Money moves

Foundation donates $15 million to Houston hospital for inflammation program to enhance research and treatment

The Fondren Foundation has given $15 million to Houston Methodist Hospital to create the Fondren Inflammation Collaborative. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

A $15 million gift from the Fondren Foundation is allowing the Houston Methodist Hospital system to create a new entity for wellness.

This donation will enable Houston Methodist to use resources from two existing programs — the Immunology Center and the Food and Health Alliance — to create the Fondren Inflammation Collaborative. The Fondren Foundation expects this program will become a local, regional, and international nexus for the diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal and immunological disorders and severe food allergies.

"Patients with these complex conditions often travel from doctor to doctor for years in search of a proper diagnosis and treatment," says Rob Fondren, former chair of The Fondren Foundation, in a release. "Recognizing the challenges faced by these patients and their families, The Fondren Foundation's vision is to close the gap in patient care by building an international destination of hope and relief for people with these complex, often intertwined conditions and their underlying inflammatory triggers. A central hub focused on these debilitating disorders would fill a significant gap in the Texas Medical Center."

Houston Methodist turns 100 this year. The Fondren family has served the hospital throughout its history. Fondren family members have served on the Houston Methodist board as well as councils and task forces.

"Houston Methodist would not be where it is today had it not been for the leadership of the Fondren family," says Marc Boom, Houston Methodist president and CEO, in a release. "There is really no family more unparalleled in the history of Houston Methodist. They have contributed to this institution for essentially 100 consecutive years. It's astonishing and humbling the contributions this family has made generation after generation."

The Fondren Foundation donation to form the Fondren Inflammation Collaborative will pay dividends now and for years to come, according to the release. The donation provides for four endowed chairs, research, education, counseling, and training, which will help the Collaborative achieve its initial goals of finding the link between inflammation and gastrointestinal and immunological health and then running clinical trials with groundbreaking treatments. In the future, the Collaborative will expand its scope to understanding the connection between inflammation and other disease-prone areas of the body.

"We're an organization built on the pillars of success, and we constantly evolve," says Roberta Schwarz, executive vice president, chief innovation officer, in a recent InnovationMap interview. "I can't even tell you where we'll be in a hundred years."

Houston Methodist is researching the effect of virtual reality on cancer patients. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Virtual reality goes far beyond playing games with titles like Arizona Sunshine, Moss, Robo Recall, and Tetris Effect. VR also is playing an ever-growing role in health care settings. The global market for VR in health care could reach $3.8 billion in 2020, according to one estimate.

VR is touching all corners of heath, including robotic surgeries, training, pain management, and behavior modification, according to InterbrandHealth, a health care branding agency. And these technologies are happening right here in Houston.

Researchers at Houston Methodist Cancer Center are exploring whether exposure to nature, through either a real garden or VR, can ease pain and distress in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. This approach might decrease the need for prescription painkillers.

Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University are leading this test. Renee Stubbins, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, and Ashley Verzwyvelt, an infusion oncology nurse at the cancer center, proposed the research after several years of studying ways that nature can boost the healing process.

"Anything that affects our patients' comfort — including easing pain and anxiety, and possibly reducing the need for pain medications — is important to their recovery," Stubbins says in a release. "People have an innate connection to nature, and we hope the patients will respond positively."

Three dozen cancer patients receiving chemotherapy infusions every two weeks during at least six cycles will be randomly assigned to one of three rooms: a live-garden-view room; a window-less room, and a room where nature can be experienced through a VR headset.

Teaming up with Houston-based Skyline Art Services, local artist Gonzo247 produced a nature-inspired mural on a wall behind the live garden to create an immersive environment. The mural depicts a flowering garden, blue sky and sunset that enhance the live garden of Texas wildflowers in the foreground.

Researchers will measure pain, distress, blood pressure, heart rate, and saliva cortisol at the beginning and end of each infusion visit. Saliva cortisol, a hormone produced when the body is stressed, helps gauge a patient's condition.

"If this study proves that real or virtual elements of nature help the healing process, then it has potential to positively impact our patients," Verzwyvelt says. "Some of them are hesitant to take pain medication due to concerns of addiction and adverse side effects, so I'm excited to see the possibilities this kind of research could bring."

Houston Methodist Cancer Center says the VR experiment could have implications for treatment of an array of patients who are immobile or whose immune systems are compromised.

"We looked at multiple studies that showed exposure to nature can reduce stress levels and actually increase productivity and creativity," says Ann McNamara, associate professor in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M. "We want to see if we can reproduce those effects in a natural environment in virtual reality."

The study is being financed by the Center for Health & Nature, a joint initiative of Houston Methodist, Texas A&M and Texan by Nature, a nonprofit conservation group founded by former first lady Laura Bush. The Center for Health & Nature, housed at Houston Methodist Hospital, debuted in 2018.

"There's a gap in research regarding what nature factors lead to increased health, what exposure to nature means, and how much exposure is needed," Bush said when the center was announced.