From nasal casts to emergency intubation, newly honored VCU innovators explore fresh frontiers

Five projects get Commercialization Fund awards from TechTransfer and Ventures, which helps campus inventions reach the marketplace.

Laleh Golshahi, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is studying how different nasal drug delivery products work in different people’s noses. She is one of five recipients of the latest Commercialization Fund Awards from TechTransfer and Ventures. (Photo by Karl E. Steinbrenner)
Laleh Golshahi, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is studying how different nasal drug delivery products work in different people’s noses. She is one of five recipients of the latest Commercialization Fund Awards from TechTransfer and Ventures. (Photo by Karl E. Steinbrenner)

By Jeff Kelley

When allergy and asthma sufferers use nasal and oral inhalers to treat their conditions, they hold the devices differently. And the way in which the drugs spray throughout the airways varies from one person to the next.

In fact, much of the medication from an inhaler doesn’t even reach the airways.

But what if consistency could be brought to the way these devices function, while delivering the amount of medicine that drugmakers intend?

“We want to make sprays and inhalers in a way where people don’t have to think about how they’re holding them, and the device and medicine inside always works as planned,” said Laleh Golshahi, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering. “Our end goal is really to look at where the drug lands in the nose, because that’s where it’s supposed to have the most local action.”

Golshahi, founder and director of the Respiratory Aerosol Research and Educational Laboratory, is studying how different nasal drug delivery products work in different people’s noses. She and her team have developed six nose models — three adult, three pediatric — that researchers and pharmaceutical companies can use to determine how aerosolized droplets land inside the nasal passages of millions of people of varying ages, genders and ethnicities.

The nasal casts work like artificial noses to test where sprayed medicines land in the airways. Golshahi hopes the casts will speed development of vaccines and medicines and even usher in a new era of medications that can be taken through the nostrils — a doorway to the extrathoracic airways of the head and lungs.

She is one of five recipients of the fall 2023 round of Commercialization Fund awards from TechTransfer and Ventures, part of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation. The awards, which collectively total nearly $200,000, support inventors who are conducting valuable translational research with a clear pathway to market.

“VCU is fertile ground for groundbreaking research that is solving society’s biggest challenges, and this funding can help our researchers keep pace with innovation and fast-track their progress,” said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU’s vice president for research and innovation. “These innovators are symbolic of how VCU’s research enterprise has grown exponentially in the last five years and helped create an environment for our faculty innovators to move ideas from the labs to the marketplace.”

“Every year, we select a diverse range of inventors who are contributing translational and transformational research that we believe will be a benefit to society,” said Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., assistant vice president of innovation and head of VCU TechTransfer and Ventures. “These awards speak directly to our mission and identity as an accessible, national public research university, driven to make an impactful public good. Congratulations to this latest round of Commercialization Fund recipients.”

In addition to Golshahi, here are the four other projects and recipients of Commercialization Fund awards in the fall 2023 round:

Fighting disease in humans and animals

Quantitative and point-of-care diagnostic tests for human and veterinary leptospirosis

Richard T. Marconi, Ph.D., professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, VCU School of Medicine

Leptospirosis is a widespread infection caused by the bacteria Leptospira. These bacteria are usually found in the kidneys of infected animals and are spread through their urine into the environment. Infections occur by coming into contact with contaminated water or directly with infected animals. The infection can cause serious illness in humans and animals, leading to problems with multiple organs and, in some cases, death.

Diagnosing leptospirosis is complicated and requires specialized lab tests, which have no standardization. Marconi is studying new tests that use special proteins called chimeritopes, made by combining parts of different proteins to create a single protein that can detect the bacteria. Marconi is already internationally known for his development of tests and vaccines for Lyme disease, including one for canines that has been on the market since 2016.

For leptospirosis, Marconi has collected thousands of blood samples from infected wildlife to help develop simple, quick tests that can be used on the spot, as well as more accurate tests for laboratories.

Treating lung disease

Development of novel Piezo2 inhibitors for treatment of pulmonary fibrosis and other diseases

Patricia J. Sime, M.D., chair, and Thomas H. Thatcher, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine, VCU School of Medicine

Sime and Thatcher are investigating a protein known as Piezo2 in lung cells. Piezo2 is a “force-sensitive ion channel,” meaning it responds to stimuli such as pressure, stretch or touch. In the lungs, Piezo1 senses changes in lung stiffness caused by diseases like pulmonary fibrosis. When Piezo2 detects these changes, it triggers a series of cellular reactions that worsen the disease by promoting scarring in the lungs.

The researchers have discovered that blocking Piezo2’s activity stops these harmful reactions from occurring. They are investigating drugs that can block Piezo2 to treat pulmonary fibrosis and similar diseases, and they are using computer models to understand how Piezo2 works and screening millions of chemical compounds to find potential drugs that could stop it. If successful, the drugs could become valuable treatments for fibrotic diseases.

Making intubation easier for health care providers and safer for patients

Disposable Balloon-Expandable Tubular Oropharyngeal Device

Prabhu Senthil-Kumar, M.D., Department of Surgery, VCU Health

A common procedure in emergency medicine, intubation is the insertion of a tube into the windpipe to help patients breathe when they can’t do so on their own. It requires placing the tube in the right spot, on the first try, to avoid complications. And it’s not easy, with success rates varying among health care providers. Devices can assist with intubation, but they all have limitations — they may not provide a clear airway view, or they could cause injury and discomfort.

Kumar has developed the balloon-like device called the “Disposable Balloon-Expandable Tubular Oropharyngeal Device.” The tool is designed for endotracheal intubation and features a deflated tubular balloon attached to a soft pharyngeal silicone blade, which is inserted blindly into the mouth. On inflation, the balloon expands the oral cavity and upper throat, facilitating the insertion of an endotracheal tube. The device can be easily removed using a wire that deflates the balloon stent without disturbing the positioned tube.

Protecting critical communications infrastructure

Multifunctional electromagnetic shielding materials for next-generation 5G devices

Radhika Barua, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, VCU College of Engineering

Phones, tablets, computers and even traffic signals and medical equipment communicate using radio waves, Wi-Fi and GPS signals. Intentional electromagnetic interference, or IEMI, is a method used by cybercriminals to send powerful electromagnetic pulses that disrupt, or even destroy, devices that are essential to the modern world and critical infrastructure such as hospitals, power grids or transportation networks.

Researchers have long investigated the use of special materials to shield against electromagnetic interference, but they come with challenges. Barua and her team are developing lightweight materials that can absorb signals over a wide range of frequencies (like the ones used for 5G devices) without being too bulky or expensive. Less than a millimeter thick, Barua’s corrosion-resistant polymer composite material for broadband electromagnetic wave absorption not only protects devices and networks, but it also has superior thermal properties to keep devices from overheating.