University of Connecticut University of UC Title Fallback Connecticut

2016

UConn startup wins CI funding, opens HQ

Published on The Hartford Business Journal / December 20, 2016

Patricia Daddona

A UConn professor’s startup, which is developing a new type of heart monitor, has opened headquarters in the UConn Technology Incubation Program in Farmington.

Biomedical engineering professor Ki Chon is developing the device so that it can be worn throughout the day as it monitors early signs for an irregular heartbeat. His company, Mobile Sense Technologies, recently received $500,000 in startup funding from Connecticut Innovations, UConn announced Tuesday. For more information, visit www.mobilesensetech.com.

“Atrial fibrillation affects millions of people and leads to thousands of preventable deaths each year,” says Chon. “With the device we’re working to bring to market, we’re hoping to make it much easier to identify early stage atrial fibrillation, which could save a lot of lives and hundreds of millions in health care costs.”

There are currently 6 million people in the United States diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, with many more going undiagnosed. Those people are five times more likely to suffer a stroke than patients without atrial fibrillation, and 33 percent will suffer a life-threatening stroke at some point in their lives.

Most of the strategies currently available to monitor for an irregular heartbeat have drawbacks that make them difficult to use for early detection, Chon said.

“My team has already done much of the work,” he says. “What we’re doing now is bringing everything together into a coherent package.”

UConn Researchers Kill MRSA with Tailored Chemistry

UConn medicinal chemists have developed experimental antibiotics that kill MRSA, a common and often deadly bacteria that causes skin, lung, and heart infections. The success is due to their strategy, which found a weakness and exploited it in a way the bacteria should have trouble countering, the researchers report in the Dec. 22 issue of Cell Chemical Biology.

Cases of MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are on the rise and increasingly resistant to common antibiotics. The first choice treatment for MRSA, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, is relatively safe and inexpensive. But trimethoprim-resistant MRSA has begun to spread around the globe. Up to 30 percent of infections in sub-Saharan African no longer respond to it, and significant numbers in Europe and Asia as well.

Dennis Wright, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, at his lab on April 1, 2016. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Dennis Wright, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, is leading a team of researchers who have developed a drug that will be harder for MRSA to evolve resistance against. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A team of medicinal chemists in the School of Pharmacy including Dennis Wright, the late Amy Anderson, and Ph.D. student Stephanie Reeve have been working to develop a drug that will be harder for MRSA to evolve resistance against. They had several candidates in the works when they asked colleagues at UConn Health and Hartford Hospital to start collecting trimethoprim-resistant strains of MRSA as test cases.

“Although resistance [to trimethoprim] in the community is generally less than 10 percent in our local area, resistance elsewhere is climbing,” says Michael Nailor, a UConn pharmacologist co-funded with Hartford Hospital. “Additionally, many vulnerable patient populations cannot take trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole or other generic drugs because of side effects they may cause, and new agents are needed.”

The local samples showed just how fast antibiotic resistance is spreading. Six of nine bacterial strains collected had genes for trimethoprim resistance that had never before been seen in the U.S. The strains were also variously resistant to other antibiotics, such as erythromycin and tetracycline.

But they didn’t stand a chance against the experimental antibiotics from Anderson, Wright, and Reeve’s lab.

“We’ve actually taken strains [of MRSA] from the clinic and shown that our compounds work,” says Reeve. “We were really happy about these results.”

Their strategy had worked.

“One of the most exciting aspect of this work was that we had worked hard to design broadly acting inhibitors against many different resistant forms of the enzymes, and these designs proved very effective against two new enzymes we had never considered or previously studied,” says Wright.

Folic acid (vitamin B9), molecular model. Atoms are represented as spheres and are colour-coded: carbon (grey), hydrogen (white), nitrogen (blue) and oxygen (red). (Laguna Design/Getty Images)
The molecular structure of folic acid (Vitamin B9). Atoms are represented as spheres and are colour-coded: carbon (grey), hydrogen (white), nitrogen (blue) and oxygen (red). (Laguna Design/Getty Images)

The strategic approach the chemists had taken was to target the bacteria’s use of Vitamin B9. Also known as folate, it’s as critical to MRSA bacteria as it is to us. Block its action, and a vital enzyme pathway is shut down. The bacteria die. Trimethoprim is currently the only antibacterial antifolate available, and bacteria have evolved different versions of the folate enzyme that aren’t impaired by it.

But Anderson, Wright, and Reeve thought they should be able to make other, better antifolates. They painstakingly analyzed the molecular structure of the enzyme they were up against, and exactly how it needed to interact with other molecules to do its job. Only by understanding its form and function could they foil versions of the enzyme they’d never seen before, Wright says.

Armed with their knowledge, they designed new antifolates. These drugs are crafted to bind the enzyme in such a way that if the enzyme changes enough to evade them, it won’t be able to do its job with vitamin B9, either. That will hopefully make it harder for bacteria to evolve resistance. The drugs’ success against the trimethoprim-resistant strains of MRSA sampled so far bodes well.

The team is now gathering more MRSA from across the country. Jeffrey Aeschlimann, an associate professor of pharmacy practice with a practice at UConn Health, says, “We’d like to determine if the resistance mechanisms we discovered in our local MRSA strains are also found in other clinics throughout the United States. We also may find other novel resistance mechanisms. In both cases, we will be able to gain even more valuable information about our how our new antibiotics work against MRSA.”

Sugar Pine Genome, Transcriptome Offer Glimpse into Evolution of Oversized Genomes

Published on GenomeWeb / December 8, 2016

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – A University of Connecticut and University of California, Davis-led team of researchers has sequenced both the genome and transcriptome of the sugar pine.

In a pair of studies appearing in Genetics and G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics, the researchers report on the 31-billion-basepair genome of Pinus lambertiana Douglas and the transcriptomes of about a dozen of its tissues. With this data, the researchers explored the region harboring a pathogen resistance gene as well as lineage-specific Dicer-like proteins within the sugar pine that may give insight into its oversized genome.

“The recent availability of a draft P. lambertiana genome sequence, coupled with transcriptomics, offers opportunities to study basic questions about the biology of conifers as it relates to genome evolution and gene expression,” UConn’s Jill Wegrzyn and her colleagues wrote in the G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics paper.

The UC Davis researchers first announced last year that they’d sequenced the California sugar pine. It’s one of the world’s tallest trees, reaching 76 meters in height, and may have a lifespan of more than 500 years. In recent decades, though, it has suffered damage from white pine rust, caused by the fungus Cronartium ribicola.

In their Genetics paper, UC Davis’ Charles Langley and his colleagues wrote that to sequence P. lambertiana, they adapted the approach they’d used to sequence the loblolly pine genome. In particular, they used haploid DNA from a single sugar pine megagametophyte to serve as the basis for their assembly, which they then filled in using mate-pair library reads from diploid needle tissue. From this, they generated some 1.9 trillion basepairs, reflecting 62X coverage of the P. lambertiana, which they estimated to be 31 gigabasepairs in size.

Much of the sugar pine genome, though, is repeats. Transposable elements make up 79 percent of the P. lambertiana genome, slightly higher than the 74 percent found in loblolly pine, the researchers reported. Of those transposable elements, two thirds are long terminal repeat retrotransposons. The researchers estimated the median LTR insertion time for P. lambertiana to be 16 million years ago, more recent than that of loblolly.

This high number of repeats and their age gives credence, the researchers said, to the hypothesis that the sugar pine genome, like that of other conifers, got to its massive state by undergoing transposable element expansions.

While sugar pines in general have suffered from C. ribicola damage, some trees have resistance to the fungus. Previous work has mapped a biallelic locus, Cr1R/Cr1r, that confers resistance, and Langley and his colleagues used their newly generated genome sequence to uncover SNPs in association with Cr1R. They uncovered 14 genes annotated on the scaffolds genetically linked to Cr1R, one of which — PILA_lg017786 — stood out to the researchers as a candidate gene as it contains domains typically found in disease-resistance genes.

The researchers noted that being able to use SNP genotyping to uncover resistant trees would speed up reforestation efforts.

Meanwhile, in G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics, UConn’s Wegrzyn and her colleagues reported that they conducted deep sequencing of RNA from tissues representing the tree’s embryo state, female cones nearing pollination, stems, and roots, among others, to generate the sugar pine transcriptome.

The researchers used a combination of Illumina MiSeq, HiSeq, and Pacific Biosciences sequencing to pull together the transcriptome. Overall, they uncovered 278,812 transcripts, 30,839 of which could be functionally annotated.

Because of their role in transposable element proliferation and how that might have influenced the hefty size of conifer genomes, Wegrzyn and her colleagues focused part of their analysis on Dicer-like (DCL) proteins.

Within the P. lambertiana transcriptome, the researchers uncovered 12 transcripts that exhibited similarity to DCLs, six of which were supported by gene models. Through a phylogenetic analysis drawing on conifers, monocots, dicots, and an outgroup, the researchers identified DCLs that the sugar pine shared with other trees as well as DCLs it shared only with other conifers.

In sugar pine, conventional DCL1 transcripts and one DCL4 transcript were found across all samples the researchers analyzed, while the other DCL4 transcripts were found in cones and DCL3 expression was restricted to reproductive tissues. The profiles of conifer-specific DCL1 transcripts, they added, varied: one was barely expressed, one was ubiquitously expressed, and one had a differential profile in reproductive tissues.

“Expression analysis derived from sequencing data further supports a biological role of these variants,” the researchers said in their paper. “The results presented here highlight the peculiarities of this pathway in conifers and identifies similarities with ancient land plants.”

UConn students win tech council’s hackathon

Published on The Hartford Business Journal / December 20, 2016

Patricia Daddona

PHOTO | Contributed

From left, Tyler Dresselhouse, Brandon Loehle, Anthony Dell¹Agli, Matt Fishman and Alexander Thimineur finished in first place at the Connecticut Technology Council’s hackathon competition on Dec. 3. Dresselhouse, Loehle, Fishman and Thimineur are Quinnipiac University students. Dell’Agli is a UConn student.

A team of four Quinnipiac University students and one UConn student placed first at the Connecticut Technology Council’s hackathon competition.

Quinnipiac students Tyler Dresselhouse of East Greenwich, R.I.; Matt Fishman, of Manalapan, N.J.; Brandon Loehle of Farmington; and Alexander Thimineur of Orange joined UConn’s Anthony Dell’Agli to win the competition and earn $5,000 for first prize.

The competition was held Dec. 3 at the Yale School of Management in New Haven. The CTC hosted the top 50 collegiate computer programming students from local colleges and universities for a team competition.

Each team was required to use a public Application Programming Interface (API) to make a piece of useful software. The winning group made a mobile app for Android and IOS that allowed users to search movies and receive easy-to-read review scales.

The hackathon was part of CTC’s ongoing Connecticut Skills Challenge Program, made possible through funding provided by CTNext. This was the second hackathon for the CT Skills Challenge in the past eight months, attracting talented programmers from across the state.

The hackathon included teams from 15 colleges and universities throughout Connecticut. The CTC held qualifying competitions on several campuses, including Quinnipiac’s, and the top 50 students were invited to the hackathon.

Feeling the Heat: The Urban Response to Climate Change

Hartford skyline on a sunny afternoon. (Ultima_Gaina/Getty Images)
Hartford skyline on a sunny afternoon. (Ultima_Gaina/Getty Images)

The inner city neighborhoods of Hartford, Conn. are probably not the first place people think of when they consider the impact of global warming and climate change.

But that doesn’t mean the area is immune.

Climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century. It is not just about polar bears and melting ice caps. — World Health Organization

Heat tends to get trapped among the closely packed skyscrapers and multistory buildings dotting Hartford’s urban landscape, creating what climatologists refer to as ‘urban heat islands.’ These regions can maintain warmer temperatures two to five degrees higher than rural environments, putting stress on individuals and resources.

The impact can be particularly burdensome on those already struggling with other issues such as poverty, pre-existing health conditions, lack of access to health care, age, pregnancy, or lack of resources.

In response to these concerns, UConn anthropology professor Merrill Singer partnered with Family Life Education, a Hartford-based community service organization, in order to survey low-income residents living in one downtown Hartford neighborhood to gauge their awareness and understanding of climate change.

In a study recently published in the journal Medical Anthropology, Singer concludes that while the primarily Latino residents have a general awareness of climate change, they don’t know sufficient details about the phenomenon, and they have a strong desire to learn more in order to protect and prepare themselves and their families.

“The World Health Organization says climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century,” says Singer, a medical anthropologist whose research interests include the elimination of health disparities among different populations. “It is not just about polar bears and melting ice caps.”

Because of the heat island effect, cities tend to not only absorb more heat during the day but also retain heat during the night, so city dwellers don’t get a respite from the high temperatures like they might in more rural surroundings. “This can really contribute to health problems,” Singer says. Health concerns can include heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke, and respiratory and cardiac distress.

As temperatures rise, Hartford can expect to encounter hotter days and more frequent heatwaves. In fact, Singer says, it’s already happening. Extended heat waves in Hartford in the summers of 2014 and 2015 prompted city officials to open more than a dozen cooling stations to help residents struggling in the hot weather.

“Climate change is not an issue of the future. It’s started already,” says Singer, who has been working with Hartford’s inner-city Latino community for more than 35 years. “Yet unfortunately, this is not one of the issues that gets communicated.”

There’s a perception that poor people are not going to focus on climate change … But one of our key findings was just to the contrary. — Merrill Singer

In the survey, Hartford residents expressed anxiety and confusion about climate change, and were uncertain about the direct impact it might have on their lives. The residents also expressed a sense of helplessness, believing that climate change was something they could not manage or control. When asked, they said they would like to learn more about climate change and what is being done locally, so they could protect themselves and their families.

As one resident said, “I would really like it if you could make some pamphlets … some information [available] in Spanish, something that could help us all, not just me … what it is and how it is affecting us. I would be very grateful for that for my daughters, and for the generations that are coming behind us.”

Singer says there’s a widespread misconception that people living in poverty are not interested in climate change: “There’s a perception that poor people are not going to focus on climate change, that it is too obtuse, too vague, and perhaps too much to handle with everything else happening in their lives. But one of our key findings was just to the contrary.

“The people we surveyed were very much aware of it and quite concerned about it,” he continues. “They were particularly concerned with how it might affect their children and, as they are getting older, how it might affect themselves.”

Singer conducted the survey with the help of UConn anthropology graduate student Jose Hasemann and UConn senior Abigail Raynor, an honors student and member of the University’s pre-med program. As a second phase of the project, the team is working on ways to raise community awareness about climate change in Hartford, and increase local residents’ participation in discussions about mitigating the problem. The goal, Singer says, is to develop a workable model that other cities can emulate.

“We have found that the best way to reach people about the adverse effects of climate change is through health concerns,” Singer says. “Health is relevant to everybody and, given the threat to health posed by climate change, it is a real concern.”

This holiday season, think twice before gifting video games

Published on Knowridge / December 19, 2016

Giving a child a video game may not be the best idea, according to addiction expert Nancy Petry at UConn Health.

More than 90 percent of children ages 2 to 17 play video games. For most children, it’s just one of their many activities; but for some video gaming can become a problematic, time-consuming, addictive behavior.

“If a child has a problem playing too much video games, parents and family members should really think twice before buying video games,” says Nancy Petry, professor of medicine at UConn School of Medicine who serves as editor of the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. “The last thing you want to do is feed a child’s addiction with more games.”

This holiday season the video game industry is expected to make $13.1 billion in product sales and an additional $35.91 billion in sales of mobile apps and other digital video game downloads and content, according to SuperData Research Inc.

However, Petry says giving one video game as a gift may be okay if your child doesn’t have an issue with too much gaming and participates in a wide variety of social and physical activities with others. But she says parents need to closely monitor their child’s video game use.

More than 36 percent of children play video games every day. The average child plays 1.5 hours a day on the weekend and 30 minutes on a weekday. But some children can develop an addiction when they begin to play for very long hours. Problems start to arise when video game hours start increasing to 12 hours or more per week.

Children with a video game addiction play 3 to 8 hours daily, or even more. In fact, more than 1.5 percent of adolescents develop a full-blown addiction to gaming, while others can develop less severe problems. Boys are at much greater risk than girls because they play electronic games more, especially the types of games that more often lead to problems. Also, children who are more socially isolated, or have depression or attention deficit disorder (ADD) are at greater risk of developing a gaming addiction.

The warning signs parents should be aware of include: new problems at school, such as poor grades, trouble or a decline in social interactions with family and friends, and a reduction in other hobbies they once enjoyed. Covering up how much they are gaming is another sign that things may be going wrong.

To prevent a child’s video gaming or digital screen addiction, Petry urges parents to limit their child’s exposure from the beginning, and to heed the latest advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This fall the AAP updated their guidelines calling for a limit to digital media exposure for children of all ages. For infants up to 18 months, they recommend no digital media exposure for healthy brain development and connections with their parents. The AAP reduced its prior recommendation of no more than two hours in front of the TV or screen for kids ages 2 to 5 to now just one hour per day or less. For those 6 and older, they leave it up to parents to determine and monitor screen time.

Petry urges parents of older children and adolescents to carefully consider appropriate screen time, because kids with clearly defined limits are less likely to develop problems than those without. Parents should also make sure their child, regardless of age, is involved in other activities beyond the screen.

“It’s easier to prevent screen and video game addiction than to break the bad habit once it’s developed,” she says. “It may seem okay to let kids play games, and many parents think gaming is not as bad as drinking or using drugs. While that may be true in many cases, parents really need to be cautious and take action to intervene if gaming becomes all encompassing. For some kids, it can lead to severe problems.”

Petry has launched the first study of its kind nationally at UConn Health to help parents deal with their child’s video game addiction. Compared to standard referrals, the study is testing the benefits of one-on-one counseling with one or both parents, and the child if he or she is willing to participate. The treatment coaches them on how to better understand what gaming addiction is, why their child derives pleasure from the activity, and the best ways to monitor and intervene to reduce their child’s gaming.

“A lot of parents see and worry about their child playing video games too much, but most don’t seek help,” says Petry. But so far the parents in her study have been finding the intervention very helpful, she says, and are learning how to better communicate with their child about video gaming and ways to limit it.

She notes that there are only a few studies in Europe and Southeast Asia actually testing interventions for children with video game addiction. In the U.S., treatment for gaming addiction is not covered by insurance, and in large part that is because the condition is not yet recognized as an official disorder. Petry led efforts to include it as a condition requiring greater research in the latest version of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual on mental disorders. This study will help with classification, and eventually access to treatment.

Petry reminds parents to be a good role model for their child by not overusing digital media or video games themselves.

“Children learn more from their parents than anyone else,” she says. “Parents should aim to limit their own screen time if they don’t want their kids to think it’s okay to always be in front of a screen.”

If you are a parent and worried about how much your child plays video games, you can find out more about participating in the study at 860-989-7105 or by email: anovotny@uchc.edu.

Eyeing Early Detection of Precursor to Blindness

Royce Mohan (seated) and Paola Bargagna-Mohan are part of a team of UConn researchers developing an imaging technique that will signal problems in blood vessels near the eye that could lead to vision loss. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Health Photo)
UConn scientists are working with a biomarker to enable earlier detection of a condition that leads to age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. Royce Mohan (seated) and Paola Bargagna-Mohan are part of a team of UConn researchers developing an imaging technique that will signal problems in blood vessels near the eye that could lead to loss of vision. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Health Photo)

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S., and UConn scientists are working toward a way to enable earlier detection of a condition that leads to it.

Led by Royce Mohan, associate professor of neuroscience at UConn Health, a team of researchers is developing a fluorescent small molecule imaging reagent to help identify preclinical stages of ocular fibrosis, or the growth of blood vessels from the back of the eye into the retina.

The researchers, including Paola Bargagna-Mohan, assistant professor of neuroscience, and Dennis Wright, professor of medicinal chemistry in the UConn School of Pharmacy, believe this biomarker probe could have major treatment implications, as this fibrosis is associated with an aggressive form of age-related macular degeneration – known as wet AMD – that causes rapid vision loss.

“There are drugs that are effective in slowing the growth of the blood vessels in AMD,” says Mohan, “but many patients are diagnosed and identified as candidates for these drugs too late to make a difference.” Through early detection, the researchers hope to help avoid secondary complications associated with ocular fibrosis.

The idea behind their innovative fluorescent small molecule imaging reagent is that it binds to specific intermediate filament proteins. These filament proteins, called vimentin and glial fibrillary acidic protein, are biomarkers of wet AMD, which means they are indicators of cells acting as first responders to stress signals in compromised areas of the retina. The increased presence of vimentin also signals problems with the inner lining of blood vessels.

“Being able to detect the changes in these biomarker proteins can be profoundly important, as one gets a view of early wet AMD from the perspective of both blood vessel growth and glial cell responses that has never before been captured,” Mohan says.

The fluorescence of the imaging reagent makes detection easy, and also localizes to where these events are occurring in the retina.

“Current treatments stop the growth of the blood vessels only while they’re still growing, not after blood vessels become mature,” Mohan says. “If we had the diagnostic means to monitor the earliest stage of wet AMD leading to fibrosis, patients might benefit from therapies.”

In addition to enabling earlier intervention, a reliable method of early detection also would allow doctors to monitor the progress of that intervention and determine its effectiveness before getting to a point of no return. Patients can develop resistance to the treatment, but in most cases, by the time that is realized, they are out of options to save their sight.

“It’s important to be able measure subtle changes,” Mohan says.

Connecticut Innovations recently awarded a $500,000 grant from its Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund to Mohan and his collaborators. The grant is intended to speed the process to commercialization so that the biomarker probe can help patients sooner.

“The work that Dr. Mohan and his colleagues are conducting is a prime example of innovative research from UConn’s labs leading to potential solutions for an urgent, unmet medical need and future economic growth in the state,” says UConn Vice President for Research Jeff Seemann, whose office helped facilitate the grant application.

New Monitor Can Detect Early Signs of Heart Disease

A heart monitoring device that detects irregular heart beat algorithms, using sensors attached to an armband and a phone app. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
A heart monitoring device that detects irregular heart beat algorithms, using sensors attached to an armband and a phone app. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Biomedical engineering professor Ki Chon is developing a new heart monitor to identify the early signs of irregular heartbeat that can be worn throughout the day.

At left Ki Chon, department chair of biomedical engineering, and graduate assistant Yeon Noh, have developed a device that can monitor for an irregular heartbeat for months. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
At left Ki Chon, department chair of biomedical engineering, and graduate assistant Yeon Noh, are developing a device for early detection of an irregular heartbeat. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Chon and his research team are working to create a small armband that can be worn all day, without any wired connection, to monitor for atrial fibrillation over an extended period of time without disrupting a person’s everyday activities. They are also creating a smartphone app that will receive data from the sensors using Bluetooth connections.

An irregular heartbeat can be a warning sign for heart attack, heart failure, and stroke, and early detection can save lives. Atrial fibrillation, the most common type of irregular heartbeat, often begins occurring in sudden, short-lived episodes that don’t have revealing symptoms. The detection technology currently in use makes discovering these early indicator occurrences of atrial fibrillation difficult for a number of reasons, but a company started by the UConn researchers recently received funding to combine different technologies they’d created into a cohesive early detection device.

Mobile Sense Technologies was created by department head of biomedical engineering and Krenicki Endowed Chair professor Ki Chon and his postdocs and graduate students to develop new heart monitors to identify the early signs of atrial fibrillation and other types of irregular heartbeat that can be worn throughout the day. The company recently received $500,000 in startup funding from Connecticut Innovations, and has opened its headquarters in the UConn Technology Incubation Program in Farmington.

“Atrial fibrillation affects millions of people and leads to thousands of preventable deaths each year,” says Chon. “With the device we’re working to bring to market, we’re hoping to make it much easier to identify early stage atrial fibrillation, which could save a lot of lives and hundreds of millions in health care costs.”

There are currently 6 million people in the United States diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, with many more going undiagnosed. Those people are five times more likely to suffer a stroke than patients without atrial fibrillation, and 33 percent will suffer a life-threatening stroke at some point in their lives. There were an estimated 88,000 deaths in 2015 from atrial fibrillation-related strokes, and 80 percent of those deaths are considered to have been preventable.

The armband developed by UConn researchers and sensors that can operate when wet or dry. Used in conjunction with a phone app, the device can monitor for an irregular heartbeat over an extended period. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
The armband developed by UConn researchers, with sensors that can operate when wet or dry. Used in conjunction with a phone app, the device can monitor for an irregular heartbeat over an extended period. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Chon and his team have already developed much of the technology needed to craft their heart monitors. They’ve recently created reusable electrocardiography sensors that can operate when wet or dry, including when fully submerged in water, and don’t cause skin irritation. These sensors can monitor a person’s heartbeat very accurately, and are the key to the armband they’re designing.

The researchers have also created a pair of algorithms that can accurately detect atrial fibrillation and can remove false positives caused by physical activity or other background noise. Chon says the team intends to create a mobile app to implement the detection algorithms from the sensor armband. The combination of the App and sensor armband would allow a person to monitor for an irregular heartbeat for a period of months.

Most of the strategies currently available to monitor for an irregular heartbeat have drawbacks that make them difficult to use for early detection. Electrocardiography machines are sensitive enough to monitor for an irregular heartbeat, but the equipment is bulky and stationary, requiring patients to actually be experiencing an irregular heartbeat at the time they see a doctor. Some of the portable heart monitors that are often used now and are usually designed for around two weeks of monitoring – called Holter monitors – require a wired connection to a monitoring device and use hydrogel-based electrodes, which can irritate the skin. Other devices are implanted under a person’s skin, making for a more invasive and expensive approach that is often used after an irregular heartbeat has been identified.

Chon says he’s optimistic about being able to create a coherent package to monitor for atrial fibrillation at the early stages.

“My team has already done much of the work,” he says. “What we’re doing now is bringing everything together into a coherent package.”

Mobile Sense Technologies Joins UConn Incubator

400 Farmington TIP facility

UConn Technology Incubation Program facility at UConn Health in Farmington. (Photo J. Gelineau)

The University of Connecticut today announced that biomedical device startup Mobile Sense Technologies, Inc. has joined the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP). The company will locate its headquarters in the TIP facility at UConn Health in Farmington.

Mobile Sense Technologies is commercializing the first “off-the-chest” heart monitor developed by Dr. Ki Chon, Professor and Department Head of Biomedical Engineering at UConn. The company already has eight issued patents and 12 more are pending.

The SensBand™ is a totally wireless ECG monitor armband that does not require adhesives or surgery like current diagnostic options. The device provides 24/7 continuous monitoring and detects arrhythmias and the most common form of irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation.

There are over 6 million people suffering from atrial fibrillation in the United States alone. Atrial fibrillation goes undiagnosed in 66% of patients, since most have no symptoms until they experience a stroke or cardiac event. With adequate monitoring, the condition is easily treatable.

“We are thrilled to be joining TIP and to have access to all of the support services the program provides,” said Dr. Chon. “This close collaboration with UConn means we not only gain a physical space for our operations, but we also have access to the University’s top-notch research infrastructure, talented students, knowledgeable business advisors, and a clinical population to test our product.”

Dr. Chon and his team also created a mobile app. The combination of the app and sensor armband allows a person to monitor for an irregular heartbeat, generate real time alerts, and notify the patient’s physician with both current and historical data.

“UConn researchers are tackling some of the most urgent, unmet medical needs of our time,” said Dr. Jeff Seemann, Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health. “The technologies that result from their innovative research can have a real impact, both for the health of our citizens and for economic growth in our state.”

Mobile Sense Technologies has assembled a team of scientific experts and a leading medical device entrepreneur to move the product to market. Dr. David McManus, MD, ScM of UMass Medical School serves as Clinical Director and a co-Inventor, and CEO Justin Chickles, a med tech entrepreneur with 17 years of industry experience, round out the team.

“TIP is an exciting place for us to locate Mobile Sense,” said Mr. Chickles. “The med tech entrepreneur community is very strong and there is a sense of energy and collaborative spirit. We are rapidly advancing our technology towards a commercial prototype and TIP offers the capability of testing and prototyping and gives us access to some incredibly talented people that can help us build the company.”

Mobile Sense Technologies recently received $500,000 through the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund managed by Connecticut Innovations.

“We’re excited to support the advances being made by Mobile Sense Technologies within UConn’s TIP facility,” said Patrick O’Neill, Director of Investments at Connecticut Innovations. “This type of investment through the bioscience fund has the ability to help an early-stage company commercialize their product and become competitive in the marketplace.”

Mobile Sense Technologies joins 27 other startups currently housed at the UConn Technology Incubation Program facility at UConn Health in Farmington. Additional companies are located in Storrs and at Avery Point.  TIP assists UConn startups as well as outside technology ventures from a variety of sectors that have a desire to build relationships at UConn.

Innovative Device Could Offer New Hope for Heart Patients

Chemistry Ph.D. student Islam Mosa holds an ultrathin implantable bioelectronic device he developed that is powered by a novel supercapacitor capable of generating enough power to sustain a cardiac pacemaker. It is more biocompatible and lasts much longer than existing pacemaker batteries. (Photo courtesy Islam Mosa)

Chemistry Ph.D. student Islam Mosa holds an ultrathin implantable bioelectronic device he developed that is powered by a novel supercapacitor capable of generating enough power to sustain a cardiac pacemaker. It is more biocompatible and lasts much longer than existing pacemaker batteries. (Photo courtesy Islam Mosa)

A UConn graduate student is developing a new micro-scale power source that is significantly smaller and more efficient than the batteries currently used in most cardiac pacemakers today.

Working under the tutelage of chemistry professors James Rusling and Challa Kumar, Ph.D. student Islam Mosa is developing an implantable electronic device that draws its power from an ultra-small, ultra-thin supercapacitor.

“Our supercapacitors are thinner than a human hair,” says Mosa, who is pursuing his doctorate in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They are also very stable. They could be designed to power a cardiac pacemaker for the life of the patient.”

Implantable cardiac pacemakers have extended the lives of millions of people since they were first introduced in the late 1950s. But current models are not without their drawbacks. They are powered by bulky batteries that require surgery when their charge weakens, and they need to be replaced. This poses a risk for infection. The batteries’ internal electronic components also can be toxic to the body should they ever leak.

About the size of a postage stamp, Mosa’s power source is bendable and looks like a thin piece of film. In lab tests, the device has also been shown to be non-toxic to living cells. This feature is possible, Mosa says, because the device uses the patient’s own blood serum as an electrolyte rather than draw its power from a potentially toxic lithium-ion battery, which is the preferred power source for most cardiac pacemakers today.

“We charged and discharged the device in a petri dish to see what happened to cell cultures, and surprisingly it had no effect at all,” Mosa says. “Because the supercapacitor components are compatible with the biological environment, even if it leaks, it would have no detrimental effect on the patient.”

The power system’s efficiency allows it to maintain a charge for a long period of time, a feature that could make it suitable for other bioelectronic devices such as implantable neurostimulators, which are used to treat some patients with Parkinson’s disease.

“The loss of capacity over time is very small, which makes these supercapacitors very promising to power biomedical devices over the long term,” says Mosa, who has been working on the device for the past three years.

Exactly how the power system works and how a patient’s biofluids serve as an electrolyte is still proprietary. Mosa and the research team expect more details to be released soon once their research paper is accepted for publication.

Professor Rusling is an expert in bioanalytical chemistry, protein-based cancer diagnostic sensors, and toxicity screening sensors. Professor Kumar is an expert in biological materials. Also participating in the research were UConn chemistry professor Ashis Basu, an expert in molecular biology; Professor Richard Kaner, a distinguished biochemist and polymer expert from UCLA; and Maher El-Kady, a postdoc in the Kaner lab.

While working on his doctoral dissertation, Mosa recently received a top honor for succinctly conveying the core concepts of his supercapacitor research in an international competition sponsored by Universitas 21 (U21), a network of research universities around the globe.

Mosa won the People’s Choice Award for a three-minute video presentation of his doctoral thesis, capturing a record number of online votes. More than 1,000 graduate students from universities as far away as Australia, New Zealand, China, Singapore, South Africa, and the UK competed in the so-called 3MT event this year.

Mosa represented UConn in the U21 international competition after placing first in a contest sponsored by the Department of Chemistry and then winning a campus-wide event in September.

“Islam is a very accomplished young scientist and a powerful communicator,” says Kent Holsinger, UConn’s dean of graduate students and vice provost for graduate education.“His work may improve the lives of thousands who depend on cardiac pacemakers. The 3MT competition helped him develop the skills to describe complex, technical details of his work in language we can all understand, and we are very proud to have him represent UConn in the 2016 U21 competition.”

Mosa says his award-winning presentation wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Rusling, Kumar, and others on the research team.

“180 seconds to tell the story of my thesis research to a broad audience while making each word count was undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges I have had in my graduate career,” he says. “I’m thrilled for all of the skills I have gained through this amazing experience. I encourage all graduate students to participate. It’s a great learning opportunity.”