Houston Group eHRI Forms to Promote HealthTech Collaboration
Houston is home to one of the world’s most innovative medical clusters, but the institutions within still have work to do in using technology to reach more patients more efficiently.
That’s the view, at least, of the eHealth Research Institute, a newly formed consortium aimed at finding and commercializing overlaps in information systems and medical technology in order to improve distance delivery of medicine.
“Houston is primed to become the high-tech healthcare hub,” says Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University and one of the consortium’s leaders. “This is what energy did 40 years ago; they had the layering of companies growing [together] and creating an ecosystem. We don’t want our innovators to move out to the Bay Area or Boston and sell it back to Houston.”
The group, also known as eHRI, was founded in April and is a collaborative research initiative of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and Rice’s Kennedy Institute.
On Tuesday, the group held a debut meeting aimed at introducing itself and also recruiting new members of Houston’s medical, tech, and finance communities. To get the conversation going, eHRI hosted researchers who gave presentations that illustrated the types of therapies they are working on that use IT to deploy healthcare more widely—including more precise microsurgery, smartphone ophthalmological cameras, and one-step cervical cancer screenings that can bring lifesaving treatment to underserved populations.
These kinds of collaborations between engineering and medical departments is what eHRI wants to promote, says Cindy Farach-Carson, head of eHRI’s development committee and the scientific director at the BioScience Research Collaborative at Rice. Later this year, the new institute will kick off a capital campaign to raise between $500,000 and $750,000 in government research grants in order to invest in collaborative projects like those above.
At first, the institute will work through the existing institutions’ licensing offices to help commercialize the research. But Farach-Carson hopes to develop new licensing models tailored to such interdisciplinary projects coming out of multiple institutions.
“I think we can really take advantage of the fact that we have 54 institutions here in this entity called the Texas Medical Center, and we can develop new ways for us to get things out of the laboratory and into the clinic,” she says.
For the last five years, Jesse Selber, an assistant professor in plastic surgery at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has been using a robot named DaVinci built by Intuitive Surgical, based in Sunnyvale, CA. The robotic arms, which contain cameras capable of 3D imaging, mimic the range of motion of human hands and can perform minute surgical functions that would be difficult for people to do. “It has extreme precision—even more than humanly possible,” he says. “There’s absolutely no tremor.
The potential for such medical technology to bring world-class healthcare to remote locations and underserved populations is enormous, he says. “The surgeon doesn’t have to be in the same city, the same country, or even the same planet, as long as there is enough information that can be transmitted to the machine,” Selber says. “The FDA doesn’t allow us to do that right now, but there is the possibility of the globalization of our expertise.”
A surgeon could be sitting in the Texas Medical Center while trained techs, who would be on-site with the patient, would monitor the machine.
The second presentation was by group of Rice professors and graduate students, who are working on creating smartphone-based ophthalmoscopes for patients who are losing their eyesight due to glaucoma, macular degeneration, or diabetes.
“Think of the servers of 30 to 40 years ago—that’s how imaging today looks like,” says Ashutosh Sabharwal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice. “You get your eyes checked, a few days later, you meet the doctor and discuss. We can shrink current ocular imaging all the way down to be an attachment on a smartphone.”
Sabharwal and his colleagues are working on building a scope that connects to a smartphone. Ultimately, patients could take their own photos of their eyes and e-mail the images to their doctors, he says. “Your cell phone cameras are going to do things you never thought possible,” Subharwal added.
The third group to present at Tuesday’s meeting has developed a high-resolution microendoscope that can assess pathologic features from cervical screenings in real time. That’s instead of the traditional way of doing a screening and then sending the samples out for evaluation, which requires a second visit with the doctor. Kathleen Schmeler, an assistant professor in the department of gynecologic oncology at MD Anderson, says such real-time results are key for women in poorer countries, who might have traveled long distances to get medical care and would not be able to make a return trip. “This is a completely preventable disease,” she added.