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2023-2024 Creativity Hubs Finalists Selected

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR) is pleased to announce five finalists for this year’s Creativity Hubs seed-funding competition. These interdisciplinary teams — representing the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, School of Data Science and Society, School of Medicine, Gillings School of Global Public Health, Eshelman School of Pharmacy, and NC State University — highlight the effectiveness of uniting diverse problem-solvers to tackle big challenges. Creativity Hub winning projects are expected to lead to large-scale extramural funding and/or commercial opportunities.

To date, the Creativity Hubs program has yielded meaningful scientific progress, and contributed to extramural funding support to UNC-Chapel Hill exceeding $204 million and counting. The finalists for this round will prepare full proposals and present their project ideas in the spring semester. The winning team(s) will then be eligible for up to $500,000 in continued funding from the OVCR to execute their proposals over the next two years.

Creativity Hubs awardees receive proposal development assistance from the Office of Research Development to pursue large-scale, follow-on awards that build from the program’s funding.

The finalists advancing to the next round of Creativity Hubs funding are:

The Human MHC Project: Revolutionizing Cancer Therapy by Total Sequencing of the MHC Peptidome

Leon G. Coleman, School of Medicine, co-PI; Benjamin Vincent, School of Medicine, co-PI; Daniel Dominguez, School of Medicine, co-PI

Individualized cancer immune therapies are costly and limited by the inability to see what the immune system sees. By using a new technique that uses existing molecular biology tools, scientists can fully map the interactions between T cells and tumors, creating the means to develop affordable and accessible personalized therapies and vaccines.

The body’s immune system targets cancerous tumors with direction from tumor-specific antigens — proteins found only on cancer cells. Peptide antigens are created to further guide T cells to cancerous cells with the help of a traffic-conducting molecule called major histocompatibility complex (MHC).

MHCs present peptide antigens on the surface of all cells. The peptides communicate signals resulting in the immune system either killing or sparing antigen displaying cells, avoiding healthy cells, and targeting cancerous ones. All current cancer immunotherapies rely on this process, but we can’t see which peptides are targeted by T cells.

These issues can be addressed by a single, low-cost solution that rapidly and completely sequences all MHC peptides, which the team refers to as the MHC Peptidome. This method could be performed in any lab and would revolutionize protein sequencing, potentially transforming cancer immunotherapy.

Precision-Guided Closed Loop Adaptive Ultrasound Neuromodulation

Paul Dayton, Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, co-PI; Gianmarco Pinton, Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, co-PI; Vibhor Krishna, School of Medicine, co-PI; Adam Hantman, School of Medicine, co-PI; Oleg Favorov, School of Medicine; Shawn Hingtgen, Eshelman School of Pharmacy; Yueh Lee, School of Medicine; Yasmeen Rauf, School of Medicine; Ben Philpot, School of Medicine; Daniel Roques, School of Medicine; Ian Shih, School of Medicine; Samarjit Chakraborty, College of Arts and Sciences; Weili Lin, School of Medicine; Jason Mihalik, College of Arts and Sciences

The brain is one of the most complicated and dynamic structures in the human body. Understanding and healing it is an enormous challenge that needs to be solved to treat disorders like depression, neurodegenerative diseases, movement disorders, and traumatic brain injuries. While there are many powerful technologies for assessing the brain’s anatomy and function, they are fundamentally limited by time, quality, cost, and accessibility.

Although high-resolution brain ultrasound imaging and neuromodulation — the alteration of brain activity — was unthinkable a decade ago, recent advances in technology have opened the door to revolutionary new approaches. And by adding in a closed loop solution that integrates real-time feedback from the brain, researchers could detect brain malfunction and actively correct it.

A non‐invasive wearable ultrasound device combined with new machine learning approaches could bring adaptive and precise neuromodulation within reach. This form of focused ultrasound would be incisionless, would not require anesthesia, and could be done outside of a hospital. If achieved, this capacity could usher in a new era of unprecedented treatment capabilities, brain‐machine interfaces, and understanding of neuroscience. The ability to treat the whole brain with real time feedback will be a game-changer in clinical medicine.

ALTER - Autonomous Living Therapies for Extended Results

Ronit Freeman, College of Arts and Sciences, PI; Pietro Dotti, School of Medicine; Barbara Savoldo, School of Medicine; ; Abraham Vazquez-Guardado, NC State University; Michael Daniele, NC State University; Soumya Rahima Benhabbour, Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering ; ; Greg Forest, College of Arts and Sciences; Sorin Mitran, College of Arts and Sciences; Charles Gersbach, Duke University; Richard Loeser, School of Medicine; Nicholas J. Shaheen, School of Medicine; Shehzad Sheikh, School of Medicine; Ryan Balfour Sartor, School of Medicine; Chirag S. Desai, School of Medicine; John Buse, School of Medicine

According to the CDC, six out of 10 adults have a chronic disease. Many of these conditions require strict drug therapies, yet successful medication adherence — such as frequent dosing — by patients is a global issue. In the U.S., poor adherence leads to 125,000 deaths each year and is estimated to cause more than $300 billion in avoidable health care costs.

Drug-delivery systems in the form of long-acting pills or sustain-release systems are a promising solution to mitigating obstacles to adherence. Yet, no clinical solutions exist that offer patient-specific autonomous dosing for extended use and disease monitoring. This research team proposes to engineer a set-and-forget drug delivery implantable technology that delivers a personalized medicine approach like no other.

While existing drug delivery implants require medications to be frequently reloaded, this new class of devices would include a cell pharmacy, where living cells make the drugs on site and on demand providing the patient with the right dose at the right time. To do this, researchers will take living cells engineered to produce therapies and put them in material manufacturing environments to make adaptive living therapies. This technology will alter the way we treat chronic diseases, putting treatment control into the hands of patients and their physicians.

Advanced Medical Screening in Underserved Populations Using a Transportable Nanotube-Enabled Imaging System

Yueh Lee, School of Medicine, co-PI; Otto Zhou, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Jianping Lu, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Marc Niethammer, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Youzuo Lin, School of Data Science and Society, co-PI; Yifei Lou, College of Arts and Sciences, School of Data Science and Society, co-PI; Huaxiu Yao, College of Arts and Sciences, School of Data Science and Society; James Sivak, School of Medicine; James Gruden, School of Medicine

Medical imaging is a primary tool used in screening for disease and monitoring treatment. But it can be difficult to access, creating disparities within the health system. Furthermore, when imaging is accessed, the results can be confusing or unavailable to patients. One solution combines a complex, deployable carbon nanotube-enabled imaging system — which is smaller and easier to install than other imaging systems — with AI-powered analysis and report generation.

The most complex aspect of this solution is developing a new AI-based application advanced enough to function without the assistance of a radiologist. This team seeks to leverage the abundance of information available in routine radiological reports to substantially improve the development of AI approaches for medical imaging applications. This will enable the system to make clinical diagnoses and generate clinical radiology reports, completing the entire clinical workflow.

This solution could be used in pharmacy chains or large retails stores common in rural areas to increase access to screenings and improve early detection for lung cancer and cardiac issues. It would be a resource for patients to access screening in their community and immediately have a plain-language report that can be sent to their physician.

Advancing Solid Electrolytes for Next-Generation Lithium Batteries

Wei You, College of Arts & Sciences, co-PI; Theo Dingemans, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; James Cahoon, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Frank Leibfarth, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Megan Jackson, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Alexander Miller, Sustainable Energy Research Center, Senior Personnel

Lithium-ion batteries impact almost every part of our lives. Yet, there remain many outstanding issues with the technology that require both fundamental and applied research. Currently, lithium-ion batteries use a liquid electrolyte as the medium that allows the movement of lithium ions between cathode and anode — the negatively and positively charged electrodes by which electrons enter an electric device.

This liquid electrolyte is responsible for some of the biggest issues with lithium-ion batteries, like flammability and decreased ionic conductivity. With focal areas in developing solid-state electrolytes and organic, recyclable charge storage materials, this proposed Creativity Hub will address several challenges holding back technological developments in batteries, including cost, recyclability, and rapid charge/discharge cycles.

With newly announced lithium mining projects, N.C. is positioned to be a major lithium producer in the future. A lithium-ion battery hub is timely, demonstrating UNC-Chapel Hill’s commitment to the field and positioning our institution as a center-of-gravity for battery research in the state.