The spring 2023 Research & Innovation Roundtable (RIR) yielded four projects that have been selected for seed funding support from the Office of the President. These four projects – along with the three selected from the fall 2022 RIR – are viewed as investments in the future of Iowa State University, as outlined in the 2022-2031 Strategic Plan.

The RIR program is administered by the Office of the Vice President for Research. Each RIR is structured to bring together diverse disciplines and points of view from around the university in a collaborative environment to surface big and bold interdisciplinary research ideas. Faculty members share their respective interests and areas of expertise then participate in topic-specific breakout sessions. Each breakout group reports their top take-aways and the entire gathering is given time to support formation of self-assembled teams.

The spring RIR focused on the overarching topic of Healthy Iowa – enhancing the health of all that live and grow in Iowa, from plants to animals to people. Ninety-nine Iowa State faculty registered and 75 participated in the Spring event. Nine self-formed teams submitted proposals after the March 10 RIR and four were selected for support. All proposals were evaluated by program facilitators. Those projects selected for funding had to align with the Iowa State 2022-2031 Strategic plan and the teams had to be comprised of members from different disciplines who employ different research approaches and methods.

Peter Dorhout, Vice President for Research, is excited by the faculty’s engagement with the RIR program during the 2023 fiscal year.

“Seven colleges and more than 30 departments participated in each event. The 75 attendees in the spring were up from 48 in the fall. For Iowa State to truly be a trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions, we must be a university that cultivates a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment where students, faculty and staff flourish,” Dorhout said. “The RIR program has successfully brought together researchers from all four corners of campus with a common goal of sharing their diverse perspectives, expertise and ideas to identify critical areas of need and research-driven solutions that simply can’t come from singular disciplines, approaches or methodologies.”

Here are overviews of each of Healthy Iowa RIR research project selected for strategic investment.

Project Title: Tackling Iowa’s High Melanoma Burden: Personalized Therapy Accelerated by Machine Learning-driven Lab-on-chip Diagnostics

Principal Investigator: Robbyn Anand, associate professor, Chemistry

Co-PI: Anuj Sharma, professor, Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering

Proposed Project Summary
Iowa has the second-highest incidence of cancer in the nation, and it’s the only state in which cases are increasing. Melanoma is one of the most prevalent forms of cancer with an incidence rate in the state that is 30% higher than the national average, so effective treatment is a key factor in supporting a Healthy Iowa.

Tumor tissue continuously releases cancer cells into the blood stream. The obvious downside is this can cause the cancer to metastasize throughout the body, and metastasis is responsible for more than 90% of cancer deaths. The silver lining is cancer cells releasing into the bloodstream provide an avenue for “liquid biopsy” – a non-invasive means of gaining information needed to more effectively guide cancer treatment.

The Anand research group has developed a liquid biopsy technique, using a microfluidic platform for selective capture of circulating melanoma cells (CMCs) from a background of healthy blood cells through the process of dialectrophoresis. For most assays, CMCs must be viable. This viability can be compromised by the unwanted capture of white blood cells (WBCs) and the most prevalent method of CMC verification, immunofluorescent labeling, compromises cancer cell viability and function. This is where the Sharma research group comes into the picture. Both Anand and Sharma believe they can develop a machine learning (ML) approach that enables the rapid and accurate classification of CMCs and WBCs based on images obtained through microscopy.

The ML advancement will be important because it will enable tumor cells to be accurately quantified and for highly invasive or drug-resistant cells to be identified, effectively enabling more rapid and accurate screening of blood samples over the long term.

“Our team is thrilled to have the opportunity to develop diagnostics that will help provide Iowans with the best treatments for melanoma,” said PI Robbyn Anand.

University Strategic Plan Aspirational Statement This Plan Advances

  • To be the trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions

Potential External Funding Partners and Opportunities

Anand and Sharma intend to apply for funding through the Iowa Department of Public Health (IPDH), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). The team will also propose further development of single-cell assay technology and its clinical validation. Finally, Anand and Sharma could evaluate the technology’s commercial potential with Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) Proof of Commercial Relevance or NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding.

Project Title: Restoring Exercise Engagement in Sedentary Populations Through the Discovery of the Biological Factors Mediating Physical Inactivity

Principal Investigator: Peter Clark, assistant professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition

Co-PIs:

  • Elizabeth McNeill, assistant professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition
  • Peter Martin, professor, Human Development and Family Studies
  • Amie Zarling, associate professor, Human Development and Family Studies
  • Jacob Meyer, assistant professor, Kinesiology
  • Lynna Chu, assistant professor, Statistics
  • Lyndi Buckingham-Schutt, assistant professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition

Proposed Project Summary

Maintaining a physically active lifestyle throughout one’s lifespan can significantly reduce the risk of developing some of the deadliest and most debilitating chronic diseases and mental health disorders by as much as 60%. Yet the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates nearly two-thirds of Americans currently fail to meet recommended activity levels and 25% lead completely sedentary lifestyles (20% to 25% in Iowa). A better understanding of the factors that contribute to persistent sedentary behavior is critical for developing interventions that increase activity across the lifespan to lower the societal impact of preventable chronic disease.

There is a growing body of evidence that implicates adverse experiences (e.g. psychological traumas) as significant risk factors for developing sedentary lifestyles. However, little is known about how these stress exposures and traumas make individuals more prone to chronic inactivity. This project will leverage new and emerging technologies to identify the genetic and biological underpinnings of sedentary lifestyles that develop following exposure to adverse experiences. The long-term goal will be to develop new and highly targeted therapeutic approaches that reengage sedentary populations in physical lifestyles.

“Given the strong group of multidisciplinary researchers involved, we are uniquely positioned at Iowa State to address this timely question. We have already begun to expand this research into an interdepartmental effort,” said PI Peter Clark. “University strategic plan seed funding will assist us greatly in obtaining the necessary preliminary data to demonstrate the strength of our team efforts, which will help our exciting research program continue to gain traction in the scientific community.”

University Strategic Plan Aspirational Statement This Plan Advances

  • To be the university that creates opportunities and forges new frontiers
  • To be the trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions

Potential External Funding Partners and Opportunities

The research team sees opportunities with a variety of external agencies:

  • NIH, as reflected in its December 2018 Notice of Interest in Long-term Maintenance of Behavior Change Research and The Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC)
  • The National Institute of Aging (NIA) and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
  • The Department of Defense (DOD) through initiatives focused on improving the wellbeing of service members and veterans
  • The American Heart Association

Project Title: Developing and Implementing a Web-interface Model for Real-time Analysis and Visualization of Animal Health Threats

Principal Investigator: Giovani Trevisan, assistant professor, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine

Co-PIs:

  • Oliver Eulenstein, professor, Computer Science
  • Daniel Linhares, associate professor, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine
  • Christopher Rademacher, clinical professor, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine, and interim director, Iowa Pork Industry Center
  • Phillip Gauger, professor, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine
  • Michael Zeller, postdoc, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine

Other Investigators Integral to the Project’s Success:

  • Guilherme Cezar, graduate student, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine
  • Srijita Chandra, graduate student, Computer Science
  • Sriram Vijendran, graduate student, Computer Science
  • Kinath Rupashinghe, software developer, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine
  • Tina Peterson, technical project specialist, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine

Proposed Project Summary

Swine, and the pork and pork-derived products that come from these animals, are vital to the Iowa and U.S. livestock economy. Iowa is the largest swine-producing state, with an inventory of 22.8 million head and 5,400 pig farms. Across the state in 2019, more than 147,000 jobs – one in nearly 10 working Iowans – were associated with the state’s pork industry. It comes as no surprise, then, that a major disease outbreak can have a significant impact on not only the swine industry itself, but also the economy and the food supply in Iowa and across the nation. In addition, animal diseases and their impact on the farm economy can inflict stress and take a significant toll on the mental health of farmers and agricultural workers.

Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), caused by the PRRS virus (PRRSV) is one of the swine industry’s costliest diseases. PRRSV is also the disease agent with the largest number of genetic sequences deposited into a private collective – the multi-institutional Swine Disease Reporting System (SDRS) housed at Iowa State University. Using the data shared with SDRS as a model, the team behind this collaboration will leverage artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and 3D web-based interactive visualization to create a user-friendly system that would alert Iowans to the detection of novel strains, or reemergence of health threats, in the early stages of the disease process. With this information in hand, stakeholders can make better-informed decisions earlier to mitigate the spread of imminent animal health threats such as PRRS.

“Dr. Eulenstein and I are very excited to receive this funding to bring together our highly collaborative, interdisciplinary team,” said PI Giovani Trevisan. “By combining computer science and veterinary expertise, we are well-positioned to apply sophisticated machine-learning methods to deliver novel approaches and information to alert Iowans about arising health threats. The products generated will provide stakeholders a much-needed powerful computational tool to detect new and emerging PRRSV strains coupled with an easy-to-use web-visualization interface.”

University Strategic Plan Aspirational Statement This Plan Advances

  • To be the university that creates opportunities and forges new frontiers

Potential External Funding Partners and Opportunities

This project will lay the foundation for the team to apply for funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) programs. The team’s significant ties to the swine industry position it well to apply for private sector funds related to swine health and production. Additional potential funding candidates include: the Swine Health and Information Center (SHIC), Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA), American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV), and the Growing Research and New Technology for Swine (GRANTS) program, sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim.

Project Title: Development of Next-generation Detection and Sampling Platforms for Zoonotic Pathogens in the Food Chain

Principal Investigator: Orhan Sahin, associate professor, Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine

Co-PIs:

  • Muslum Ilgu, Research Scientist III, Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine, Adjunct Assistant Prof., Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology
  • Amanda Kreuder, assistant professor, Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine at Iowa State University
  • Lie Tang, professor, Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering
  • Meng Lu, associate professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Qijing Zhang, Clarence Hartley Covault Distinguished Professor, Dr. Roger and Marilyn Mahr Chair in One Health, Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine

Proposed Project Summary

Foodborne diseases, caused by a variety of pathogenic microorganisms associated with food, represent a significant threat to One Health. In the U.S., the CDC estimates foodborne pathogens cause 9.4 million illnesses, nearly 56,000 hospitalizations and more than 1,300 deaths a year. In addition to the health impact, foodborne diseases make an enormous impact on the food industry each year due to product recalls and the need to sometimes terminate animal flocks or herds for safety reasons.

Successful control of foodborne diseases requires sensitive, rapid and reliable detection methods in both preharvest (on-farm) and postharvest (processing plants and the food chain) environments. One of the major challenges in detecting pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter, is the need to analyze a wide variety of complex samples – from feed, water and feces to air, whole carcass and carcass wash – along the steps of the production system.

The team behind this project will explore developing a platform that uses robotics, machine learning, microbiology and sensor technologies to address the urgent need for developing an automated, rapid and reproducible sample collection and pathogen detection system for the food chain. The platform could be used for multiple purposes: it would drastically improve the speed, accuracy and reliability of pathogen detection; and it could be used for precision livestock farming as it could be easily adapted for real-time monitoring of on-farm health and environmental status. The outcome of this effort will position Iowa State to be a national and international leader in automated pathogen detection and the fight against foodborne diseases.

“The university strategic plan seed funding will enable us to jump start our work to develop practical and sustainable solutions for some of the most critical problems the food production industry has been dealing with for many decades,” said PI Orhan Sahin. “Tackling such complex and multidimensional issues requires a true multidisciplinary approach. Our research team has the capacity and capability for such an effort, as it has diverse and complementary expertise in microbiology, chemistry and aptamer technology, sensor development and robotics.”

University Strategic Plan Aspirational Statement This Plan Advances

  • To be the university that creates opportunities and forges new frontiers
  • To be the trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions

Potential External Funding Partners and Opportunities

The results from this project will provide preliminary data to seek from funding from USDA-NIFA, including the Sustainable Agriculture Systems and Foundational and Applied Science programs. A multi-institutional effort has already been established to submit a USDA SAS proposal to help the turkey industry address the Salmonella challenge. Co-PI Zhang is leading that effort and all investigators attached to this RIR project will be key players in the SAS proposal. Additionally, the pathogen detection platform can also be used to apply for NIH grants as detection of various pathogens from clinical samples is also challenging and a key NIH priority. In addition, NSF has several relevant programs including Foundational Research in Robotics and Biosensing (Biophotonics and Engineering Biomedical Systems programs) that could be funding options as well.