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Rice engineers join NSF global health initiative

PATHS-UP center at Texas A&M will develop tools to diagnose and treat diabetes, heart disease

By Mike Williams

Rice University will take part in a National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center (ERC) focused on developing technologies to alleviate suffering from diabetes and heart disease in underserved communities in the United States and around the world.

Ashutosh Sabharwal, a Rice professor of electrical and computer engineering, will lead the Rice team working with the consortium of industry, government partners and academia based at Texas A&M University.

The center, to be called PATHS-UP, was introduced today as one of four announced by NSF. PATHS-UP, which stands for Precise Advanced Technologies and Health Systems for Underserved Populations, will receive $19.75 million in federal funding for five years with the opportunity to renew the mission, potentially for another five years and $15.56 million. The grant will be administered through the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station.

“The PATHS-UP ERC comprises a team of extraordinarily dedicated researchers who aim to develop cost-effective health care for underserved populations,” said NSF program director Deborah Jackson. “If PATHS-UP’s chronic disease interventions are successful, they will have tackled a significant source of the skyrocketing national health care cost.”

Partner institutions include Florida International University and the University of California at Los Angeles. “We all have different pieces of the puzzle,” Sabharwal said. “The center is a way to facilitate collaboration and integration across all these teams.”

The center will focus on developing two transformative engineered systems, a lab-in-your-palm for inexpensive remote diagnostic capabilities and a lab-on-a-wrist for continuous monitoring of health status.

Sabharwal said Rice engineers will work with collaborators on fundamental core technologies for both engineered systems and provide leadership in biobehavioral sensing, a new area being pioneered by the Sabharwal-led Scalable Health Labs at Rice. “The grand challenge will be successful if we demonstrate wearables, like a watch that can perform continuous monitoring of glucose and other biomarkers that are important for keeping track of chronic conditions,” Sabharwal said.

Sabharwal and Rice colleagues Ashok Veeraraghavan, Genevera Allen, Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Tomasz Tkaczyk and their labs will take part in the center. The team is uniquely qualified to design medical devices for underserved populations. Sabharwal and his lab have engineered a self-use retinal imaging system, a mobile spirometer, wearable technology for dietary monitoring and apps for evaluating depression and extracting accurate vital signs from videos.

Richards-Kortum, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and a professor of bioengineering and of electrical and computer engineering at Rice, is a global health pioneer whose lab translates research in nanotechnology, molecular imaging and microfabrication into optical systems for point-of-care diagnostic systems. As director of Rice 360˚ Institute for Global Health, she is not only developing technology to save lives in underdeveloped countries but also bringing it to the front lines.

Allen, an associate professor of statistics, electrical and computer engineering, and computer science, is a statistician developing tools to uncover patterns and correlations in complex data sets. Such tools are needed to make data-driven biomedical discoveries that can help understand complex diseases and develop personalized therapies.

Tkaczyk, an associate professor of bioengineering, develops modern optical instruments for medical diagnosis and detection in both clinical and remote environments and specializes in micro-fabrication techniques. Among his lab’s developments are a miniature plastic digital microscope used to count white blood cells in patients, small lenses for inner-ear analysis and cancer detection and a specialized hyperspectral cameras to capture living cells in action. His other applications include in-vivo retinal imaging and environmental imaging.

Veeraraghavan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, specializes in sophisticated image-capture systems, including the FlatCam for imaging without long lenses, mobileVision for capturing high-resolution images inside the eye, and FlatScope, a brain implant he expects will capture fluorescent data straight from neurons.

Sabharwal and Veeraraghavan are also part of the Scalable Health Lab, which is pioneering the new area of biobehavioral sensing to simultaneously measure biological and behavioral markers to understand the relationships between human behavior and human health.

Sabharwal said the team will attempt to push boundaries in mobile sensors and systems for health monitoring. “The PATHS-UP center is empowered to envision and develop bold new clean-slate designs,” he said.

According to the Texas A&M team led by Gerard Coté, director of the university’s Center for Remote Health Technologies and Systems, PATHS-UP’s two overarching goals will be to engineer technologies to overcome the barriers usually faced by point-of-care devices and to recruit and educate the scientists and engineers who will develop them. The technologies need to be deployable, highly accurate, easy-to-use and affordable.

Sabharwal noted the center will work directly with under-resourced populations in Texas. “That’s very important: From day one we’re going to start working with all the stakeholders to bring them into the center’s research orbit,” he said.

“For over 30 years, NSF Engineering Research Centers have promoted innovation, helped to maintain our competitive edge and added billions of dollars to the U.S. economy,” NSF Director France Córdova said. “They bring together talented innovators and entrepreneurs with resources from academia, industry and government to produce engineers and engineering systems that solve real-world problems. I am confident that these new ERCs will strengthen U.S. competitiveness for the next generation and continue our legacy of improving the quality of life for all Americans.”

PATHS-UP will be the third active NSF Engineering Research Center in Texas. The Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies, or NASCENT, ERC was established at the University of Texas in 2012, and the Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment, or NEWT, Systems ERC was established at Rice in 2015. North Carolina is the only other state with three ERCs.