A recent Penn Medicine blog post surveys the efforts across Penn and the Perelman School of Medicine to develop novel says to detect SARS-CoV-2 and features several Department of Bioengineering faculty and Graduate Group members, including César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering; Arupa Ganguly, Professor in Genetics; A.T. Charlie Johnson, Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor in Physics and Astronomy; Lyle Ungar, Professor in Computer and Information Science; and Ping Wang, Associate Professor in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
Read “We’ll Need More than Vaccines to Vanquish the Virus: New COVID-19 Testing Technology at Penn” by Melissa Moodyin Penn Medicine News.
Even as COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out across the country, the numerous challenges posed by the pandemic won’t all be solved immediately. Because herd immunity will take some time to reach and the vaccine has not yet been approved for some groups, such as children under 16 years of age, the coming months will see a continued need for tools to rapidly track the disease using real-time community monitoring.
A team of Penn researchers is working on a new “electronic nose” that could help track the spread of COVID-19. Led by physicist Charlie Johnson, the project, which was recently awarded a $2 million grant from the NIH, aims to develop rapid and scalable handheld devices that could spot people with COVID-19 based on the disease’s unique odor profile.
Dogs and devices that can detect diseases
Long before “coronavirus” entered into the vernacular, Johnson was collaborating with Cynthia Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, and Monell Chemical Senses Center’s George Preti to diagnose diseases using odor. Diseases are known to alter a number of physical processes, including body odors, and the goal of the collaboration was to develop new ways to detect the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that were unique to ovarian cancer.
Since 2012, the researchers have been developing new ways to diagnose early-stage ovarian cancer. Otto trained dogs to recognize blood plasma samples from patients with ovarian cancer using their acute sense of smell. Preti, who passed away last March, was looking for the specific VOCs that gave ovarian cancer a unique odor. Johnson developed a sensor array, an electronic version of the dog’s nose, made of carbon nanotubes interwoven with single-stranded DNA. This device binds to VOCs and can determine samples that came from patients with ovarian cancer.
Last spring, as the pandemic’s threat became increasingly apparent, Johnson and Otto shifted their efforts to see if they could train their disease-detecting devices and dogs to spot patients with COVID-19.
N.B.: A.T. Charlie Johnson, Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the Penn School of Arts & Sciences, and Lyle Ungar, Professor in Computer and Information Science at Penn Engineering and Psychology at the School of Arts & Sciences, are both members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
In May, Lyle Ungar, Professor of Computer and Information Science and Angela Duckworth, Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor in Penn Arts & Sciences and the Wharton School, contributed to a New York Times op-ed on how to slow the COVID-19 pandemic through a culture of mask-wearing.
As infections continue to rise, Ungar and Duckworth are following up with another op-ed. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, they outline the need to rapidly ramp-up the city and state’s contact tracing capacity:
As scientists continue to battle the novel coronavirus, public health officials maintain that wearing a face mask is a powerful way to curb the spread of the virus and keep communities safe. However, America has struggled to adopt this change, as compared to other countries that have made wearing a face mask an unremarkable aspect of their culture.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Lyle Ungar, Professor of Computer and Information Science, Angela Duckworth, Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor in Penn Arts & Sciences and the Wharton School, and Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, propose a new approach to increase consistent face mask use among Americans: make wearing a mask “easy,” “understood,” and “expected.”
In their article, Ungar, Duckworth, and Emanuel make reference to communities that provided face masks free of charge for residents and note the decrease in infection in these areas. In addition, they point out how uncertainty about the necessity of face masks in the U.S. has led to public confusion which inhibits trust and use of masks. Finally, the three researchers push for a shift in social norms to embrace wearing a face mask as standard in America for the near future.
In a Q&A, researcher Lyle Ungar discusses why counties that frequently use words like ‘love’ aren’t necessarily happier, plus how techniques from this work led to a real-time COVID-19 wellness map.
By Michele W. Berger
People in different areas across the United States reacted differently to the threat of COVID-19. Some imposed strict restrictions, closing down most businesses deemed nonessential; others remained partially open.
Such regional distinctions are relatively easy to quantify, with their effects generally understandable through the lens of economic health. What’s harder to grasp is the emotional satisfaction and happiness specific to each place, a notion Penn’s World Well-Being Project has been working on for more than five years.
In 2017, the group published the WWBP Map, a free, interactive tool that displays characteristics of well-being by county based on Census data and billions of tweets. Recently, WWBP partnered with Penn Medicine’s Center for Digital Health to create a COVID map, which reveals in real time how people across the country perceive COVID-19 and how it’s affecting their mental health.
That map falls squarely in line with a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by computer scientist Lyle Ungar, one of the principal investigators of the World Well-Being Project, and colleagues from Stanford University, Stony Brook University, the National University of Singapore, and the University of Melbourne.
By analyzing 1.5 billion tweets and controlling for common words like “love” or “good,” which frequently get used to connote a missing aspect of someone’s life rather than a part that’s fulfilled, the researchers found they could discern subjective well-being at the county level. “We have a long history of collecting people’s language and asking people who are happier or sadder what words they use on Facebook and on Twitter,” Ungar says. “Those are mostly individual-level models. Here, we’re looking at community-level models.”
In a conversation with Penn Today, Ungar describes the latest work, plus how it’s useful in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing.
Though the coronavirus situation is changing daily, even hourly, by now the need for physical separation from those not in your household is clear. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, says Penn psychologist Melissa Hunt.
“We’re social animals,” says Hunt, associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology Department. “We have an entire neuroendocrine system that responds to touch and social proximity with people we care about, that contributes to our sense of well-being and connection in the world. Losing out on that is really hard.”
It’s also not something we’ve really been asked to do before, says Lyle Ungar, a Penn computer scientist who is part of the World Well-Being Project, an initiative that uses social media language to measure psychological well-being and physical health. “This is an experiment on a scale that we’ve never seen in the United States,” he says.
Ungar and Hunt offer some suggestions to stay positive and healthy in the face of this new social isolation.
1. Maintain a connection with the people you love, even if it can’t be a physical one.
“Social distance does not mean no social contact,” Ungar says. Psychologically, face-to-face conversations are best, but right now they’re not likely possible. Instead, Ungar suggests video calls. “They’re second best in terms of emotional bonding,” he says. “Phone calls aren’t as good as video chats, and texting is even worse. But of course, being totally isolated is the worst.”