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Innovating in a PInCh

Erick Forno wasn’t planning on his research for patients with asthma being used for a pandemic. However, when COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. this spring, he and his team at Acoustic Waveform Respiratory Evaluation, or AWARE for short, found ways to pivot their research to help, though not without obstacles.

“We had to pause all our research operations. We’ve had to adjust to all the precautions to make sure we keep our patients safe while also provide the care they need,” said Forno, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Even to this day, operations are being done carefully and it’s taken longer than expected to advance the project.”

However, Wednesday’s virtual Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) put his mind more at ease. AWARE was a grand prize winner for this year’s competition, taking home one of three $100,000 grand prizes.

AWARE is a smartphone-based solution that enables at-home lung function monitoring for people with lung disorders, such as asthma, COPD and cystic fibrosis. The project was also a winner of a $25,000 bonus for addressing aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the prize money, the team will gather data from healthy volunteers to advance the app, and then examine patients with respiratory illnesses. The AWARE team includes Wei Chen, associate professor of pediatrics and biostatistics, and Wei Gao, associate professor at the Swanson School of Engineering.

“Pitt has done a great job overall given the circumstances,” Forno said. “It was definitely reassuring that the competition continued this year. It was excellent that PInCh adapted in a way that we could do everything virtually.”

While AWARE received bonus money from PInCh for its pandemic applications, competition organizers said they wanted to make sure researchers with non-COVID-related projects had the opportunity to showcase their innovations, too.

“We wanted to acknowledge that things that address pandemics are important, but we’re running a standard PInCh this year. We wanted to give researchers the chance to get some traction on their projects, even if they weren’t focused on COVID,” said John Maier, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Pitt and director of the PInCh program.

Projects such as Sevo, a special EEG clip designed for people with coarse and curly hair, and LemurDx, a smartwatch activity monitor that measures hyperactivity associated with ADHD, were among the winners that addressed non-pandemic health concerns.

From live stage to virtual chat room

Maier said pivoting from an in-person event to a virtual one had its challenges. In previous years, the competition brought research teams together in person to network along with pitching to a live judging panel and audience.

With the virtual competition, finalists created web pages describing their projects, including a brief video and had five minutes to answer questions from a panel of judges in a virtual chat room.

“Because an aim of PInCh is building a network of community, going virtual was not ideal,” said Maier. “But everyone persevered. I think that constraint led us to innovate. I think the researchers were enthusiastic to see there were opportunities around, even with the pandemic.”

One researcher who navigated the virtual setting was Maliha Zahid, assistant professor of developmental biology at Pitt. Zahid was a 2016 and 2018 PInCh grand prize winner for her work on cardiac and lung-targeting peptides. For this year’s grand prize-winning entry, she focused on peptides that deliver small genetic molecules to treat the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis. 

“The adrenaline wasn’t raging the way it normally would, but that also made it less exciting,” Zahid said. “I kind of enjoyed being on the stage and being able to convey my ideas to a large group of people. You get the visual and auditory feedback. That’s limited in a virtual environment. But the competition organizers did a stellar job. This virtual environment adds to efficiency.”

“PInCh has been incredibly helpful and supportive to make everything work so seamlessly,” said Liliana Camison, a resident in Pitt’s Department of Plastic Surgery. “Probably one of the silver linings through all of this is seeing how much we can accomplish virtually. I feel like we’re entering a new era of conducting research.”

Camison and Jesse Goldstein, associate professor of plastic surgery at Pitt, were also grand prize winners for their project, REPLICA: 3D-Sculpted Cartilage Implants. REPLICA aims to make custom-made cartilage ear implants that decrease complexity and operative time of facial surgeries, created with a state-of-the-art, high-precision cartilage milling process.

“The COVID-19 pandemic did not stop the PInCh teams from creating innovative and unique solutions to improve health,” said Steven Reis, director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and associate senior vice chancellor for clinical and translational research in Pitt’s schools of the health sciences. “We are grateful for the work that each of the finalists put into their ideas. They all found ways to solve health issues that affect everyday life.”

For a complete list of winners from this year’s PInCh, including $25,000 prize winners, visit the PInCh website.