Diagnosing doctors

Houston-based company is connecting the dots on patient referrals

Efficient referrals from doctor to doctor could save a life, so this Houston company is setting out to create a network of medical professionals all accessible in an app. Getty Images

When your doctor recommends that you visit another practitioner, it's only natural that you trust the suggestion. But it's one case in which your physician isn't always an expert. Married doctors Justin Bird, an orthopedic surgeon, and Terri-Ann Samuels, a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, have long noted that patients are often referred incorrectly.

No big deal, right? Just go to another doctor. But not everyone has that luxury. Bird and Samuels never intended to start their own company. But when Bird lost a patient due to faulty referrals, they knew something had to be done.

"He believes that if she hadn't been bounced around from doctor to doctor, they could have saved her life," says Chris E. Staffel, chief operating officer of Patients We Share, the app that the couple created to fix the broken aspect of the health care system.

In 2015, Bird and Samuels began their company when they were shocked to realize that such an app didn't already exist.

"They started working with physicians around the country who said, 'We really, really need this,' and they also invested in it," recounts Staffel. From those friends, they built a physician advisory board of 15 investors.

Prescribing growth
The project was accepted into Johnson & Johnson's incubator, JLABS in 2016, then TMCx's digital startup program in the spring of 2018.

"They started realizing it was gaining momentum and realized they needed to have business people on board," says Staffel.

They hired Michael Antonoff, a Rice University M.B.A., as CEO. He invited former classmate Staffel to join as COO. Having come from a background in oil and gas, Staffel jumped at the chance to try her hand in a different industry.

With new business clout behind PWS, the company is growing quickly. Currently, PWS is entering its next seed round of $2.5 million that will allow the company to pay salaries of new team members and bring some tech development in-house. Until now, the making of the app itself has been outsourced to Mobisoft Infotech, a company based in Houston and India, which has worked on many projects at the Texas Medical Center. Local Black + Grey Studio is responsible for the design.

PWS has been working with both those teams in recent months to get a prototype app ready for launch. Currently, 100 physicians around the country are part of an invite-only pilot program. Soon, Staffel hopes to allow early adopter doctors who haven't been invited to enroll in the program for free. It will likely be in 2020 that patients will start joining the community, too.

How it works
An index of all the providers on the app allows doctors to easily find practitioners in a particular specialty. But there's more to it. Detailed profiles contribute to machine learning that assures the optimal match every time. Patient reviews will also play a role.

Though referrals were the impetus for the creation of PWS, it may be even more important as a communication tool between doctors, fellow clinicians (anyone from nurse practitioners to physical therapists may be invited to join), and patients. Staffel says participants in the pilot program are already using the messaging system to compare notes on cases, even sending photos from surgery to consult on patient issues.

The app's encryption means that it's HIPAA-compliant. Patients provide permission to discuss their cases via the app. And they can be confident of the quality of care they'll receive. Likely, the app will remain largely invite-only, and everyone who joins will share their National Provider Identifier licenses to be vetted against the federal database.

Doctors will communicate directly with patients through the app, but will also share resources digitally. Instead of making copy after copy of information about post-surgical care, for instance, the physician need only press a button to share a link.

Eventually, the goal is for PWS to be used not just nationally, but internationally, not just by individuals, but by whole hospital systems. A world in which doctors can compare notes around globe could be a little safer for us all.

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.