Texas A&M University researchers will lead a $20 million federally funded program to develop under-the-skin sensors and hand-held devices for tracking health conditions, especially for people who, for geographical or income reasons, lack ready access to medical care.
The five-year National Science Foundation grant, announced Tuesday, is of a special type that is likely to be renewed for an additional five years and $15 million, bringing the total to $35 million, said Gerard Coté, a biomedical engineering professor at A&M and the program’s principal investigator. Researchers at Rice University, the University of California at Los Angeles and Florida International University will participate as co-investigators and subcontractors of sorts to A&M.
One goal of the project is to develop an implantable sensor the size of a grain of rice that could monitor patients with heart conditions or diabetes, Coté said. Such health problems are common generally but are especially pervasive in rural areas and among minority populations in urban areas.
“For diabetics, it would get rid of finger-pricking devices,” Coté said. A special watch-like device would monitor glucose levels and heart biomarkers, then transfer the information to a cellphone, which, in turn, would send it over the internet to a health care provider, thus cutting down on trips to a clinic or other medical site for testing, he said.
Designation of the project as a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, only the fourth such award in Texas history, is a feather in the university’s cap, said A&M President Michael K. Young and A&M System Chancellor John Sharp.
“Selection for the award by the National Science Foundation is a strong affirmation of our commitment to purpose-driven research to tackle the most pressing issues of our time, and developing affordable access to life-saving technologies is among the most important,” Young said.
Sharp said: “Texas A&M has a long-held tradition of service and innovation. And our team is perfectly situated to help improve the lives of folks in the rural and urban parts of the U.S., from South Texas to Alaska.”
The program is dubbed PATHS-UP, an acronym for Precise Advanced Technologies and Health Systems for Underserved Populations. Coté and his team will work out of a soon-to-be-renovated Health Technologies Building at the university’s Research Park.
The work will involve corporate partners and industry funding. Medical device makers Medtronics and Philips have agreed to participate, as have a number of smaller companies, Coté said. There are different levels of buy-in for corporate partners depending on how much access they get to intellectual property, he said.
The National Science Foundation, a federal agency, also announced three other new engineering research centers Tuesday. Purdue University will lead work on fuel derived from shale gas, Boston University will head up development of heart and other human tissues, and the Georgia Institute of Technology will lead work on producing living therapeutic cells. Including the A&M-led project, the foundation’s awards to the four centers total nearly $80 million.
Engineering research centers often become self-sustaining and typically generate more than $50 million in federal and industry funding in their first 10 years, according to an A&M System news release.