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Research Award Roundup September 2017

September 14, 2017 – Chris DeFrancesco – School of Medicine and Dental Medicine

Guided by Ephraim Trakhtenberg, postdoctoral fellow Juhwan Kim demonstrates microscope-assisted surgery to master's student Muhammad Sajid (background), undergrad Kathleen Renna, and M.D.-Ph.D. student Bruce Rheaume. (Photo by Ethan Giorgetti)

Guided by Ephraim Trakhtenberg, postdoctoral fellow Juhwan Kim demonstrates microscope-assisted surgery to master’s student Muhammad Sajid (background), undergrad Kathleen Renna, and M.D.-Ph.D. student Bruce Rheaume. (Photo by Ethan Giorgetti)

Ephraim Trakhtenberg, assistant professor of neuroscience, won an Interstellar Initiative honor from the New York Academy of Sciences and the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. Most recently he was awarded “First Place – Outstanding Early Career Investigator Team Presentation in Neurocience.” In March he and collaborator Kumiko Hayashi of Tohoku University in Japan won first place for a research solution proposal in the field of neuroscience. Now only in his second year on the UConn Health faculty, Trakhtenberg already has a research grant by the BrightFocus Foundation and a grant from the Connecticut Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences, in collaboration with Steven Crocker, associate professor of neuroscience, to his credit.He mentors undergraduates, medical students, master’s students, Ph.D. students, and postdoctoral fellows in his lab, which focuses on regeneration of central nervous system circuits that have been damaged.

Dr. Augustus Mazzocca, director of the UConn Musculoskeletal Institute, has been presented with the 2017 Champion of Yes Prestigious Excellence in Medicine Award by the Arthritis Foundation.

A study of a surgical technique to restore shoulder joint stability known as the “J-bone graft” conducted at UConn Health under the leadership of then sports medicine research fellow Dr. Leo Pauzenberger has been honored by the world’s largest arthroscopy society. The Society for Arthroscopy and Joint Surgery presented its biannual Medi Award for exceptional research on restoration of joint function to Pauzenberger at its annual congress in Munich earlier this month. Collaborating with UConn Health scientists during his time as a sports medicine research fellow with Mozzacca in 2015 and 2016, Pauzenberger was lead author of the article, which was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Ivo Kalajzic, an associate professor of reconstructive sciences, is principal investigator of a federal research grant that focuses on understanding the biological processes involved in mending broken bones (fractures). He is studying the role of the Notch signaling pathway in an effort to identify components that could be manipulated to accelerate fracture healing. Kalajzic’s lab will further explore the role of Notch receptors in fracture repair.

UConn spin-off gets stem cell patent for autoimmune diseases

September 13, 2017

John Stearns

ImStem Biotechnology Inc. and the University of Connecticut today announced that a joint patent was recently issued for human embryonic stem cell technology being used by ImStem to develop therapies for autoimmune diseases, with an initial focus on Multiple Sclerosis.

The company, spun out of the UConn Stem Cell Core Lab, was formed to commercialize the technologies developed by Dr. Ren He Xu, the former director of the UConn Stem Cell Core, and his then postdoc, Dr. Xiaofang Wang. Wang now leads the company as its chief technology officer with CEO Dr. Michael Men.

In 2010, Xu was one of few researchers to derive new stem cell lines when he announced that four UConn lines had been approved for use in federally funded research and added to the National Stem Cell Registry by the National Institutes of Health, according UConn. Both ImStem and its enabling research had been funded by the state of Connecticut Stem Cell Grant program.

Today, ImStem operates through private capital raised by its founders and is located at the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington.

While ImStem has proven its T-MSC cell therapy protects mice from MS, it is currently working with the FDA on necessary clearances to begin clinical trials next year and has completed FDA required experiments. ImStem believes its technology might address diseases beyond MS, including the company’s next target, Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

Advanced Genomic Testing for Heart Disease by Joint UConn/JAX faculty

Watch NBC CT’s segment on how Dr. J. Travis Hinson, cardiovascular physician-scientist at UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, is using the power of advanced genomic testing in his laboratory to empower his heart patients and their families. See how Dr. Hinson has helped Peggy Agar and her entire family gain knowledge of their potential genetic risk for cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease which is the most common cause of heart failure.

UConn Health’s New 3-D Printed Model Allows Brain Surgeons to Practice

Dr. Charan K. Singh, right, holds a 3-D printed model of arteries and a catheter while speaking with Dr. Clifford Yang at UConn Health. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Dr. Charan K. Singh, right, holds a 3-D printed model of arteries and a catheter while speaking with Dr. Clifford Yang at UConn Health. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The first time a young surgeon threads a wire through a stroke victim’s chest up through their neck and fishes a blood clot out of their brain may be one of the most harrowing moments in her career. Now, a UConn Health radiologist and a medical physicist have made it easier for her to get some practice first. The team made a life-size model of the arteries that wire must pass through, using brain scans and a 3-D printer. They will make the pattern freely available to any doctor who requests it.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved mechanical thrombectomy – using a wire to pull clots out of the brains of stroke victims – in 2012. A trap at the end of the wire opens like a little snare that captures the clot, which is then dragged out of the patient.

A lot can go wrong on that journey. One of the most dangerous complications is also one of the most likely: another clot can be accidentally knocked loose from the wall of the arteries and get stuck in the heart, the lungs, or elsewhere in the brain. Computer simulations of the procedure exist, but they are prohibitively expensive for many medical schools to purchase. Interventional radiologists and neurosurgeons need to train extensively before they work on a real person.

UConn Health cardiac radiologist Dr. Clifford Yang and medical physicist intern David Brotman knew they could help young doctors feel more comfortable with the mechanics.

“What matters is the ability of the doctor to be confident in guiding the wire,” says Brotman. He and Yang found a brain scan of a patient with typical blood vessel structure and used the scan to design a 3-D model of the blood vessels. Finding a good scan was easy: UConn Health has an immense library from computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of patients. The tough part was converting the data into something a 3-D printer could interpret. Brotman and Yang found and modified publicly available software to do that, and after a couple months of tweaking, they found they could print a true-to-life teaching model of the brain’s major arteries for about $14.

Technically called a brain perfusion phantom, the model is surprisingly delicate. Holding it in your hand brings home just how small the arteries are, even in an adult man. The top arch of the aorta in the chest, big enough to slide an adult’s pinky finger through, connects to the carotid in the neck and then on to the Circle of Willis in the brain, which is no thicker than a fat piece of yarn. The circle has six branches. Each branch supplies blood to one-sixth of the brain. It is in these branches that clots are most likely to get stuck and cause serious damage.

“We are using this model to teach students,” says UConn Health interventional radiologist Dr. Charan Singh. “Obviously, it won’t feel like the human body. But it will improve their knowledge of anatomy, and give them basic technique on how to move the catheter.”

Singh demonstrates how a slight twist can violently flip the catheter, which is dangerous. It could knock off new clots into the bloodstream. The model isn’t perfect – there are several different ways a person’s aorta can be shaped, and the other veins can vary too. But students can get good practice with it, Singh says.

Dr. Ketan Bulsara, UConn’s chief of neurosurgery, also likes the technology. He cautions that individual anatomy varies too much for it to be used as the only training tool to learn mechanical thrombectomy, but says that it could potentially be used to visualize other conditions, such as brain tumors. Surgery for brain tumors has significant lead time, and modeling the tumor in advance could personalize and improve patient care.

Says Bulsara, “Creating these high-level 3-D models customized for individual patients has the potential to significantly improve outcomes and reduce operative times by enhancing surgical planning.”

Teaching Robots to Think

September 13, 2017 – Colin Poitras – UConn Communications

Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, demonstrates how the robot can be given a simple task which can be repeated. Sept. 7, 2017. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, demonstrates how the robot can be given a simple task which can be repeated. Sept. 7, 2017. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

In a research building in the heart of UConn’s Storrs campus, assistant professor Ashwin Dani is teaching a life-size industrial robot how to think.

Here, on a recent day inside the University’s Robotics and Controls Lab, Dani and a small team of graduate students are showing the humanoid bot how to assemble a simple desk drawer.

The “eyes” on the robot’s face screen look on as two students build the wooden drawer, reaching for different tools on a tabletop as they work together to complete the task.

The robot may not appear intently engaged. But it isn’t missing a thing – or at least that’s what the scientists hope. For inside the robot’s circuitry, its processors are capturing and cataloging all of the humans’ movements through an advanced camera lens and motion sensors embedded into his metallic frame.
Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing algorithms and software for robotic manipulation, to improve robots’ interaction with humans. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing algorithms and software for robotic manipulation, to improve robots’ interaction with humans. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Ultimately, the UConn scientists hope to develop software that will teach industrial robots how to use their sensory inputs to quickly “learn” the various steps for a manufacturing task – such as assembling a drawer or a circuit board – simply by watching their human counterparts do it first.

“We’re trying to move toward human intelligence,” says Dani, the lab’s director and a faculty member in the School of Engineering. “We’re still far from what we want to achieve, but we’re definitely making robots smarter.”

To further enhance robotic intelligence, the UConn team is also working on a series of complex algorithms that will serve as an artificial neural network for the machines, helping robots apply what they see and learn so they can one day assist humans at their jobs, such as assembling pieces of furniture or installing parts on a factory floor. If the process works as intended, these bots, in time, will know an assembly sequence so well, they will be able to anticipate their human partner’s needs and pick up the right tools without being asked – even if the tools are not in the same location as they were when the robots were trained.

This kind of futuristic human-robot interaction – called collaborative robotics – is transforming manufacturing. Industrial robots like the one in Dani’s lab already exist. Although currently, engineers must write intricate computer code for all of the robot’s individual movements or manually adjust the robot’s limbs at each step in a process to program it to perform. Teaching industrial robots to learn manufacturing techniques simply by observing could reduce to minutes a process that currently can take engineers days.
From left back row, Ph.D. students Iman Salehi, Harish Ravichandar, Kyle Hunte, Gang Yao, and seated, Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
From left back row, Ph.D. students Iman Salehi, Harish Ravichandar, Kyle Hunte, Gang Yao, and seated, Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

“Here at UConn, we’re developing algorithms that are designed to make robot programming easier and more adaptable,” says Dani. “We are essentially building software that allows a robot to watch these different steps and, through the algorithms we’ve developed, predict what will happen next. If the robot sees the first two or three steps, it can tell us what the next 10 steps are. At that point, it’s basically thinking on its own.”

In recognition of this transformative research, UConn’s Robotics and Controls Lab was recently chosen as one of 40 academic or academic-affiliated research labs supporting the U.S. government’s newly created Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute or ARM. One of the collaborative’s primary goals is to advance robotics and artificial intelligence to maintain American manufacturing competitiveness in the global economy.

“There is a huge need for collaborative robotics in industry,” says Dani. “With advances in artificial intelligence, lots of major companies like United Technologies, Boeing, BMW, and many small and mid-size manufacturers, are moving in this direction.”

The United Technologies Research Center, UTC Aerospace Systems, and ABB US Corporate Research – a leading international supplier of industrial robots and robot software – are also representing Connecticut as part of the new ARM Institute. The institute is led by American Robotics Inc., a nonprofit associated with Carnegie Mellon University.

Connecticut’s and UConn’s contribution to the initiative will be targeted toward advancing robotics in the aerospace and shipbuilding industries, where intelligent, adaptable robots are more in demand because of the industries’ specialized needs.

Joining Dani on the ARM project are UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Krishna Pattipati, the University’s UTC Professor in Systems Engineering and an expert in smart manufacturing; and assistant professor Liang Zhang, an expert in production systems engineering.

“Robotics, with wide-ranging applications in manufacturing and defense, is a relatively new thrust area for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering,” says Rajeev Bansal, professor and head of UConn’s electrical and computer engineering department. “Interestingly, our first two faculty hires in the field received their doctorates in mechanical engineering, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of robotics. With the establishment of the new national Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, both UConn and the ECE department are poised to play a leadership role in this exciting field.”

The aerospace, automotive, and electronics industries are expected to represent 75 percent of all robots used in the country by 2025. One of the goals of the ARM initiative is to increase small manufacturers’ use of robots by 500 percent.

Industrial robots have come a long way since they were first introduced, says Dani, who has worked with some of the country’s leading researchers in learning and adoptive control, and robotics at the University of Florida (Warren Dixon) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Seth Hutchinson and Soon-Jo Chung). Many of the first factory robots were blind, rudimentary machines that were kept in cages and considered a potential danger to workers as their powerful hydraulic arms whipped back and forth on the assembly line.

Today’s advanced industrial robots are designed to be human-friendly. High-end cameras and elaborate motion sensors allow these robots to “see” and “sense” movement in their environment. Some manufacturers, like Boeing and BMW, already have robots and humans working side-by-side.

Of course, one of the biggest concerns within collaborative robotics is safety.

In response to those concerns, Dani’s team is developing algorithms that will allow industrial robots to quickly process what they see and adjust their movements accordingly when unexpected obstacles – like a human hand – get in their way.

“Traditional robots were very heavy, moved very fast, and were very dangerous,” says Dani. “They were made to do a very specific task, like pick up an object and move it from here to there. But with recent advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and improvements in cameras and sensors, working in close proximity with robots is becoming more and more possible.”

Dani acknowledges the obstacles in his field are formidable. Even with advanced optics, smart industrial robots need to be taught how to distinguish a metal rod from a flexible piece of wiring, and to understand the different physics inherent in each.

Movements that humans take for granted are huge engineering challenges in Dani’s lab. For instance: Inserting a metal rod into a pre-drilled hole is relatively easy. Knowing how to pick up a flexible cable and plug it into a receptacle is another challenge altogether. If the robot grabs the cable too far away from the plug, it will likely flex and bend. Even if the robot grabs the cable properly, it must not only bring the plug to the receptacle but also make sure the plug is oriented properly so it matches the receptacle precisely.

“Perception is always a challenging problem in robotics,” says Dani. “In artificial intelligence, we are essentially teaching the robot to process the different physical phenomena it observes, make sense out of what it sees, and then make the appropriate response.”

Research in UConn’s Robotics and Controls Lab is supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the UTC Institute of Advanced Systems Engineering. More detailed information about this research being conducted at UConn, including peer-reviewed article citations documenting the research, can be found here. Dani and graduate student Harish Ravichandar also have two patents pending on aspects of this research: “Early Prediction of an Intention of a User’s Actions,” Serial #15/659,827, and “Skill Transfer From a Person to a Robot,” Serial #15/659,881.

UConn Lab Identifies Way to Reduce Salmonella Outbreaks in Mangoes

September 11, 2017 – Elaina Hancock – UConn Communications

The next time you eat a piece of fruit, take a moment to appreciate the journey it took to you. Not only was the fruit picked, it was packaged and transported — all with protocols in place to avoid picking up foodborne pathogens.

When the process fails, contamination results and illness can occur, as was the recent situation with mangoes and Salmonella.

To reduce the chance of contamination in that delicate fruit, a team in one University of Connecticut lab recently processed 4,000 mangoes and water samples to test the efficacy of three disinfectants commonly used by the industry to avoid contamination.

“When I saw the results, I didn’t believe it. So we re-ran the test ten times.”
— Mary Anne Amalaradjou

To the utter surprise of researcher Mary Anne Amalaradjou, they found an unlikely candidate was extremely effective: chlorine. “When I saw the results, I didn’t believe it. So we re-ran the test ten times,” says the assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science.

Amalaradjou will present her findings at a meeting of the National Mango Board.

Salmonella is a frequent culprit for outbreaks in mangoes because it makes its way into the water used to wash the fruit in processing plants. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Salmonella leads to approximately 1.2 million cases of Salmonellosis each year in the United States and around 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.

“We had several outbreaks of people getting sick. The worrying part was the illnesses were not from cut mangoes, these were from mangoes they bought whole,” says Amalaradjou, whose work focuses on food safety and in finding new approaches to control or prevent foodborne illnesses.

In mango processing plants, the wash water is housed in gigantic tanks and once the water is contaminated, the bacteria are able to attach to the fruit’s skin and then enter the fruit’s pulp. Once bacteria make their way into the fruit, no amount of washing can remove them. With so many mangoes washed at once, the number of contaminated mangoes can be numerous, potentially causing many cases of Salmonellosis.

Recognizing the danger, the Center for Produce Safety and the National Mango Board funded Amalaradjou’s study. After taking on the project, Amalaradjou traveled to a mango processing plant to see the source of the contamination, the big wash water tanks, for herself in order to learn the processes so she could adapt them to a smaller-scale laboratory set up.

Amalaradjou was surprised by the results because chlorine is not very effective in the wash step for most produce. For one reason or another, from lettuce, to tomatoes to apples, chlorine simply doesn’t reliably kill Salmonella.

With mangoes, Amalaradjou found, chlorine cleaned the wash water and also helped prevent cross-contamination by cleaning the mangoes themselves.
Mangoes in Mary Anne Amalardjou’s lab at UConn.
Mangoes in Mary Anne Amalardjou’s lab at UConn.

One of the other challenges the research group had to tackle was not only effective Salmonella killing, but doing so with affordable and easily implementable measures on a large scale. Because chlorine is already used in the wash water, all that the processing plants need to do is to monitor the levels frequently to keep it at an effective concentration.

After this study and processing thousands of mangos, Amalaradjou says she still loves the fruit and has plans to study other bacteria that can potentially contaminate them.

“Listeria is another area of concern, we plan to study this next. One of the take-away lessons from this project was that not all produce will respond the same way to the same disinfectant.”

UConn Spin Out Issued Stem Cell Patent for Autoimmune Disease

Rita Zangari

Farmington, Conn. – September 12, 2017 – ImStem Biotechnology, Inc. and the University of Connecticut today announced that a joint patent was recently issued for human embryonic stem cells derived mesenchymal stem cells “hES-T-MSC” or “T-MSC” and the method of producing the stem cells.

The patented technology is being used by ImStem to develop therapies for autoimmune diseases with an initial focus on Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  The company, a spin out of the UConn Stem Cell Core Lab, was formed to utilize and commercialize the technologies developed by Dr. Ren He Xu, the former director of the UConn Stem Cell Core, and his then postdoc Dr. Xiaofang Wang.  Dr. Wang now leads the company as its chief technology officer with CEO Dr. Michael Men, M.D.

In 2010,  Xu was one of few researchers to derive new stem cell lines when he announced that four University of Connecticut lines had been approved for use in federally funded research and added to the National Stem Cell Registry by the National Institutes of Health. Both ImStem and its enabling research had been funded by the State of Connecticut Stem Cell Grant program.

Today, ImStem operates through private capital raised by its founders and is located at the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington.

According to Wang, ImStem aims to address the needs of the 450,000 patients in the United States and approximately 2.5 million people around the world that have MS. About 200 new cases are diagnosed each week in the United States with no cures currently available.

“Current therapies temporarily treat MS symptoms, but come with severe side effects and high costs –$60K per year,” Wang said. “ImStem’s technology can offer strong immunosuppression and tissue regeneration with no side effects. It is more robust than other adult stem cell therapies.

While ImStem has proven that their T-MSC cell therapy protects mice from MS (EAE Model), they are currently working with the FDA on necessary clearances to begin clinical trials next year and have completed FDA required experiments.

“None of this would have been possible without the vision and support of the state of Connecticut and UConn,” said CEO Michael Men.  “As a physician and business person, I am naturally pleased to be part of the ImStem team, but without visionary partners like CT Innovations, UConn and Connecticut’s elected officials, the work of our company would not have progressed.”

ImStem continues to collaborate with UConn researcher’s including Dr. Joel Pachter from the Department of Cell Biology and Dr. Liisa Kuhn from the Center for Regenerative Medicine and Skeletal Development.

“That is one of the unique benefits offered by TIP,” said UConn Vice President for Research, Dr. Radenka Maric. “Not only do our TIP startups benefit from use of the unique R&D resources that can only be found at a research institution like UConn, but they have the opportunity to collaborate with leading scientific experts, business advisors, and top student talent to help ensure their success.”

According to TIP’s Executive Director, Dr. Mostafa Analoui, the program has a proven track record of successfully accelerating the growth of high-potential technology startups.

“As the only university-based technology business incubator in the state, TIP has helped over 90 companies that have raised $54 million in grants and $135 million in equity and debt since 2004,” Analoui said. “We are committed to helping Connecticut companies grow and training the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs for the state.”

ImStem believes that their technology might be able to address a variety of diseases beyond MS, including the company’s next target, Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

UConn Researcher: Racism Rooted in Small Things People Say and Do

Published by UConn Today on September 6, 2017

While overt and blatant expressions of prejudice seem to have declined on American university campuses over the last few decades, racism is still evident in the small things that white students say and do, says a new study in Springer’s journal Race and Social Problems.

This is especially true for those who think that minorities are too sensitive about race issues, according to the authors of the study, which is the first to ask white American students how inclined they are to deliver statements that contain so-called microaggressive messages about people of other races.

“There has been some question in the academic community as to whether microaggressions are indicators of racism or simply benign cultural errors,” says Monnica Williams, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, and a study author. “These might appear to be harmless, but are in fact forms of everyday racism or discrimination – they are not benign. ”

Microaggressive messages refer to brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults.

The study included 33 black and 118 non-Hispanic white undergraduate students between 18 and 35 years old at a large public university in the South. Participants completed online questionnaires about their likelihood to engage in microaggression, and the contexts in which such behavior was experienced or used. White students also answered questions about their explicit contemporary prejudicial attitudes towards blacks, compared to more “old-fashioned” overt racism.

The results suggest that the likelihood of students participating in microaggression across five common contexts goes hand in hand with several validated measures of prejudice.

Specifically, white students who reported that they were more likely to be microaggressive were more likely to endorse colorblind, symbolic, and modern racist attitudes. They also held significantly less favorable feelings and attitudes toward black people. This was especially true for white students who thought that minorities are “too sensitive” about matters related to racial prejudice.

Almost all of the black respondents considered being called “too sensitive” to be racist in some form or another.

“These findings provide empirical support that microaggressive acts are rooted in racist beliefs and feelings of deliverers, and may not be dismissed as simply subjective perceptions of the target,” write the authors. “The delivery of microaggressions by white students is not simply innocuous behavior and may be indicative of broad, complex, and negative racial attitudes and explicit underlying hostility and negative feelings toward black students.”

UConn Researchers Find One-third of Parasites May Become Extinct in Our Lifetime

Published by UConn Today on September 6, 2017

Climate change could cause the extinction of up to a third of its parasite species by 2070, a prediction that makes parasites one of the most threatened groups of life on Earth, according to a global analysis reported Sept.6 in the journal Science Advances.

The study was conducted by an international group of researchers including UConn’s Kevin Burgio and Veronica Bueno, and indicates parasite loss could dramatically disrupt ecosystems.

Admittedly, parasites—a diverse group of organisms that includes tapeworms, roundworms, ticks, lice, fleas and other pests— have a bad reputation. They are best known for causing disease in humans, livestock and other animals.

But parasites play an important role in the ecosystem. They help control wildlife populations and keep energy flowing through food chains. Because many parasites have complex life cycles that involve passing through different host species, their diversity can be considered a sign of a healthy ecosystem, says Anna J.Phillips, a research zoologist and curator of the U.S. National Parasite Collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of National History.

“Having parasites is a good indicator that the ecosystem has been stable,” says Phillips. “It means the system has a diversity of animals in it and that conditions have been consistent long enough for these complex associations to develop.”

To find out how climate change is likely to affect the survival of a wide range of parasite species, the researchers turned to museum collections. The U.S. National Parasite Collection, an expansive set of worms, fleas, lice and other parasites, provides a broad and deep record of different species’ occurrences around the world. The still-growing collection began in 1892 and now contains millions of organisms. Most species are represented by many specimens, meaning researchers were able to use the museum’s records to predict changes over time.

Records from the U.S. National Parasite Collection were combined with additional information from specialized databases cataloging ticks, fleas, feather mites and bee mites to enable a comprehensive global analysis.

Before they could begin their analysis, the research team needed to know exactly where each specimen came from so they could understand each species’ habitat needs.

“We needed to collect as much information about where these parasites have been found in the recent past in the form of geographic coordinates,” says Burgio, a postdoctoral fellow in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

In recent years it has become standard to pinpoint a specimen’s original location with GPS coordinates in collection records, but the locations associated with older specimens tend to be less precise. So the team, which included 17 researchers in eight countries, spent years tracking down the exact geographical source of specimens.

“We had to sift through tens of thousands of records from all over the world and assign coordinates to each specimen when enough information was provided,” says Burgio.

That information was essential for the current study and will also aid in future research. Once the geospatial information was complete, the data could be used to make predictions about how parasites will fare as the Earth’s climate changes. Using climate forecasts, the researchers compared how 457 parasite species will be impacted by changes in climate under various scenarios.

The analysis determined that parasites are even more threatened than the animal hosts they rely on. The most catastrophic model predicted that more than a third of parasite species worldwide could be lost by 2070. The most optimistic models predicted a loss of about 10 percent.

The study highlights the delicate position of parasites in complex ecosystems, the scientists say. While much of conservation biology focuses on single species, it is important to keep in mind the goal of conserving ecosystems as a whole.

“As long as there are free-living organisms, there will be parasites. But, the picture of parasite biodiversity in 2070 or beyond has the potential to look very different than it does today,” Phillips says.

The study was supported by the University of California, Berkeley, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. In addition to UConn, Smithsonian Institution and the University of California, Berkeley, the research collaboration included The University of Zurich, University of California, Davis, James Cook University, Estación Biológica de Doñana (CSIC), University of Michigan, Russian Academy of Sciences, University of Alberta and University of KwaZulu-Natal.

UConn Researchers Develop New Device for Testing Heart Health

Published by UConn Today on September 5, 2017

Jessica McBride

UConn researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering have developed a device that tests an important indicator of heart health that is often ignored – blood viscosity.

Blood can be a window into the health of your heart. Doctors are often on the lookout for some common signs that might point to an issue, like abnormal cholesterl levels or high blood pressure. From heart attacks to strokes, routine blood tests can screen for severaol types of life-threatening cardiac events. But less attention has been paid to blood viscosity.

Viscosity measures a fluid’s resistance to flow. Thick or sticky liquids like honey have high viscosity, while thin, watery liquids have low viscosity. In the case of blood, higher viscosity may signal potential problems, since the heart needs to work harder to pump sticky blood. Thick blood also means organs and tissues receive less oxygen and may cause damage to the lining of blood vessels due to increased friction as blood travels throughout the body.

Studies have shown that increased blood viscosity was significantly more prevalent in patients who experienced heart attacks and strokes compared to patients with lower blood viscosity. In fact, one study found that increased blood viscosity is a more likely sign of a potential cardiac event than high blood pressure, gender, or smoking.

Yet despite this strong correlation, physicians can’t currently evaluate blood viscosity at routine office visits.

“We were very surprised that there is no commercial option to quickly and simply check this critical piece of information,” says associate professor of mechanical engineering and co-inventor, George Lykotrafitis. “The research shows there is a connection between blood viscosity and cardiac events, and the equipment exists to test it, but not in a practical or efficient way. We decided to try to solve the problem.”

So Lykotrafitis and doctoral candidate Kostyantyn Partola developed a small electronic device that can measure blood viscosity at the point of care. The pair recently filed a provisional patent on their invention with the help of UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services.

“Our technology really is plug and play, but the impact is significant,” says Partola. “With this information, doctors can suggest simple life-style changes on the spot to prevent their patients from having a stroke or heart attack.”

Lykotrafitis and Partola’s device may be simple, but the science behind it is specialized and tailored to blood analysis. Blood behaves as a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that its viscosity changes depending on its velocity at any given time. Since the velocity of our blood differs when pumping and at rest, its viscosity also changes. This can be a complication for commercial instruments that are currently used to measure viscosity, but not for the device Lykotrafitis and Partola have developed.

Here’s how it works. A clinician places a droplet of blood onto a small card of transparent plastic containing a microchannel. The blood wicks into the microchannel and flows through a small groove using its own capillary pressure. When the microchannel card is placed on a stage between a  light source and a photodiode detector – a device that converts light into an electrical current – the device Lykotrafitis and Partola have developed measures how long it takes the blood to travel through the microchannel. A few minutes after the sample is placed on the microchannel, a digital screen displays a viscosity reading that indicates whether the patient is at elevated risk for cardiac events.

Once the test is completed, the used microchannel card is discarded and replaced with a new one. Since the device itself never comes in contact with the biological sample, practitioners don’t need to sterilize it in between patients or worry about cross-contamination.

Currently, to measure blood viscosity physicians would typically need to send large samples to an off-site lab for analysis in a rheometer, an instrument that measures viscosity mechanically. Commercial rheometers require large samples, take much longer, cost thousands of dollars, and are also commonly used to measure the viscosity of industrial liquids like oil, paint, or personal care products. The commercial equipment needs to be sterilized in between tests because of this multi-purpose capability. Travel time between the medical office where the blood was originally collected and the commercial facility where it is tested also means that samples are no longer reliable. This is all less than ideal for clinical applications.

In contrast, the device that Lykotrafitis and Partola are developing only requires a finger prick of blood, gives precise readings in just a few minutes, and will cost under a thousand dollars.

To commercialize their technology, the duo looked to Accelerate UConn, a growing entrepreneurial program that serves all UConn campuses. Accelerate UConn was launched in May 2015 and is the University’s National Science Foundation I-Corps site. The program teaches participants how to determine the market opportunity for their technology and who the most likely customers will be.

Helping scientists “get out of the lab” is one of the most important and challenging parts of the Accelerate UConn program, according to UConn vice president for research and former Accelerate UConn participant, Radenka Maric.

“There is a wealth of amazing ideas being developed at UConn and UConn Health every day, but to have an impact they need to reach beyond the lab” says Maric. “The Accelerate UConn program provides our world-class researchers with entrepreneurial tools to move these ideas closer to the market, where they can help our citizens, as well as our state economy.”

Partola served as the group’s entrepreneurial lead, which meant he was responsible for interviewing dozens of potential customers. He used the $3,000 award provided by Accelerate UConn to travel to Los Angeles, California, and speak with nurses, researchers, and pharmacists about his technology at the national conference of the Anticoagulation Forum.

Partola says the opportunity to speak with potential customers and the Accelerate UConn curriculum have had an impact on his outlook on entrepreneurship and being a scientist.

“It’s not just about having a technology that works and that you think meets a need,” he says. “Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. I learned that you need to find your customers first, and tailor a specific solution for their problem to be successful.”

The pair have formed a startup, Eir Medical Devices. They also recently completed the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CCEI) Summer Fellowship Program, where they received a $15,000 stipend, intensive business support, and one-on-one coaching from industry experts. A panel of external judges were so impressed with the team’s technology and business plan that they have been named finalists in the upcoming Wolff New Venture Competition administered by CCEI.

In terms of advancing their research, Partola and Lykotrafitis are in early discussions with physicians at UConn Health and Yale University to conduct clinical trials.

To date, approximately 25 teams have successfully completed the Accelerate UConn program.

Applications are currently being accepted for the Fall 2017 cycle, which begins in October. The deadline to apply is Sept. 22, 2017. For more information and to access the application, go to www.accelerate.uconn.edu.

Lykotrafitis had previously conducted research that sparked the idea for this invention through support from the National Science Foundation (NSF-CMMI-1235025) and the American Heart Association (12SDG12050688). No resources from those previous awards were used to fund product development or testing of the current prototype device.