Med tech

Houston biotech company aims to enhance oncology treatment of highly resistant cancers

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.

Houston-based Procyrion has closed a $30 million round — doubling its total funding to date. Getty Images

A clinical-stage medical device company based in Houston has rounded up $30 million for its Series D funding. Procyrion Inc.'s round was lead by Bluebird Ventures — a new funding partner for the company.

Procyrion is developing a blood pump, called the Aortix™ system, that's optimized for patients with heart and kidney failure. Joining in on the round with Bluebird are return investors, including Fannin Partners, Scientific Health Development, the State of Texas, and an undisclosed strategic investor. This round has now more than doubled the company's total funding, bringing that figure now to $59 million.

"Of the more than 1 million patients per year in the U.S. admitted to the hospital with acute decompensated heart failure, 25 to 30 percent also have worsening renal function," says Eric S. Fain, president and CEO of the company, in a release. "These are typically the most difficult to treat patients with high mortality and rehospitalization rates."

The funds, Fain says, will go toward advancing the medical device, specifically enhancing the system's ability to decongest cardio renal patients in the company's pilot program.

"Today there is a major gap in effective therapies that are available to treat these critically ill patients, and as such, there is a significant opportunity to improve patient outcomes," Fain continues in the release. "The Aortix device is uniquely designed and positioned in the body to simultaneously decrease the workload of the heart and improve kidney function."

The Aortix device is a solution for patients who haven't seen success from medical therapy, but don't have the immediate need for a transplant or more drastic solution. The device is thinner than a pencil, the release says, and can be inserted in a matter of minutes in a cath-lab setting. The size and ease of application could be transformational for the large population of heart patients that would need it.

In addition to the funds, Jeff Bird, managing director of Bluebird Ventures, will join the company's board of directors.

"The Procyrion Aortix device provides an elegant solution for managing heart failure, a serious and difficult-to-treat problem," says Bird in the release. "We are excited to work with this experienced team as they begin clinical testing."


The device is thinner than a pencil and can be inserted in less than 10 minutes. Photo via procyrion.com