stem cell magic

Innovative Houston lab works with 'ghost hearts' to study impact of regenerative medicine

A Houston research team is studying the effects of regenerative medicine on hearts. Photo via

Ask any high achiever and they’ll tell you — failure is the path to success.

As Camila Hochman-Mendez puts it, “I’m like Thomas Edison, right? I know a thousand ways of how not to create a lightbulb.” But she’s not really talking about electricity. Hochman-Mendez is director of Regenerative Medicine Research and the Biorepository Core at Texas Heart Institute.

Hochman-Mendez follows another pioneering woman in the role, Doris Taylor. The younger scientist took on the prime job when Taylor left in 2020. By then, Hochman-Mendez had been at The Texas Heart Institute for three years, moving from research scientist to assistant director in just four months.

Regenerative Medicine is every bit as exciting as it sounds. At Hochman-Mendez’s lab, her team creates ghost hearts — organs from which all cells are scrubbed, leaving collagen, fibronectin, and laminin in the shape of the formerly beating ticker. The goal is to use the decellularized organs as protein scaffolds that, once injected with stem cells, will once again contract and pump blood.

Hochman-Mendez cautions that we are still years away from that point, but her lab is working hard to get there.

“The ultimate goal is to develop functional hearts that can be used for transplant,” says Hochman-Mendez.

Those hearts would be made from the patient’s own cells, avoiding organ rejection, which the scientist says is essentially trading one disease for another. But she is realistic about that fact that there are many barriers to her success.

“It does come with a lot of technical challenges,” she says.

These challenges include the simple number of cells that billions, and potentially hundreds of billions of cardiomyocytes are needed to recreate a human heart. The necessary protocols, Hochman-Mendez explains, are extremely costly and labor intensive.

It also takes 60 days for the cells to reach a maturity at which they can function. The lab recently received a pair of grants targeted at creating bioreactors that can be reliable for at least those 60 days.

The third major issue facing the Regenerative Medicine lab is contamination.

“It needs to be very sterile,” says Hochman-Mendez. “It needs to be so clean that if you have one tiny bacteria there, you’re screwed.”

Fortunately, the scientist says that her favorite hobby is computer programming. She and a physician colleague have created a robotic arm that can help to prevent the contamination that often stemmed from humans manually injecting stem cells into the decellularized organs.

This not only works towards solving the contamination problem, it also allows the team to more accurately distribute the cells that they add, using an injection map. To that end, she is producing a three-dimensional model of a protein scaffold that will allow her team and other scientists in the field of regenerative medicine to understand how the cells really disperse when they inject them.

When will her lab produce working hearts?

“I try to be very conservative on timing,” she says.

She explains that it will take significant leaps in technology to make a heart mature to the level at which it’s usable for an adult body in 60 days.

“That’s magic and I don’t believe in magic,” she says, but adds that she hopes to have a prototype ready to be tested in five years.

Hochman-Mendez does this all with a small team of nine researchers, most of whom happen to be female.

“The best candidates are the ones that I select," she says. "The majority are females. I think it’s a mix of trying to be very unbiased, but I usually don’t even look at the name before looking at the CV to preselect the people that I interview.”

And together, Hochman-Mendez are making medical history, one success-spawning failure at a time.

Camila Hochman-Mendez is director of Regenerative Medicine Research and the Biorepository Core at Texas Heart Institute. Photo via

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A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

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