Houston innovators podcast episode 149

Why this Houston innovator dropped everything to move the needle on lung cancer diagnostics

Joanna Nathan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast and explains why she's taken on leading a medical device startup. Photo courtesy of Joanna Nathan

After years of leading Johnson and Johnson's Center for Device Innovation, Joanna Nathan has hopped into the founder's seat in order to tackle early-stage lung cancer diagnostics.

"Unlike breast, prostate, and other types of cancers, we historically have not actively screened for lung cancer," Nathan says on this week's Houston Innovation Podcast. "Screening has only just begun in this world, and because of that, physicians still need the right tools to take early screening information and turn it into early intervention."

That's where Prana Thoracic comes in. Last week, Nathan, who serves as CEO of the company, and Prana announced that Nucore Medical Inc., its wholly owned subsidiary, has been awarded a $3 million grant from CPRIT.

Nathan says on the podcast that the technology behind the company has been incubating within CDI for years, but over the past several months Nathan decided to take on the role of leading the company as it grows its team and heads to commercialization with first in-human trials, which the funding from CPRIT and investors will support.

Lung cancer remains among the most deadly cancers, with most patients dying within a year of diagnosis. In addition to these stats, Nathan says her recent personal experiences have motivated her in this career path. She shares on the show how, within the span of a year, she lost her young son, Lionel, to an unknown medical condition and witnessed her dad's suffering of a near fatal heart attack.

"I was already in medical innovation, but I spent five days in the hospital with Lionel. I remember saying goodbye to him and walking away and thinking, 'I cannot imagine finding meaning or a reason to go back to work if I was doing anything else,'" Nathan says. "If I can work my whole life and prevent just one patient or one family from going through the pain that I did, I would consider my career a success."

Nathan says her ability to do that meant getting into a role where she had a more hands-on responsibility and interaction with medical device technology. Now, with the fresh funding and a growing startup, she's laser focused on finding like-minded individuals to build out Prana's team.

"I hope that what we can build not only something that attracts really talented engineers, executives, and entrepreneurs, but also people who want to do mission-driven work," Nathan says. "That mindset of driving this toward a patient — and ultimately that patient impact be what pushes us forward."

Nathan shares more of her story on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Trending News



A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

Trending News