Who's who

3 Houston health-focused innovators to know this week

From a locally sourced meal service company to stem cell research and a balance measuring device, this week's innovators are ones to know in the health industry. Courtesy photos

More and more Americans are focusing on their health, from eating right to experimenting with new treatments or devices. These three Houston innovators are riding the coattails of this health-focused movement with their startups. With advances in technology and the movement only growing faster and faster, you'd better keep your eye on these Houston innovators.

Marla Murphy, founder of The Blonde Pantry

Courtesy of The Blonde Pantry

Marla Murphy didn't feel like she was doing enough to promote health and wellness with her platform, The Blonde Pantry. So, she expanded it to incorporate locally sourced produce and easy-to-make recipes she gets ready every weekend to deliver to her members by Monday.

"It's not about selling meals and moving on, I want this to be a lifestyle company that is really founded and has deep roots in Houston," says Murphy in a InnovationMap story.

Murphy tells InnovationMap that in the next year she hopes to expand into the retail space and find a bigger commercial kitchen to function as their own. She also hopes to partner with companies outside of food and continue to nourish lives in someway.

David Eller, chairman, co-founder and CEO of Celltex

Courtesy of Celltex

Stem cell treatment is personal to David Eller, chairman, co-founder and CEO of Celltex. Eller had the treatment in hopes of resolving pain from a college football injury.

"I would go to work and put four to six Advil in my pocket," Eller says in an InnovationMap story about Celltex's technology. Within months, he stopped needing those pills.

Houston-based Celltex tracks its progress with its patients. Eighty-three percent of multiple sclerosis patients have reported improvement of symptoms specific to their disease, as have 73 percent of Parkinson's sufferers. But the staggering fact is that 100 percent of 58 respondents with rheumatoid arthritis say they have benefited.

Katharine Forth, founder and CEO of Zibrio

Courtesy of Zibrio

Katharine Forth has used a technology she developed with her colleague at NASA to measure balance in astronauts to create a device that any terrestrial human can now use from the comfort of their own homes.

"The machines typically used for balance measurement can be as large as a telephone booth, so we invented a new way to measure postural control using a much smaller mechanism that fit inside a moon boot," Forth says in an InnovationMap article about Zibrio, The Balance Company. Zibrio, The Balance Company.

Zibrio is now a finalist for the 2019 SXSW Pitch in the health and wearables category and will take its balance technology to the stage in March.

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.