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Here's how Houston researchers are doing their work amid COVID-19

The University of Houston explores how research is being conducted in the age of the pandemic. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

As far as COVID-19 goes, Level 1 is the worst threat level. Harris County remains at Level 1, or "Severe Threat" for infection of the novel coronavirus. Yet, as they say in the theater, "The show must go on!" And for the most part, research is continuing in many ways. Surveys, interviews and other socially-distanced research has been easy to keep up during the COVID crisis.

How far away is six feet?

Some research must be done in person, though. Try to picture two golden retrievers standing nose to tail. Or a regular mattress. Or even the width of the front of your car. All of these measure in at about six feet. The droplets in the air are what can get you sick and when you stand at least six feet away from a person who is talking, laughing or coughing, you have a better chance of not breathing those virus molecules.

In the beginning... 

In human subjects research, the safety of participant volunteers is always of the utmost importance. This has only become more critical with the entrance of the pandemic in March 2020, and remains so today. In early March, PIs at the University of Houston were asked to review each of their studies and to let the University know whether missing visits would be detrimental to the safety or well-being of human subjects.

Some clinical studies (specifically those taking part in clinics that provide paid health services) were often allowed to continue under COVID precautions adopted by the medical community. Just as if you went to a doctor's office, there were rules: the 6-foot apart rule, mandatory mask-wearing, extra disinfecting and temperature checks. In some cases, modifications made such as the addition of plexiglass to instrumentation increased the safety of research procedures. Additional protections are in place to protect research staff and students; student involvement in research remains strictly voluntary.

What about IRBs?

At the University of Houston (UH), the Research Integrity and Oversight office is working with groups of faculty investigators, general counsel, Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management to put in place safety precautions for re-starting human subjects research where subjects are within six feet of the research team. This will happen once Judge Lina Hidalgo determines that Harris County may be downgraded to Level 2. These institutional requirements are in addition to and on top of the normal precautions taken by the Institutional Review Board, which is formally designated to, among other tasks, review, approve, require modifications in (to secure approval), or disapprove all research activities involving human subjects.

Up close and personal

In the instance Harris County is downgraded to Threat Level 2, COVID-19 procedures have been approved for subjects undergoing research procedures at the UH College of Optometry and in Health and Human and Performance exercise physiology studies. Physiology test subjects are often on treadmills or are exhaling more droplets into the air through exertion brought on by exercise.

COVID-19 procedures for other research that include test subjects that need to be closer than six feet apart (examples: applying sensors, walking in an exoskeleton, completing manual tasks, etc.) have been submitted for review and are currently being evaluated. As this group encompasses such a wide variety of research procedures, it has taken the longest to draft.

Contact tracing

Screening questions, non-recorded temperature checks and a log of updated contact information are now required for all research endeavors. Screening questions mirror those recommended by CDC, including attestations as to whether the participant has had symptoms, travelled out of the country, or has been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID.

The contact information is so that correct information is available should the researcher be contacted by a city or county health department for contact tracing purposes if a positive test result is reported for a subject or research team member. Finally, all subjects are asked to read and sign a document (in addition to the consent form) that explains the increased protections the university has put in place for those coming to campus during the pandemic, including face coverings, social distancing when possible and additional protections depending on the type of research being conducted.

Exceptions

Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of UH's Research Integrity and Oversight office said, "If there is a compelling justification – for example, a PI is conducting a long-term longitudinal study and missing data points might invalidate the study, or we are one of many research sites and are in jeopardy of losing funding because other (typically non-academic) sites are enrolling and we are not – the PI can contact the Research Integrity and Oversight office and request to use the procedures approved for Level 2 under Threat Level 1." But this also goes through a review process and requires a signed agreement by the investigator that they will follow all approved COVID procedures.

Better safe than sorry

There are always risks and benefits to participating in research, but what must be kept at the foreground of one's human subjects research is that we are considering volunteers. Research subjects must always weigh the risks and benefits of participating in research; a researcher must provide these risks and benefits in clear language that allows the subject to make an informed decision.

"During times of increased risk, such as a pandemic, the university must take further precautions to protect and inform our research subjects regarding the risks of being on campus during a pandemic. Research subjects and their commitment to the greater good fuel our research enterprise, and their safety is always paramount," said Holzschuh.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Panelists from the University of Houston and Houston Methodist discussed tech transfer challenges and opportunities for academic innovators. Photo courtesy

Groundbreaking and disruptive innovations across industries are coming out of research institutions, and their commercialization process is very different from other startups.

An expert panel within Technology transfer discussed some of the unique obstacles innovators face as they go from academia into the market — like patenting, funding, the valley of death, and more.

Missed the conversation? Here are eight key moments from the panel that took place at the University of Houston's Technology Bridge on Wednesday, May 19.

This event was hosted by InnovationMap and University of Houston.

“If your technology can immediately impact some industry, I think you should license out your technology. But if you think that the reward is much higher and does not yet match something in the industry, you should go the high risk, high reward path of doing it yourself. That’s a much more challenging. It takes years of work.”

— Hadi Ghasemi, co-founder of Elemental Coatings and Cullen associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, says on how tech transfer usually happens via those two pathways. Ghasemi explains that it also depends on the academic's passion for the product and interest in becoming an entrepreneur.

“There’s a mismatch in that you can have a really clinically impactful technology but still not have money to develop it into a product.” 

— Rashim Singh, co-founder of Sanarentero and a research assistant professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy, says on the different priorities from within academia and within the market.

“What I’ve seen is if you know you want to patent something, tell the right people early. Make sure you have the right players involved. Our tech office already has venture, Pharma, etc. partners that can help with the patent process.”

— Ginny Torno, administrative director of innovation and IT clinical systems at Houston Methodist

“You don’t need to be fully transparent about your technology. As a company, you need to have some secret sauce."

— Ghasemi says on the patent and paper publishing process. Academics are used to publishing their research, but when it comes to business, you need to hold some things close to the chest.

“One of the most important piece the UH Tech Bridge has provided is the wet lab space to develop these technologies a little further toward commercialization. … Wet lab is very precious space in Houston specifically because there isn’t much here.”

— Singh says on how important access to lab space is to the entrepreneur.

"“You’re starting to see more and more organizations that have innovation arms. ... There are a lot of focus on trying to make Houston another innovation hub, and I think there is more support now than even a few years ago.”

— Torno says on what's changed over the past few years, mentioning TMC3 and the Ion.

“Try to serve private capital as soon as possible. The grant money comes, and those are good and will help you prove out your technology. But once you have private money, it shows people care about your product.”

— Ghasemi says as a piece of advice for potential tech transfer entrepreneurs.

“The biggest gap is to arrange for funding — federal, private, etc. — to support during the valley of death.”

— Singh says on the struggle research-based startups, especially in drug discovery, faces as they fight to prove out their product and try to stay afloat financially.

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