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January, 2018

Exercise Can Improve Alzheimer’s Symptoms

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Mary Carroll Root helps participants during a Powerful Aging Exercise class at the Avon Senior Center. (Al Ferreira for UConn Health Center)
Mary Carroll Root helps participants during a Powerful Aging Exercise class in Connecticut. (Al Ferreira for UConn Health Center)

A new University of Connecticut analysis of years of previous research suggests there is ample evidence that exercise may delay the decline in cognitive function associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Aerobic exercise has possibly the most favorable effect, according to the study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Led by Gregory Panza, a UConn kinesiology graduate student, this is the first analysis of a group of studies on a particular type of dementia – Alzheimer’s.

The authors examined data from 19 studies with 23 interventions that encompassed 1,125 participants who were at risk of Alzheimer’s. The studies were all conducted prior to August 2017 and published in peer-reviewed journals.

Approximately 5.3 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. And the incidence of Alzheimer’s is expected to more than double by 2050.

Panza and his colleagues examined studies that involved exercise-only interventions; included a non-diet, non-exercise control group; and were made up of people at risk of or diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The studies all gauged pre- and post-intervention cognitive function measurements.

The studies led to the overall conclusion that moderate-intensity exercise training about three days a week for 45 minutes resulted in modestly better cognitive function for participants.

The findings reinforce the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, which recommend exercise as a cost-effective lifestyle therapeutic option to improve brain health in older adults.

Panza’s co-authors include Beth Taylor, Blair Johnson, Amanda Zaleski, Jill Livingston, and Linda Pescastello, of UConn; Hayley MacDonald of the University of Alabama; and Paul Thompson of Hartford Hospital.

The work was funded by the InCHIP Healthy Habits Systematic Review Project at UConn, which is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services.

New Grant Aims to Improve Understanding of Degenerative Osteoarthropathy

New Grant Aims to Improve Understanding of Degenerative Osteoarthropathy

Anna Zarra Aldrich, Office of the Vice President for Research

Dr. Marja Hurley, a professor of medicine and orthopedics at UConn Health, has been granted nearly $1.6 million from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases for a five-year project to study the role of specific protein molecules in the prevention of the onset of osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a painful disease that affects approximately 27 million Americans. The condition causes joint pain throughout the body and makes movement incredibly difficult.

Dr. Hurley’s team will specifically look at degenerative osteoarthropathy; this form of OA is commonly seen in young people and even more so with older people who have X-linked hypophosphatemia, a genetically-linked condition which causes them to have abnormally low levels of phosphate in their blood.

The mechanism that causes OA in these individuals has yet to be defined. The research team led by Hurley will focus on the nuclear, localized, high molecular weight (HMW) FGF2 protein isoform, a group of proteins with similar amino acid sequences, to investigate this problem.

The role of this particular isoform in OA has not previously been studied. The UConn Health researchers hope to change this fact and come away from the project with a better understanding of FGF2’s role in OA. The development of this knowledge could identify new targets for therapies, which would impact the field and, potentially, the lives of those living with the disease.

Preliminary research using mice found that those who overexpressed the HMWFGF2 developed OA, while those overexpressing the low-molecular weight FGF2 isoform did not develop OA. These findings provids promising evidence to support Hurley’s hypothesis.

Dr. Hurley received her M.D. from UConn Health and completed her fellowship and residency there as well. Her research focuses on studying various molecular components that impact bone health and diseases.

Dr. Liping Xiao, a UConn Health assistant professor of medicine and psychiatry, is a co-investigator on this project. Dr. Xiao received her M.D. from Hebei Medical University and her Ph.D. from Tianjin Medical University in endocrinology and metabolism. She completed postdoctoral training at UConn Health.

“FGF2 Isoforms in Bone and Phosphate Homeostasis” is NIH project: 9R01AR072985-05A1.

Photo: Radiographic and MicroCT analysis of subchondral bone in VectorTg and HMWTg mice, cover of EndocrinologyDec. 2016.

Giving Silenced Genes a Voice 

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Dr. Marc Lalande, founding chairman of the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences. (Lanny Nagler for UConn Health).
Marc Lalande, founding chairman of the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences. (Lanny Nagler for UConn Health)

Stem cell researchers at UConn Health have reversed Prader-Willi syndrome in brain cells growing in the lab, findings they recently published in Human Molecular Genetics.

The discovery provides clues that could lead to a treatment for Prader-Willi, a genetic disorder that occurs in about one out of every 15,000 births, and is the most common genetic cause of life-threatening childhood obesity.

Unlike many genetic syndromes that are caused by a mutation in a gene, people with Prader Willi often have the right gene available—it’s simply that it’s been silenced.

The gene is silenced because it is on the part of their chromosome they inherited from their mother, and for mysterious reasons our cells use the father’s copy of this gene. But if the father’s copy is missing, the cells can’t express that gene at all.

UConn Health’s Maeva Langouet, a post-doctoral fellow; Marc Lalande, professor of Genetics and Genome Sciences; and their colleagues wondered if it was possible to reverse the silencing of the mother’s copy.

The researchers noticed that a certain protein, called ZNF274, was involved in the  process. It silences many other genes as well, but in those cases it usually acts with another protein. On the Prader-Willi region of our DNA, the protein seems to act alone, they said.

So Langouet and Lalande took stem cells donated by Prader-Willi patients, and carefully deleted ZNF274. They then encouraged the stem cells to grow into neurons, a type of brain cell. And the cells seemed normal. They grew and developed, as expected.

Critically, the new cells also expressed the maternal copy of the Prader-Willi region.

“We still need to figure out if knocking out ZNF274 is doing anything else,” that might be undesirable, says Langouet.

And many other questions still need to be answered: Does this work directly in human brain cells? Will it only work in embryos, or can it help the brain develop normally even after birth?

Currently, there is no cure for Prader-Willi syndrome, and most research has been targeted towards treating specific symptoms. For many individuals affected by the disorder, the elimination of some of the most difficult aspects of the syndrome, such as the insatiable appetite and obesity, would represent a significant improvement in quality of life and the ability to live independently.

But in the future, this new line of research may offer a therapeutic approach for kids with Prader-Willi, Langouet says.

The research was funded by the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research, the Cascade Fellowship and the CT Regenerative Medicine Fund.

Airlines Alter Social Media Strategy After Crash

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Airplane landing on the runway at Gatwick Airport, London, U.K. (Getty Images)
A UConn researcher found that the way airlines alter their social media strategy after a crash offers strategies for other industries responding to a crisis. (Getty Images)

The way an airline and its competitors used social media following a tragedy provides an outline for other industries on ways to respond to a crisis, according to a new study out of the University of Connecticut.

The March 2015 crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 spurred significant changes in social media strategy across the airline industry, says UConn’s Shu He in the study Social Media Strategies in Product-Harm Crises in the journal Information Systems Research.

Shu He, assistant professor of Operations and Information Management in the School of Business. (Nathan Oldham/UConn Photo)
Shu He, assistant professor of Operations and Information Management in the School of Business. (Nathan Oldham/UConn Photo)

He and her colleagues studied 56 major airlines, and their social media strategies, three months before and after the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. The airline industry is one of the leading users of social media, so its experiences are somewhat more sophisticated than other industries and have strong ramifications for other business practices, He said.

“In research, we often talk about the offensive approach – using social media to entice consumers to try a product or take advantage of a service,’’ said He, assistant professor of Operations and Information Management in the School of Business. “But this paper also combines the second value of social media, the defensive strategies which address customer concerns quickly and assist in retaining them.’’

Germanwings Flight 9525 was a low-cost, international passenger flight that departed from Barcelona, Spain, and was en route to Dusseldorf, Germany on March 24, 2015. The aircraft – owned by parent company Lufthansa – crashed north of Nice in the French Alps, killing all 150 passengers and crew.

It was Germanwings’ first fatal crash in its 18-year history and ultimately investigators found the crash was deliberately planned by the co-pilot, who had previously been treated for suicidal tendencies.

He and co-authors Huaxia Rui, of the University of Rochester, and Andrew B. Whinston, of the University of Texas at Austin, found that Germanwings’ competitors decreased their “offensive’’ approach to social media by an average of 13 to 19 percent during the three months following the crash, but they increased their “defensive’’ social presence by 3 to 9 percent.

Offensive posts are messages such as “This #LaborDay, reward yourself with savings on your next #vacation! Save now.” Examples of defensive posts include “Taking care of our customers is very important to us. How can we help?”

Measured by growth in followers for the company in crisis, in both absolute numbers and percentage change, the average effect of defensive marketing efforts increased after the crash event, says He, which seemed to justify the adjustment of airlines’ social media strategy.

Unlike traditional marketing channels, social media adjustments can be implemented in real time. For managers, social media offers an extremely flexible way to counter negative spillover to retain existing customers and attract potential customers, write the researchers.

“The take-away is that when a competitive company experiences a crisis, other companies should use social media to both reduce the negative spillover effect and to improve their competitive advantage,’’ she said.

The company with the crisis should probably spend even more resources on defensive marketing, knowing that competitors would exploit the vulnerability and ramp up their offensive marketing. The opposite is true: competitors need to consider the strategic responses of the company in crisis while forming their strategy, says He. One firm’s catastrophe can be a competitive advantage for another.

The findings extend far beyond the airline industry.

Crises are common. In 2016 alone, 339 new recalls were reported by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, ranging from food to toys to motor vehicles.


NSF I-Corps: Bringing Together Industry, Academia, and Entrepreneurship

NSF I-Corps: Bringing Together Industry, Academia, and Entrepreneurship

Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

When UConn alumnus Tim Myles finished his PhD in mechanical engineering in 2014, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in industry.

“I enjoyed the academic cycle of things—do research, publish papers, present at conferences, teach, repeat—but I felt like I could really contribute to society and even improve people’s lives by working in industry. It just seemed like the best fit,” Myles said.

At that time, Myles was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Clean Energy Engineering in the lab of Dr. Radenka Maric. Maric was supportive of his decision to focus on industry, and she came to him with an offer. Instead of a postdoc in her lab, she wanted him to be a key player in a startup she and a business partner from industry had formed to commercialize one of Maric’s innovations called Reactive Spray Deposition Technology.

Maric and her business partner Claire Leonardi formed Health eSense to create a hand held, clinically accurate, non-invasive device to detect and monitor the status of chronic illnesses through analysis of exhaled breath. Thanks to a Phase I SBIR grant from the National Science Foundation, Maric and Leonardi had the funding to hire a senior engineer to serve as the scientific lead and move the technology forward.

The basis of the technology is an innovation made by Maric called RSDT, or Reactive Spray Deposition Technology. RSDT is a thin-film deposition process that overcomes many of the shortcomings of traditional vapor deposition techniques while yielding equal or better quality coatings at a lower cost. Before going through the I-Corps program, RSDT had primarily been used in the development of fuel cells, not for use as a medical device.

Myles and Maric credit the shift in focus to their participation in I-Corps, a program established by the National Science Foundation to provide academic researchers with seed funding and entrepreneurial training so that more university discoveries reach the market.

“We started the program with a strong focus on fuel cells and considered biosensors to be a side project,” explained Maric. “By getting out of the lab and talking to our potential customers, we discovered that the best path towards commercialization for our technology was actually the one we least expected. We had the ‘Aha’ moment that I-Corps enthusiasts promised us.”

They plan to focus their first prototype on diseases that are currently difficult to diagnose. Known as “silent diseases,” these conditions often go undetected. Using Maric’s RSDT film allows for small particle sizes that are able to measure concentrations of specific gases like ammonia in the breath that could signal liver disease. Unlike standard methods, Health eSense’s technology is less expensive, more efficient, and results are ready in between 10-20 seconds.

Since 2013, Maric, Myles and/or Leonardi have participated in four separate I-Corps programs—UConn’s site program called Accelerate UConn, the regional and national I-Corps programs at the New York City Regional Innovation Node, and SBIR “Beat the Odds” Bootcamp, which Myles described as “I-Corps lite.” Each round provided funding and educational programming from leading entrepreneurship experts using Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad methodology.

According to Myles, they also required dedication and commitment to the process.

“The training is intense. It’s like a full-time job,” he said. “But in the end, the work paid off because we learned what business model would give us the best chances of success before spending any real time or money developing a technology for customers who didn’t exist. The time and effort are worth the knowledge you gain.”

Myles is happy with his decision not only to pursue a career in industry, but to be a key player in a startup.

“This experience is giving me the opportunity to develop something from beginning to end. It’s great to be involved with the whole process, not just a cog in the machine of a big company.”

Health eSense is continuing R&D at their headquarters at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program in Farmington where they benefit from a vibrant community of entrepreneurs and industry mentors and have access to investors and business services. The Health eSense team has applied for funding from the National Institutes of Health that they hope will allow them to pursue clinical trials.

Accelerate UConn is now accepting applications for the spring 2018 cohort. Apply today https://accelerate.uconn.edu/apply/

(Photo: Tim Myles using RSDT flame in the Center for Clean Energy Engineering lab/UConn Photo)

UConn Technology Incubation Companies Raise $60M in 2017

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Nicole Wagner, CEO of UConn TIP company LambdaVision, works in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Nicole Wagner, CEO of UConn TIP company LambdaVision, works in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The University of Connecticut notched another year of record growth for companies in its Technology Incubation Program (TIP).

In 2017, TIP startups attracted a record $60 million in equity, debt, grant, and revenue funding to accelerate the growth of their operations — over $15 million more than the previous year. The majority of this investment came from out-of-state sources.

With programs like TIP and facilities like the Innovation Partnership Building, we are creating an innovation ecosystem.— Radenka Maric

A program within UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research, TIP supports UConn startups as well as innovative external technology ventures. All TIP startups are able to conduct R&D activities at UConn and benefit from having access to the University’s research infrastructure, specialized equipment, customized business support services, and pool of talented graduates.

“At UConn, we are doing entrepreneurship, not just teaching it,” says Radenka Maric, vice president for research at UConn. “We are proud of the program’s rapid growth, and are committed to supporting all TIP companies, including those that are developing technologies discovered at other top universities and in industry, as well as those started by our own UConn faculty and students.

“With programs like TIP and facilities like the Innovation Partnership Building,” Maric adds, “we are creating an innovation ecosystem so that these promising technologies can advance from early stage development to fast prototyping, manufacturing, and clinical trial to benefit the citizens and economy of our state.”

While nine TIP companies raised over $1 million each, several additional TIP companies received very large investments in 2017, contributing to the program’s record-setting total and rapid growth.

Frequency Therapeutics successfully raised $30 million in 2017 to continue developing a drug-based therapy to restore hearing in individuals with hearing loss. Frequency is applying its proprietary platform, called Progenitor Cell Activation (PCA), to regenerate inner ear sensory hair cells, which detect sound and transmit signals to the brain. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 360 million people worldwide have moderate or worse hearing loss, with an additional 1.1 billion people at risk for hearing loss from recreational noise alone. The company recently announced that their first-in-human safety study of their lead PCA treatment for hearing loss, FX-322, achieved all endpoints.

“Frequency’s scientific team at UConn TIP has been critical in supporting the development of the company’s PCA platform to restore hearing, and is now applying these insights to expand into additional therapeutic indications,” says Bob Langer, the Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of Frequency Therapeutics. “We greatly appreciate the ongoing support from TIP as Frequency advances its hearing loss program in the clinic.”

Led by inventor and co-founder, Dr. Bruce Liang and CEO Glen Mattes, Cornovus Pharmaceuticalsalso had an impressive year. The company, which is developing a new medication for people with advanced heart failure, raised $4.3 million in equity and grants. Liang, who is also dean of the UConn School of Medicine, formed the startup in 2011 with assistance from UConn’s technology commercialization and venture development groups.

Liang is hopeful about Cornovus’ chances, given early results from animal testing. With this additional investor money, the Cornovus team plans to fund more preclinical testing to apply for investigational new drug (IND) status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a prerequisite to human testing.

Bioarray, a molecular diagnostics biotech housed at TIP in Farmington since 2016, raised over $5 million in equity and debt in 2017. The company, which is led by women, is developing a predictive cancer treatment platform technology consisting of unique genes and proprietary algorithms that provides patient-specific information to determine the optimal course of treatment for cancer. Bioarray was recently issued a U.S. patent for their lead test, BA100, which will be available to physicians and breast cancer patients in late 2018.

Thetis Pharmaceuticals LLC, a biopharmaceutical company developing novel, oral “immuno-resolving” therapies to treat inflammatory bowel disease, had several successes since joining TIP in June 2017. Working closely with UConn Health’s Daniel Rosenberg, Thetis was awarded a $2.3 million fast-track grant from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research program. The growing startup received an additional $750,000 equity investment in 2017, and was named “Innovator of the Month” by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy.

“Being a part of the UConn Technology Incubation Program has been incredibly beneficial for us,” says Gary Mathias, CEO of Thetis. “We’ve been able to leverage the expertise and infrastructure that a top research university provides to conduct preclinical efficacy studies and advance our promising new inflammatory bowel disease therapy toward clinical use.”

In 2017, TIP was home to 35 companies – the most in the program’s history. This is thanks in part to Connecticut’s $20 million investment in a new expanded incubator facility at UConn Health and a renewed commitment on the part of the University to support venture development. Mostafa Analoui, a life sciences entrepreneur and investment banker, joined UConn in October 2016 to lead these efforts, including heading TIP.

The TIP expansion, paid for through the state of Connecticut’s landmark Bioscience CT initiative, increased total square footage for the program by 20,000 square feet and was completed in January 2016. It now boasts approximately 30,000 square feet of high-tech wet labs and office space at its two major locations in Farmington and Storrs.

Increased efforts to provide TIP companies access to likely investors have been a top priority in the past year, says Analoui. Canaan Partners, Elm Street Ventures, Agent Capital, and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson all visited the facility in the past year to meet personnel in TIP startups, learn about their technologies, and discuss their investment strategies.

“The record growth that we saw again this year speaks to the quality of the companies in the program, which are all high-potential startups that want to grow in Connecticut,” Analoui says. “As an integral part of the state’s innovation ecosystem, TIP supports the growth of these companies through a community of fellow entrepreneurs, venture development experts, connections with investors, and support to seek funding. We’re thrilled with the growth of our member companies and of the Technology Incubation Program itself.”

Established in 2004 to accelerate the growth of technology-based startups with a strong connection to the University of Connecticut, TIP has supported approximately 100 startup companies. These companies have raised more than $164.6 million in debt and equity, $62.3 million in grant funding, and more than $50.7 million in revenue while in the program. At the end of 2017, TIP companies employed 91 full-time and 70 part-time employees.

For more information about the UConn Technology Incubation Program, call 860-679-2921 or visit www.tip.uconn.edu.

From Treatment to Survivorship: Researching Resilience in Cancer Patients in Transition

From Treatment to Survivorship: Researching Resilience in Cancer Patients  in Transition

Anna Zarra Aldrich, Office of the Vice President for Research

(Photo by Getty Images)

Two University of Connecticut professors have been awarded over $2 million from the National Cancer Institute for a five-year project to study resilience as cancer patients transition from active treatment to survivorship.

UConn professors Crystal Park (psychological sciences) and Keith Bellizzi (human development and family studies) will prospectively study the mechanisms and outcomes of different resilience trajectories as patients transition from primary cancer treatment back to their usual lives, adjusting to what is often described as a “new normal.”

While patients are undergoing treatment for their cancer, they receive close support by family, friends, and health care professionals and are usually focused on making it through the immediate demands of their treatment regimens. But as treatment ends, many patients face a new set of physical, emotional, and social challenges while their support may lessen and expectations for them increase.

This research will be conducted collaboratively with Dr. Tara Sanft, study PI at Yale University, and participants for the study will be recruited through Yale New Haven Hospital. The study team includes Dr. Dean Cruess, a UConn professor of Psychological Sciences, Dr. Ofer Harel, a UConn professor of Statistics, and Dr. Jerry Meyer, a consultant from UMass Amherst.

The study will follow 575 individuals who have been recently diagnosed with breast, prostate, or colorectal cancer while in active treatment and follow them for a year after their transition into the post-treatment survivorship phase of their lives. The team will study the mechanisms associated with different transition trajectories in an attempt to understand the relationship between various trajectories across important physical and psychological facets of survivors’ health. They also hope to gain an understanding of how and why these trajectories and their outcomes vary.

Learning more about the factors involved in survivors’ recovery and resilience will provide important insights to inform interventions aimed at helping patients who may be struggling. Additionally, by expanding the knowledge base of post-treatment resilience and the mechanisms that influence it, this research can have broader impacts regarding how public health policy makers approach highly-stressful events. Ultimately, this innovative line of research seeks to ease cancer survivors’ transitions out of active treatment and promote fuller, happier lives in survivorship.

Dr. Park’s research focuses on multiple aspects of coping with stressful events including the role of religiousness and spirituality, the phenomenon of stress-related growth and finding meaning in the context of traumatic events and life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer. Dr. Park also researches mind-body relationships, particularly focusing on the science of yoga. Dr. Park received her PhD from the University of Delaware in 1993.

Dr. Bellizzi researches cancer survivorship across the lifespan, health behaviors such as physical activity and quality of life issues associated with chronic illnesses and family adjustment and adaptability in the context of life-threatening and chronic illnesses. He received his PhD from UConn in 2003.

“Multilevel Resilience Trajectories in the Transition to Cancer Survivorship,” is project: 1UG3CA220642-01.

Biodegradable Sensor Monitors Pressure in the Body then Disappears

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This biodegradable piezoelectric pressure sensor developed by the Nguyen Research Group at UConn could be used by doctors to monitor chronic lung disease, brain swelling, and other medical conditions before dissolving safely in a patient’s body. (Image courtesy of Thanh Duc Nguyen)
This biodegradable piezoelectric pressure sensor developed by the Nguyen Research Group at UConn could be used by doctors to monitor chronic lung disease, brain swelling, and other medical conditions before dissolving safely in a patient’s body. (Image courtesy of Thanh Duc Nguyen)

UConn engineers have created a biodegradable pressure sensor that could help doctors monitor chronic lung disease, swelling of the brain, and other medical conditions before dissolving harmlessly in a patient’s body.

The UConn research is featured in the current online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The small, flexible sensor is made of medically safe materials already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in surgical sutures, bone grafts, and medical implants. It is designed to replace existing implantable pressure sensors that have potentially toxic components.

Those sensors must be removed after use, subjecting patients to an additional invasive procedure, extending their recovery time, and increasing the risk of infection.

Because the UConn sensor emits a small electrical charge when pressure is applied against it, the device also could be used to provide electrical stimulation for tissue regeneration, researchers say. Other potential applications include monitoring patients with glaucoma, heart disease, and bladder cancer.

“We are very excited because this is the first time these biocompatible materials have been used in this way,” says Thanh Duc Nguyen, the paper’s senior author and an assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering in the Institute of Regenerative Engineering at UConn Health and the Institute of Materials Science at the Storrs campus.

“Medical sensors are often implanted directly into soft tissues and organs,” Nguyen notes. “Taking them out can cause additional damage. We knew that if we could develop a sensor that didn’t require surgery to take it out, that would be really significant.”

A prototype sensor made by the lab consisted of a thin polymer film five millimeters long, five millimeters wide, and 200 micrometers thick. The sensor was implanted in the abdomen of a mouse in order to monitor the mouse’s respiratory rate. It emitted reliable readings of contractions in the mouse’s diaphragm for four days before breaking down into its individual organic components.

To make sure the sensor was also medically safe, the researchers implanted it in the back of a mouse and then watched for a response from the mouse’s immune system. The results showed only minor inflammation after the sensor was inserted, and the surrounding tissue returned to normal after four weeks.

One of the project’s biggest challenges was getting the biodegradable material to produce an electrical charge when it was subjected to pressure or squeezed, a process known as the piezoelectric effect. In its usual state, the medically safe polymer used for the sensor – a product known as Poly(L-lactide) or PLLA – is neutral and doesn’t emit an electrical charge under pressure.

Eli Curry, a graduate student in Nguyen’s lab and the paper’s lead author, provided the project’s key breakthrough when he successfully transformed the PLLA into a piezoelectric material by carefully heating it, stretching it, and cutting it at just the right angle so that its internal molecular structure was altered and it adopted piezoelectric properties. Curry then connected the sensor to electronic circuits so the material’s force-sensing capabilities could be tested.

When put together, the UConn sensor is made of two layers of piezoelectric PLLA film sandwiched between tiny molybdenum electrodes and then encapsulated with layers of polylactic acid or PLA, a biodegradable product commonly used for bone screws and tissue scaffolds. Molybdenum is used for cardiovascular stents and hip implants.

The piezoelectric PLLA film emits a small electrical charge when even the most minute pressure is applied against it. Those small electrical signals can be captured and transmitted to another device for review by a doctor.

As part of their proof of concept test for the new sensor, the research team hardwired an implanted sensor to a signal amplifier placed outside of a mouse’s body. The amplifier then transmitted the enhanced electrical signals to an oscilloscope where the sensor’s readings could be easily viewed.

The sensor’s readings during testing were equal to those of existing commercial devices and just as reliable, the researchers say. The new sensor is capable of capturing a wide range of physiological pressures, such as those found in the brain, behind the eye, and in the abdomen.

The sensor’s sensitivity can be adjusted by changing the number of layers of PLLA used and other factors.

Nguyen’s group is investigating ways to extend the sensor’s functional lifetime. The lab’s ultimate goal is to develop a sensor system that is completely biodegradable within the human body.

But until then, the new sensor can be used in its current form to help patients avoid invasive removal surgery, the researchers say.

“There are many applications for this sensor,” says Nguyen. “Let’s say the sensor is implanted in the brain. We can use biodegradable wires and put the accompanying non-degradable electronics far away from the delicate brain tissue, such as under the skin behind the ear, similar to a cochlear implant. Then it would just require a minor treatment to remove the electronics without worrying about the sensor being in direct contact with soft brain tissue.”

Nguyen’s research group has filed for a patent for the new sensor. The patent application is pending.

The other authors on the paper are: Kai Ke, Kinga Wrobel, Albert Miller III, and Avi Patel from the Nguyen Research Group; Dr. Cato Laurencin, Dr. Qian Wu, Lixia Yue, Kevin Lo, Insoo Kim, Chia-Ling Kuo, and Jianling Feng from UConn Health; and Professor Horea Ilies and Meysam Chorsi from UConn’s Computational Design Lab. Associate professor Prashant Purohit from the University of Pennsylvannia also contributed.

The research was supported by a National Institutes of Health grant (1R21EBO24787), and funding from UConn’s Academic Plan.