Research roundup

3 cancer-fighting innovations coming out of Houston institutions

From a new cancer-detecting device to a digital resource for childhood cancer survivors, here are some cancer-fighting innovations from Houston. Getty Images

Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear lab coats. Almost daily, it seems there's a new breakthrough or discovery for life-saving innovations.

These three cancer-related innovations are coming out of Houston, and they are ones to watch.

University of Houston's biosensor for prostate cancer reoccurrence

Dmitri Litvinov, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is on a mission to bring an effective, low-cost test for prostate cancer recurrence to doctor's offices everywhere. Photo via uh.edu

Researchers from the University of Houston have teamed up with their colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to try to get a biosensor that can detect the recurrence of prostate cancer into the doctor's office.

The research is funded by a $399,988 grant from the National Science Foundation and led by Dmitri Litvinov, principal investigator and professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH.

"Such tests exist in clinical laboratories, but there remains a critical need for inexpensive, versatile and high-sensitivity diagnostic platforms which can bring the performance to the point of care or doctor's office," says Litvinov in a release.

The biosensor platform would be less than $3 per test — an alluring fact for patients and health care providers — and would function more or less like a pregnancy test, but without a simple positive or negative response. Rather, the test can assess how much prostate-specific antigen is in a patient's blood

"Our technology has potential to help improve survival rates with more accessible, affordable and easier testing," Litvinov says.

Rice University's study that points to new cancer-fighting drug

José Onuchic co-authored a study that's opening doors for a new approach in cancer drug development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that a cancer-linked version of the protein mitoNEET can shut the gateways of mitochondria cells that supply chemical energy.

José Onuchic, a physicist and co-director of Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, co-authored the paper and noted that the gateways, called voltage-dependent anion channels, or VDACs, typically open and shut to allow the passage of metabolites and other small molecules between mitochondria and the rest of the cell.

"The VDAC channel transports all types of metabolites between the cytosol and the mitochondria," says Onuchic in a release. "Dysfunction of this channel is involved in many diseases including cancer and fatty liver disease."

Co-author Patricia Jennings, a structural biologist at UCSD, explains in the news release.

"The discovery that mitoNEET directly gates VDAC, the major porin of mitochondria, as well as the accompanying structural analysis and predictions for this interaction, affords a new platform for investigations of methods to induce cancer cells to commit cell suicide, or apoptosis/ferroptosis, in a cancer-specific, regulated process," she writes.

The study opens doors for a new approach to cancer-treating drugs.

"Fine-tuning a drug that specifically alters the redox-state of interaction between VDAC and mitoNEET would allow the development of new weapons to battle multiple cancers," Onuchic says.

Baylor College of Medicine's digital tool for childhood cancer survivors

Baylor College of Medicine has created an online resource for childhood cancer survivors. Photo via bcm.edu

Childhood cancer survivors face a lifetime of obstacles to overcome, and Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Cancer Center have developed a resource to help these patients have the best quality of life in remission.

Passport for Care, a free online resource, features a "survivorship care plan" for the patient, his or her doctor, and family members. The program's new Screenings Recommendations Generator tool can provide a childhood cancer survivor with potential late effects and how to manage their care.

"This tool is especially helpful for patients who have moved on to other doctors who they did not see as a child and who might not be familiar with their particular treatment and the subsequent health risks," says Dr. David Poplack, founder of the Passport for Care and associate director of the Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers, in a news release. "It helps physicians understand their patient's history and know how to address future health problems."

Over 37,000 cancer survivors are using Passport for Care at 138 clinics around the world. Additionally, patients can also register through the Screenings Recommendations Generator.

Passport for Care is funded by the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, as well as through a grant from Hyundai Hope on Wheels.

"We created Passport for Care with the goal of empowering survivors in their healthcare decisions," Poplack says. "Their care doesn't end when cancer treatment is over. Survivorship care is a lifelong journey."

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."