Off to the races

2 Houston student teams to compete in Shell’s international eco-friendly driving challenge

Two Houston student teams are competing in Shell's international competition. Courtesy of Shell

What started as a bet in the '30s has evolved into the Shell's Eco-marathon. The competition challenges high school and college students to engineer the fuel-efficient vehicles. And at this year's Shell Eco-marathon Americas, two teams will be representing Houston.

Students from Rice University and James E. Taylor High School are competing in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas, which begins April 3 and wraps up April 6. This year's competition is being held at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California, and will include more than 90 teams from high schools and colleges throughout North and South America.

That's a far cry from the competition's origins. Shell's first fuel efficiency competition took place in 1939, when two Illinois scientists struck a friendly bet over who could engineer a vehicle that ran the furthest on a gallon of gas. The company held an employee competition that year and, save for around a decade and a half in the '70s and '80s, the competition has been held in some capacity every year.

"We really needed to get more young people interested in technology careers," says Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon. "It [doesn't] even need to be with Shell. It's more about the method, science, and helping [students[ gravitate toward those opportunities."

The Shell Eco-marathon has adapted with the decades. Students design vehicles that run on gas, diesel, and biofuels, as well as batteries and electricity. Vehicles fueled by GTL (gas-to-liquid) and hydrogen have also competed in the Eco-marathon, Rosen says.

"It kind of ebbs and flows toward what we see the automotive manufacturers trending toward," Rosen says.

The teams from Rice University is a returning presence to the Eco-marathon, while the team from James E. Taylor High School is competing in the Eco-marathon for its first time. Both teams engineered battery-powered electric urban concept vehicles, Rosen says, and describes "urban concept vehicles" as being similar to Smart cars.

The team that takes the top prize in the Americas' urban concept vehicle competition will compete in the Eco-marathon's regional qualifiers in London. As for the lucky winner? They'll head to Italy, where they'll get to drive their vehicle on the racetrack used in the San Marino Grand Prix in Marino, Italy, Rosen says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Allterum Therapeutics Inc., a portfolio company of Fannin Innovation Studio, is using the funds to prepare for clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

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