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Fostering Biomedical Breakthroughs

By developing the next wave of life-enhancing innovations in the emerging biomedicine field, UT Arlington researchers offer hope to veterans with missing limbs and to others who need a healing touch.

BATTLING DEADLY INFECTIONS

The last thing health care providers want is for patients to get sicker because they visit a hospital. But infections like Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile, sometimes make that goal impossible to reach.

Biology Assistant Professor Julian Hurdle believes he can help. He recently received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to develop treatment for C. difficile using an antimicrobial compound called reutericyclin.

C. difficile is the leading cause of diarrhea in elderly hospital and nursing home patients. It also affects cancer patients and others with compromised immune systems.

"No one has been looking at C. difficile for a long time. About a decade ago, it became a problem again because of a new strain," says Dr. Hurdle, who joined the UT Arlington College of Science in 2010.

"Now, it kills 15,000 to 20,000 patients a year in the United States alone, and some hospital centers consider it more dangerous than antibiotic resistant staph infections."

Hurdle is collaborating with Richard Lee, a medicinal chemist and faculty member at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. They will use the five-year NIH grant to improve the effectiveness of their reutericyclin compounds and explore how they work to combat C. difficile.

Hanli Liu and Alexa Smith-Osborne

SCANNING FOR SOLUTIONS

With thousands of military veterans attending college on the GI Bill, veteran enrollment at UT Arlington has grown exponentially in recent years. Social Work Assistant Professor Alexa Smith-Osborne surmises that some of these ex-soldiers might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or other issues that hamper cognition.

She already was using observational and self-report measures in her student-veterans' research. But she was looking for low-cost ways to add physiological data to provide veterans with more input that would help them select effective learning strategies.

Enter bioengineering Professor Hanli Liu. Their collaboration, which blends psychosocial assessments with physiological testing, has yielded promising results that could lead to a better quality of life for veterans.

The research uses a cutting-edge, optical brain-imaging device to explore applications in cognitive sciences. The emerging technology employs light to scan the brain and lets researchers "see" brain functions without invasive procedures. A veteran's forehead can be scanned while he or she sits in a chair and takes cognitive tests. 

Dr. Liu says the beauty of the machine is its portability, quantification, and ease of use. The work also could extend beyond helping veterans. Dr. Smith-Osborne says the hybrid system could be used for any head trauma victims.

REGENERATING HOPE FOR VETERANS

Imagine soldiers who are missing limbs from injuries sustained in combat receiving not just state-of-the-art artificial prostheses, but real bionic limbs that can move naturally and convey sensation of touch, temperature, and position.

Working with a $2.2 million grant from DARPA, the research and development office for the Department of Defense, bioengineering Associate Professor Mario Romero-Ortega is helping thousands of U.S. soldiers who have been wounded and lost limbs by understanding why current peripheral nerve interfaces fail. He hopes his neural interface will lead to a better prosthetic arm with precise movement, control, and even sensation.

The research also could benefit people injured in car crashes. Growing up in Mexico, Romero-Ortega never imagined that a friend's auto accident would eventually shape his career. The tragedy led him to study neural engineering.

"I wanted to do something about it," he says. "This work could lead to solutions for people with nerve injury-related deficits."

What makes his research different is that it puts neural interfacing in the limb itself. His work moves away from the head and into the appendage, looking for neural reliability and stability. It integrates the nerve into electrodes through nerve regeneration.

Mario Romero-Ortega
Liping Tang

USING THE BODY TO HEAL ITSELF

Two UT Arlington professors' latest tissue engineering research shows that the laboratory may not be the best breeding ground for needed bone, muscle, and blood vessels to aid healing.

Bioengineering Professor Liping Tang and Associate Professor Jian Yang believe the body is the best laboratory to produce these cellular needs. In their research, small scaffolds designed for specific tissue tell the stem cells what to become, where to go, and how much to grow.

The process is called the orchestrated autologous stem cell regeneration technique. With it, a patient's own stem cells could be used for his or her new tissue. The technique would allow patients' bodies to heal with little outside intervention, such as costly and time-consuming tissue engineering in a laboratory. It also would reduce expenses for health care industry stakeholders.

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