Health and Wellness

logo of a heartOur researchers improve health and wellness for humans and animals, making transformational discoveries in disciplines ranging from Alzheimer’s to zinc digestibility. In short, ACES is committed to advancing health.

These impacts are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars. 

Below, we showcase a fraction of our world-class research in the area of health and wellness. You can also view a pdf version and subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research. 

Quick action makes emergency ventilators a reality

RapidVent prototype
RapidVent prototype, courtesy of Grainger College of Engineering.

As the nation began to shut down in March amid growing COVID-19 numbers and concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment, hospital beds, and ventilators, Illinois scientists jumped into action. Just days after the state’s first stay-at-home order, a team of engineers, physicians, designers, and manufacturing experts created a prototype for an inexpensive emergency ventilator that could breathe for the sickest patients using only an oxygen tank or the oxygen source in most hospital rooms. 

Benchtop testing showed the device, dubbed RapidVent, delivered appropriate rates of oxygen. But animal testing would be required for the device to move forward with emergency FDA authorization. Naturally, the team turned to the Wheeler lab in the Department of Animal Sciences. Matt Wheeler had successfully built and tested lifesaving medical devices using pigs, and he knew he could do the same with RapidVent. Within a week, he assembled his team, developed a protocol, and completed the first 24-hour animal tests. The device worked.

After a few more tweaks and enhancements, Illinois RapidVent was ready to be licensed and produced by private companies. The ventilator has now been licensed by electronics company Belkin, and is now awaiting FDA approval for manufacturing. 

ACES researchers:
Matt Wheeler, Animal Sciences

Related news stories:

Pigs push forward quick solution for emergency ventilators 

Illinois RapidVent being produced by Belkin

12 days

Measuring food insecurity in America

Volunteer food bank worker
Volunteer food bank worker distributes produce boxes during COVID pandemic.

Food insecurity exists everywhere in the United States. More than 40 million people have limited access to adequate food, and that number could grow much higher during the COVID-19 pandemic. Households with children are more likely to be food insecure, and 1 in 4 children could face hunger.

ACES researcher Craig Gundersen works with Feeding America, an umbrella organization for a network of 200 food banks nationwide, on estimating food insecurity rates around the U.S. They have developed Map the Meal Gap (MMG), a comprehensive model that estimates food insecurity around the country. MMG provides an interactive web tool that allows users to search food insecurity levels by county, state, or region.

Feeding America uses MMG to produce annual reports on U.S. food insecurity. The most recent report estimates the impacts of coronavirus due to projected increases in unemployment and poverty levels under the pandemic. In the worst-case scenario projections, the proportion of children living in food-insecure households could increase to 24.5% over the next year. That means 18 million children would be food insecure, exceeding the previously measured highest total of 17.2 million during the Great Recession in 2009.

These projections could help inform legislators and aid organizations so they can take steps to help alleviate the problem. Gundersen also uses MMG data in other research projects, including analyses on how food banks work to promote consumption of healthy food and how charitable food assistance works in tandem with public assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). MMG also contributes to a multi-state research project led by Arizona State University studying how food banks work with food retailers to obtain supplies, and a five-state project supported by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research that aims to understand how food systems operate and adapt in times of stress.

Partial funding:
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Conagra Brands Foundation and Nielsen
Feeding America
Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research
USDA NIFA

ACES researchers: 
Craig Gundersen, Agricultural and Consumer Economics

Related news stories:

Low-income households get nutritious food, food banks study shows

Emergency research grant studies how coronavirus affects food systems in the U.S. 

Grant project studies how food retailers work with food banks 

Up to 1 in 4 American children may face hunger in the next year

COVID virus evolution

SARS-CoV-2 virus
SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Viruses have one goal: spread. Since SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, arrived on the global scene, it has mutated rapidly in pursuit of its goal. Illinois scientists have been tracking these mutations to understand the behavior of the virus. A recent study, mining more than 15,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes sampled from the early months of the pandemic, shows certain protein regions of the virus are becoming more stable, while others are still undergoing rapid mutation. 

Mutations have slowed in the spike protein, the protein that gives the virus its spiky, crowned appearance. The spike is responsible for attaching to human cells and injecting the virus’s genetic material, RNA, inside to be replicated. Mutations are also slowing in two regions related to RNA replication and quality assurance. The researchers think the three stabilizing regions are coordinated to achieve greater infectivity and spread.

Finding stable proteins, including several involved in infectivity, is both positive and negative. The bad news is the virus is honing mechanisms that work well toward its goal, but it also means there may be more stable targets for vaccine development. 

Proteins still undergoing rapid mutation include those that package RNA and others that create pores in host cells to facilitate viral release and replication. Although they are still changing, the researchers believe these regions are important to track because rapid change often precedes stabilization.

The researchers plan to continue tracking the virus. 

Funding: Office of Research and Office of International Programs in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

ACES researchers:
Gustavo Caetano-Anolles, Crop Sciences

Related news story:

Illinois study tracks evolution of SARS-CoV-2 virus mutations

Personalized Nutrition Initiative

Sharon Donovan (center) speaks with colleagues. Photo courtesy of L. Brian Stauffer.
Sharon Donovan (center) speaks with colleagues. Photo courtesy of L. Brian Stauffer.

Precision or personalized nutrition offers a way to optimize human health and quality of life by tailoring recommendations based not only on diet history and phenotype, but also on an individual’s genetics, microbiome, and metabolome. It encompasses almost all known aspects of science, ranging from the human genomes, plants and microorganisms, to analytical sciences, computing, and statistics, to human behavior.

The Personalized Nutrition Initiative at Illinois is a new partnership between the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and College of ACES, and aims to build transdisciplinary, collaborative efforts across campus to answer fundamental questions regarding how nutrition modulates health and disease through the lifespan. Sharon Donovan, Professor and Melissa M. Noel Endowed Chair in Diet and Health in ACES, will direct the new initiative.

Advancing personalized nutrition was identified as a key area for strategic investment in the U of I’s The Next 150 2018-2023 Strategic Plan, and is also a keystone of the new National Institutes of Health 10-year Strategic Plan for Nutrition.

Donovan’s research, administration, internal and external interdisciplinary collaborations, and industry relations experiences will bring significant value to the PNI in achieving its goal of coordinating transdisciplinary research, education, outreach, and entrepreneurship in the area of personalized nutrition at the University of Illinois.

ACES investigators and departments:
Sharon Donovan, Food Science and Human Nutrition

Related news stories:

Donovan to lead Illinois Personalized Nutrition Initiative