research roundup

3 innovative research projects coming out of the University of Houston

From a new solar energy capturing and storing device to stem cell-based pacemakers, here are three game-changing technologies coming out of UH. Getty Images

Across the University of Houston campus, professors and researchers are creating solutions for various problems in several different industries.

From information technology benefiting police officers to stem cell-based pacemakers, here are three game-changing technologies coming out of UH.

A stem cell-based biological pacemaker

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A University of Houston associate professor of pharmacology is contributing to research that's taking stem cells found in fat and transforming them into heart cells to act as biologic pacemaker cells.

"We are reprogramming the cardiac progenitor cell and guiding it to become a conducting cell of the heart to conduct electrical current," says Bradley McConnell in a UH news release. McConnell's work can be found in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology.

The treatment could replace the more than 600,000 electronic pacemakers implanted annually, These devices require regular doctors visits and aren't a permanent solution.

"Batteries will die. Just look at your smartphone," says McConnell. "This biologic pacemaker is better able to adapt to the body and would not have to be maintained by a physician. It is not a foreign object. It would be able to grow with the body and become much more responsive to what the body is doing."

Suchi Raghunathan, doctoral student in the UH Department of Pharmacological and Pharmaceutical Sciences in the College of Pharmacy, is the paper's first author, and Robert J. Schwartz, Hugh Roy and Lillian Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of biology and biochemistry, is another one of McConnell's collaborator.

The use of information technology to protect law enforcement

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A tech-optimized police force is a safe police force, according to new UH research that shows that the use of information technology can cut down on the number of police officers killed or injured in the line of duty by as much as 50 percent.

"The use of IT by police increases the occupational safety of police officers in the field and reduces deaths and assaults against police officers," says C.T. Bauer College of Business Dean Paul A. Pavlou in a news release. Pavlou co-authored a paper on the research that was published in the journal Decision Support Systems.

Pavlou, along with his colleague, Min-Seok Pang of Temple University used FBI, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, and U.S. Census data to build a dataset, which tracked IT use and violence against law enforcement from 4,325 U.S. police departments over a six-year period, according to the release.

The study focused on crime intelligence, prediction, and investigation. The potential for IT in the police force had yet to be realized because there hadn't been much research on the subject.

A new solar energy capture and storage technology

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New research coming out of UH has created a new and more efficient way to capture and store solar energy. Rather than using panels that store solar energy through photovoltaic technology, the new method, which is a bit of a hybrid, captures heat from the sun and stores it as thermal energy

The research, which was described in a paper in Joule, reports "a harvesting efficiency of 73% at small-scale operation and as high as 90% at large-scale operation," according to a news release.

The author of the paper, Hadi Ghasemi, is a Bill D. Cook Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH. He says the potential is greater due to the technology being able to harvest the full spectrum of sunlight. T. Randall Lee, Cullen Distinguished University Chair professor of chemistry, is also a corresponding author.

"During the day, the solar thermal energy can be harvested at temperatures as high as 120 degrees centigrade (about 248 Fahrenheit)," says Lee, who also is a principle investigator for the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. "At night, when there is low or no solar irradiation, the stored energy is harvested by the molecular storage material, which can convert it from a lower energy molecule to a higher energy molecule."

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

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Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

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A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

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Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."