Category Archives: Research News

Rising costs for infections linked to bacteria in water supply

articleBacteriaWaterSupply2016A team led by Tufts researchers has found that healthcare costs are rising for infections linked to bacteria in water supply systems. The costs may now exceed $2 billion for 80,000 cases per year, and antibiotic resistance may be contributing to the trend.

“Premise plumbing pathogens can be found in drinking water, showers, hot tubs, medical instruments, kitchens, swimming pools—almost any premise where people use public water. The observed upward trend in associated infections is likely to continue, and aging water distribution systems might soon be an additional reservoir of costly multidrug resistance,” says lead author Elena Naumova.

The Tufts team included Naumova, professor at the Friedman School and Director of the Initiative for the Forecasting and Modeling of Infectious Disease at Tufts University, and Jeffrey Griffiths, professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. Both Naumova and Griffiths have a secondary appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE).

CEE postdoctoral fellow Alexander Liss was also an author on the paper, alongside Irmgard Behlau, research assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Jyotsna Jagai of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Read the press release and the full paper in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

Summer scholar profile: Grace Aro

Each year, the Summer Scholars Program awards funding to a select group of rising juniors and seniors from across Tufts academic disciplines, to carry out ten-week independent research projects. This summer, we profiled three engineering students as they worked on their projects.

Grace Aro working in the lab at SciTech. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Grace Aro working in the lab at SciTech. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Name: Grace Aro
Hometown: Denver, CO
Major: Chemical engineering, E18
Faculty mentor: Assistant Professor Ayse Asatekin

Project: There are “a lot of people in the world who don’t have access to clean drinking water,” says Aro, “and that’s a big issue.” Her project investigates an interesting potential solution: a co-polymer membrane that could filter organic materials out of surface water, while resisting getting clogged. The membranes that she made and tested in the lab are zwitterionic, meaning that they were created with zwitterions — ions that have positive charges on one end and negative on the other.  So far, Aro’s research suggests that the zwitterionic membranes seem to have equal the filtering capabilities of commercially-sold membranes, while clogging less. She’s also experimenting with whether the membranes can remove lead from a solution.

Read more: Filtering cleaner drinking water, and Water purification at the molecular level

New technique for generating human neural stem cells

Neuromuscular tissue engineering: hiNSCs (red) grown in co-culture with skeletal muscle (green), with cell nuclei visualized by blue DAPI staining. Credit: Dana M. Cairns, Tufts University.

Neuromuscular tissue engineering: hiNSCs (red) grown in co-culture with skeletal muscle (green), with cell nuclei visualized by blue DAPI staining. Credit: Dana M. Cairns, Tufts University.

A new technique, discovered by Tufts researchers, generates rapidly-differentiating human neural stem cells for use in a variety of tissue engineering applications. The researchers are not the first to generate these stem cells, but their process appears to be simpler, faster, and more reliable than existing protocols. They converted human fibroblasts and adipose-derived stem cells into stable, human induced neural stem cell (hiNSC) lines that acquire the features of active neurons within as few as four days, compared to the typical four weeks.

The work could pave the way for experiments that engineer other innervated tissues, such as the skin and cornea, and for the development of human brain models with diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Dana Cairns, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, was first author on the paper published in Stem Cell Reports. Paper authors also include corresponding author Professor David Kaplan; Karolina Chwalek, former postdoctoral researcher in biomedical engineering; Rosalyn Abbott, postdoctoral scholar in biomedical engineering; and Professor Stephen Moss, Yvonne Moore, and Matthew Kelley from the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.

Read the full paper in Stem Cell Reports.

Summer scholar profile: Anu Gamage

Each year, the Summer Scholars Program awards funding to a select group of rising juniors and seniors from across Tufts academic disciplines, to carry out ten-week independent research projects. This summer, we profiled three engineering students as they worked on their projects.

Anu Gamage performs research on her inverted pendulum.

Anu Gamage performs research on her inverted pendulum.

Name: Anu Gamage
Hometown: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Major: Electrical engineering, E18
Faculty mentor: Assistant Professor Usman Khan

Project: An inverted pendulum is exactly what it sounds like: a pendulum stood on its head, with its center of mass above its pivot. It requires a constant application of force to keep it balanced. The human body is an inverted pendulum, Gamage points out, with our muscles constricting to act against gravity and keep us upright. There are inverted pendulums in robotics and in aeronautics. They’re monitored by internal sensors that track the pendulum’s position and apply the proper amount of force to maintain its vertical position. Those internal sensors, however, are potentially vulnerable to software bugs or cyberattacks. Gamage seeks to create an external camera system that would capture a running visual feed of the pendulum’s motion, process those images, and use that data to balance it. “It would be robust against attacks or malfunctions,” says Gamage.

Read more: Defying gravity with an inverted pendulum, and Anu’s blogs for Tufts Admissions

Decreasing algal blooms in freshwater

Professor Steven Chapra, Louis Berger Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering

A team of American and Canadian researchers, including Professor Steven Chapra, has demonstrated that reducing phosphorous decreases algae blooms in freshwater. In the past ten years, some scientists have argued that controlling phosphorous alone was not enough, and that nitrogen inputs must also be reduced. The research team found that reducing nitrogen won’t actually help the problem of eutrophication (the proliferation of algal blooms and related changes in lakes), which is one of the leading causes of freshwater pollution and costs an estimated $2.2 billion a year in the U.S. alone.

In many ways, Chapra and colleagues say, this is good news—controlling inputs of phosphorous is much less costly than controlling nitrogen. “It is obvious in retrospect that the reduction of nitrogen would have been largely futile and wastefully expensive,” said Chapra.

The team detailed their research in a recent feature article in Environmental Science & Technology.

Communicating health risks with visualizations

Associate Professor Remco Chang creates visualizations to help communicate health risks to patients.

Associate Professor Remco Chang creates visualizations to help communicate health risks to patients.

Associate Professor Remco Chang, students, and collaborators at Maine Medical Center (MMC) created a project to investigate how older men with prostate cancer use visualizations to better understand their own health risk information. Chang, master’s student Anzu Hakone, E16, recent graduate Nate Winters, E16, doctoral recipient Alvitta Ottley, EG16, postdoctoral researcher Lane Harrison, and MCC collaborators Dr. Paul Han and Caitlin Gutheil have a paper entitled “PROACT: Iterative Design of a Patient-Centered Visualization for Effective Prostate Cancer Health Risk Communication” appearing at the 2016 IEEE InfoVis conference. The web-based visualization prototype, PROACT, supports patients to learn about their cancer risk and the possible side effects of different treatment options.

Lantagne writes on the need for wastewater treatment innovation

With water quality in Rio de Janeiro in the news, Assistant Professor Daniele Lantagne wrote for The Conversation on the failure to adequately treat and dispose of wastewater. The conversation about Rio, Lantagne says, is often missing a key contextual detail: this is a common problem across the globe, requiring innovation and alternative approaches.

Lantagne also recently spoke to the New York Times on recent audits of UN mission sites’ sanitation practices.

Tufts named academic partner in Massachusetts offshore wind funding

Professor Dan Kuchma

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Dan Kuchma (pictured) and collaborators such as Professor of the Practice Eric Hines are part of the Tufts University team named by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center as one of six academic and research institutions that will receive $300,000 in funding to explore offshore wind. The Massachusetts Research Partnership for Offshore Wind — including Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, University of Massachusetts Lowell and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution — will develop a multidisciplinary framework for offshore wind research, focusing on increasing innovation within projects and reducing costs by examining risks, finances and regulations associated with the industry.

“Tufts has made transformative impacts on our understanding of natural hazards, climate change, energy and infrastructure. As we contemplate the infrastructure challenge of developing 21st century energy resources, we are excited to work closely with our partners across engineering, policy and industry to advance a systems level approach to this important undertaking,” said Kuchma.

Summer scholar profile: Jenny Skerker

Each year, the Summer Scholars Program awards funding to a select group of rising juniors and seniors from across Tufts academic disciplines, to carry out ten-week independent research projects. This summer, we’ll be profiling three engineering students as they work on their projects.

skerker.JPGName: Jenny Skerker
Hometown: Lexington, MA
Major: Environmental engineering, E17
Faculty mentor: Associate Professor John Durant

Project: Over the last several years, you might have seen a Tufts RV driving around Boston. That RV, operated by Tufts CEE graduate students and equipped with fast-response air pollution monitoring equipment, was collecting data on air quality throughout the city. Skerker will bring some of that data into an analysis program called AERMOD to model air dispersal patterns from the northbound and southbound Central Artery Tunnel exits beneath downtown Boston  a particular focus that hasn’t been studied before. “My question that I’ll be trying to answer,” Skerker says, “is: where is this pollution going [when it exits the tunnel]? Does it affect neighboring communities? What’s the downwind direction?”

More information: Modeling air pollution in Boston, and Big road blues

Messner writes on autonomous cars

Bill Messner, John R. Beaver professor of mechanical engineering, recently wrote about advancements in autonomous car technology and about the future of these self-driving vehicles. Messner opined that “the prospect of greatly reducing accidents, injuries and deaths due to reckless driving, drunk driving, distracted driving, impaired driving, speeding and road rage means that increasingly automated cars will be a fact of life in the years ahead.”

Read the full article in The Conversation and the Boston Business Journal.