12 weeks and concludes with a pitch event called the Bayou City Showcase. At this point, the event, which is usually live-streamed and held in front of an audience, is planned to still take place, however, McCormick and Smith say they aren't sure if there will be a physical event or if it will be online only.

Below is a list of descriptions for the 17 teams and the solutions they are providing.

  • an affordable, portable, imaging system capable of diagnosing diabetic retinopathy for low-resourced and underserved communities
  • an agricultural platform for use in urban settings that enables horticulturists to measure and record plant growth, detect disease, and recommend corrective actions
  • a suite of imaging and software tools that detect bleeding vessels in real-time surgery enabling surgeons to precisely locate and prevent life-threatening hemorrhages
  • an imaging device that enables healthcare professionals performing endovascular procedures to accurately visualize vascular access in a patient
  • a screening device that predicts biological hazards in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics without the use of animal models
  • an exercise platform for use in analyzing, critiquing, and correcting the form of individuals and athletes performing stationary exercises
  • an interactive content platform that uses data analytics to enable creators and viewers to more selectively choose content
  • a non-invasive skincare system that profiles the molecular concentration of the skin and creates customized formulations of products
  • a centralized pharmaceutical resource that enables women to make personalized and more informed decisions in contraceptive care
  • an advanced, improved diagnostic tool for optometrists
  • a user friendly toothbrush that monitors oral health
  • a portable cooling device that provides relief for symptoms of menopause
  • a physical therapy device that aids individuals with arm injuries in recovering their mobility quickly
  • a software that uses existing wifi to detect and alert help when an individual falls in their home
  • an improved air filter that decreases the amount of time users have to change the filter
  • a program that helps individuals invest in dividend producing stocks
  • a device that attaches to wheelchairs and raises the user so they can reach higher surfaces
This week's innovators to know include University of Houston business school Dean Paul Pavlou, the PR Boutique's Karen Henry, and SecurityGate Founder Ted Gutierrez. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

As another week begins, there's a few people you should know within the business and innovation world of Houston.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes a quick-thinking business school dean leading a college virtually, a public relations expert with the reasons you need to focus on social media for your business, and an entrepreneur who's providing key resources for business owners looking to safely get workers back in the office.

Paul Pavlou, dean of the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston

Courtesy of The University of Houston

The University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business is going to remain completely online only through the summer. And, while that might present some challenges for students and staff, Dean Paul Pavlou says he's actually seeing an increase in enrollment. Plus, the virtual platforms allow faculty to support more classes.

"One advantage of online learning is it's very flexible — we aren't confined to the classroom," Pavlou says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've opened up more sections and seats to make it easier for students to sign up." Read more and stream the episode.

Karen Henry, founding partner of The PR Boutique

Photo courtesy of the PR Boutique

Public relations expert Karen Henry, who founded the PR Boutique based in Houston, shared in a guest column for InnovationMap how key — especially in times like these — your company's online pressence is.

"We cannot work in silos; instead, we need to have a comprehensive approach, including tactics such as media relations, community partnerships, unique events, influencer collaborations, digital and traditional advertising, email marketing and social media," Henry writes.

Social media, she argues, can be a powerful, cost-effective tool. Read more.

Ted Gutierrez, CEO and founder of SecurityGate

Courtesy of Security Gate

Houston-based software startup SecurityGate Inc. specializes in cyber-risk management for companies, but this spring, SecurityGate shifted to a different type of risk management — keeping workplaces healthy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The company launched a cloud-based wellness technology, available through an online platform and a mobile app.

"The biggest thing that I want people to know is you don't have to come up with your own workflow and you don't have to spend tons of money to get your people back to work," says Ted Gutierrez, co-founder and CEO of the three-year-old startup. "There's a company out there that is already doing this for a living, so this is the least we could do to help out." Read more.

Learn how to contact trace COVID-19 with UH's new, online course. Photo by Getty Images

Houston school offers COVID-19 'disease detective' online course

covid-19 sleuths

As the nationwide battle against COVID-19 surges on, the University of Houston is launching a free new program to train locals how to identify and warn potentially exposed individuals throughout the region.

The new contact tracing and case identification certificate program — dubbed Epi Corps for Epidemiology Corps — is meant to train up a new type of so-called "disease detective" to combat coronavirus. The 12-hour, online course is currently open to UH students, faculty, and staff — and will soon be made available to the general public, according to the university.

This comes as the Houston Health Department last week announced plans to add 300 new contact tracers in addition to the 300 disease detectives Harris County Public Health plans to recruit. More than 100,000 trained contact tracers will be needed across the country to address COVID-19, according to a report by Johns Hopkins University. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to reopen the state calls for some 4,000 contact tracers to be hired statewide by mid-May.

The goal for the Epi Corps training program is to be scaled statewide, as Texas lags in per-capita testing for coronavirus, ranking 47th out of 50 states. "We really do not have a good handle on how many people have been exposed or how many people are asymptomatic carriers, making contact tracing critically important," said program organizer, Bettina Beech, in a statement.

Contact tracing is considered crucial in the fight against COVID-19, teamed with social distancing, stay-at-home mandates, and good hygiene practices. The Center for Disease Control warns if communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.

Through this new program, the corps staffers could be deployed to work on-site at the city and county health departments to assist COVID-19 patients recall everyone they've had close contact with leading up to their infection. The contact tracers would then notify those contacts of their potential exposure and provide education, support, and information to understand their risk.

The contact tracers-in-training will be trained on COVID-19 signs and symptoms, epidemiology, medical terminology, cultural competency, interpersonal communication and interviewing skills, patient confidentiality, and more, according to the school. Those who successfully complete the course will receive a digital certificate, and some students will be eligible to earn credit hours.

The Epi Corps curriculum will be administered via the Blackboard digital learning platform. Plans are moving forward to make a shorter program available to the community at large, including small businesses, in the coming weeks.

The training follows a format similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contact tracing training program for tuberculosis and is based on the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials contact tracing training modules, according to UH.

"Contact tracing, along with large-scale testing, is a critical component to reopening our state and to stimulate the economy, but the national and local public health infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle this task alone," said Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine, in a statement. "As a public university dedicated to serving the community, it's incumbent upon us to step up and provide the necessary training so we can get through this crisis together."

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

There is research pointing to how COVID-19 changes the mental health status of those infected. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

UH expert: Mental health research just as important in the time of COVID-19

Houston voices

Researchers across every discipline are redirecting their work in order to study COVID-19. The well-being of our global community depends on it. While some are exploring vaccines for the respiratory illness (according to the Guardian, 78 strains of the vaccine are currently in the works), others are saying that researching mental health issues around the pandemic is an equally important undertaking.

Long-lasting and significant effects

"Rapid and rigorous research into the impact of COVID-19 on mental health is needed to limit the impact of the pandemic." The impact on the mental health of individuals may be long-lasting and significant, say experts in Lancet – Psychiatry journal.

There are countless mental health issues that are raised by the novel coronavirus and two major research thrusts. One explores the way isolation, social distancing and excess stress affects people. For instance, researchers are studying how individuals react when they are constantly bombarded with media and negative news stories.

The second is how the COVID-19 virus itself may break through neurological boundaries and cause changes to the mental health and well-being of those infected. Other coronaviruses have passed into the central nervous system, according to experts interviewed by CNN Health.

Still working

The range of articles emerging from this dark time show that researchers are working diligently behind the lines during the peak of this epidemic – hopefully within the confines of their "safe at home" or "shelter-in-place" orders.

In higher education, there are myriad articles published every day about how college students are coping. And there are thousands of very targeted, niche studies being undertaken, like how do hospitals protect the psychological well-being of nurses caring for COVID-19 patients?

Researchers with expertise in family life are conducting studies about how the crisis affects children and parents: "COVID-19 has far-reaching implications for children and parents. While I hope that something like this doesn't happen again in our lifetimes, it is an important time for us to study how differing levels of stress impact parenting," says Leslie Frankel, Ph.D., assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Houston.

Feeling down?

There is research pointing to how COVID-19 changes the mental health status of those infected. In some cases, encephalopathy or a malfunction of the brain may occur along with the stress and anxiety that is suffered by someone infected with COVID-19.

Michael Zvolensky, Ph.D., distinguished professor in the department of psychology at University of Houston and director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory and Substance Use Treatment Clinic, says even those without the disease may suffer: "Many people worry about infection risk. Anxiety is apt to be exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, including virus risk potential, severity of COVID-related symptoms, and social isolation, among others. Although anxiety about the pandemic is normal, certain individuals – specifically, persons high in sensitivity to stress, may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 related stress presently and even when the social distancing measures are loosened."

Slow going

While the disease spreads quickly, the research unfolds more slowly than most we would like. An article on the World Economic Forum about COVID-19 research reads: "People and institutions tend to have a certain inertia, and it's not easy to alter their speed or course. Working within a compressed timeline, we've had to make changes and accommodations in order to reach ambitious goals."

If you are thinking about taking your mental health research in a different direction now that the pandemic has firmly taken hold, the NIH and NSF can help you determine what proposals to submit. There are funds for this type of research, after all, it is timely and absolutely required during these uncertain times.

------

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

Sarah Hill is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Dean Paul Pavlou of Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston shares how the school quickly pivoted to online classes and services amid the COVID-19 crisis — and how he's taking that tech into future semesters. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

University of Houston business school dean says he's seen enrollment increase amid COVID-19

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 31

About a month ago, the University of Houston announced it's waiving the fees for students during the summer semester. With classes across campus switching to online only in light of the pandemic and the country experiencing historic unemployment, UH made accessibility and affordability a priority.

For the C.T. Bauer College of Business, Dean Paul Pavlou realizes the opportunities that online classes bring — like the ability to serve more students.

"One advantage of online learning is it's very flexible — we aren't confined to the classroom," Pavlou says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've opened up more sections and seats to make it easier for students to sign up."

Bauer has seen enrollment up 70 percent for the summer, and that could be for a few reasons — the waived fees, for instance. But also, with the mandates, many of students' summer plans have been canceled — like travel and internships — have freed up students' time to get ahead in their degree.

The school had just a week to turn its in-person courses into online programming, but that's not all that had to switch to virtual. Library and career services had to make changes as well.

"Career services was one of the most challenging — not because it's so difficult to move online, but because of the tight labor market," Pavlou says. "We were actually pretty close to 100 percent placement before the pandemic."

Ultimately, as he shares on the podcast, Pavlou sees some positive things coming out of this entire experience for the university. The school has been moving forward on creating online-only degree plans that will be more affordable.

"Even when we go back to the classroom eventually, we'll be able to use this technology to supplement the class and then we'll use the classroom time in a more productive fashion," says Pavlou. "In the long run, I see that this technology can help students who cannot physically come to the classroom and can actually get almost the whole experience."

And hey, students don't have to worry about traffic, parking, or sweaty walks across campus to get to class.

Stream the episode with Pavlow below or wherever you get you podcasts — just search for the "Houston Innovators Podcast."


Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

As Houston transitions into summer, the city's tech and innovation ecosystem enters a new season — but with the same level of entrepreneurialism and can-do spirit.

This week's innovators to know includes a Houston tech founder fresh off fundraising, an architect with the future of the workplace, and a startup leader with a way to digitally connect churches to their congregations.

Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard

Courtesy of Liongard

After raising a $17 million round for his startup, Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss fundraising during a pandemic and how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding." Listen to the episode and read more.

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Photo courtesy of Church Space

Large gathering places have been shut down for months at this point, and that includes places of worship. Houston entrepreneur Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, usually focuses on connection organizations to spaces for worship or events. But, she is now focused on getting services online for congregations to connect with.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," says Edwards. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time." Read more.

Larry Lander, principal at PDR

Photo courtesy of PDR

While much of the country has been working from home for weeks, Larry Lander opines that this has made physical office space more important than ever.

"As a place to provide a technology offering we don't enjoy at our kitchen table, as a place to better support small group work beyond the tiny real estate of our laptop screens, and as a place that physically represents what our organizations are truly all about," he writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. The role of the workplace has never been more critical to business success." Read more.

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

CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.