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.

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Building Houston

 
 

New partnership chair, Amy Chonis, gave her address at the 2021 GHP Annual Meeting. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

With 2020 in the rearview, the Greater Houston Partnership is looking into the new year with a new board chair. In the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting, the organization introduced how important developing the innovation community is in Houston.

In her remarks, this year's Partnership Chair Amy Chronis, who is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte, shared what she hopes to inspire in her tenure. Her statement can be boiled down to three major points.

It's time to modernize Houston's economy

Chronis says it's time to focus on tech and innovation — and that requires support from all aspects of the city.

"Here in Houston, we must be laser-focused on building a strong, diverse, 21st century economy," she says. "Over the past few years, entrepreneurs, investors, academic institutions, local government, and the corporate sector have come together to unite, grow, and promote Houston's startup ecosystem. The progress since 2016 is staggering."

Since 2016, Chronis says, venture capital investment in Houston has increased almost 250 percent to a record $714 million dollars raised in 2020. Additionally, she calls out 30 new startup development organizations that have sprung up around town — like the East End Maker Hub, The Cannon, The Ion, Greentown Labs, and so much more.

Chronis also calls out the importance of educational institutions, such as Rice University and the University of Houston.

It's the industries that drive innovation

There is a growing need to diversify Houston's economy away from just oil and gas, Chronis says it's Houston's core industries — energy, life sciences, aerospace, along with manufacturing and global logistics — that have made transformative steps.

"We've got momentum, but we still need to double down with work to do," Chronis says, identifying energy, life sciences, and aerospace as three pillars to drive success.

Regarding energy, Chronis touts Greentown Labs opening in Houston — but warns it's increasingly important to have big corporations promote the energy transition.

"From the super majors to the service firms and the increasing presence of renewable companies, Houston is at the forefront of driving the Energy 2.0 sector," she says.

When it comes to health care, Chronis remarks on the Texas Medical Center's success with the TMC Innovation Institute and the development of TMC3, a 37-acre research commercialization campus.

"What's special about TMC3 is that it will create collaboration and innovation at scale," she adds. "It will be a catalyst that will advance Houston's position as the Third Coast for Life Sciences."

Lastly, Houston must maintain its moniker as the Space City — and the city has a lot of opportunities to do that with the development of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"Houston is already home to a rich talent pool of nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals and more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, but the potential is so much greater," Chronis says.

Houston needs to focus on four areas to "drive a technological renaissance"

Chronis concludes her speech with some calls to action. She first acknowledges that corporations ask themselves about how they are promoting and valuing innovation.

"We must be committed to inspiring, cultivating and rewarding technological innovation," Chronis says. "How is your company partnering with startups, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to drive innovation?"

Next, Chronis calls out Houston's global diversity as a differentiator when it comes to attracting companies to Houston, and she cites HPE as an example.

"We know there are hundreds of tech companies in the Valley, and up and down the West and East coasts that are striving to build global diversity within their companies," she says. "There is no better place than Houston to do this."

Third, Chronis calls for everyone — from corporates to educations — to empower the next generation of innovators.

And, finally, she says it's time to spread the word about Houston.

"We are modern, sophisticated, and at our core, an incredibly global city. Global in a way that sets us apart from most U.S. metros," she says. "So, as we embark on this work to drive Houston's technology renaissance, we must ensure perceptions of Houston are aligned with reality."

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