Houston-based Dr. Theodoros Voloyiannis was one of six involved in a remote surgery in space demonstration. Photo courtesy of Texas Oncology

A small surgical robot at the International Space Station completed its first surgery demo in zero gravity last week, and one of the surgeons tasked with the remote robotic operations on simulated tissue was Houston-based Dr. Theodoros Voloyiannis.

Voloyiannis took part in what is being referred to as “surgery in space” by being one of the six doctors remotely controlling spaceMIRA — Miniaturized In Vivo Robotic Assistant — that performed several operations on simulated tissue at the lab located in the space station. The surgeons operated remotely from earth in Lincoln, Nebraska. The remote surgeons worked to control the robot's hands to provide tension to the simulated tissue made of rubber bands. They then used the other hand to dissect the elastic tissue with scissors.

“I said during the procedure ‘it was a small rubber band cut, but a great leap for surgery,’“ Voloyiannis tells InnovationMap. “This was a huge milestone for me personally in my career.”

The robot was developed by Virtual Incision Corporation, and made possible through a partnership between NASA and the University of Nebraska. The team of surgeons took part in a demonstration that is considered a common surgical task, as they dissected the correct piece of tissue under pressure.

Latency is the time delay between when the command is sent and the robot receives it, and that was the big challenge the team faced. The delay was about 0.85 of a second according to what the colorectal surgeon who worked on spaceMIRA Dr. Michael Jobst said to CNN. The demo overall was a success according to the team, and posed a new-found adrenaline rush due to the groundbreaking innovation.

“The excitement of the new and the unknown,” Voloyiannis says on the feeling of doing the first operation of its kind. “I never thought I’d be doing something like this when I was in training and in medical school.”

Voloyiannis serves as the chairman of colon and rectal surgery for The US Oncology Network. He was chosen for this experiment due to his experience and expertise performing robotic colorectal surgery. Voloyiannis and the developers are hopeful that this type of technology will soon allow doctors to perform this specialized robotic surgery on patients living in rural areas without a specialized surgeon nearby, military battlefields, as well as regularly in space one day.

“The same concept of remote surgery regularly in space could certainly be entertained,” Voloyiannis says. “When you do things with an absence of gravity and perform a surgery in that environment — of course that changes the way we do things. When you have an absence of gravity with bodily fluids, it is a very hard surgery, but with partial gravity that idea can be entertained.

"Remotely, internet connectivity would have to be considered and you’d have someone remote like me here, while potentially there you’d have someone with less training doing the procedure there guiding the robot," he continues. "It’s quite the concept though.”

The doctors had to account for nearly a second of delay in connectivity. Photo courtesy of Texas Oncology

A mixed reality lab at the University of Houston is merging the physical and digital worlds. Photo via UH.edu

UH lab using mixed reality to optimize designs for the Moon and Mars

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University of Houston researchers and students are bringing multiple realities together to help improve the design process for crewed space missions.

Helmed by Vittorio Netti, a researcher for UH and a space architect, the university has launched an XR Lab within the University of Houston architecture building. The lab allows researchers to combine mixed reality (MR), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) to "blend the physical and digital worlds" to give designers a better understanding of life in space, according to a release from UH.

In the lab researchers can wear MY space suits and goggles, take a VR space walk, or feel what it's like to float to the International Space Station with the help of XR and a crane.

The area in which the researchers conduct this work is known as the "cage" and was developed during a six-month research and design study of lunar surface architecture sponsored by Boeing, which aimed to learn more about the design of a lunar terrain vehicle and a small lunar habitat.

The work is part of UH's Sasakawa International Center of Space Architecture (SICSA), which is led by Olga Bannova, a research associate professor and director of the space architecture graduate program at UH.

She says work like this will drastically cut down research and development time when designing space structures.

“These technologies should be harnessed to mitigate the dependency on physical prototyping of assets and help optimize the design process, drastically reducing research-and-development time and providing a higher level of immersion,” Bannova said in a statement.

Today the research team is shifting its focus on designing for a Mars landing. In the future, they aim to demonstrate and test the system for habitats designed for both lunar and Martian surfaces. They are also working with Boeing to test designs in microgravity, or zero gravity, which exists inside the International Space Station.

Mixed Reality Raising the Bar for Space Architecture on the Moon and MarsStep into this 'Cage' at the University of Houston where physical and digital worlds are merged, allowing students to see and ...

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.