Med tech

Houston biotech company is creating a drug that could fight the coronavirus

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

A drug being developed by a Houston biopharmaceutical company eventually could help combat what the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global health emergency.

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release.

The ability of PUL-042 to ward off the newest type of coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, hasn't been tested yet. However, the drug eventually could help prevent the new virus from spreading, says Broom, who joined Pulmotect as CEO last fall. A separate study would be required to evaluate PUL-042 in patients exposed to 2019-nCoV, he says.

"PUL-042 has the potential to prevent and treat respiratory complications in many high-risk patient populations, including those where no effective therapies are currently available, as is the case with the current coronavirus outbreak," Brenton Scott, president and chief operating officer of Pulmotect, says in the release.

Since its discovery in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China, nearly 9,800 people around the world were infected with 2019-nCoV as of January 31, The New York Times reported. Of those people, more than 200 died. On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus outbreak a global health emergency.

No specific treatment or cure for 2019-nCoV virus is available. This virus is among seven known coronaviruses.

Symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus include fever, cough, and shortness of breath, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus can cause pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure, or even death, the Virginia Department of Health says.

PUL-042 "would be a great tool to have available for future outbreaks and epidemics, in addition to being used more routinely for more common infections," Broom says.

Fighting coronaviruses is a potential byproduct of PUL-042.

Initially, Pulmotect is focusing development of PUL-042 on the prevention and treatment of respiratory complications suffered by cancer patients with suppressed immune systems. Phase 1 clinical trials already have taken place in the U.S., and Phase 2 clinical trials are scheduled for later this year.

A separate trial of PUL-042 is underway in London. There, the drug is being tested on patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who are prone to lung infections. COPD is an inflammatory disease that blocks airflow from the lungs. People with COPD face a heightened risk of conditions like heart disease and lung cancer, the Mayo Clinic says.

Broom says PUL-042 is a few years away from being considered for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

To date, Pulmotect has raised more than $28 million in outside funding. Founded in 2007, Pulmotect emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector.

Patents for PUL-042, invented by MD Anderson Cancer Center and Texas A&M University, have been issued in nine countries.

Texas A&M University is planning a three-building project to bring parking, housing, retail, and more to the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

Texas A&M University has announced a new three-building project in the Texas Medical Center that will bring a renovated space for its Engineering Medicine program, student housing, parking, retail, and more.

The $546 million complex will be funded in part by a public-private partnership, according to a news release from the university. The project includes one 18-story building to be purchased and renovated for $145 million, and an additional $401 million will go toward constructing two new buildings.

"The Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University System recognized an opportunity in Houston to help Texans and contribute more to the global medical community," says Elaine Mendoza, chairman of the Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University System, in the news release. "We are eager and fortunate to further enhance the world's greatest medical center through this endeavor."

The first of the three buildings to debut will be the EnMed renovation project at 1020 Holcombe Blvd. This project, which had previously been announced, is expected to deliver by this summer and should be monumental for the already successful program, says Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, in a statement.

"Texas A&M's EnMed program fits right into what we are doing in Houston," Harvey says. "Our city has long been recognized as a destination for world-class health care and cutting-edge research, thanks to the incredible institutions in the Texas Medical Center. Houston is also becoming known as an attractive location for both mature and emerging life science and biotech companies. We are, indeed, becoming the 'third coast' for life sciences."

A&M TMC The first of the three buildings is expected to be complete this summer. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

The two new construction buildings will be paid for through public-private partnerships. The student housing building, a 19-story building planned to have 572 units with 704 beds in a 365,000 square-foot space, will be completed by June 2022, according to the release. The building will also include a 3,444-spot parking garage. Students from A&M campuses will get priority housing, but students at other institutions will also be allowed spots if available.

"We saw a need for student housing and medical offices in Houston. Plus, our EnMed students needed the facilities to create the latest medical devices," says Greg Hartman, a vice chancellor at Texas A&M University System and interim senior vice president of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, in a news release. "So, we began the process of expanding the Texas A&M footprint in Houston and I believe the work done by Aggies in Houston will be life-changing for a lot of people."

The third component of the plans includes a 587,000-square-foot, 30-floor Integrated Medical Plaza — another public-private partnership — and it has a June 2023 expected completion. Thirteen of the stories will be parking, and 72,000 square feet of space will be for retail use, while 8,700 square feet will be green space.

According to the release, the developer for the two new construction projects is Houston-based Medistar Corp., which is run by CEO Monzer Hourani. New York-basedAmerican Triple I Partners is on the financing team and was founded by Henry Cisneros, a Texas A&M alumnus.

Representatives from both the school and the city see the potential impact of the complex for medical innovations.

"Last year, Houston had its best year ever in terms of attracting venture capital to the region," Harvey says in his statement on the news. "This program and this facility will provide one more reason for major VCs to give Houston's innovative companies a look – and for talented students, researchers, and entrepreneurs to make Houston their home."

Dr. M Katherine Banks, who serves the university of vice chancellor of engineering and national laboratories at the Texas A&M System, notes in the release how the EnMed program has set up its students for breakthrough medical device innovation.

"I expect to see transformative ideas generated by Texas A&M's broadened presence in Houston," says Dr. Banks in the release.