Fresh funds

Houston researchers receive $3.2 million grant to enhance fetal monitoring technology

Two Houston hospitals — Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine — have received funding from the National Institutes of Health. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thousands of cases of fetal growth restriction occur annually that can lead to complications at birth. In order to get a better idea of condition and to develop better monitoring technology, the National Institutes of Health has granted $3.2 million to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital.

The researchers are tasked with developing "an improved way to evaluate umbilical venous blood flow using 3D and Doppler ultrasound techniques" in small fetuses, according to a release from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Our research team will initially validate the accuracy and reproducibility of new 3D volume flow measurements and then develop corresponding reference ranges in normal pregnancies," says Dr. Wesley Lee, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor, in the release.

"Detailed observations of fetal growth, heart function, and circulatory changes will be made in over 1,000 small fetuses with estimated weights below the 10th percentile," Lee continues. "The results will be correlated with pregnancy outcomes to identify prenatal predictors of clinical problems in newborns."

The grant will fund a five-year investigation collaboration between the two Houston hospitals, as well as the University of Michigan, Perinatology Research Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health, and Human Development and GE Healthcare.

FGR is a condition that affects fetuses that are below the weight normal for their gesticular age — usually in the 10th percentile of weight or less, according to Stanford Children's Health. Underlying issues with placenta or umbilical cord can increase the risks of the condition and causes of FGR can range from blood pressure problems to drug and alcohol use.

Affected fetuses can be at risk of stillbirth or neonatal death. Babies that overcome FGR complications at birth are predisposed to developmental delay and the development of adult diseases such as obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and stroke, according to the release.

According to Dr. Lee, identifying these FGR and at-risk fetuses can benefit their health in infancy as well as throughout their lives.

From a new cancer-detecting device to a digital resource for childhood cancer survivors, here are some cancer-fighting innovations from Houston. Getty Images

Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear lab coats. Almost daily, it seems there's a new breakthrough or discovery for life-saving innovations.

These three cancer-related innovations are coming out of Houston, and they are ones to watch.

University of Houston's biosensor for prostate cancer reoccurrence

Dmitri Litvinov, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is on a mission to bring an effective, low-cost test for prostate cancer recurrence to doctor's offices everywhere. Photo via uh.edu

Researchers from the University of Houston have teamed up with their colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to try to get a biosensor that can detect the recurrence of prostate cancer into the doctor's office.

The research is funded by a $399,988 grant from the National Science Foundation and led by Dmitri Litvinov, principal investigator and professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH.

"Such tests exist in clinical laboratories, but there remains a critical need for inexpensive, versatile and high-sensitivity diagnostic platforms which can bring the performance to the point of care or doctor's office," says Litvinov in a release.

The biosensor platform would be less than $3 per test — an alluring fact for patients and health care providers — and would function more or less like a pregnancy test, but without a simple positive or negative response. Rather, the test can assess how much prostate-specific antigen is in a patient's blood

"Our technology has potential to help improve survival rates with more accessible, affordable and easier testing," Litvinov says.

Rice University's study that points to new cancer-fighting drug

José Onuchic co-authored a study that's opening doors for a new approach in cancer drug development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that a cancer-linked version of the protein mitoNEET can shut the gateways of mitochondria cells that supply chemical energy.

José Onuchic, a physicist and co-director of Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, co-authored the paper and noted that the gateways, called voltage-dependent anion channels, or VDACs, typically open and shut to allow the passage of metabolites and other small molecules between mitochondria and the rest of the cell.

"The VDAC channel transports all types of metabolites between the cytosol and the mitochondria," says Onuchic in a release. "Dysfunction of this channel is involved in many diseases including cancer and fatty liver disease."

Co-author Patricia Jennings, a structural biologist at UCSD, explains in the news release.

"The discovery that mitoNEET directly gates VDAC, the major porin of mitochondria, as well as the accompanying structural analysis and predictions for this interaction, affords a new platform for investigations of methods to induce cancer cells to commit cell suicide, or apoptosis/ferroptosis, in a cancer-specific, regulated process," she writes.

The study opens doors for a new approach to cancer-treating drugs.

"Fine-tuning a drug that specifically alters the redox-state of interaction between VDAC and mitoNEET would allow the development of new weapons to battle multiple cancers," Onuchic says.

Baylor College of Medicine's digital tool for childhood cancer survivors

Baylor College of Medicine has created an online resource for childhood cancer survivors. Photo via bcm.edu

Childhood cancer survivors face a lifetime of obstacles to overcome, and Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Cancer Center have developed a resource to help these patients have the best quality of life in remission.

Passport for Care, a free online resource, features a "survivorship care plan" for the patient, his or her doctor, and family members. The program's new Screenings Recommendations Generator tool can provide a childhood cancer survivor with potential late effects and how to manage their care.

"This tool is especially helpful for patients who have moved on to other doctors who they did not see as a child and who might not be familiar with their particular treatment and the subsequent health risks," says Dr. David Poplack, founder of the Passport for Care and associate director of the Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers, in a news release. "It helps physicians understand their patient's history and know how to address future health problems."

Over 37,000 cancer survivors are using Passport for Care at 138 clinics around the world. Additionally, patients can also register through the Screenings Recommendations Generator.

Passport for Care is funded by the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, as well as through a grant from Hyundai Hope on Wheels.

"We created Passport for Care with the goal of empowering survivors in their healthcare decisions," Poplack says. "Their care doesn't end when cancer treatment is over. Survivorship care is a lifelong journey."