July 3, 2024

NDSU researchers developing tech to treat diabetes


The NDSU Office of Research and Creative Activity’s Sparking Big Ideas Research Initiative included a March workshop focused on “Hacking aging: Bridging disciplines for a more inclusive future.” The workshop was led by KnowInnovation in support of team formation and proposal development, with a goal of fostering seed proposals to advance ideas for the development of competitive proposals in pursuit of significant external funding.

The workshop drew considerable interest from the many faculty whose work has the potential to improve health outcomes for North Dakotans. The resulting funding competition will support work led by NDSU industrial and manufacturing engineering assistant professor Harun Pirim and co-principal investigator NDSU computer science professor Jen Li entitled, "A Holistic Approach to Personalized Prevention of Age-Related Diabetes."

The $100,000 project is funded by the Economic Diversification Research Funds, which were appropriated in the 2023 North Dakota legislative session. The funding was targeted at stimulating economic activity through innovative technology, promoting job creation, enhancing health care and providing experiential learning opportunities for students. NDSU expertise is leveraged to find solutions that can enhance outcomes for an aging North Dakota population, valuable use-inspired research with translational impact for the state’s needs.

Pirim and Li's research is centered on a holistic approach to diabetes and Pirim notes that this is a crucial distinction given traditional research has often focused on singular aspects of the disease, missing the broader interactions between these factors.

"Diabetes in aging populations is influenced by a complex interplay of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors," he said. "By integrating insights from genomics, environmental health, behavioral science and computational biology, we aim to create comprehensive models that better predict individual risk profiles."

Utilizing digital twins, or virtual models of patients that mirror their real-world health status, the researchers hope to be able to predict how they might respond to various health scenarios, treatments, or lifestyle changes.

Digital twins are used to simulate, analyze and predict outcomes, enabling better decision-making and personalized care. They can incorporate a patient's medical history, genetic information, lifestyle and current health data and allows doctors to run simulations and predict how different treatments might affect the patient without any risk. With data and advanced algorithms to predict health outcomes, disease progression and potential complications, digital twins can help in early intervention and personalized treatment plans.

Using the digital twin technology, the research team hopes to develop a predictive system against age-related diabetes that will allow for the development of more effective, personalized prevention and treatment strategies that address the multifactorial nature of diabetes.

The technology promises a highly customized treatment plan for each patient. "We will refine these models with real patient data in the future to improve predictive accuracy and create tailored interventions, ultimately enhancing patient outcomes and reducing healthcare costs," Pirim said.

Heidi Grunwald, NDSU associate vice president for research development, led the process for selecting the project for funding. She saw merit in the new approach to a health issue many have faced throughout time. "The expertise of both Dr. Pirim and Dr. Li along with their novel approach has the possibility to improve how we help people suffering from age-related diseases like diabetes." Grunwald added how the work fits well into the criteria and objectives set forth for EDRF-funded projects. "This project aligns with stimulating economic activity through innovative technologies while enhancing healthcare in the state."

The timeframe for the project is one year and runs through May 2025.

Given the relatively short period, Pirim hopes to see immediate benefits and results for the work, and he is optimistic about bringing together researchers from many diverse disciplines. "We have collaborators from industrial engineering, computer science, psychology, and pharmacology – all addressing an aging-related problem."

“Thanks to Governor Burgum and North Dakota legislators for these Economic Diversification Research Funds, our researchers are able to carry out this work,” said NDSU Vice President of Research and Creative Activity Colleen Fitzgerald. “Many thanks also to Sheri Anderson and the Strategic Research Initiatives team for their work on the Sparking Big Ideas Research Initiative. We hope to see those efforts and EDRF serve as a multiplier effect, leveraging Heidi’s deep knowledge of health funders like the National Institutes of Health.”

Categories: Research, Faculty
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