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NIH awards UConn, JAX, CCMC $1.9M grant to study regulation of tissue aging

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Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Acclaimed UConn Health/JAX geneticist, Dr. Se-Jin Lee, was recently awarded over $1.9 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a four-year research project, “TGF-beta family members and their binding proteins in aging skeletal muscle” (1R01AG052962-01A1). Dr. Emily Germain-Lee from UConn Health/Connecticut Children’s Medical Center will serve as Co-PI on the project.

In recent years, there has been considerable interest in the possible role that members of the transforming growth factor-beta family may play in regulating tissue aging and the possibility that manipulating their levels of signaling may be a new therapeutic strategy to combat tissue dysfunction in the elderly. Much of this interest has focused on two highly related signaling molecules, myostatin (MSTN, GDF-8) and GDF-11, both of which were originally identified by Dr. Lee’s laboratory many years ago.

Some studies indicate that GDF-11 levels decrease as a function of age, and that systemic administration of the purified protein can reverse age-related tissue dysfunction in the heart, skeletal muscle, and nervous systems. Other studies report the opposite, and suggest that GDF-11 levels do not decrease with age and that administration of the protein has detrimental effects on muscle regeneration. With this project, Dr. Lee and his team respond to these contradictory findings about the signaling molecules, and aim to elucidate their roles in the regulation of adult tissue homeostasis.

The overarching goal of the NIH funded study is to determine once and for all how these TGF-beta family members and their binding proteins affect tissue aging. With a firm understanding, the team hopes to better inform the development of effective therapeutic strategies for manipulating the activities of these molecules for clinical applications in the elderly.

Dr. Lee’s breakthrough research has been critical to increasing knowledge about muscle degenerative and wasting conditions such as muscular dystrophy (a genetic disease causing muscle weakening or loss), sarcopenia (muscle loss due to the aging process) and cachexia (unexplained weight loss or wasting syndrome) resulting from diseases like cancer and sepsis.

Dr. Lee joined UConn Health and JAX in August of 2017 from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is the third joint faculty member appointed by UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, both located in Farmington, Conn.

UConn Health/JAX faculty wins $2.7M grant to develop better tools for biomedical modeling

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Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

UConn Health/JAX faculty member, Dr. Reinhard Laubenbacher, has been awarded over $2.7 million over the next four years from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for “Modular design of multiscale models, with an application to the innate immune response to fungal respiratory pathogens” (1U01EB024501-01). The project aims to develop a novel modular approach to model architecture to improve the usability of multiscale mathematical models. Such tools have emerged as essential tools in the life sciences, especially biomedicine.

Biomedical data sets have become more available and can capture integrated processes from the molecular to the whole organism level. However their complexity poses many challenges to critical functions like mathematical modeling, software design, and validation, which can hinder their benefit to researchers and clinicians.

The NIH funded project is a collaboration between Dr. Laubenbacher, Dr. Borna Mehrad from the University of Florida, and Albany-based software company, Kitware.  Dr. Mehrad will work closely with the UConn/JAX researcher and will provide experimental data for the project. Kitware will develop software for visualization and data analytics components of the team’s model.

While Laubenbacher and his colleagues are confident the technology will be broadly applicable, they plan to focus this early work on the development of a multiscale model that captures the early stages of aspergillosis, an invasive fungal infection. According to the CDC, although it is uncommon, invasive aspergillosis is a serious infection and can be a major cause of mortality in immunocompromised patients.

In contrast to current therapeutic approaches that focus primarily on the aspergillosis pathogen, this project aims to gain a better understanding of how components of the patients’ immune systems respond to infection, which they hope will lead to the development of more effective treatments.

Dr. Laubenbacher was the first joint faculty member hired at UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in May 2013 as Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Quantitative Medicine (UConn Health) and Professor of Computational Biology (JAX).

Other current interests in Dr. Laubenbacher’s research group include the development of mathematical algorithms and their application to problems in systems biology, in particular the modeling and simulation of molecular networks. An application area of particular interest is cancer systems biology, especially the role of iron metabolism in breast cancer.

UConn spinout wins CT Bioscience Innovation Fund investment award for retinal implant

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Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

LambdaVision, the UConn spinout, today announced that it was awarded $500,000 in Series A Equity from Connecticut Innovations, the leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative, growing companies, through the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF).

Led by Co-Founder and CEO, Nicole Wagner, PhD, LambdaVision is developing a retinal implant to cure vision impairment and blindness for more than 30 million people worldwide. Using a protein grown in the laboratory and implanted behind the retina, this promising new procedure offers hope for patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and other retinal diseases. The protein is in pre-clinical trials across the country to determine the stability and efficacy of the implant.

LambdaVision’s novel implant can restore high-quality vision to those patients who are no longer candidates for traditional treatments and have end-stage retinal degeneration. Current treatments only succeed in slowing the progression of disease.

LambdaVision was founded through support from UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services in 2009. Dr. Robert R. Birge, distinguished professor of chemistry at UConn, led a research group that included Wagner.

“LambdaVision has been incredibly fortunate to have the continued support of UConn and the State of Connecticut, and we owe much of our success to the incredible mentors that have helped us to propel the research and development and commercialization of the technology,’’ Wagner said. “In the early stages of development, they were the believers.’’

The Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF) is a $200 million fund that makes investments in biotechnology. The new funding from CBIF will support continued R&D and expansion of the LambdaVision team in order to bring on more critical expertise for commercialization. To date, LambdaVision has secured $2.4 million in funding from state and federal sources.

“This university spinout is a prime example of the value UConn’s researchers provide for the state’s citizens and economy,” said Radenka Maric, Ph.D., UConn’s vice president for research. “We are thrilled to support these high-potential startups to propel UConn technologies from the lab to the clinic where they can have life-changing impacts for patients.”

LambdaVision is currently located in UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington, CT.

 

About UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP)
UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) is the only university-based technology business incubation program in Connecticut. Established in 2004, TIP couples UConn’s world-class research resources, facilities, and business support services with a network of experienced investors and entrepreneurs to help launch high-potential startups. Since 2004, the program has helped over 90 companies that have raised more than $50 million in grants and $135 million in equity and debt.  tip.uconn.edu

About Connecticut Innovations Inc.
Connecticut Innovations is Connecticut’s strategic venture capital arm, providing funding and strategic support to early-stage technology companies. In addition to equity investments, CI provides grants that support innovation and collaboration through CTNext, and connections to its well-established network of partners and professionals. To learn more, visit www.ctinnovations.com.

UConn TIP startup, Bioarray Genetics, Receives $4M in Series B Equity Financing

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Bioarray Genetics, a personalized medicine startup, announced today that it has received $4 million in Series B Equity Financing from Quark Venture and GF Securities through their Global Health Science Fund and Connecticut Innovations.

Bioarray, a personalized medicine startup housed at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington, is a molecular diagnostics company developing predictive cancer treatment test technology. The platform, consisting of unique genes and proprietary algorithms, provides patient-specific information to determine the optimal course of treatment.
Bioarray will use this funding to bring their first product, BA100, to clinicians and conduct R&D on other tests in the company’s pipeline, including those focused on treatments for metastatic breast and colon cancers.

“Bioarray’s unique approach to developing a diagnostic test is an excellent example of how genomics is advancing personalized medicine. BA100 has the potential to impact oncology care, in the very short term, by sparing patients exposure to ineffective chemotherapy and unnecessary toxicity. Bioarray’s clinically validated tests are unique; there is nothing else on the market that addresses this need,” said Karimah Es Sabar, Chief Executive Officer of Quark Venture and Director of GHS Fund.

BA100 is a breast cancer diagnostic test that provides actionable information about patient response to the standard of care chemotherapy treatment. BA100 is able to identify the population of triple negative breast cancer patients that have the worst survival rates and would benefit from more aggressive treatment. Bioarray’s test isolates RNA biomarkers from the initial tumor biopsy, and in combination with the company’s proprietary algorithms, can predict the patient’s response prior to treatment.

Currently, this test is intended for patients with stage 1, 2, and 3 non-metastatic breast cancer, and is administered immediately after diagnosis before the doctor decides on the patient’s treatment plan.

“We invested in Bioarray at the earliest stages of company development,” said Pauline Murphy, senior managing director of investments at Connecticut Innovations. “We’re excited to see the company progress to this stage and we look forward to their continued success in the future.”

According to Bioarray’s CEO and Founder, Marcia Fournier, this funding provides the startup with critical support to continue development of a technology that reduces healthcare costs and improves patients’ quality of life.
“This new funding enables Bioarray to fulfill our mission to eliminate the trial and error approach in the treatment of cancer patients. We are excited about our growth and the ability to expand our team with diversified skills and expertise,” said Fournier.

Originally based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bioarray chose to locate their startup in Connecticut because of the vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem and robust state investment in bioscience, according to Fournier. She credits UConn’s Technology Incubation Program with allowing her to transition from a virtual company.

“UConn is committed to supporting growing technology startups that will help continue to position Connecticut as a hub for bioscience,” said Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research. “From world-class faculty experts to state-of-the-art facilities to our proximity to The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine—UConn has a tremendous amount to offer these companies.”

Bioarray plans to explore other applications for their platform technology, which could serve as a valuable tool for pharmaceutical companies in the drug research and development process. The technology provides novel insight into the mechanism of response and interconnected cellular pathways and could be used to stratify patients in clinical trials, as well as develop companion diagnostics to improve the response rate to specific treatments.

About Global Health Science Fund
Global Health Science Fund was jointly established by Quark Venture Inc. and GF Securities in late 2016. Global Health Science Fund is a health sciences venture fund that invests globally in a diversified portfolio of innovative biotechnology and health sciences companies who are addressing unmet medical needs through innovations in drug development, medical devices, health IT and emerging convergent technologies.

About Connecticut Innovations
Connecticut Innovations (CI) is the leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative, growing companies. To maximize each business’ growth potential, CI tailors its solutions and often combines its funds with resources from other financial leaders to provide venture capital and strategic support for early-stage technology companies; grants that support innovation and collaboration; and connections to its well-established network of partners and professionals. For more information, please visit http://www.ctinnovations.com.

About UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP)
UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) is the only university-based technology business incubation program in Connecticut. Established in 2004, TIP couples UConn’s world-class research resources, facilities, and business support services with a network of experienced investors and entrepreneurs to help launch high-potential startups. Since 2004, the program has helped over 90 companies that have raised more than $50 million in grants and $135 million in equity and debt. https://tip.uconn.edu/

UConn Health Researchers Visualize a Life in Silico

October 3, 2017 – Kim Krieger – UConn Communications

Researchers at UConn Health have just released a new version of the Virtual Cell that allows biologists without strong math or computer programming skills to more easily build models and simulate how a cell functions. (Getty Images)

Researchers at UConn Health have just released a new version of the Virtual Cell that allows biologists without strong math or computer programming skills to more easily build models and simulate how a cell functions. (Getty Images)

Programming a molecular biology experiment can be similar to playing Sudoku; both are simple if you’re working with only a few molecules or a small grid, but they explode in complexity as they grow. Now, in a paper published on Oct. 3 in the Biophysical Journal, researchers at UConn Health’s Virtual Cell Project (vcell.org) have made it far easier for cell biologists to build complex biological models.
Leslie Loew

The Virtual Cell, or VCell as it’s known, is a software platform that offers the most comprehensive set of modeling and simulation capabilities for cell biology in the world. It allows biologists without strong math or computer programming skills to build models and simulate how a cell functions. VCell first came online almost 20 years ago, in 1998, and the UConn Health team headed by UConn Health biophysicist Leslie Loew has developed and maintained it since. Using VCell, a biologist can predict what happens when a certain drug encounters a filtration cell in the kidney, for example, or how a hemoglobin molecule in a red blood cell deals with a spike in carbon dioxide.

But until now, a biologist still needed strong programming skills to do detailed cell models at the molecular level, and even more than that, patience. Each molecule involved in a model has a certain number of states, or things it can do and places it can be. Each possible combination of molecules and their states had to be coded out by hand. And as the number of moving parts increases, the number of lines of computer code do, too. If you increase the size of a Sudoku grid to nine by nine, you suddenly have 6.7 sextillion possible scenarios … and you get an idea of the nightmare molecular biologists faced when they tried to code even a slightly complex biological system. The common name for this problem is a “combinatorial explosion,” and the solution to it, called “rule-based modeling,” was developed 12 years ago by VCell team member Michael Blinov and colleagues James Faeder and William Hlavacek, who all worked during that time at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

However, every modeler using rule-based modeling faced a complication. The program detailing interactions among molecules had to be written out in text. In this age of iPhones and computers you can navigate with swipe and click, everyone expects a computer to have a gorgeous graphic interface. Until now, using rule-based modeling wasn’t like that. It looked more like the text command boxes you can call up if you need to navigate the guts of your machine quickly. But it gets tiresome fast, and catching mistakes in thousands of lines of repetitive, almost-but-not-quite-identical code can be maddening. Cell biology models quickly get so unwieldy that only an experienced modeler or programmer can handle them. This sharply limited who could use such modeling.

“Before, only programmers or experienced modelers could create rule-based models to describe details of molecular interactions,” says Loew. “We wanted to make rule-based modeling available to the cell biologists who really need it.”

Loew and the VCell team of Michael Blinov, Ion Moraru, James Schaff, and Dan Vasilescu decided to make things easier. In their new paper, they describe a user interface for VCell that uses colored shapes to represent molecules. The shapes look a bit like colored bricks. Bubbles show binding sites, and lines show links between molecules. The links can also be different colors and shapes to represent different interactions. A simple model describing hemoglobin resembles a map or wiring diagram.

Instead of writing thousands of lines of code, biologists using VCell can now just define their molecules and explain to VCell how they can interact with each other. The biologist doesn’t have to worry about the combinatorial explosion. The computer – all 60 teraflops, 3,000 processors, and 2 petabytes of storage hosted at UConn Health’s Cell and Genome building – handles it.

Loew and Blinov believe the new version of VCell will dramatically expand the number of people who can use rule-based modeling. This is because it allows scientists to use the comprehensive set of simulation methods available in VCell with rule-based models in a single, unified, user-friendly software environment.

Now, a trained biologist should be able to take a day to go through the tutorials on the site and learn enough to figure out how to model a new problem on VCell. Previously, there were about 5,800 active users of VCell globally (you can log in from anywhere that has an internet connection). Those modelers had created 76,600 models and run about 479,000 different simulations on them. These simulations test everything from whether a certain mutation causes cancer to how a new drug might interact with the heart. And with the newly released version of VCell, the number of active users should increase.

So far, VCell hasn’t helped with a Sudoku game. But someone might just write a model for that.

New Lab Opens to Test Human Performance Limits in Heat

September 22, 2017 – Colin Poitras – UConn Communications

Ryan Curtis, KSI associate director of athlete performance and safety, runs on a treadmill at the Mission Heat Lab at the Korey Stringer Institute at Gampel Pavilion on Sept. 21, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Ryan Curtis, KSI associate director of athlete performance and safety, runs on a treadmill at the Mission Heat Lab at the Korey Stringer Institute at Gampel Pavilion on Sept. 21, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute and MISSION have teamed up to open one of the nation’s premier academic heat research labs at the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs.

Outfitted with the latest in climate control technologies and human performance monitoring systems, the MISSION Heat Lab at the Korey Stringer Institute will allow researchers to explore new ways to improve human performance, endurance, and safety in the heat.

“Exertional heat stroke is a constant concern for athletes, active military personnel, laborers, and others who are called on to perform in hot conditions,” says UConn professor Douglas Casa, a national expert on heat stroke and chief executive officer of the Korey Stringer Institute. “This lab will increase our understanding of heat illness and how body temperature impacts performance. It will also help us develop better methods for cooling, which is an important part of our commitment to keeping athletes, warfighters, and laborers safe.”

The partnership between the Korey Stringer Institute and MISSION is a natural one. Named after a Minnesota Vikings lineman who died from exertional heat stroke in 2001, the Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) is one of the nation’s leading sports safety research and advocacy organizations specializing in heat illness research. MISSION is a pioneer in the development of temperature-controlling technologies for athletic and active accessories and gear. Co-founded by some of the world’s greatest athletes including Serena Williams, Dwyane Wade, Carli Lloyd, and David Villa in 2009, MISSION is dedicated to providing athletes, workers, and active individuals at all levels with solutions to maximize performance and optimize safety in the heat.

The MISSION Heat Lab at UConn features a first-of-its-kind cooling area that will allow researchers to monitor how the human body responds to different cooling treatments after experiencing heat-related stress and conditions.

“Rooted in sports and science, MISSION works with professional athletes, scientists, and medical doctors to deliver game-changing temperature-control technologies that enhance performance, safety, and comfort,” says Josh Shaw, founder and CEO of MISSION. “Since 2014, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with the KSI, and we are thrilled to sponsor the new state-of-the-art MISSION Heat Lab. For the next 10 years, the MISSION Heat Lab will set new standards in research, development, and testing to combat heat-related illness for athletes, workers, military, and active individuals – globally. As the market leader for cooling technologies, the new MISSION Heat Lab is yet another testament to our commitment to combatting the dangerous effects on everyone who lives, works, and plays in the heat.”

Located within UConn’s Gampel Pavilion sports arena, the MISSION Heat Lab is capable of creating a broad range of environmental conditions. High-end exercise bikes and treadmills along with advanced temperature controls will allow researchers to mimic specific environments for races, competitions, and events – from a hilly 10K New England road race on a cloudy 70 degree day with 40 percent humidity to a stifling hours-long military march in 100 degree heat under hot sun with 90 percent humidity. Radiant heat panels being installed later this year will further enhance lab simulations.

A full suite of continuous physiological monitoring systems will capture a test subject’s heart rate, internal temperature, skin temperature, and other vital signs hundreds of times per second. The test chamber also includes restroom facilities and resting areas designed to allow test subjects to remain in a designated environment for hours at a time without the need for outside breaks that might skew data regarding how their body is reacting to conditions.

Private donations supported the lab’s creation. One of those donors was Carole Knighton, whose son Hunter nearly died of exertional heat stroke during a 2014 football practice at the University of Miami. Hunter, whose body temperature was reportedly 109 degrees when he collapsed, spent two weeks on a ventilator in a medically induced coma, but ultimately survived the ordeal.

“This is a cause that is near and dear to my heart,” says Knighton, who lives in Fort Myers, Florida. “If it were not for the Korey Stringer Institute, my son would not be where he is today.”

With a desire to return to football, Hunter, now 23, visited the Korey Stringer Institute on several occasions to have his heat tolerance tested. In the process, he and his family learned a lot about heat illness and how it can be avoided. Winner of the 2015 Brian Piccolo Award for being the ”most courageous” football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hunter now plays for Tulane.

Another donor, Jonny Class of Maryland, shares a similar story. His son, Gavin, suffered an exertional heat stroke during a Towson University football practice in 2013. Like Hunter, Gavin was hospitalized as his liver and other organs began to fail. His heart stopped and he was resuscitated, beginning what was to be a very long road to recovery that included a liver transplant. And like Hunter, Gavin was subsequently tested at the Korey Stringer Institute to make sure his body was ready to return to football.

“With their help, he was able to return to all physical activities and is now able to lead a normal life,” says Jonny Class, Gavin’s father. “The knowledge we learned from KSI was amazing. We have since started a foundation, YOLT (You Only Live Twice) to help raise awareness about heat illness and the importance of organ donation.”

University officials say the new MISSION lab will be a strong addition to UConn’s nationally renowned kinesiology program.

“This new state-of-the art lab will be one of very few such facilities in the U.S., and has some design elements that make it stand alone,” says Cameron Faustman, interim dean for UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, which houses the program. “We are confident it will attract even more research funding, research scholars, and students to our campus. The cost of this initiative has been met with contributions from the University, college, department, private donors, and companies. This speaks not only to the recognized need for the types of research that this facility will support, but also to the confidence that many others have in our faculty members.”

The MISSION Heat Lab will be available for use by outside companies and organizations to maximize research opportunities in heat safety awareness, as well as other areas of temperature-related studies.

Go inside microbiome startup Shoreline Biome in the latest episode of Inside UConn TIP

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.

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 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.