digital disease detective

Houston-based biotech company aims to revolutionize cellular dissection technology

iBiochips was awarded a $1.5 million grant in September to help develop a new technology that delivers data about the cell's genetic makeup and reports abnormalities. Getty Images

Innovative Biochips, a Houston-based biotechnology company, is one step closer to commercializing technology that the company hopes will provide an opportunity for researchers to detect diseases earlier.

The company was founded three years ago by Dr. Lidong Qin, a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine. He launched iBiochips as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist. Qin says he wanted to engineer and manufacture devices that focus on revolutionizing single-cell isolation and genetic analysis.

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.

"In the Houston area, even though it looks like it's a lot of state money (grants) around, it's very limited, and that's been a challenge of ours," Qin says.

But with the help of a $1.5 million investment from a private investor, Qin was able to launch iBiochips in 2015, and shortly after opened his own lab on Kirby Drive.

Recently, iBiochips was awarded a $1.5 million grant in September from the National Institutes of Health's Small Business Technology Transfer program. The grant will further support the company's research and development of an automated yeast dissection chip, which is designed to perform a raw analysis of single cells and deliver data about the cell's genetic makeup and report abnormalities.

Prior to the phase two grant, iBiochips was also awarded NIH's phase one grant of $225,000 in September 2017 to develop a prototype for the company's flagship cell isolation product, the Smart Aliquotor.

The Smart Aliquotor is a single-cell isolation dissection platform that allows scientists to analyze larger amounts of cells at a much faster rate than traditional isolation methods, Qin says. He says the system is also more convenient for researchers to operate because traditional cell isolation techniques require a lot of human effort.

To isolate the cells with a Smart Aliquotor, a scientist would take a patient's blood sample and inject it into a single point in the device. The blood sample would then travel through microfluidic channels into the device's 60 to 100 isolated holes, Qin says.

"In three days, we can handle about one million cells," Qin says. "In a traditional approach, people can handle only one or two cells in three days. So that is how we came to the [idea of the] chip can help a scientist do 20 years of work in three days."

The Smart Aliquotor can then be examined with iBiochips' newly funded automated dissection chip, which Qin says has the potential to detect cancer or infectious diseases earlier than before.

"If you isolate a cell by itself — even in the very beginning stage when the aggressive cells are not as dominating yet — you can still see that [abnormality in the sample]," Qin says.

iBiochips' products are currently only being manufactured for research use at clinical labs, universities and pharmacies. However, with the recent grant award, Qin says the company's research team plans to spend the next three to five years preparing the products for worldwide commercialization.


Dr. Lidong Qin is a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine. He launched iBiochips as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist.Courtesy of Lidong Qin

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.