Rice to the rescue

Houston program in the running for prestigious $10 million prize

Rice's Baker Institute could change the fortunes of rural Texans. Photo via rice.edu

Rice University is once again in the spotlight for innovation, this time for its work in potentially assisting rural communities across the Lone Star State. And this idea could score the university a $10 million prize.

A new project proposed by the Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy is among five finalists for the coveted Lone Star Prize, the school announced. The Baker Institute project proposal, titled "Texas Dirt: The Key to Environment, Economy and Resilience," aims to transform the state's environment "through implementation of a soil carbon storage market while growing new economic opportunities for rural Texans" according to a press release.

Atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) contributes to climate change, which disproportionately affects poor and marginalized populations, according to the Baker Institute team.

"Rural communities have long been disadvantaged relative to the urban and industrial centers that are focal points for economic activity and CO2 emissions," the team wrote in a project description. "A soil carbon market is a Texan approach that addresses both of these issues as part of a long-term solution." The team aims to "implement a Texas soil carbon storage market that utilizes photosynthesis to abate atmospheric CO2 by storing it as organic matter in soils of prairies, farms, ranches and grasslands of Texas."

Beyond an economic boost, say the team, benefits the Texas water supply, regional flood resilience, and the restoration of local ecosystems.

As for the prestigious prize, the Texas-based, statewide competition was launched in early 2020 by Lyda Hill Philanthropies and Lever for Change to improve the lives of Texans and their communities, per a statement.

Project members include attorney Jim Blackburn, a professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice and co-director of the university's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED); Caroline Masiello, a professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Rice; and Kenneth Medlock, the James A. Baker III and Susan G. Baker Fellow in Energy and Resource Economics and senior director of the Baker Institute's Center for Energy Studies.

Other statewide finalists include Austin's JUST Community, which invests in low-income, female entrepreneurs to create more resilient communities in the U.S.; Dallas-based Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, which will will improve quality of life and mental health access; the Dallas location of Merit America, which will will build new pathways to upwardly mobile careers for low-wage Texans without bachelor's degrees; and Austin's Texas Water Trade, which aims to deliver clean water to households most in need.

More than 172 proposals were submitted for the Lone Star Prize. A final grant recipient will be announced in late spring 2021.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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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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