Creating a Bright Future for Science

The 4th annual BRIght Futures Prize Competition features three compelling projects with the potential to solve vexing medical problems. The finalists, all BWH researchers and clinicians, were selected through a rigorous two-step scientific review process.

 

The BRIght Futures Prizes support investigators across the Brigham Research Institute (BRI) as they work to answer provocative questions or solve grand problems in medicine.  Your vote will help decide which of these three projects will receive $100,000 towards their research. 

 

Watch the videos, read the Q&A and vote for your favorite project.

 

Finalists

Christopher Fanta, MD

AIMSpire: Outsmarting Asthma

 

Raolat Abdulai, MD, Chung Kim,
Benjamin Raby, MD, MPH, Lakeia Wright, MD, MPH

What is your research project about?

More than 25 million Americans, both children and adults, have asthma, and an estimated 300 million people are affected worldwide. When patients experience an asthma “attack,” their bronchial—or breathing—tubes are constricted by surrounding muscles and become inflamed and filled with mucus, causing these passageways to severely narrow. Nearly 2 million times each year in the U.S., people with asthma are rushed to a nearby emergency department, often desperate for lack of air and at risk for progression of their illness to the point of a life-threatening lack of oxygen.

 

But asthma attacks generally do not come on suddenly. Typically, they evolve over several hours or even days, with the opportunity to intervene and prevent severe and frightening attacks—if only patients could first recognize that their breathing is becoming impaired, and then take action to prevent their symptoms from escalating. We are developing a novel system that will help people with asthma detect the worsening of their breathing and guide them to early and effective interventions that protect them from dangerous asthma attacks.

What is a compelling aspect of your research project?

We are developing a smartphone application that will alert people with asthma that their breathing is deteriorating and suggest interventions that can reverse the decline before it becomes severe. Unique features of this application include voice analysis software that can detect changes in lung function based on changes in the pattern and quality of speech; text messaging to people with asthma and to their designated support team of family and friends about worsening symptoms and suggestions for taking action; and the opportunity to communicate this information to their doctor or other health care provider. We envision a portable comprehensive asthma integrated management system (called “AIMSpire”) that can be customized for each user.

How will your research benefit future patients?

Asthma attacks have been identified as being among the most common preventable causes of emergency department visits and hospitalizations. Many attacks progress to the point of becoming severe and dangerous because people with asthma may not recognize their early symptoms or because they ignore the warning signals. Integrated into their smartphone, our application will provide them with the information that they need at the time that they need it to prevent severe asthma attacks. The potential benefits are enormous: fewer emergency department visits and hospitalizations for asthma; fewer days missed from work or school; a safety net to alert family and friends if a child or other loved one is having difficulty breathing; an asthma monitoring resource for health care providers, as well as patients; and a tool for patient self-empowerment through the use of modern e-health resources.

Wilfred Ngwa, PhD

Tiny Drones to Target Cancer

 

Stephanie Dougan PhD, David Kozono, MD, PhD,
Rajiv Kumar, PhD, G Mike Makrigiorgos, PhD,
Paul L Nguyen, MD

What is your research project about?

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for more than 8.2 million deaths per year. About 90 percent of cancer deaths are caused by the spread of the cancer to other parts of a patient’s body, making it more difficult to treat effectively.

 

We have developed a powerful new technology designed to kill cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body. The technology combines microscopic nanoparticles with medicine—all packed into a tiny drone the size of a grain of rice. Currently in the clinic, similar rice-size materials are routinely implanted in patients to guide radiotherapy treatment of cancers such as pancreatic, lung or prostate cancer. We want to upgrade the technology that is currently used with our “smart” technology, which can be employed at no additional inconvenience to patients. Once in place, our technology will proficiently release the microscopic particles/medicine to enhance local tumor cell death during radiotherapy and act as a beacon to call in the patient’s white blood cells. The white blood cells are then trained to kill cancer cells and can patrol the entire body, fighting cancer that has spread with greater effectiveness.

What is a compelling aspect of your research project?

Our team brings a new approach to an old problem. Our unique combination of state-of-the-art radiotherapy with nanotechnology and immunotherapy in one device will pack a pretty impressive punch.

 

When patients are treated with radiotherapy and/or drugs delivered via injections, the treatment can often harm healthy cells and tissue, in addition to cancer cells. Our tiny drones will enable highly targeted tumor cell death, with minimal damage to healthy tissue. In addition, the trained white blood cells will have the potential to kill off any cancer that may arise or come back in the future.

How will your research benefit future patients?

Our technology is designed to substantially boost cancer cure rates, with minimal harm to healthy tissue, including for patients whose cancer has spread. One of the greatest fears of patients who are receiving treatment for cancer or are in remission is that their cancer will come back. Our technology is also designed to help prevent that from happening. Overall, our transformative new technology could drastically increase the survival rate and quality of life for cancer patients, particularly those with pancreatic cancer, for whom current treatments are limited.

William Savage, MD, PhD

Making Blood Treatments Better

 

Jason Fiering, MS

What is your research project about?

Thousands of patients with cancer, sickle cell disease or autoimmune disease, as well as organ transplant recipients require specialized blood treatments, called apheresis (ay-fur-ee-sis). During apheresis, blood is taken out of the body using large specialized medical devices, and the part of the blood that is causing disease is selectively removed. The rest of the healthy blood is returned to the patient. The current process, which uses a large, complicated centrifuge-based machine, can require donor blood transfusions and a big catheter placed into a large vein near the patient’s heart. Our project will make apheresis easier for both patients and the people who operate the devices.

What is a compelling aspect of your research project?

In collaboration with engineers at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, our team has invented a technology that uses ultrasound waves to separate blood into its components for apheresis. We call this “acoustic apheresis,” and it represents a completely new way to perform the procedure. Also, we use materials that make the technology scalable from pediatric or adult size.

How will your research benefit future patients?

First, our device is smaller, simpler, mounted on an IV pole, and will require less training to use and maintain, reducing healthcare costs.

 

Second, because it is a small device, acoustic apheresis reduces the need for large catheters and eliminates the need for donor blood to fill up the large volume of current devices, a huge improvement for people who may receive up to 100 treatments annually. Moreover, for critically ill patients, removing less blood means a safer procedure.

 

Third, because of its simplicity, our device can be used continuously for days, like an IV infusion. Many apheresis treatments for hospitalized patients are staggered three times a week because of the staffing complexity and large blood volumes involved. With a smaller, simpler device that can be operated continuously, patients won’t have to wait between treatments, and we can remove more disease-causing antibodies and blood cells than is currently feasible.

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