Pitt competition produces answers to health problems

Contest finds first three $100K-prize winners

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An innovation contest sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh produced its first three winners of $100,000 prizes Monday, with proposals ranging from smartphone applications that would help smokers kick the habit and Parkinson's disease patients know when they need medicine, to a bandage that would help diabetics heal their skin ulcers faster at home.

The Pitt Innovation Challenge, or PInCh contest, in which contestants were asked by the Pitt Clinical and Translational Science Institute to find solutions to get people engaged in their own health, also gave each team a project manager to help execute its project over the next year.

"I think it shows a bridging between the university community and the folks in the business world, and what their interests and needs are," program director John Maier told several hundred guests assembled inside the University Club to hear the teams present their ideas.

In addition to the top prizes, three teams won $25,000 each for a cloud-based application to decrease hospital readmissions, a prescription notification system, and a peer-staffed text help line for teens with sexual health questions. Each of the teams, which each included a Pitt faculty member, had to make a two-minute video presenting members' ideas, with finalists presenting their ideas Monday night to a panel of five judges.

A similar competition is expected for next year, said Dr. Maier, also the director of research and development for Pitt's department of family medicine.

Among the top winners, doctoral student Eric Jeffries said the growth factors on bandages produced by his team's project, Sealion, had been shown to close wounds 40 percent faster than plain bandages alone. And because the growth compounds would be delivered gradually, over time, a far smaller amount would have to be used than under conventional methods and patients would only have to change their bandages once each week.

The growth factor's delivery system -- a proprietary polymer for which the team has applied for a patent -- has great potential both to make money in what is currently a $2 billion wound care industry with 10 percent growth, and help patients take better care of themselves, said Noah Johnson, a doctoral candidate and team member.

"We really hope these bandages can keep the wound from going down to the bone, which they can do eventually," Mr. Johnson said.

Another winning application, SPark, would track the movements of Parkinson's patients to detect abnormal motion that signaled the need for additional medication, and alert the patient that it is time for additional dosage. The app could help such patients stay independent longer, said Samay Jain, assistant professor of neurology at Pitt's School of Medicine.

"SPark is software that transforms the phone into an ever-present caregiver," Dr. Jain said, motioning to one of his patients, Karl Mormer, who helped present the proposal.

Several dozen patients in his practice are already using the software to monitor their health and medications, Dr. Jain said.

"We have a community really ready to go with this, and that really helps us," he said.

In Ellen Beckjord's psychiatry practice, many patients want to stop unhealthy behavior -- smoking, for instance -- that either has or someday could lead to chronic disease. But even patients who come to believe they can change often fail, in part because many cessation tools don't "provide intervention at the time people need it most, in real time while they're doing the work of changing their health behavior," she told judges.

Her team's project, QuitNinja, focuses on smoking cessation but could be used for any unhealthy behavior, by giving reinforcements for health behavior -- showing the patient a picture of the daughter for whom she is trying to stay healthy, for instance -- at times when unhealthy behavior is often triggered, such as by a stressful conversation.

"I want people to say, 'QuitNinja knows what I need and it reaches out to me,' " said Ms. Beckjord, assistant professor of psychiatry at Pitt's School of Medicine.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.

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