ICTAS: Research Awards

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Research Awards in 2015

A Nanotechnology Approach to Overcome the Barriers of Cancer Drug Delivery
Principal Investigator: David G. I. Kingston

This proposal addresses the critical need for more effective cancer chemotherapeutic agents by development of the disruptive nanomedicine we have named Doxtaunif, which will deliver the potent but toxic drug doxorubicin (DOX)13 and the toxic cytokine tumor necrosis factor (TNF) to tumors on a gold nanoparticle (AuNP) platform that drastically reduces toxicity. The natural product DOX (1) is an important anticancer drug that is used both as a single agent and in over 100 different drug combination regimens.13 It does however have a major dose-limiting side effect of cardiotoxicity at cumulative doses higher than 400 mg/m2, and this side effect has prevented it from being curative in many treatments.14 In addition, in common with other systemically administered chemotherapies, it faces the barrier of elevated tumor interstitial fluid pressure (IFP), resulting from a leaky tumor neovasculature and a collapsed lymphatic system.15-17 This inability of chemotherapy to reach the cancer cell reduces anti-tumor efficacy, and requires the use of high doses of toxic drugs to achieve clinically meaningful responses. The overall objective of the proposed work is to prepare AuNPs loaded with DOX, TNF, and PEG-thiol, and to evaluate them rigorously for chemical stability, for drug release under tumor conditions, and for toxicity to mice. These results are expected to lead to submission of a patent application and the development of a new and effective nanodrug for cancer treatment.

A Pilot Study for Augmenting Situational Awareness and Real-Time Risk Analysis for Construction Workers through Smart Safety Glasses
Principal Investigator: Tanyel Bulbul

This project aims to conduct a pilot study to investigate methods to convert head wearable display (HWD) systems, to Smart Safety Glasses (SSG) and explore the usability of this technology to augment situational awareness of construction workers. By its nature, a construction site houses various safety risks for workers. The high rates of occupational safety risks are partly caused by the dynamic nature of the profession. A construction site is a complex work environment that involves various trades working concurrently, using numerous tools of different sizes and changing resources. Construction workers also need to process large amounts of sensory input to be aware of their constantly changing environment which is often noisy, dusty and directly exposed to the weather. Under these circumstances, many safety procedures are missed, overlooked or ignored mostly because the construction workers do not have the cognitive bandwidth needed to process risks around them alongside the potential long-term consequences of certain actions or inaction. The specific aim of this research is to explore the usability of a light weight and hands-free wearable technology for supporting occupational health and safety procedures in a large scale building or infrastructure construction project. Two main tasks that will be performed in this pilot study will focus on defining the user interfaces (UI) at different levels of visual fidelity, and modeling construction workers can interaction with these UI mainly for hazard warning scenarios.

An Efficient and Scalable Ocean Thermal Energy Harvesting System for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles
Principal Investigator: Kevin G. Wang

A major shortcoming of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) is short operation time, which is caused by the limited capacity of onboard batteries. Currently, battery technology is rapidly maturing, and the energy density of batteries is projected to improve only incrementally in the near future. In view of this technical barrier, as well as the worldwide demand for renewable and sustainable energy, we propose to harvest the thermal energy associated with the vertical temperature variation in the ocean thermocline to continuously power AUVs. In this regard, existing approaches are limited to low energy conversion efficiency (<10%) and poor scalability (restricted to very large size). Our objective is to design and demonstrate an efficient and scalable system that can be integrated into several categories of AUVs as their primary power supply, leading to a disruptive improvement in their mission endurance. To accomplish this objective, we will combine several energy conversion mechanisms and devices, including phase-change materials, thermoelectric generators, piezoelectric stacks, and electromagnetic generators, which have been successfully applied in many other energy harvesting applications characterized by low temperature variation and small size. Specifically, we will develop a prototype system to demonstrate the high efficiency, and develop a physics-based computational model to predict the scalability of power output with respect to size. This approach is promising and completely new. The successful execution of the proposal will position us to attract large external grants from various programs on energy, power, and autonomous systems from ONR, NSF, DOE, and other agencies.

An innovative approach for recovering ammonia and high-quality water from wastewater
Principal Investigator: Rui Qiao

Wastewater treatment consumes nearly 3% of the electricity in the U.S. Recovering valuable chemicals such as ammonia from wastewater will make its treatment more sustainable but has received scant attention. In fact, ammonia in wastewater is often converted into N2 at significant energy cost despite that synthesizing ammonia from N2 consumes about 1% of the world’s electricity. We propose a new wastewater treatment technology that integrates ammonia recovery using bioelectrochemical systems (BES) and water recovery using forward osmosis (FO). Such a BES+FO technology can generate significant energy benefit for both wastewater treatment and ammonia industries. Our initial study confirmed the feasibility of this technology but also revealed that its ammonia recovery efficiency must be improved to enable mass deployment. In this integrated computational and experimental project, we seek to (1) develop computational tools for the simulation of coupled ammonia, ion, and water transport in BES+FO systems, (2) delineate the coupled ion, ammonia, and water transport in the BES+FO systems, (3) investigate how these transport can be manipulated to maximize the ammonia recovery efficiency, and (4) develop and validate new designs of BES+FO system to improve the ammonia recovery efficiency. If successful, this project will lead to an efficient prototype BES+FO system and design rules for scaling it up to large systems. The computational tools developed in this project can be adapted to simulate diverse bioelectrochemical systems to serve the need of other VT groups working on BES-related sustainable water/energy technologies.

Bio-inspired solutions for quieter wind turbines and better wildlife preservation
Principal Investigator: Lin Ma

This proposal seeks seed funding with a view to initiate an externally funded research program to tackle two problems associated with wind turbines: reduction of their noise and prevention of wildlife death caused by their blades. Both problems are significant obstacles to the expansive implementation of wind turbines, and they seem to be independent on the surface. Here we propose to initiate a study that is expected to reveal the relationship between these problems and provide solutions to both of them. The key component of the proposed approach involves high speed optical measurements (up to 20 kHz) of flying animals (including bats and birds) in VT’s Stability Wind Tunnel. Combining state-of-art hardware and software recently developed by our team, these measurements are expected to enable data long desired but unattainable thus far to reveal the creature’s motion and of the flow fields caused by such motion simultaneously. These measurements will then be analyzed by our multidisciplinary team to provide critical insight into fundamental questions that cannot be answered by existing data. The data, and the capabilities they demonstrate, are expected to serve as a powerful catalyst to a new and comprehensive, externally funded, interdisciplinary research program in this area. It is expected to draw substantial sponsorship not just from the wind energy industry, but also from the agencies supporting fundamental research (such as NSF and the defense department), the propulsion community, and other bio-relevant areas.

Harnessing CRISPR Technology for Gene Therapy Applications
Principal Investigator: Dr. Irving Coy Allen

Over 4000 human diseases are associated with single gene mutations, including Huntington

Disease and Duchene muscular dystrophy. These monogenetic disorders are logical targets for genome engineering, which seeks to correct the underlying genetic mutations and cure the disease. Our laboratory studies Muckle Wells Syndrome (MWS), which is a monogenetic autoinflammatory disorder associated with an A352V mutation in the NLRP3 gene that results in constitutive IL-1β hyper-production. The corresponding mouse model of this disease carries an

A350V mutation. Earlier this year, a series of high profile genome engineering studies demonstrated for the first time that CRISPR-Cas9 could be harnessed to modify the mouse genome in adult animals. However, for this system to evolve from proof-of-principle to therapeutic application, several major limitations associated with cell delivery must be overcome. The overarching objective of this project is to develop a nanoparticle based delivery strategy for the CRISPR-Cas9 system that is suitable for in vivo applications and conduct proof-of-principle studies using mouse models. Our first Aim is to optimize a PLGA based nanoparticle system for the effective encapsulation and in situ release of the CRISPR-Cas9 system. We will validate this approach in mouse primary cells. Our second Aim will move beyond in vitro characterization by utilizing the CRISPR-Cas9 nanoparticles to correct the Nlrp3 A350V mutation in adult mice and attenuate disease pathogenesis. We believe that combining the CRISPR-Cas9 system with nanoparticle delivery has the potential to significantly alter research and therapeutic paradigms and completion of this proposal will provide us with critical proof-of-principle insight.

Identifying the Effects of Climate Change on Irrigated Agriculture using Remote Sensing and Geospatial Water Rights Data
Principal Investigator: Kelly M. Cobourn

Understanding the effects of climate change on water use by irrigated agriculture is critical to ensuring the sustainability of scarce water resources. However, quantitative estimates of these impacts have proven elusive for two reasons: 1) water rights complicate the relationship between climate signals and irrigator behavior, making it difficult to characterize how irrigators adapt to changes in water availability; and 2) there is a dearth of data on water-use decisions at the spatial resolution of the irrigator and over a time series long enough to capture changes in climate. We propose to overcome these challenges by merging remote sensing science and economics to generate new insight into the ways in which irrigators respond to changes in water availability over the short and long run. We will do so by leveraging an extensive repository of remote sensing data from NASA, recently developed big data classification algorithms, and unique geospatial data on water rights to conduct micro-econometric analyses of irrigator adaptation to climate change. The results of these analyses will be combined with climate change projections to generate novel visualizations that capture the effect of water rights on changes in resource use and economic welfare across space and time. These results will form the basis for future external funding proposals that combine remote sensing and econometric methods to examine broad questions about the societal impacts of climate change. Our findings will support effective and efficient policy making to maintain agricultural productivity and protect water resources in the face of changing natural conditions.

Location via Vibration Tracking – An Indoor Location Tracking System for Smart Buildings
Principal Investigator: Pablo Tarazaga

According to the DOE, United States buildings sector accounted for about 41% of primary energy consumption in 2010, 44% more than the transportation sector and 36% more than the industrial sector. Consequently, a recent DOE report [1] suggests that advanced occupancy sensors (as proposed herein) could increase efficiency by 18%, as opposed to 5.9% using common occupancy sensors yielding a considerable reduction in energy usage. We believe that the localization of vibration events in buildings is a capability that can realize these efficiency improvements. Specifically, we believe that the vibrations induced by building occupants can be measured and used for localization, identification and tracking of individuals. This unprecedented and detailed level of knowledge of building occupancy can (among other things) lead to the development of highly customizable energy systems in the built environment (HVAC, Lighting, maintenance scheduling, etc.). Leveraging the most instrumented building in the world for vibrations, Goodwin Hall, the work proposed here will develop novel methods of extracting information from the building’s sensor network that can be used to accurately calculate occupancy and traffic and consequently used as feedback for an energy control system. Additionally, such a system will also facilitate many other applications including the localization of E911 callers, building evacuation, and emergency response. The ultimate objective of this project is the development of a system that is capable of localizing and tracking individuals in a building without requiring the individuals to wear or carry any device or sensor dedicated to localization. In other words, we wish to be able to localize the individuals in a building using only the building infrastructure. We believe that this can be done using a network of vibration sensors. The immediate goal of this project is to demonstrate the basic technologies required to develop such a system. The results of this demonstration would then be used to obtain the funding necessary to fully develop a prototype of the envisioned system.

Novel strategies for breaking down platelet-mediated extravasation of cancer cells
Principal Investigator: Daniel Capelluto

Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgical treatments non-specifically target a large number of cancer cells leading to severe side effects and toxicities that compromise the quality of life of the patient. Peptide-driven cancer therapy has emerged as an alternative approach that specifically targets cancer cells. Sulfatides are highly expressed at the surface of platelet and cancer cells, favoring platelet-cancer cell interactions. Preliminary data show that Dab2 N-PTB inhibits the association of platelets to leukemia U937 cells. While the results are encouraging, the size of N-PTB limits its usefulness as a drug. We propose to generate a nanodelivered peptide, with similar or higher inhibitory properties to NPTB, by chemically reworking its structure to generate a stable artificial peptide containing the minimal sulfatide-binding region that can block platelet association to cancer cells. We previously demonstrated that Dab2 SBM, a region of 35 amino acids within N-PTB, mimics the inhibitory effects of N-PTB (17). NMR structural studies further showed that the last 20 residues of SBM, containing the BxBxBx sequence (B, basic; x, any residue) are functionally relevant for sulfatide interactions. We propose to generate synthetic Dab2-derived peptides, varying the distance between motifs, increasing hydrophobic interactions (i.e., removing residues 24-38 in SBM, introducing alanine mutations in Asp36 and Asp46; see Fig. 1), reducing the number of ‘spurious’ Arg and Lys residues around the BxBxBx motif (i.e., replacing Lys44 by Ala; see Fig. 1), and containing tandems of BxBxBx. We will apply unrestrained and steered molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to examine interactions between peptides and lipid bilayers enriched with sulfatides. The best candidates will be selected for structural and sulfatide-binding analyses. Peptides will be further evaluated for inhibition of platelet interaction with leukemia cells. Peptides with the highest IC50 will be encapsulated in nanoparticles (NP) comprised of poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) (PLGA) to increase peptide uptake efficiency and to protect them from proteolysis. Fig. 3 summarizes the proposed strategy. NPs can also be coated with poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) chains for improved biocompatibility and longer circulation times in vivo. Dynamic light scattering and NP tracking analysis will be used to characterize the NP size distribution, whereas zeta potential will measure their surface charge. Once optimized, encapsulated peptides will be evaluated in endothelial cell-coated microfluidic devices as we previously reported (17, 18).

Precision Nanomedicine: Heteromultivalent Scaffolds for Fundamental Studies in Cancer Biology & Theranostics
Principal Investigator: Jatinder Josan

Nanoparticles (NPs) are heralded as the next generation diagnostics and therapeutics for cancer. However, there are multiple hindrances to bring them to the clinic. Most NPs are coated with high density of ligands against a cell-surface “good target” (i.e., overexpressed in cancer), leading to side effects. This can be resolved with heteromultivalent approaches. Taking metastatic melanoma as the case study, we will use Protease Activated Receptor (PAR1) and Melanocortin Receptor 1 (MC1R) as the model system to study heteromultivalency. The expression and activity of both receptors get de-regulated with tumor progression and metastatic potential. We will investigate whether a true hetero-multivalent effect can be gained with NP targeting by constructing NPs that contain low and precise density of ligands on the NPs. In this context, endohedral fullerenes allow precise modification with only 2 or 3 orthogonal handles for attachment of ligands, while containing the imaging motif (such as Gd) inside the cage. Alternatively, a liposome-based system will be used to investigate the targeting efficacy of NPs functionalized with varying density of two different receptor-specific ligands, decorated separately or as heterobivalent complex.

Probing Novel Mechanisms of Nanoparticle Crystallization In Situ
Principal Investigator: F. Marc Michel

Our ability to control crystallization is behind untold trillions of dollars of annual technology, as well as a key to interpreting the past, present, and future evolution of our planet. Yet our scientific understanding of crystallization - the transformation of dissolved species into solids – is drastically incomplete. Recent research is revealing a diversity of new “nonclassical” pathways and mechanisms by which crystals, particularly nanocrystals, form and grow through attachment of precursor particles. However, immense gaps remain in our understanding of these processes.

With this understanding, it could very well unlock new ways to stimulate and innovate current technology and even the understanding of nature, which would have fundamental and applied applications from the behavior of the planet to better control of our environment (e.g., climate).

Key to unlocking this potential is developing new ways to study crystallization in situ. The challenge lies in observing and accurately measuring the atomic structural, chemical, and physical properties of a system as it continuously evolves from initial reactant species to intermediate products (i.e., polymers, clusters, and smallest nanoparticles) to final solids. In the proposed collaborative effort we will revolutionize real-time crystallization research by using additive manufacturing (3D printing) and multilayer soft lithography to fabricate ‘reactionware’ devices that are ideal for use with synchrotron techniques. This pioneering approach to crystallization research - using unique crystallization chamber fabrication techniques with stateof-the-art synchrotron science – has a very high probability of success and promises advances in nanomaterials design and synthesis for diverse applications in nanoscience and beyond.

Recovering environmentally distributed pollutants using dynamic bacterial biofilms controlled by synthetic biology
Principal Investigator: Warren C. Ruder, Ph.D.

The natural environment continues to be infiltrated with damaging anthropogenic materials. As a result, methods to recover these substances from waste streams would enable greater sustainability of water quality. A sustainable approach for seek-and-recovery of environmental contaminants will be critical in the future. We propose to engineer control of complex behavior in bacteria with an eventual goal of programming them to target and then aggregate environmental substances as biofilms at key locations. Biofilms (e.g., dental plaque) are composed of embedded bacteria and bacterially produced material matrix. As a result, bacteria that sequester contaminants could be easily recovered by removing macroscopic biofilms. We will use synthetic biology to first program bacteria to sequester environmental contaminants. Next, we will program biofilm locations by using synthetic biology to genetically engineer the bacterial response to the surrounding fluid flow structure. Bacteria represent an ideal technology platform for materials recovery as multiple species already bind contaminants like heavy metals and organic toxins. Furthermore, the biology underlying their propensity to form biofilms in fluid flows is now sufficiently understood to allow us to design genetic programs that control this process. Ultimately, our engineered, pollutant-laden bacteria will aggregate and be recovered at specific locations in moving fluids.

The Development of Thermal Diodes and Transistors for Sustainable Energy
Principal Investigator: Prof. Scott Huxtable

Over half of the energy consumed in the world is ultimately lost as waste heat. Thus tremendous opportunities exist to improve energy sustainability and efficiency through better control of thermal transport. Here we propose to engineer nanoscale interfaces that will underpin the development of novel heat transfer systems. Modern electronic devices benefit from precise control of electrons with fundamental building blocks such as transistors (controlled currents) and diodes (one-way current). Analogues for controlling heat are theoretically possible, but lacking in reality. Systems where heat flow is controlled with thermal transistors and/or diodes would revolutionize our use of energy as otherwise-wasted heat could be stored or routed for further usage. Our limited understanding and control of nanoscale heat transport has hindered the development of these devices. This project will initially focus on elucidating fundamental mechanisms that control heat transfer through interfaces via systematic nanoscale measurements of thermal transport as a function of chemical structure and temperature at an interface. The vibrational spectra of the components will be examined to determine the relationship between vibrational interactions and heat transfer at the nanoscale. By designing molecules with asymmetric vibrational and thermal properties, we will build the foundations for thermal diodes and transistors. This project is fundamentally interdisciplinary as it combines efforts in heat transfer (Huxtable) with preparation and spectroscopy of interfacial films (Ducker). Once the mechanisms of interfacial heat transfer are

understood, the team will be well poised to design and fabricate proof-of-concept thermal diodes and transistors.

Turbulence in real environments: performance and impact on large scale wind energy
Principal Investigator: K. Todd Lowe

We propose an interdisciplinary study of multi-scale wind turbine blade interaction to improve the understanding and prediction of wind farm-scale performance and acoustic emissions. A pressing need in utility-scale wind turbine research is physics-motivated methods for modeling groups of wind turbines. The challenge is daunting, requiring resolution far beyond current computing capabilities if one were to directly model the entire problem. Current approaches are either 1) much too low fidelity to correctly predict the interactions among atmospheric turbulence, upstream blade wakes and local blade loading or 2) naïve in implementing multi-scale resolution switching in attempts to capture some details of flow and acoustics. The approach we propose is to computationally and experimentally study a new model problem that captures the entire range of pertinent space and time scales while also containing many key physics including transitory stall, unsteady transition, dynamic loading, and amplitude modulated noise sources. An experiment involving two turbine blades, one in the wake of the first, is to be designed using resolved simulations for the VT Stability Wind Tunnel and later studied using high speed particle image velocimetry (PIV). Our core hypothesis is that the microscale and macroscale of unsteady flows is coupled in important ways that result in impacts on blade performance and acoustic emissions. Full testing of this hypothesis will extend beyond the scope of the JFC; however, the work proposed is critical for establishing the groundwork needed to seek follow-on funding from NSF (Fluid Dynamics, Energy for Sustainability, Major Research Instrumentation programs) and DOE (Atmosphere to electrons program).

VQA: Visual Question Answering
Principal Investigator: Devi Parikh

We are witnessing an excitement in the research community and frenzy in the media today regarding deep learning, computer vision, and automatic image understanding technology. In fact, nearly two months ago (November 2014), The New York Times heralded the arrival of a new generation of image recognition technology. It takes in as input an image, and outputs a description in natural language (English). While often accurate, the descriptions produced by these systems are quite generic. This is not surprising because the task “describe an image” is ill-defined. One primary motivation behind such image description approaches is to provide analysts or people with impaired eyesight a mechanism to extract relevant information from images and videos. However, usability research and testimonials from disabled have shown that users do not want rambling generic descriptions constantly blaring in their ears. What they want is to be able to poll an intelligent device and ask specific goal-driven questions. What they want is to be able to elicit situationally relevant information – Can I cross the street? Is there a car about to hit me? Is there something sharp in the scene that I should avoid? The overarching goal of this project is to create VQA: A visual question answering system that given an input image can answer natural language free-form questions

Well-defined Nanoscale Carbon Electrode from Block Copolymer Thin Films for Energy Conversion and Storage
Principal Investigator: Guoliang (Greg) Liu

Simultaneously achieving three properties – a large surface area, a high conductivity of electrons, and efficient transport of ions/molecules – is a grand challenge in high performance modern nanoelectrodes for energy conversion and storage. Most conventional materials can achieve the first two properties but often miss the third one and thus have limited performance as electrodes in energy conversion and storage. Herein we propose to synthesize and fabricate thin films of nanoporous carbon structures from block copolymers that can self-assemble into welldefined nanoscale morphologies. We hypothesize that the self-assembled block copolymer thin films can be used as precursors to create nanoporous carbon electrodes with well-controlled morphologies and pore sizes. The resulting nanoporous carbon electrodes 1) inherit from block copolymers their well-defined porous morphologies and molecule-controlled dimensions, 2) gain a high conductivity through high-temperature pyrolysis of polymers into carbon, and 3) allow for fast transport of electrons, ions, and reactants across the thin-film electrodes. We will 1) synthesize novel block copolymers with various compositions for efficient conversion into carbon, 2) pyrolize block copolymers into well-defined nanoporous carbon structures, and 3) functionalize nanoporous carbon with molecules and nanoparticles and test the performance as nanoelectrodes. We anticipate that these nanoporous carbon electrodes can be used in various applications for energy conversion and storage including fuel cells, batteries, and supercapacitors, as well as other applications such as water purification membranes, sensors, and actuators.

Wireless Cognition: A Prototype Multi-User Brain-Computer Interface System
Principal Investigator: John A. Richey

The purpose of the current proposal is to use the principles of brain-computer interface (BCI) to link the brains of multiple humans in real-time, for the purposes of exchanging data about cognitive states in a way that has potential to facilitate communication and problem solving. Broadly speaking, BCI is a system that 1) classifies and 2) reports patterns of brain activity to a device for the purposes of control depending on the distinctive cognitive state of the user. All prior BCI implementations have one feature in common: a single human interacting with a single processor. This is appropriate for scenarios in which a human has no other options for communication (e.g. paralysis). However, many normal aspects of communication could be dramatically accelerated by using a computer as an intermediary. In this project, we will develop and alpha test a prototype multi-user BCI, which will allow users (wearing EEG caps) to communicate simple information extremely rapidly over cellular or Wi-Fi networks. The utility in adding a computer as an intermediary between humans is revealed when considering that there are critical parameters of an interaction that a human 1) is not capable of computing or 2) does not compute for practical reasons (i.e. unreasonable increase in cognitive load), or 3) cannot compute fast enough to be practically useful. A computer could facilitate an interaction by assuming the computational burden. This is useful when verbal communication is impossible such as battlefield conditions or undesirable as in conditions requiring silent communication.

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