Houston health care leader drives innovation, preventive cardiovascular care

Dr. Joseph Rogers has been at the helm of the Texas Heart Institute for around two years. He shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast about the innovative past, present, and future of THI. Photo via texasheart.org

For 60 years, the Texas Heart Institute has been a part of Houston's innovation DNA. The organization's founder, Dr. Denton Cooley, performed first total artificial heart implantation in 1969 at THI. Now, decades later, the institutions third CEO continues to lead the innovation within cardiovascular care.

"Despite all of the advances, cardiovascular disease is still one of the largest killers of Americans. It actually kills more Americans than all types of cancer combined," Dr. Joseph Rogers, who was appointed president and CEO of THI in 2021, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rogers shares just a fraction of what the medical professionals are working on at THI on the show — from developing a drug that can improve the efficacy cell therapies, vaccines, and more to revolutionary stem cell treatments. Even with all this groundbreaking innovation in cardiovascular treatment, Rogers says one of the most crucial elements is prevention.

"The challenge of preventative medicine in general terms is there has been an under investment in terms of research," Rogers says. "I also think that many of us who live in developed countries have said, 'I think I can just take a pill to manage an underlying problem and I can continue to do whatever I'd like.'

"We use medicine as a crutch to allow us to continue living an opulent lifestyle," he continues.

THI is on a mission to evolve that way of thinking, Rogers says, but it's a comprehensive cultural shift that's needed.

"Medicine can control about 20 percent of this," Rogers says. "The rest is driven by the social drivers of health — early childhood experiences, food deserts, a lack of safe exercise facilities."

Rogers says health care organizations are going to need to partner with other players — nonprofits, universities, local government — in ways never been done before. And THI is dedicated to this mission.

"We should act as a convener," Rogers says. "Houston is the place to do this.

"The reason I think this is such an important community to address this problem is it's the most diverse city in the United States. And I've never lived anywhere or heard of another city that I was so convinced believed they could do anything they set their minds to. It's about making the community aware of the problem and a potential solution — and then working on trying to solve it," he continues. "But I think all of the pieces are here to show the world how to do this at a community level."

Rogers shares more of his optimism about Houston as a heart health leader and innovator on the show. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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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.”

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