The University of Houston Magazine

Turning Skin Cells into Heart Cells

UH Scientist’s Research a ‘Leap Forward on Our Way to Tier-One’

by Lisa Merkl (’92, M.A. 97)

Robert Schwartz A heart patient’s own skin cells soon could be used to repair damaged cardiac tissue thanks to the pioneering stem cell research of University of Houston biomedical scientist Robert Schwartz.

His new technique for reprogramming human skin cells could one day lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, muscular dystrophy and many other diseases.

Schwartz devised a method for turning ordinary human skin cells into heart cells.

The cells developed are similar to embryonic stem cells and ultimately can be made into early-stage heart cells derived from a patient’s own skin. These then could be implanted and grown into fully developed beating heart cells, reversing the damage caused by previous heart attacks. These new cells would replace the damaged cardiac tissue that weakens the heart’s ability to pump, develops into scar tissue and causes arrhythmias. Early clinical trials could begin within one or two years.

“Professor Schwartz’s work will save lives, and his decision to pursue this pioneering research at UH is a big leap forward on our way to Tier-One status,” says John Bear, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “Together with the many other outstanding scientists we’ve assembled here, Schwartz will help make this university a major player in medical research.”

Schwartz was attracted to the commitment of UH administrators and faculty to making the university a premier center for biomedical research. He brings his groundbreaking research to UH as the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Chair in Biology and head of UH’s new Center for Gene Regulation and Molecular Therapeutics. He also is affiliated with the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, where he is director of stem cell engineering.

Before coming to UH, Schwartz was director of the Institute of Biosciences and Technology, a research component of the Texas A&M Health Science Center. He also was a longtime tenured professor at Baylor College of Medicine and co-directed the school’s Center for Cardiovascular Development.

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Hot or Cold

Researchers Examine Extreme Temperatures and the Body’s Immunities.

by Marisa Ramirez (00)

Biomed Students

The Texas Department of State Health Services estimates that nearly 260 Texas residents succumbed to heat-related illnesses between 1999 and 2004. Researchers at the University of Houston’s Department of Health and Human Performance are using an environmental chamber to investigate ways to identify risk factors of those most susceptible to heat and cold illnesses.

“Houston has a climate that is very prone to extreme amounts of heat, especially in the spring and summer months,” Associate Professor Brian McFarlin says. “Exercising in that environment may have very pronounced effects on the body and not really positive effects.”

The environmental chamber at the department’s Laboratory of Integrated Physiology resembles a giant cooler. At 10-feet-by-10-feet, the wall-to-wall stainless steel room allows the temperature and humidity to be adjusted from 120 to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Subjects’ blood and body temperature are monitored as they work out on stationary bikes. McFarlin says other institutions have environmental chambers, but not many are used to collect data on a problem that has touched the lives of the very elderly and the very young.

“We are interested in developing potential risk factors that can be measured in an individual so that medical personnel can be alerted to those with an increased risk to cold or heat illness,” McFarlin says. “Those are the people you are going to want to watch very closely, and possibly implement aggressive hydration strategies and more monitoring techniques.”

McFarlin says elite athletes who push their bodies for marathons and other competitions place a lot of stress on their bodies, stress that can impact their immune systems for up to 24 hours after their aerobic activity. He says individuals who are recreational athletes can suffer the same immunity suppression by exercising in, or being exposed to, extreme heat or cold.

“When you introduce an extremely hot or cold environment, that adds a whole other level of problem to the situation,” he says. “The most obvious is that your immune system is suppressed and you get a virus. You’ll get sick more easily.”

Researchers have used the environmental chamber for studies and in partnership with corporations, such as biotechnology company Biothera, to investigate how certain supplements can counteract the immune suppression that may follow exercise in extreme temperatures.

“We’re certainly interested in collecting data that we can publish, but we’re also interested in generating data that might be helpful to the larger population,” he says.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Detecting Sleep Apnea Just Got a Little Easier.

by Shawn Lindsey

Diagram of Sleep StudyPatients may soon be able to lose a little less sleep about undergoing the test required to diagnose apnea. A polysomnography, or sleep study, traditionally takes at least 20 sensors attached to the head and body of the patient. These thermistors, especially those around the nose and mouth, can disturb sleep and contribute to a patient’s anxiety during the test.

Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes a person’s breathing to pause during sleep, multiple times within an hour. It affects 9 percent of women and 24 percent of men. An immediate consequence of sleep apnea is sleepiness, which is the leading cause of fatal car accidents. The long-term consequences of sleep apnea include hypertension, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Researchers at the University of Houston and University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHSC at Houston) are unwiring the process of diagnosing sleep apnea and related disorders. Ioannis Pavlidis, Eckhard-Pfeiffer professor in the UH department of computer science, and fellow investigator Jayasimha N. Murthy, M.D., assistant professor of medicine from the Division of Pulmonary Critical Care Sleep Medicine at UTHSC at Houston, have made the significant first steps by using a thermal infrared imaging (TIRI) camera to diagnose sleep apnea, the first noncontact method of diagnosis. The method is capable of extracting breathing waveforms and monitoring airflow from about eight feet away from the patient with no physical probes attached on the nostrils.

“This opens the way for eliminating thermistor probes and freeing the lower part of the patient’s face in sleep studies — a major relief,” says Pavlidis.

Using the TIRI camera, researchers were able to track the patients’ movements of the face and nostrils, creating a virtual probe. The method proved to be as accurate as traditional methods without the contact. Murthy and Pavlidis believe, with more clinical trials, this scientific breakthrough could change the way sleep apnea is diagnosed in sleep labs.

“This is the first step in the development of this technology in airflow monitoring,” says Murthy. “I can foresee future applications for monitoring airflow in newborns and children, as well as situations such as respiratory isolation for contagious disease or traumatic injuries or the face where contact-free methods are the only option.”

Putting the Brakes on Tumors

Researchers Use Auto-Industry Tools for Tumor Therapy.

by Angela Hopp ('00)

Ali KamraniAn engineer at the University of Houston is using technologies with origins in the automobile industry to develop new tools that will help doctors and technicians better plan radiation therapy for patients with head and neck cancer.

Ali Kamrani, founding director of UH’s Design and Free Form Fabrication Laboratory and a former auto industry researcher, has teamed up with Lei Dong, associate professor and deputy research director of radiation physics at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, to develop predictive models of tumors that may increase the accuracy of radiation therapy.

“A CT scan is used to collect information with respect to tumor size, location and volume, but the CT scan itself is a source of harmful radiation to body tissues and other organs,” says Kamrani, associate professor of industrial engineering.

“We aim to better understand tumor deformations using geometric and statistical models — rather than repetitive CT scans,” he says. “In this case, patients will undergo a minimum number of CT scans, and the radiation plans will be developed using the predictive models. Recently, we developed statistical models that allow us to predict the tumor’s geometrical information, both volume and surface, for the entire duration of radiation therapy for any new patient using our existing model.”

Kamrani hopes that, based upon initial CT scan readings, the team will be able to classify tumors and predict through radiation models the various stages of their demise.

“You need that object — that 3-D representation — to make your plan,” Dong says. “This is a real human patient. It’s not just a theory. It’s both.”

Kamrani has a long history with visualization and rapid prototyping, a fabrication technique common in the auto and manufacturing industries. Back in Michigan, Kamrani prototyped valves and cylinders. Today, he’s prototyping bones and organs.

“The concept is the same,” he says. “When I came here, with the Texas Medical Center, it kind of came together. The industry is different here, so I started focusing on a particular problem: trying to create a three-dimensional geometry, going from valves to skulls and things like that.”

Kamrani’s idea of applying the auto prototyping tools to tumor modeling is “novel,” says Dong.

“It can help us solve the problem,” he says. “We’re thinking there is a better, smarter way.”

Modernizing U.S. Power Grid

Superconducting Wires Improve Efficiency and Reliability.

by Melissa Carroll

Venkat and research teamAlthough the U.S. power industry is one of the greatest engineering marvels, aging technology and an increase in demand are creating problems for the power grid — cables, transformers, motors, generators — that need to be fixed.

Venkat Selvamanickam (M.S. ’88, Ph.D. ’92), director of the Applied Research Hub and the M.D. Anderson Distinguished Professor in Mechanical Engineering, is developing a technology with high temperature superconducting wires that is revolutionizing the way power is generated, transported and used.

“Superconducting power cables can transmit up to 10 times more power than traditional copper cables without the significant losses of traditional cables and are considered environmentally friendly,” says Selvamanickam.

It is estimated that high temperature superconducting wires could eliminate 131 million tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and offset the emission of the equivalent of 40 conventional power-generating plants.

“The country’s electric transmission grid currently consists of about 160,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, with forecasters predicting an additional 12,900 miles needed over the next five years to meet increasing demand,” says Selvamanickam.

“High temperature superconductivity has the potential to revolutionize the way we use electricity. Our research pays immediate returns to the industry,” he adds.

Providing a Competitive Global Education

UH Signs Memorandum of Understanding with Several Institutions.

The University of Houston has established formal relationships to enhance research collaborations around the globe.

President Khator and NortonUH President Renu Khator and President Brian Norton of the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) signed a five-year, renewable Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two institutions. DIT, one of the highest-ranked academic institutions in Ireland, currently has approximately 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students and is a member of the European University Association

UH also signed an MOU with the Institute of Technology, Banara Hindu University (IT-BHU), Varanasi, India — allowing joint programs at the graduate level, the exchange of visiting scholars and faculty collaboration in research and technology. IT-BHU is one of India’s oldest and highest-ranking engineering colleges.

Additionally, UH established an MOU with China University of Geosciences (CUG), Beijing — expanding its global reach with a joint Ph.D. program in geology and geophysics. CUG is one of China’s leading universities and plays a key role in China’s oil and mining industry.

Closer to home, UH and Texas Southern University have signed an MOU that will provide complementary research for students from both universities


The College of Education has created an innovative online master’s degree program, dubbed iSMART, funded by a $3 million grant from the Greater Texas Foundation. The Integrated Sciences, Math and Reflective Thinking Program (iSMART) will help middle school science and math teachers improve science and math instruction as well as develop leadership skills.

The College of Technology has received $2.5 million from the Department of Energy to develop a smart grid workforce training program to prepare the next generation of workers in the electric power industry. The Smart Grid Energy Training Coalition includes UH, CenterPoint Energy, San Jacinto College, the Power Technology Institute, SkillsNET and the Texas Business and Education Coalition.

National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) is UH’s first National Science Foundation-supported center. Ramesh Shrestha, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, brought NCALM and most of his research team to UH from the University of Florida. Future NCALM efforts include exploring the possibility of using Light Detection and Ranging to map everything from glacial movements to the migration of penguin colonies in Antarctica.

The Hobby Center for Public Policy began offering a new Certified Public Manager Program this spring, with the aim of strengthening the management skills and style of tomorrow’s leaders. The 14-month program offers seven courses (tracks), including personnel management, managing for quality, organizational communication, public finance, productivity and program evaluation, information systems for managers and applied project practicum. After completing the courses and a final project, graduates will receive a certificate and may use the official designation of Certified Public Manager. The new program is an affiliate of the CPM program offered through the William P. Hobby Center for Public Service at Texas State University and is accredited by the National Certified Public Manager Consortium.