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October, 2017

Portable Microscope Makes Field Diagnosis Possible

October 30, 2017 – Colin Poitras – UConn Communications

Siddharth Rawat, left, a Ph.D. student, and Bahram Javidi, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, operate a prototype device to examine blood samples for diseases at the Information Technologies Engineering Building (ITE) on Sept. 28, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Siddharth Rawat, left, a Ph.D. student, and Bahram Javidi, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, operate a prototype device to examine blood samples for diseases at the Information Technologies Engineering Building (ITE) on Sept. 28, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A portable holographic field microscope developed by UConn optical engineers could provide medical professionals with a fast and reliable new tool for the identification of diseased cells and other biological specimens.

The device, featured in a recent paper published by Applied Optics, uses the latest in digital camera sensor technology, advanced optical engineering, computational algorithms, and statistical analysis to provide rapid automated identification of diseased cells.

One potential field application for the microscope is helping medical workers identify patients with malaria in remote areas of Africa and Asia where the disease is endemic.

Quick and accurate detection of malaria is critical when it comes to treating patients and preventing outbreaks of the mosquito-borne disease, which infected more than 200 million people worldwide in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Laboratory analysis of a blood sample remains the gold standard for confirming a malaria diagnosis.  Yet access to trained technicians and necessary equipment can be difficult and unreliable in those regions.

Our optical instrument cuts down the time it takes to process this [cell analysis and identification] information from days to minutes.  — Bahram Javidi

The microscope’s potential applications go far beyond the field diagnosis of malaria. The detailed holograms generated by the instrument also can be used in hospitals and other clinical settings for rapid analysis of cell morphology and cell physiology associated with cancer, hepatitis, HIV, sickle cell disease, heart disease, and other illnesses, the developers say.

In checking for the presence of disease, most hospitals currently rely on dedicated laboratories that conduct various tests for cell analysis and identification. But that approach is time consuming, expensive, and labor intensive. It also has to be done by skilled technicians working with the right equipment.

“Our optical instrument cuts down the time it takes to process this information from days to minutes,” says Bahram Javidi, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the microscope’s senior developer. “And people running the tests don’t have to be experts, because the algorithms will determine if a result is positive or negative.”

The research team consulted with hematologists, and the algorithms used with the instrument are able to compare a sample against the known features of healthy cells and the known features of diseased cells in order to make proper identification. “It’s all done very quickly,” Javidi says.

How the Device Works

When it comes to identifying patients with malaria, here’s how the device works: A thin smear from a patient’s blood sample is placed on a glass side, which is put under the microscope for analysis. The sample is exposed to a monochromatic light beam generated by a laser diode or other light source. Special components and optical technologies inside the microscope split the light beam into two beams in order to record a digital hologram of the red blood cells in the sample. An image sensor, such as a digital webcam or cell phone camera, connected to the 3-D microscope captures the hologram.  From there, the captured data can be transferred to a laptop computer or offsite laboratory database via the internet. Loaded with dedicated algorithms, the computer or mobile device hardware reconstructs a 3-D profile of the cell and measures the interaction of light with the cell under inspection. Any diseased cells are identified using computer pattern recognition software and statistical analysis.

Quantitative phase profiles of healthy red blood cells (top row) and malaria infected cells (bottom row). (Image courtesy of Bahram Javidi)
Quantitative phase profiles of healthy red blood cells (top row) and malaria infected cells (bottom row). (Holographic microscope image courtesy of Bahram Javidi)

Red blood cells infected with the malaria-causing Plasmodium parasite exhibit different properties than healthy blood cells when light passes through them, Javidi says.

“Light behaves differently when it passes through a healthy cell compared to when it passes through a diseased cell,” Javidi says. “Today’s advanced sensors can detect those subtle differences, and it is those nanoscale variations that we are able to measure with this microscope.”

Conventional light microscopes only record the projected image intensity of an object, and have limited capability for visualizing the detailed quantitative characterizations of cells. The digital holograms acquired by UConn’s 3-D microscope, on the other hand, capture unique micro and nanoscale structural features of individual cells with great detail and clarity. Those enhanced images allow medical professionals and researchers to measure an individual cell’s thickness, volume, surface, and dry mass, as well as other structural and physiological changes in a cell or groups of cells over time – all of which can assist in disease identification, treatment, and research. For instance, the device could help researchers see whether new drugs impact cells positively or negatively during clinical trials.

The techniques associated with the holographic microscope also are non-invasive, highlighting its potential use for long-term quantitative analysis of living cells.

Conventional methods of testing blood samples for disease frequently involve labeling, which means the sample is treated with a chemical agent to assist with identification. In the case of malaria, red blood cells are usually treated with a Giemsa stain that reacts to proteins produced by malaria-carrying parasites and thus identifies them. But introducing a chemical into a live cell can change its behavior or damage it.

“If you’re doing an in vitro inspection of stem cells, for instance, and you introduce a chemical agent, you risk damaging those cells. And you can’t do that, because you may want to introduce those cells into the human body at some point,” Javidi says. “Our instrument doesn’t rely on labeling, and therefore avoids that problem.”

Ph.D. students Tim O'Connor '17 (ENG), left, Siddharth Rawat, and Adam Markman '11 (ENG) operate a prototype device to examine blood samples for diseases at the Javidi lab in the Information Technologies Engineering Building. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Ph.D. students Tim O’Connor ’17 (ENG), left, Siddharth Rawat, and Adam Markman ’11 (ENG) operate a prototype device to examine blood samples for diseases at the Javidi lab in the Information Technologies Engineering Building. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The holographic microscope was developed in UConn’s new Multidimensional Optical Sensing & Imaging Systems or MOSIS lab, where Javidi serves as director. The MOSIS lab integrates optics, photonics, and computational algorithms and systems to advance the science and engineering of imaging from nano to macro scales.

A comprehensive report on the MOSIS lab’s work with 3-D optical imaging for medical diagnostics was published last year in Proccedings of the IEEE, the top-ranked journal for electrical and electronics engineering. Joining Javidi in this research are graduate students Adam Markman, Siddharth Rawat, Satoru Komatsu, and Tim O’Connor from UConn; and Arun Anand, an applied optics specialist with Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara, India.

The microscope research is supported by Nikon and the National Science Foundation (ECCS 1545687). Students are supported by the U.S. Department of Education, GE, and Canon fellowships. Other sponsors that have supported Javidi’s broader research work and the MOSIS lab over the years include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the U.S. Airforce Research Lab, the U.S. Army, the Office of Naval Research, Samsung, Honeywell, and Lockheed Martin. He has collaborated with colleagues from numerous universities and industries around the world during his time at UConn, including research facilities in Japan, Korea, China, India, Germany, England, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain, among other countries.

Javidi is working with colleagues at UConn Health, including medical oncology and hematology specialist Dr. Biree Andemariam and her staff, for other medical applications. UConn’s tech commercialization office has been involved in discussing potential marketing opportunities for the portable digital microscope. A prototype of the microscope used for initial tests was assembled using 3-D printing technologies, lowering its production costs.

Many Americans Blame Themselves for Weight Stigma

A new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut shows that many individuals who are targets of weight bias also internalize the stigma directed towards them, blaming themselves for the stigma and unfair treatment they experience because of their weight.

It is well known that negative stereotypes and biases against people with obesity are widespread and this weight stigma can be harmful for physical and emotional health. Internalized weight bias has also been linked to concerning health consequences, but little is known about the prevalence of this self-directed stigma – until now.

The study, published today in the journal Obesity, found that internalized weight bias is prevalent among U.S. women and men, with high levels of internalized weight stigma in approximately 1 in 5 adults in the general population and as many as 52 percent of adults with obesity.

“Our findings indicate that internalized weight bias is common in the general population, and present among individuals across a range of body weights. Adults with high levels of weight bias internalization are more likely to be white, have a higher body-mass index, lower education and income, and be actively trying to lose weight,” says Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the UConn Rudd Center, professor of human development and family studies at UConn, and the study’s lead author.

“In addition, people with high levels of internalization had experienced considerable weight stigma in their lives, especially being teased or treated unfairly by others because of their weight,” Puhl says.

The study involves a comprehensive analysis and comparison of internalized weight bias across three groups of American adults: 2,529 adults from a diverse national survey panel; 515 adults from a national online data collection service; and 456 members of the Obesity Action Coalition who have struggled with their weight.

The 3,504 participants completed online surveys between July 2015 and October 2016. In all three samples, participants answered questions about their demographic characteristics, weight status and dieting behavior, and history of experiencing weight stigma. They also answered questions about internalizing weight bias – the extent to which they blame themselves for stigma, apply negative weight-based stereotypes to themselves, and negatively judge themselves due to their body weight.

The key findings of the study include:

  • At least 44 percent of adults across all three samples reported average levels of weight bias internalization.
  • Among adults with the highest levels of weight bias internalization, 72 percent were women, supporting other studies showing an increased vulnerability among women compared to men.
  • 84 percent of adults with a high level of weight bias internalization reported a history of experiencing weight stigma.
  • Blacks and Latinos had lower levels of weight bias internalization compared to Whites.
  • Among adults with a high level of weight bias internalization, 86 percent were currently trying to lose weight, 78 percent reported being teased, and 58 percent reported being treated unfairly because of their weight.
  • In contrast, much smaller percentages of people with low internalization were currently trying to lose weight (21 percent), or reported being teased (17 percent) or treated unfairly (7 percent) because of their weight.

“This study provides an initial foundation to better understand the characteristics of individuals likely to internalize weight bias,” Puhl says. “With so many people vulnerable to self-stigma, there is a clear need to implement strategies to support individuals who not only experience weight stigma but also internalize these negative experiences.”

Support for this research was provided by the Rudd Foundation. Study co-authors include Mary Himmelstein at the UConn Rudd Center and Diane Quinn, professor of psychological sciences at UConn.

‘Health Halo’ Effects of Food Ads Can Mislead Kids

October 27, 2017 – Daniel P. Jones, UConn Rudd Center
A new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut found that children who viewed TV commercials for unhealthy food and drinks that included healthy lifestyle messages rated the products as more healthful compared to children who saw commercials for similar products with a different message.

“Our results confirming ‘health halo’ effects from healthy messages in child-directed advertising for unhealthy food and drinks are cause for public health concern,” says Jennifer Harris, associated professor of allied health sciences, director of marketing initiatives for the UConn Rudd Center, and lead author of the study.

Food and beverage companies claim that healthy lifestyle messages, such as promoting physical activity and good eating habits, in advertising to children teaches them about health and nutrition. But Harris says the study found no evidence that they teach children about good health or nutrition. Instead, she says, the practice likely benefits food companies by making unhealthy products seem healthier to children.

The new randomized controlled study, conducted from August 2015 to March 2016, involved 138 children ages 7 to 11. The participants viewed three child-friendly TV commercials in one of three conditions: ads for unfamiliar nutrient-poor food and drinks (including sweet snacks and a fruit-flavored drink) with healthy messages (health halo); ads for similar nutrient-poor food and drinks with other messages; and ads for healthy food and drinks. After viewing, the children rated the commercials and advertised products, provided attitudes about exercise and nutrition, and consumed and rated healthy and unhealthy snack foods.

The study was published today in Pediatric Obesity.

Key findings include:

Children who viewed the health halo commercials rated the products in these ads as significantly healthier overall than children who saw the other commercials.
Children believed that their parent would buy 1.1 of the advertised products with the health halo messages versus 0.4 products in the unhealthy food ads with another message category.
There was no evidence that health halo messages positively affected children’s health-related attitudes. Nearly all children agreed it is important to eat fruits and vegetables and to exercise every day.
The commercials did not affect children’s ratings of how much they liked the healthy or unhealthy snacks offered.

“Our findings support existing literature that failed to provide evidence that these health-promoting messages positively affect children’s health-related attitudes or eating behaviors, and that such messages mislead children about the healthfulness of the products advertised” Harris said. “Such practices should be discouraged, including through industry self-regulatory programs.”

Support for this research was provided by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Report co-authors include Karen Haraghey and Nicole Semenza of the UConn Rudd Center, and Megan LoDolce of Yale University.

New 3-D Fabrication Technique Could Deliver Multiple Doses of Vaccine in One Shot

Engineering researcher Thanh Nguyen holds a slide loaded with microparticles just a few hundred microns in size that are shaped into thousands of silicone molds using a new 3-D fabrication technique. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Engineering researcher Thanh Nguyen holds a slide loaded with microparticles just a few hundred microns in size that are shaped into thousands of silicone molds using a new 3-D fabrication technique. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

A new 3-D fabrication technique invented by a UConn engineering professor could provide a safe and convenient way to deliver multiple doses of a drug over an extended period of time with a single injection.

Professor Thanh Nguyen, left, speaks with Khanh Tran, a Ph.D. student, about a novel additive manufacturing process he invented that can deliver multiple doses of a vaccine at specific time intervals with just one injection. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
Professor Thanh Nguyen, left, speaks with Khanh Tran, a Ph.D. student, about a novel additive manufacturing process he invented that can deliver multiple doses of a vaccine at specific time intervals with just one injection. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Other 3-D printing techniques have been limited for such applications because they rely on printable inks that are potentially toxic to the human body.

But UConn assistant professor of mechanical engineering Thanh Nguyen circumvented those obstacles by adopting an additive manufacturing technique commonly used for the manufacture of computer chips.

The technique, which Nguyen calls SEAL (StampED Assembly of polymer Layers), can create hundreds of thousands of drug-carrying microparticles made of a biocompatible, FDA-approved polymer currently used for surgical sutures, implants, and prosthetic devices.

During the process, the polymer, PLGA, is shaped into a drug-carrying micro-shell designed to degrade and release its contents over an extended period, ranging from a few days to a few months. This allows for a drug’s release into the body in bursts, similar to what happens when a patient receives multiple injections over time.

Electronmicroscope images illustrating the 3-D manufacturing technique. (Courtesy of Thanh Nguyen)
Electronmicroscope images illustrating the 3-D manufacturing technique. (Courtesy of Thanh Nguyen)

“This application could enable the creation of a new set of single-injection vaccines or drugs, which will help avoid the repetitive, painful, expensive, and inconvenient injections often required to administer drugs like growth hormones and pain medicine,” says Nguyen, who invented the technique as a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Robert Langer’s lab at MIT. Nguyen recently left MIT and is a new addition to UConn’s mechanical, biomedical, and regenerative engineering research teams.

Details of the novel technique appear online in the Sept. 14 issue of Science. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, and Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, are the senior authors of the paper. Nguyen is a lead author along with Kevin McHugh, another postdoc in Langer’s lab.

“We are very excited about this work because, for the first time, we can create a library of tiny, encased vaccine particles, each programmed to release at a precise, predictable time, so that people could potentially receive a single injection that, in effect, would have multiple boosters already built into it,” says Langer. “This could have a significant impact on patients everywhere, especially in the developing world where patient compliance is particularly poor.”

Langer’s lab began working on the new drug delivery particles as part of a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was seeking a way to deliver multiple doses of a vaccine over a specified period of time with just one injection. That could allow babies in developing nations, who might not see a doctor very often, to get one injection after birth that would deliver all of the vaccines they would need during the first one or two years of life.

An Unconventional Route

Langer had previously developed polymer particles with drugs embedded throughout, allowing them to be gradually released over time. However, for this project, the researchers wanted to come up with a way to deliver short bursts of a drug at specific time intervals, to mimic the way a series of vaccines would be given.

Traditionally, researchers have focused on chemical processes for the sustained release of drugs. But those processes are limited when it comes to developing microcapsules capable of releasing drugs in short, targeted bursts.

With extensive experience in nanotechnology and microelectronics, Nguyen thought he could apply an electromechanical process called photolithography, similar to what is used to make computer chips, to create the core-shell microparticles the lab was searching for.

In the SEAL method, particles just a few hundred microns in size are shaped in thousands of silicon molds that sit on a glass slide and look like tiny coffee cups. Nguyen and the research team developed a custom-built dispensing system capable of loading the hollow of each “cup” with a particular drug or vaccine. Separate polymer “lids” are created and fitted on each cup using a novel assembling device, also designed by Nguyen for the SEAL process. A slight amount of heat is applied to seal the lid once the drug is inside.

Nguyen said his lab mates were skeptical of his idea at first, but Langer encouraged him to proceed.

“Although I invented and developed the SEAL method, the achievement was made possible through teamwork from a great group of researchers,” says Nguyen. “Professor Langer encouraged me to pursue an unconventional route to manufacturing drug particles. He also inspired me to develop the method further as a platform technology comparable to 3-D printing.”

MIT research scientist Jaklenec says applications for the new fabrication process go beyond drug delivery.

“Part of the novelty is really in how we align and seal the layers,” she says. “In doing so, we developed a new method that can make structures which current 3-D printing methods cannot. This new method can be used with any thermoplastic material and allows for fabrication of microstructures with complex geometries that could have broad applications, including injectable pulsatile drug delivery, pH sensors, and 3-D microfluidic devices.”

Leon Bellan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research, says the approach offers an impressive level of control for constructing 3-D microparticles.

“It’s a new take on a 3-D printing process, and an elegant solution to building macroscopic 3-D structures out of materials that are relevant for biomedical applications,” he says.

Timed Release

The molecular weight of the PLGA polymer and the structure of the polymer molecules’ “backbone” determine how fast the particles will degrade after injection. The degradation rate determines when the drug will be released. By injecting many particles that degrade at different rates, the researchers can generate a strong burst of a drug or vaccine at predetermined time points.

“In the developing world, that might be the difference between not getting vaccinated and receiving all of your vaccines in one shot,” McHugh says.

In mice, the researchers showed that particles were released in sharp bursts, without prior leakage, at 9, 20, and 41 days after injection. They then tested particles filled with ovalbumin, a protein found in egg whites that is commonly used to experimentally stimulate an immune response. Using a combination of particles that released ovalbumin at 9 and 41 days after injection, they found that a single injection of these particles was able to induce a strong immune response that was comparable to that provoked by two conventional injections with double the dose.

The researchers have also designed particles that can degrade and release hundreds of days after injection. One challenge to developing long-term vaccines based on such particles, the researchers say, is making sure that the encapsulated drug or vaccine remains stable at body temperature for a long period before being released. They are now testing these delivery particles with a variety of drugs, including existing vaccines, such as inactivated polio vaccine, and new vaccines that are still in development. They are also working on strategies to stabilize the vaccines.

“The SEAL technique could provide a new platform that can create nearly any tiny, fillable object with nearly any material, which could provide unprecedented opportunities in manufacturing in medicine and other areas,” Langer says. These particles could also be useful for delivering drugs that have to be given on a regular basis, such as allergy shots, to minimize the number of injections.

Other authors on the paper are Allison Linehan, David Yang, Adam Behrens, Sviatlana Rose, Zachary Tochka, Stephanie Tzeng, James Norman, Aaron Anselmo, Xian Xu, Stephanie Tomasic, Matthew Taylor, Jennifer Lu, and Rohiverth Guarecuco.

This work was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation OPP 1095790. Fellowship support for Kevin J. McHugh was provided by the NIH under Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (F32EB022416), and for Thanh D. Nguyen by the Max Planck Society and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

If You Slash the Price, They Will Come

October 24, 2017 – Claire Hall

Joseph Pancras, associate professor of marketing, used data on customer traffic, sales per transaction, and profit margin for a total of almost 14,000 transactions over a period of 49 weeks. (Nathan Oldham/UConn Photo)

Joseph Pancras, associate professor of marketing, used data on customer traffic, sales per transaction, and profit margin for a total of almost 14,000 transactions over a period of 49 weeks. (Nathan Oldham/UConn Photo)

If you want to increase grocery store sales, offer a discount on beer. And then place a tempting display of salty snacks right next to it – at full price.

That’s some of the well-researched advice that UConn associate professor of marketing Joseph Pancras and his colleagues offer grocery store executives in an article published in the September 2017 edition of the Journal of Retailing.

Beer drinkers, it seems, rarely leave the grocery store without purchasing a salty snack or two, so a discount on beer will result in a significant boost in snack sales, more than compensating for the beer discount.

But that’s not the only interesting finding. Sales on staple items (brand name, high frequency, commonly purchased items) such as milk, bread and soft drinks, often lure customers to different grocery stores in hopes of saving money. Many times people will apply that savings to the purchase of other items, leading to fuller baskets and bigger sales.

“The truth is that grocery stores are very competitive and operate on low margins, vying for customers among many players,” Pancras said.

Consumers typically go to the store closest to home, usually in a three-mile radius. To attract more customers, grocers must incentivize them.

“Most people will travel farther if they think they will save a significant amount of money,” he says. “Sometimes they will ‘trip chain’ grocery trips with toy stores or mall visits, which I am researching currently in a separate study with a colleague.”

Are Deep Discounts a Shopper’s Delight?

Although conventional wisdom has always been that deep discounts will generate additional store traffic, there was little formal evidence to support the idea. Pancras and colleagues Dinesh Gauri of the University of Arkansas, Brian Ratchford of the University of Texas at Dallas, and Debabrata Talukdar of SUNY-Buffalo set out to investigate.

The availability of Big Data has changed what we know about grocery-purchase behavior. — Joseph Pancras

The data for their study, “An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Promotional Discounts on Store Performance,” came from 24 stores in a grocery-store chain in a mid-size metropolitan area in the Northeast. The market is dominated by two regional grocery chains, which account for more than 85 percent of the market share. The grocery chain that supplied the data has the largest share of the local market, has more stores in the area, and tends to have a favorable pricing image.

The researchers collected in-depth data on overall customer traffic, sales per transaction, and profit margin for a total of almost 14,000 transactions over a period of 49 weeks. They also studied the impact of promotions, frequency of purchases, impulse buying, stockpiling, and the sale of store brands.

“This is an important strategic question,” Pancras says. “Even 20 years ago, the data was limited to a few categories, which really restricted what retail scholars could discover. The availability of Big Data has changed what we know about grocery-purchase behavior.

“Our results validate the widespread use of price promotions, supported by feature advertising, that provides beneficial impact on store performance metrics,” he adds.

Which Discounts Motivate Shoppers to Buy?

Through their research, Pancras and his colleagues discovered that discounts on ice cream, soft drinks, bakery products, and snacks are all associated with increases in grocery store traffic, sales, and profit margins. Special promotions on meat create the largest customer draw, with produce, beer, and fresh seafood also attracting significantly more shoppers, the researchers found.

Promotions for less frequently purchased categories such as soup, condiments, salad dressings, water, laundry products, and pasta do not seem to draw a sharp increase in customers, and discounts on these transactions can decrease a store’s profit margin, they discovered.

Stores also need to be wary of attracting large numbers of “cherry pickers,” the ultra-bargain hunters who will come in just to buy the sale items and leave. Serving a disproportionate number of them will damage the store’s profits, he says.

One way to combat that is to feature “impulse buys,” usually a new or unexpected item, which the shopper will add to the cart. These tend to be more profitable for grocers, and increase the customer’s purchase total.

Among their other findings are that people will wait for rock-bottom prices on “storable items” – often canned food – unless their inventory is depleted.

Cutting the prices on store brands also appeared to be an ineffective strategy for grocery stores, he said. Instead, well-known national brands are better candidates for effective retail promotions, because these are typically premium priced and so the promotions are perceived to be more valuable.

The Future of Grocery Shopping

“Grocery store traffic, revenue, and profits are all important retail metrics and will perhaps be even more so in the future,” Pancras says.

The introduction of Walmart Supercenters, which offer extremely low prices every day, and Amazon’s foray into the grocery-delivery business as well as its recent acquisition of Whole Foods, are putting grocers under increased pressure, he notes.

“This is a fascinating field. Ultimately the customer is winning, due to competition,” he says. Grocers are grappling with the idea that busy families want good-quality food, reasonable prices, and a quick way to accomplish their shopping.

Today, Walmart has started implementing “personal shopping,” something that was previously offered only by super luxury retailers, where a store employee selects your grocery items and delivers them to your car at a drive-through; in some areas, it even stocks up a locked refrigerator outside your home. It isn’t far-fetched to consider that this will become even more seamless, and someday a robot will select your groceries for you, says Pancras: “The future of grocery shopping might be much different than what we’re used to now.”

But in the meantime, he acknowledges that not all of his grocery store research is of a professional nature. He, like many people, does have a guilty habit that adds an expense to his family grocery cart.

“Desserts. Very rich desserts,” he says. “But I try not to purchase them often, so when I do, I don’t feel too guilty about it!”

Explosive Research: Eliminating ‘What Ifs?’ in Space Travel

October 23, 2017 – Elaina Hancock – UConn Communications

Artist's rendition of the descent of the Pathfinder lander onto planet Mars. The lander will descend by parachute, and will be protected by airbags which will deflate upon impact. The three petals protecting the lander will open after it lands. In this rendition the petals are partially opened. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

UConn researchers are adapting methods for studying forces in earthly structures for use in spacecraft.

Civil and environmental engineering professor Richard Christenson and his research group, in partnership with Pioneer Aerospace, are using a cyber-physical test method to study the reaction forces involved in launching the parachutes that help spacecrafts land on distant planets. They hope their expertise, hard work, and careful calculations will lead to safer and more efficient missions into space.

Richard Christenson,professor of civil and environmental engineering, right, and Michael Harris '10 (ENG) '13 MENG, a Ph.D. student, attach a mounting ring to a hydraulic ram in the lab at the Castelman Building on Oct. 19, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Richard Christenson,professor of civil and environmental engineering, right, and Michael Harris ’10 (ENG) ’13 MENG, a Ph.D. student, attach a mounting ring to a hydraulic ram in the lab at the Castelman Building on Oct. 19, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Christenson’s group typically studies movement in terrestrial structures, such as bridges and skyscrapers, so it may seem surprising to find a piece of the Mars Pathfinder in his lab. But the same math that’s involved in vibrations within a structure on earth apply to those within a spacecraft.

“We’ve developed very specific techniques here at UConn,” says Christenson. “We have the right equipment, the right computers, and the knowledge to carry out this type of project.”

Simply landing safely on a planet after many months of travel through space involves a lot of potentially jarring forces. In the case of a rover such as the Pathfinder, when the spacecraft has reached its destination planet, it must enter the atmosphere and land safely. Parachutes slow the rover’s descent, and also orient the craft so the heat shield is positioned properly.

The parachute deceleration subsystem, as it is formally known, deploys by using a mortar that creates a controlled explosion and shoots the parachute out behind the spacecraft. However, the force that launches the parachute is also exerted on the spacecraft itself, and the resulting reaction of the spacecraft may change the profile of the force being produced.

This process introduces an element of uncertainty because the force has the potential to knock something within the spacecraft loose, say a control panel or other delicate instrumentation. And, if something vital becomes loose, that could mean the end of the mission.

In an effort to eliminate some of the many “what ifs” involved in space travel, the UConn group teamed up with Pioneer Aerospace to test the parachute system.

“As far as we know, this is the first real-time hybrid simulation taking place with spacecraft,” says Christenson.

In the past, these parachute systems have been tested while mounted to fixed, unmovable objects. The mortar would be fired and measurements taken. What Christenson and Ph.D. student Michael Harris are doing is more dynamic. The mortar will be fixed to a huge piece of equipment called a hydraulic actuator that is capable of very precise, high-speed movements that mimic the spacecraft. As the reaction force is measured from the parachute mortar, the actuator represents the flexibility that’s present in the spacecraft hull.

“We can tell the actuator to move as if it was the spacecraft,” says Harris. “Based on certain force inputs, the actuator will move so much, and we will measure what happens in response.”

The mortar blasts will be quick, lasting just 30 milliseconds. The researchers plan to make four highly controlled shots. For each one, measurements will be taken and applied to a computer model of the spacecraft, so that position adjustments can be made as the mortar is fired. The energy of the blast has to go somewhere within the spacecraft, and the model will reveal that information, so the researchers can determine the forces imparted on specific points all over the spacecraft resulting from deployment of the parachute.

Another valuable application for this model involves the weight of the spacecraft. Once the reaction forces can be accurately calculated in the model, the researchers may be able to pinpoint areas of over-design. Efficiency in weight can mean fuel savings and more room for equipment and experiments on board.

Before any of this can happen, the huge actuator must be mounted onto a load frame composed of large steel girders stretching several feet overhead using a large crane inside the lab. The load frame girders are studded with bolts, each with a smattering of orange goo that indicates they have been tightened to the proper tension — all 120 of them. Opposite the load frame, the crane will suspend a massive steel plate, so that nothing is shot out of the room at the time of the blast.

If all goes to plan, this set-up will be a proof of concept demonstrating that a laboratory test of this kind can be applied to shock cases in aerospace engineering. In the future, similar technology may be applied to newer spacecraft designs.

The project is an exciting one for the group. After all, how many people can say they’ve held an object that came close to being shot into space?

“This was so close to going to Mars, they only make a few,” says Christenson, as he examines the hefty metal component of the Mars Pathfinder parachute system. “I wonder why they didn’t choose this one?”

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


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.

New Podcast Goes “Inside UConn TIP”


UConn’s technology incubation facility at 400 Farmington Ave. on the UConn Health campus might not look all that special from the outside. At first glance, it seems like a typical university building, with attractive landscaping, picnic tables, and ample parking. But venture inside and you’ll find teams of entrepreneurs, faculty, and students working on groundbreaking technologies in a variety of fields. From retinal implants to cure blindness, technologies that leverage the human microbiome, and stem cells to correct hearing loss, there’s a lot going on inside UConn TIP. Want to learn more about these amazing technologies and the high-potential startup businesses developing them? Subscribe to our new podcast, Inside UConn TIP.

The podcast is a production of Podstories, a startup founded by recent UConn grad, Ali Oshinskie ’17. Oshinskie is an unlikely entrepreneur. As an English major with a background in theater, she already knew how to tell a compelling story. Right after graduation, she turned that skill into a business when she launched her startup, Podstories.

Oshinskie is a self-taught podcaster, and several of her projects have focused on her alma mater. She produced her first series, Professors are People Too, to learn more about the faculty shaping the learning experience for thousands of UConn students. Now she’s telling stories for researchers and startups in “Inside UConn TIP.”  According to Oshinskie, Connecticut has a lot to offer young entrepreneurs like herself and those in UConn’s TIP program who might think of seeking opportunities elsewhere after graduation. “In Connecticut, it can be both a place where ideas are growing and I’m growing. That seems like a cool marriage, right?”

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


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


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.

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