Who's Who

3 Houston heath tech innovators to know this week

Armed with their doctorate degrees and startups, these three STEM biotech innovators are going places. Courtesy photos

Whether it's for dogs or dating, Houston is prime for innovative leaders in health science startups, and there are three in particular you need to know going into a new week. From a DNA-based dating app creator and a researcher curing cancer in dogs to cutting-edge biotech leader, here are the Houston innovators to know. Doctorate degrees and startup companies in hand, each of these entrepreneurs is going places.

Brittany Barreto, co-founder and CEO of Pheramor

Courtesy of Pheramor

Brittany Barreto was studying genetics in college, and her professor was talking about how there are 11 genes in DNA that can determine physical compatibility with others. She had the idea right then and there in the classroom to make a DNA-based dating app. Almost 10 years later, she's done it, with Pheramor.

The Houston startup has launched nationwide and is in the midst of another capital campaign. Barreto is also looking to expand her team to account for the growth and success.

Lidong Qin, founder of Innovative Biochips

Courtesy of Lidong Qin

Lidong Qin spends his days as a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine, but three years ago, he expanded his resume. He launched his biotech startup, Innovative Biochips, as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist.

Qin says it can be difficult to launch a biotech startup in Houston, since the industry requires hefty initial funds to open a facility, get patents and hire a team of researchers. Now, iBiochips is armed with private investments and a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health's Small Business Technology Transfer program to continue researching and developing early disease detection technologies.

Colleen O'Connor, founder of CAVU BiotherapiesĀ 

CAVU Colleen O'Connor

Courtesy of CAVU Biotherapies

Losing a pet is awful, and for so many people, pets are full-blown family members. When Colleen O'Connor lost her furry family members to cancer, she knew she had to do something about it. Cancer treatment in humans had evolved to include immunotherapy, and O'Connor thought man's best friend deserved an upgrade from the 1980s practices veterinarians use.

She created Houston-based CAVU Biotherapies, and, in September, the first treatment was administered to a black lab named Franklin. O'Connor is focused on expanding her treatment and its access to pups so that no pet owner has to prematurely say goodbye to good boys and girls.

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.