Transforming Lives through Research

Annual Report 2018: Transforming Lives through Research

Widely regarded as one of the world’s top technological research universities, Georgia Tech focuses its vast research resources on mapping out new solutions and working hand-in-hand with industry and government to create the next big breakthrough or to tailor collaborations focused on solving the most challenging problems.

Steve Cross Retires as EVP for Research

For the past 15 years, Steve Cross has played a transformative leadership role in guiding the growth and evolution of Georgia Tech’s research enterprise — first as vice president and director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and, for the past eight years, as Tech’s first executive vice president (EVP) for research. Cross’ June 2018 retirement as EVP marked the end of an era characterized by robust growth and a sharpening of focus.

During Cross’ time as EVP, Georgia Tech’s research and economic development programs grew dramatically. In Fiscal Year 2017, the Institute reported $824.8 million in annual research and other sponsored program expenditures, including more than $100 million in industry research, a record for Georgia Tech. Cross has helped bring together GTRI, the Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2), interdisciplinary research institutes (IRIs), and other research-active and support units to focus on measures that emphasize quality, diversification of the revenue base, and innovative ways to make it easier for government, business, and industry to partner with Georgia Tech. 

“Steve’s leadership has helped to make the tagline ‘what does Georgia Tech think’ truly relevant,” said President G.P. “Bud” Peterson. “Under his leadership, Georgia Tech’s colleges and schools, and GTRI are collaborating as never before with significant joint work in cybersecurity, health analytics, robotics, and many other areas. While Steve always credits the faculty, students, and staff who make great things happen here, his tireless and enthusiastic leadership deserves significant recognition for these and many other accomplishments.”

In June, the Institute announced that Chaouki T. Abdallah, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Mexico, would succeed Cross as EVP, effective mid-August. Abdallah earned master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech in 1982 and 1988, respectively. At New Mexico, he conducted research and taught courses in the general area of systems theory with a focus on control and communications systems.

“Dr. Abdallah has a proven track record as an administrator, scholar, and researcher, along with experience collaborating with industry, government, and community partners,” said Peterson. “As a Tech alumnus who has remained engaged with the Institute, he brings a unique perspective. We’re looking forward to working with him to enhance Georgia Tech’s basic and applied research and maximize economic impact.”

Engineering Research Center Helps Expand Use of Therapies Based on Living Cells

One of many significant outcomes of Steve Cross’ years of visionary leadership is the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarding nearly $20 million to a consortium of universities led by Georgia Tech to support a new Engineering Research Center (ERC) that will work closely with industry and clinical partners to develop transformative tools and technologies for the consistent, scalable, and low-cost production of high-quality living therapeutic cells. Such cells could be used in a broad range of lifesaving medical therapies now emerging from research laboratories.

The NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies (CMaT) aims to revolutionize the treatment of cancer, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and other disorders by enabling the broad use of potentially curative therapies that utilize living cells — such as immune cells and stem cells — as “drugs.” Examples of these highly promising therapies include T-cell-based immunotherapies for blood cancers and a gene-modified stem cell therapy approved in Europe for a form of the so-called “bubble boy” syndrome.

To facilitate the widespread application of these cutting-edge emerging treatments, CMaT will develop robust and scalable technologies, innovative analytical tools, and engineering systems that will enable industry and clinical facilities to reproducibly manufacture efficient, safe, and affordable cell-therapy products. The center, one of four ERCs announced in September 2017 by the NSF, will also develop improved models for a robust supply chain, storage, and distribution system for these therapeutic cell products.

Supporting the vision and goals of CMaT is a new Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)-compliant facility located within the existing Marcus Center for Therapeutic Cell Characterization and Manufacturing (MC3M). The new GMP was dedicated last June. The Marcus Center and the new GMP provide the infrastructural foundation for CMaT.

“This initiative has the potential to change the way we think about medical treatments, to change the way we think about medicine, and the way we approach cures for different diseases,” said President G.P. “Bud” Peterson. “Here, we will develop the tools and technologies to produce these cells at lower cost, more rapidly and for more people.”

“Unlike pharmaceuticals and other products now used in medical treatments, cells are living entities whose properties can significantly change depending on nuances in the way they are grown, stored, or otherwise manipulated,” said Krishnendu Roy, director of CMaT and the Robert A. Milton Chair professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. “The center will develop new engineering tools and scalable methods to better characterize, expand, differentiate, separate, transport, and store high-quality cells so they provide consistent therapeutic effects, allowing them to be used in standardized therapies by clinicians to serve large numbers of patients worldwide.”

Georgia Smart Communities Challenge Strives to Improve Quality of Life

Georgia Tech is providing leadership for the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge, also known as Georgia Smart, a competition bringing together industry and public agencies to support communities in their efforts to implement cutting-edge technologies.

Announced in June, the winners of the Georgia Smart competition are the cities of Albany and Chamblee and the counties of Chatham and Gwinnett. In September, these four local governments embarked on year-long projects to address housing blight, traffic and transportation woes, and sea level rise along Georgia’s coast. A Georgia Tech researcher will advise and conduct research in support of each group’s goals. This work will continue through September 2019.

Each team has received $50,000 in grants and $25,000 from Georgia Tech in research support. The selected communities each raised an additional $50,000. A Georgia Tech researcher is advising each team and conducting research in support of their needs and goals. 

“Creating and implementing smart communities is hard work and it’s difficult,” said Debra Lam, managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Tech. “But we know we’re on the right path when we are purposely empowering local communities with data and technology.”

Georgia Power is the lead sponsor of the program, with additional financial support from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Biochemical Culprit Could Merit Enhanced Alzheimer’s Research Efforts

The mass pursuit of a conspicuous suspect in Alzheimer’s disease may have held back research success for decades. Now, a new data analysis that has untangled evidence amassed in years of Alzheimer’s studies encourages researchers to refocus their investigations.

Heaps of plaque formed from amyloid-beta that accumulate in afflicted brains are what stick out under the microscope in tissue samples from Alzheimer’s sufferers, and that eye-catching junk has long seemed an obvious culprit in the disease. However, data analysis of the cumulative evidence doesn’t support giving so much attention to that usual suspect, according to a Georgia Tech study.

Though the bad amyloid-beta protein does appear to be an accomplice in the disease, the study has pointed to a seemingly more likely offender, another protein-gone-bad called phosphorylated tau(p-tau). What’s more, the Georgia Tech data analysis of multiple studies done on mice also turned up signs that multiple biochemical actors work together in Alzheimer’s to tear down neurons, the cells that the brain uses to do its work.

Informaticist and biomedical engineer Cassie Mitchell studies Alzheimer's disease by statistically analyzing data produced by dozens of peer-reviewed published Alzheimer's studies. She looks for correlations between the presence of biochemical factors and cognitive decline.

In addition, the corrupted amyloid-beta that appeared to be acting more directly in concert with p-tau in the sabotage of brain function was not tied up in that plaque. In the lineup of the biochemical suspects examined, principal investigator Cassie Mitchell, assistant professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, said the data pointed to a pecking order of culpability.

“The most important one would be the level of phosphorylated tau present. It had the strongest connection with cognitive decline,” Mitchell said. “The correlation with amyloid plaque was there but very weak; not nearly as strong as the correlation between p-tau and cognitive decline.”

Mitchell has gained some impressions of how biomedical research may need to tackle Alzheimer’s slippery biochemical labyrinth.

“When we see multifactorial diseases, we tend to think we’ll need multifactorial treatments,” Mitchell said. “That seems to be working well with cancer, where they combine chemotherapy with things like immunotherapy.”

Also, Alzheimer’s diagnosticians might be wise to adopt their cancer colleagues’ early detection stance, she said, as Alzheimer’s disease appears to start long before amyloid-beta plaque appears and cognitive decline sets in.

Sam Brown in his lab

Slowing Down the Antibiotic Resistance Crisis

Got a sore throat? The doctor may write a quick prescription for penicillin or amoxicillin, and with the stroke of a pen, help diminish public health and your own future health by encouraging bacteria to evolve resistance to antibiotics.

It has been widely reported that bacteria will evolve to render antibiotics mostly ineffective against them by mid-century, and current strategies to make up for the projected shortfalls haven’t worked. Given this threat, a Georgia Tech research team believes it’s time to develop alternatives to antibiotics for minor infections.

One possible problem is that drug development strategies have focused on replacing antibiotics in extreme infections, such as sepsis, where every minute without an effective drug increases the risk of death. But the evolutionary process that brings forth antibiotic resistance doesn’t happen nearly as often in those big infections as it does in the multitude of small ones like sinusitis, tonsillitis, bronchitis, and bladder infections.

“Antibiotic prescriptions against those smaller ailments account for about 90 percent of antibiotic use and, so, are likely to be the major driver of resistance evolution,” said Sam Brown, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences.

Bacteria that survive these many small battles against antibiotics grow in strength and numbers to become formidable armies in big infections, like those that strike after surgery.

While pharmaceutical companies are focusing on developing new antibiotics to fight major infections, Brown and team are proposing a different approach: “Take the easier tasks, like sore throats, off of antibiotics and reserve antibiotics for these really serious conditions,” he said.

International Patients Increasingly Seek In Vitro Fertilization Treatment in U.S.

A new study from Georgia Tech and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that the use of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in the U.S. by non-U.S. residents is growing. These “reproductive tourists” are more likely, compared to Americans, to use egg donors and carriers, and genetically screen early embryos. 

The study is the most detailed picture of cross-border reproductive care (CBRC) in the United States to date. It analyzed more than 1.2 million ART cycles that were submitted to the National ART Surveillance System (NASS) from 2006 to 2013. During that time frame, the number of non-residents receiving ART treatment in the U.S. more than doubled, growing from 1.2 percent of the total number of cases to 2.8 percent (nearly 5,400 in 2013).

“While the number of cycles is relatively small, it is definitely growing,” said Aaron Levine, the associate professor in the Ivan College of Liberal Arts’ School of Public Policy who led the study. “Non-U.S. residents are increasingly coming here for specialized ART treatments that may not be available in their home countries, and they’re using these techniques at greater rates than Americans.”

Patients from 147 countries received care in the U.S., with the largest number coming from Canada. The second largest number of patients came from Mexico, followed by the United Kingdom and Japan.

“Our results highlight real challenges for patients to access this important medical care,” said Levine. “Understanding these challenges is critical to improving access to ART today and to helping ensure patients who travel across borders to receive ART treatment receive high-quality care.”

Ultrasound Technology Helps Amputee Control Individual Prosthetic Fingers

Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand is a step closer to reality for amputees in this galaxy. Georgia Tech researchers have created an ultrasonic sensor that allows amputees to control each of their prosthetic fingers individually. It provides fine motor hand gestures that aren’t possible with current commercially available devices.

The first amputee to use it, a musician who lost part of his right arm six years ago, is now able to play the piano for the first time since his accident.

“Our prosthetic arm is powered by ultrasound signals,” said Gil Weinberg, the College of Design professor who leads the project and serves as director of the Center for Music Technology. “By using this new technology, the arm can detect which fingers an amputee wants to move, even if they don’t have fingers.”

Jason Barnes is the amputee working with Weinberg. The 28-year-old was electrocuted during a work accident in 2012, forcing doctors to amputate his right arm just below the elbow. Barnes no longer has his hand or most of his forearm but does have the muscles in his residual limb that control his fingers.

“It’s completely mind-blowing,” said Barnes. “This new arm allows me to do whatever grip I want, on the fly, without changing modes or pressing a button. I never thought we’d be able to do this.”

This is the second device Weinberg’s lab has built for Barnes. His first love is the drums, so the team fitted him with a prosthetic arm with two drumsticks in 2014. He controlled one of the sticks. The other moved on its own by listening to the music in the room and improvising. The robotic stick could play faster than any drummer in the world, and that success pushed Weinberg to take the next step and create something that gives Barnes the dexterity he’s lacked since 2012.

“If this type of arm can work on music, something as subtle and expressive as playing the piano, this technology can also be used for many other types of fine motor activities such as bathing, grooming, and feeding,” said Weinberg. “I also envision able-bodied persons being able to remotely control robotic arms and hands by simply moving their fingers.”

Rob “Radar” Winston, the GTRI principal research engineer who directs the IMPAX program, discusses how the initiative will serve the Naval Air Warfare Center - Aircraft Division. Photo by Branden Camp.

IMPAX Accelerates Technology Transfer to the Military

What if you had to wait eight years to get the great new cellphone technology your friends and neighbors were using today? That’s essentially the situation facing today’s warfighters, who must wait for long procurement cycles to bring them the latest technology.

The U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Naval Air Warfare Center - Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are working to address that challenge through a new effort — dubbed Innovation and Modernization Patuxent River (IMPAX) — that aims to accelerate the transfer of new technology to meet U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps needs. IMPAX staff members are empowered to work outside the standard acquisition process to find, develop, and prototype new technology more quickly.

IMPAX was launched in 2017 as an initiative of Rear Admiral Mark Darrah, program executive officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons at NAVAIR, by working closely with the Technology Transfer Office at NAWCAD. The first initiative with the Navy is to identify technology that will help integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into air control systems by providing miniaturized identification friend or foe (IFF) systems.

“Traditionally, the Department of Defense has been limited in the means and speed at which it could bring new technologies to the warfighter,” said Rob Winston, a GTRI principal research engineer who directs the IMPAX program near Pax River Naval Air Station in Maryland. “Our adversaries aren’t constrained by cumbersome procurement rules and regulations. Through this effort, we want to ensure that our nation’s warfighters get the best technology in the shortest time.”

Improving Distribution of Medical Surplus Items

Medical supplies in the MedShare warehouse in Decatur, Georgia. Photo courtesy MedShare.

Researchers from the Scheller College of Business and the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering have identified how medical surplus items can be distributed more effectively by humanitarian organizations.

MedShare, the Medical Surplus Recovery Organization (MSRO) that served as the researchers’ site of research and analysis, has a mission to “improve the quality of life of people and our planet.” Among the nation’s top-rated nonprofits, the Decatur-based MSRO bridges the gap between surplus and needs by shipping excess medical supplies and equipment to developing countries.

Charles Redding, CEO of MedShare and a chemical engineering alumnus of Georgia Tech, has forged a number of relationships between his organization and his alma mater. On a visit to Scheller College Professor Atalay Atasu’s MBA class in supply chain management, Redding spoke about how MedShare does not fit the typical supply and demand model. Due to its mission to continually help those in need and its dependency on philanthropic gifts, MedShare has conceivably infinite demand and very limited supply. He told students how MedShare matched demand and supply: Recipients log in to the system to view current inventory and select items to fill their shipping containers. He compared it to “shopping on Amazon.”

These exchanges led Professors Atasu and Beril Toktay each to write a case study focused on different facets of MedShare’s supply chain model. Can Zhang, a Ph.D. student in the Stewart School who is interested in socially responsible operations, heard about these efforts and also became interested in MedShare. The research team studied how MedShare matched supply of medical surplus in the U.S. with medical needs in the developing world.

In a pair of articles — “Effective Medical Surplus Recovery” and “Truthful Mechanisms for Medical Surplus Product Allocation” — the research team identified novel and implementable operations and supply chain solutions for matching MedShare’s supply and demand through recipient prioritization.

Office of Naval Research Makes $7.5 Million Award Available for Secure Stack

A team of Georgia Tech researchers from the School of Computer Science has been awarded $7.5 million from the Office of Naval Research to develop a customized attack-resistant software stack.

Principal investigator Bill Harris, assistant professor in the School of Computer Science, is collaborating with Professors Wenke Lee and Alessandro Orso, Associate Professor Santosh Pande, and Assistant Professor Taesoo Kim.

The researchers are working on a technique for reducing what’s known as the attack surface, the total number of ways in which a program can be vulnerable to exploitation. Most general-purpose software includes code that not every user needs, and unused code can create an opportunity for exploitation by an attacker. Through this research, users will be able to run software in which unneeded code is removed, decreasing the vulnerability of the programs they use.

Lee compares the project to a house. “When you build a house, you only really need one door, but the house may still have multiple doors. The number of doors increases the opportunity to break in,” Lee said. “If you only have one door, your house is more secure.”

Overall, the five researchers on the team have the set of complementary skills needed for the project to be successful. Over the five-year life of the grant, the researchers expect to develop a series of approaches for reducing attack surface that anyone can use on complex systems, as well as on low-level code.