Research roundup

These 3 medical innovations are ones to watch in Houston

Houston researchers are hard at work in the lab to progress medical advancements at the bedside. Getty Images

Every day, important research is being completed under the roofs of Houston medical institutions. From immunotherapy to complex studies on how a memory is made, Houston researchers are discovering and analyzing important aspects of the future of medicine.

Here are three research projects currently being conducted around town.

University of Houston's potential solution to sickle cell disease

Vassiliy Lubchenko is a University of Houston associate professor of chemistry. Courtesy of UH

For the most part, sickle cells have been a mystery to scientists, but one University of Houston professor has recently reported a new finding on how sickle cells are formed — enlightening the medical community with hopes that better understanding the disease may lead to prevention.

Vassiliy Lubchenko, UH associate professor of chemistry, shared his new finding in Nature Communications. He reports that "droplets of liquid, enriched in hemoglobin, form clusters inside some red blood cells when two hemoglobin molecules form a bond — but only briefly, for one thousandth of a second or so," reads a release from UH.

In sickle cell disease, or anemia, red blood cells are crescent shaped and don't flow as easily through narrow blood vessels. The misshapen cells are caused by abnormal hemoglobin molecules that line up into stiff filaments inside red blood cells. Those filaments grow when the protein forms tiny droplets called mesoscopic.

"Though relatively small in number, the mesoscopic clusters pack a punch," says Lubchenko in the release. "They serve as essential nucleation, or growth, centers for things like sickle cell anemia fibers or protein crystals. The sickle cell fibers are the cause of a debilitating and painful disease, while making protein crystals remains to this day the most important tool for structural biologists."

Lubchenko conclusion is that the key to prevent sickle cell disease is to is to stop the formation of the initial clusters so fibers aren't able to grow out of them.

Baylor College of Medicine's immunotherapy research in breast cancer

science-Digital Composite Image Of Male Scientist Experimenting In Laboratory

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are looking into the complexities of immune cells in breast cancer. Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are leading an initiative to figure out the potential effect of immunotherapy on different types of breast cancers. Their report is featured in Nature Cell Biology.

The scientists zoned in on two types of immune cells — neutrophils and macrophages — and they found frequency differed in a way that indicated potential roles in immunotherapy.

"Focusing on neutrophils and macrophages, we investigated whether different tumors had the same immune cell composition and whether seemingly similar immune components played the same role in tumor growth. Importantly, we wanted to find out whether differences in immune cell composition contributed to the tumors' responses to immunotherapy," says Dr. Xiang 'Shawn' Zhang, professor at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center and member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in a news release.

Further exploring the discrepancies between the immune cells and the role they play in tumor growth will help better understand immunotherapy's potential in certain types of breast cancer.

"These findings are just the beginning. They highlight the need to investigate these two cellular types deeper. Under the name 'macrophages' there are many different cellular subtypes and the same stands for neutrophils," Zhang says. "We need to identify at single cell level which subtypes favor and which ones disrupt tumor growth taking also into consideration tumor heterogeneity as both are relevant to therapy."

Rice University, UTHeath, and UH's memory-making study

Researchers from all corners of Houston are diving into how memories are made. Courtesy of Rice University

When you make a memory, your brain cells structurally change. Through a multi-institutional study with researchers from UH, Rice University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, we now know more about the way memories are made.

When forming memories, three moving parts work together in the human brain — a binding protein, a structural protein and calcium — to allow for electrical signals to enter neural cells and change the molecular structures in cognition. The scientists compared notes on how on that binding protein works.

The team's study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Peter Wolynes, a theoretical physicist at Rice, UH physicist Margaret Cheung, and UTHealth neurobiologist Neal Waxham worked together to understand the complex process memories experience in the process of being made.

"This is one of the most interesting problems in neuroscience: How do short-term chemical changes lead to something long term, like memory?" Waxham says in a release from Rice. "I think one of the most interesting contributions we make is to capture how the system takes changes that happen in milliseconds to seconds and builds something that can outlive the initial signal."

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Building Houston

 
 

Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of Houston-based Enovate Upstream, has big plans for increasing efficiency across the oil and gas sector. Photo courtesy of Enovate

A Houston energy tech company announced a new artificial intelligence platform that aims to digitize the oil and gas sector to provide the best efficiency and return on investment at every stage of the supply chain cycle — from drilling and production to completion.

Enovate Upstream's exponential growth, says Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of the company, has already led to two new strategic partnerships in the works with European and Latin American companies.

"We see a better future in the oil and gas industry," Mejia shares in an interview with InnovationMap. "Our team worked in various roles in O&G, and we don't think the industry will end up as some people may think. The future will be different and digitized, we are just here to facilitate that transition to give back to the industry that gave us a lot."

The company's proprietary cloud-based ADA AI digital ecosystem is challenging the assumptions of the industry by using new technology powered artificial intelligence to provide historical data with AI to give real-time production forecasting. Thanks to the cloud, users can access the information anywhere in the world.

The new platform combines three models — digital drilling, digital completions, and digital production — that provide precise data that can be customized to the client's needs, integrating into an existing platform easily for a real-time view of their return on investment and carbon emission output.

Mejia shares more about his company's growth and what goals Enovate Upstream is setting to continue the course of digitization in the oil and gas industry in the Q&A with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: What inspired Enovate Upstream’s focus on artificial intelligence technology for the upstream value chain?

Camilo Mejia: For the past five or six years, there's been talk of digitalization, and the value of data. The next level is not the value of the data, it's about the automation, how you can improve operations, and how you can help customers to make better decisions. Every single technology that we are developing here is about the return of investment.

Our AI concept is about the physics behind the data. We are accelerating digital adoption by properly showing the tangible value of the technology by speaking the same language and showing the value from the oil and gas perspective, which was one of the challenges other AI technology faced to break into the industry before. Our artificial intelligence component upgrades this technology to optimize the industry while integrating it with this digital ecosystem all in one place. The digital ecosystem we're building covers the entire value chain.

One of the challenges the industry faces is around capital allocation — how we can help customers to properly allocate capital into projects, which is a fundamental way we forecast new projects. Another challenge is the size of the organization that ranges from corporations to small businesses. They have many opportunities to improve cost but that varies across companies.

We are overcoming that challenge in order to develop a technology that can show the inefficiencies between the sizes. The third challenge is the adoption of digital technology. There are two different ways of deploying artificial intelligence. One is data-driven analysis, data-driven models, or data trading — this is the foundation.

IM: What fundamental changes do you think your cloud-based ADA technology can provide across every stage of the value chain?

CM: The biggest change we have in the platform is revising the workflow based on the production size. We use the data the customers already have, to develop a model that changes the way we forecast production in the industry. Before you deploy the capital and execute the project, you are going to have a better idea of the maximum potential profitability, so you can make better decisions at any stage from that point.

One of the inspirations for this was Tesla. The automotive industry was failing to provide a self-driving vehicle because it was using mathematical approaches, but Tesla overcame that challenge using data of millions of drivers to drive and park the cars efficiently, optimizing the process.

We are doing exactly the same, which is applying mathematical equations only for drilling forecasts, production forecasts, and using the data from the wells to see how the projects are behaving. We also integrate the modules so every single module is communicating with each other at every stage to correlate back to a production forecast to set your targets or operation based on that expected return of investment.

Our concept is about the return of investment, in order to develop the ROI concept, you got to plan the events right and the varying size production, that becomes the second component. The third component is about optimization of operations, which is about automation to improve operations and therefore decision-making. We are developing technology that has a very modern interface to automate operations in a more intuitive way so customers can be independent in the process and make the best decisions.

IM: At the moment, there is a need for virtual connections. How does your technology allow certain hands-on tasks to be handled remotely?

CM: In many ways, we have a big project in the Gulf of Mexico. We place technologies that we are using in today's market and deploy a platform that customers can use independently. We can also automate operations to the cloud by just deploying, trimming the data out of the field straight to the cloud so that people in the field can actually use the AI component to optimize operations. We don't require face to face interaction using the cloud environment.

Since the coronavirus these digital components have been on demand, we have grown about 500 percent from the end of Q1 and into the middle of Q2. We are experiencing an acceleration in the adoption of digital technology, but the ability to deploy the technology through the cloud has been instrumental in gaining more traction in the market. As a matter of fact, just as an indicator, we have been hiring people since the start of the coronavirus.

IM: Enovate Upstream started a year ago since then you’ve experienced exponential growth. What are a couple of goals that the company will achieve by the end of the year?

CM: Our strategy is focused on the next level for the company, which is securing funding round with investors in London. We are also aiming to facilitate the deployment of our technology globally. We are focusing on the United States and Latin America, but we hope to expand our funding round to Europe and the Middle East.

Our other goal lies with our partnerships, we are working through a distribution channel, through larger service companies that are facilitating the commercialization of the technology. The focus is on enabling these companies to properly support the customers by doing more technology integration and increasing the value creation.

The next goal is obviously to sustain the company, even though we have been growing, there is a lot of uncertainty in the market, and we are focusing on building the culture of the company, which is challenging in a virtual space.

IM: How has Enovate Upstream navigated an unstable market amid your rapid growth?

CM: That's a good question. I think the lesson is that you can always end up in a different direction. Coronavirus is having a big impact on many businesses, often negatively, but for us, it was instrumental to realize the full potential of the technology we were developing.

We saw that the activity was going from operations to the financial sector with companies selling assets to sustain their business. There were a lot of customers trying to decide what kind of wells they need to continue producing, so that was a market that we didn't capture before.

We grew the technology in that direction by starting a second company called Energy Partners. We created a joint venture with some producers in South Texas to make better decisions in asset acquisition. It was instrumental for us to realize the full potential on the finance side, as opposed to operations where the initial focus was.

We have assets in South Texas now and from a technology standpoint, it's the ideal way to test our analytic technology. We use our technology to properly evaluate the return of investment to make decisions about acquiring assets to optimize the operations and increase production. We have the opportunity to prove the technology with our investments, so we can actually build trust with customers. We are 100 percent sure that the technology works the way we say it works.

IM: There’s a huge emphasis on sustainability in the energy industry. How does your technology reduce carbon emissions?

CM: There are two kinds of components here. The first one is about optimizing operations — personnel transportation at the field level. We have studied calculations of what carbon dioxide output looks like to reduce it in terms of optimizing transportation, technology, and contributing to innovative ideas. We are currently initiating a feasibility study on a carbon capture technology, and working with customers to provide value in the technology in various aspects.

IM: I see several partnerships have already begun. Are you looking for more and what role do these partnerships play for your business?

CM: We have two partnerships about to close. One is with Telefonica, a Spanish telecommunications company, and another with Pluspetrol, an Argentinian production company. Telefonica provides cybersecurity services to oil and gas companies, we actually work with them to deploy our technology in Latin America and Europe. They provide the cloud and cybersecurity component while we provide the AI component.

In terms of our technology development, Pluspetrol has been one of our partners from the very beginning and we continue developing more technologies with this particular customer. They provide us with access to real data and real operational conditions that facilitate technological innovation.

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