Tech Innovations at Pitt

Posted on October 16, 2011 by

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I kicked off several days of free food and receptions at Science 2011 by mooching around the Pitt Technology Showcase. I know from previous experience that this is the only event in the line-up that includes savory cheescake and olive tapenade, so I wasn’t going to miss it.  However, this was the first time I’d had a motivation to chat with all the innovators and would-be entrepreneurs, and I had a ball!  I thought I’d write up some brief descriptions of a few of the projects I saw. Bear in mind that I am not an expert in any of these fields, so I’m not endorsing these projects – just sharing my cheescake-punctuated conversations with the innovators.

Photo kindly provided by the Red Panda


Look into my eyes

If you suffer from a mood or anxiety disorder and you seek the best medical help, your treatment has about a 50% chance of being successful. But to predict which patients are most likely to respond to cognitive therapy, Dr Greg Siegle at the Department of Psychiatry only needs to look into their eyes. With a camera that records the dilation of their pupils, that is. He says that the way that a patient’s pupils dilate in response to negative words is an excellent predictor of whether cognitive therapy will be helpful to them (I think the word they showed me was the ever-cheerful ‘Morgue’). Apparently, pupil dilation is closely associated with emotional responses, and with the areas of the brain that influence depression.

Because the technology required to record pupil dilation is minimal (they are trying to develop the method for use with webcams), this could be a cheap and convenient pre-prescription test to take some of the guesswork out of mental health interventions.

Diagnosing infectious disease on a shoestring (and a smart phone)

Raghav Khanna, PhD candidate at the Swanson School of Engineering does not win my award for most beautiful device. His innovation, created with Dr William Stanchina, also of Engineering, and Dr Abhay Vats, from the Children’s Hospital, is a small but sturdy-looking black box, adorned with a few switches.

But the true beauty of the box is that it can run DNA diagnostic tests, like those used to detect certain pathogens, in low resource or remote settings. It is portable, uses low power, and is made from off-the-shelf components, which keeps its initial manufacture cost low. For the benefit of the biotech geeks, I can tell you that it uses isothermal amplification as a low-tech-friendly substitute for PCR, and fluorescent dyes to monitor amplification.

The test results are displayed and stored on a cell phone, and for that extra cute touch, the box has been named a ‘Portable Optoelectronic Detection Device,’ or PODD.

Back to the Future flu vaccines

Dr Ted Ross at Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research told me about a method to improve vaccines. The flu kills several hundred thousands of people every year, up to several million in a pandemic year. One of the reasons that vaccination programs struggle to keep up is because the flu virus evolves so rapidly. Several different strains of flu virus circulate each year, and these strains can exchange genes with each other, and with some animal flu viruses. This random shuffling of genes results in the regular emergence of new virus strains. To provide enough protection against all this complexity, a new vaccine must be developed every year. This annual formulation is a combination of vaccines that target the three flu strains predicted to be the most common that year.

Ross and his colleagues have developed a vaccine design method (with another cute acronym), called Computationally Optimized Broadly Reactive Antigen, or COBRA. The method helps to produce vaccines that are active against a broad range of virus strains. Ross says that they might be able to produce flu vaccines that work for longer than a single year by targeting as many flu strains as possible, even those that don’t exist yet. Hold onto your DeLoreans.

They have tested the COBRA approach by producing a bird flu vaccine that has shown promising results in rodent tests. The vaccine is delivered by ‘virus-like particles,’ which look like viruses to the immune system, but can’t become infectious because they don’t contain the virus genome.

Using nanotechnology to max out the efficiency of solar panels

Dr Hong Koo Kim of the Swanson School of Engineering was very patient while trying to help me understand exactly how his nanoscale coating improves solar panel efficiency. The only reason he didn’t make much progress is that my knowledge of semiconductors and nanoarrays is not much better than an enthusiastic labrador retriever’s. This would be a good time to point out that Steel City Science would love to hear from volunteers that can write about the physical sciences and engineering in a less ignorant way!  Anyway, I did at least manage to understand how much of an improvement this technology could make to solar cell efficiency.

The coating bends light ‘backwards’ (i.e. it has negative refraction), allowing more efficient harvesting of light, even at low angles. Solar panels are usually only efficient in direct sunlight, which is why many need devices that adjust the angle of the panel over the course of the day. He predicts that the application of this coating to existing solar technology could improve its efficiency to somewhere close to the theoretical maximum (around 30%).

I didn’t have time to chat to everyone with an interesting project that night, and there were plenty more that caught my eye, like biodegradable metal screws for surgery, a social game to promote organ and tissue donation, and tactile feedback tools for microsurgery and minimally-invasive surgery. Maybe I’ll be more efficient next year if I avoid getting distracted by the free food.

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Posted in: Pittsburgh Life