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The Birth of an Idea

By Jeannie Kever


The tools may be different – computers and sensors instead of manuscript paper and pencils – but the collaborative spirit also guides innovation in engineering, computer science, nanotechnology, even Shakespearean scholarship.

The twists and turns White followed with “Spirit Moving Over Chaos” are familiar to investigators in other fields.

Take Luca Pollonini and the creation of an optical sensor to alert health care providers to a patient at risk for bedsores.

Pollonini, assistant professor of engineering technology and an affiliate member of the Houston Methodist Research Institute, had developed a sensor to monitor blood flow in human tissue, intended to help surgeons ensure tissue remained healthy after free flap surgery, such as breast reconstruction. He built a prototype and filed for a patent. The surgeons were pleased.

But they had another, more urgent need. Although bedsores – also known as pressure ulcers, caused when tissue is squeezed and blood flow restricted – are preventable and easily treated if caught early, they affect 2.5 million people a year in the United States and cost as much as $11.6 billion a year, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; 60,000 pressure ulcer-related deaths are reported every year.

This spring, Pollonini and his hospital collaborators changed directions.

Stages of bedsores

Working with Houston Methodist surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, he began an intense study of what happens when the body lies immobile and pressure eventually causes blood vessels to close. Ensuring patients change position periodically helps, but how often do they need to be moved? If caregivers could be alerted at the earliest sign of a bedsore, millions of dollars and untold anguish could be saved.

Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan works in a completely different field, but his goals aren’t so different – he developed a “smart” cement that can sense changes in the environment around it, potentially averting disasters ranging from oil spills to collapsing bridges.

Vipulanandan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and an expert in innovative materials, notes that cement is the most common building material used in the world. “If I can improve cement, it would improve the world.”

Smart cement isn’t regular cement studded with monitoring tools; instead, the cement is modified with a tiny amount – less than 0.1 percent – of a conductive filler, turning the entire cement into a cost-effective bulk sensor, or chemo-thermo-piezoresistive smart cement.

Vipulanandan, who goes by “Vipu,” saw the value in such a material after investigators ruled the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 people and spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, was caused by deficient cementing.

After testing in the lab, he took his work a step further, having a 40-foot test well drilled on the edge of the UH Energy Research Park, cemented with his smart cement. So far, he says, it is performing as he expected.

The next step? Commercialization.

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Doing the Work

Associate professor of engineering technology, building a database of 3-D images to allow women to make more informed decisions about reconstructive breast surgery.