research roundup

These 5 Houston-area research institutions have bright minds at work to battle COVID-19

Houston researchers are working to provide COVID-19 solutions amid the pandemic. Getty Images

Since even the early days of COVID-19's existence, researchers all over the world were rallying to find a cure or potential vaccine — which usually take years to make, test, and get approved.

Houston researchers were among this group to put their thinking caps on to come up with solutions to the many problems of the coronavirus. From the testing of existing drugs to tapping into tech to map the disease, here are some research projects that are happening in Houston and are emerging to fight the pandemic.

Baylor College of Medicine evaluating potential COVID-fighting drug

Human Body Organs (Lungs Anatomy)

Baylor College of Medicine has identified a drug that could potentially help heal COVID-19 patients. Photo via bcm.edu

While Baylor College of Medicine has professionals attacking COVID-19 from all angles, one recent discovery at BCM includes a new drug for treating COVID-caused pneumonia.

BCM researchers are looking into Tocilizumab's (TCZ), an immunomodulator drug, effect on patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and Harris Health System's Ben Taub Hospital.

"The organ most commonly affected by COVID-19 is the lung, causing pneumonia for some patients and leading to difficulty breathing," says Dr. Ivan O. Rosas, chief of the pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine section at BCM, in a news release.

TCZ, which has been used to successfully treat hyperimmune responses in cancer patients being treated with immunotherapy, targets the immune response to the coronavirus. It isn't expected to get rid of the virus, but hopefully will reduce the "cytokine storm," which is described as "the hyper-immune response triggered by the viral pneumonia" in the release.

The randomized clinical trial is looking to treat 330 participants and estimates completion of enrollment early next month and is sponsored by Genentech, a biotechnology company.

Texas A&M University leads drug testing

A Texas A&M University researcher is trying to figure out if an existing vaccine has an effect on COVID-19. Screenshot via youtube.com

A researcher from Texas A&M University is working with his colleagues on a short-term response to COVID-19. A vaccine, called BDG, has already been deemed safe and used for treatment for bladder cancer. BDG can work to strengthen the immune system.

"It's not going to prevent people from getting infected," says Dr. Jeffrey D. Cirillo, a Regent's Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, in a news release. "This vaccine has the very broad ability to strengthen your immune response. We call it 'trained immunity.'"

A&M leads the study in partnership with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, as well as Harvard University's School of Public Health and Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp last week set aside $2.5 million from the Chancellor's Research Initiative for the study. This has freed up Cirillo's team's time that was previously being used to apply for grants.

"If there was ever a time to invest in medical research, it is now," Sharp says in the release. "Dr. Cirillo has a head start on a possible coronavirus treatment, and I want to make sure he has what he needs to protect the world from more of the horrible effects of this pandemic."

Currently, the research team is recruiting 1,800 volunteers for the trial that is already underway in College Station and Houston — with the potential for expansion in Los Angeles and Boston. Medical professionals interested in the trial can contact Gabriel Neal, MD at gneal@tamu.edu or Jeffrey Cirillo, PhD at jdcirillo@tamu.edu or George Udeani, PharmD DSc at udeani@tamu.edu.

"This could make a huge difference in the next two to three years while the development of a specific vaccine is developed for COVID-19," Cirillo says in the release.

Rice University is creating a COVID-19 map

Researchers at Rice University's Center for Research Computing's Spatial Studies Lab have mapped out all cases of COVID-19 across Texas by tapping into public health data. The map, which is accessible at coronavirusintexas.org, also identifies the number of people tested across the state, hospital bed utilization rate, and more.

The project is led by Farès el-Dahdah, director of Rice's Humanities Research Center. El-Dahdah used open source code made available by ESRI and data from the Texas Department of State Health Services and Definitive Healthcare.

"Now that the Texas Division of Emergency Management released its own GIS hub, our dashboard will move away from duplicating information in order to correlate other numbers such as those of available beds and the potential for increasing the number of beds in relation to the location of available COVID providers," el-Dahdah says in a press release.

"We're now adding another layer, which is the number of available nurses," el-Dahdah continues. "Because if this explodes, as a doctor friend recently told me, we could be running out of nurses before running out of beds."


Texas Heart Institute is making vaccines more effective

A new compound being developed at Texas Heart Institute could revolutionize the effect of vaccines. Photo via texasheart.org

Molecular technology coming out of the Texas Heart Institute and 7 HIlls Pharma could make vaccines — like a potential coronavirus vaccine — more effective. The oral integrin activator has been licensed to 7 Hills and is slated to a part of a Phase 1 healthy volunteer study to support solid tumor and infectious disease indications in the fall, according to a press release.

The program is led by Dr. Peter Vanderslice, director of biology at the Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratory at Texas Heart Institute. The compound was first envisioned to improve stem cell therapy for potential use as an immunotherapeutic for certain cancers.

"Our research and clinical colleagues are working diligently every day to advance promising discoveries for at risk patients," says Dr. Darren Woodside, co-inventor and vice president for research at the Texas Heart Institute, in the release. "This platform could be an important therapeutic agent for cardiac and cancer patients as well as older individuals at higher risk for infections."

University of Houston's nanotech health monitor

UH researchers have developed a pliable, thin material that can monitor changes in temperature. Photo via uh.edu

While developed prior to the pandemic, nanotechnology out of the University of Houston could be useful in monitoring COVID patients' temperatures. The material, as described in a paper published by ACS Applied Nano Materials, is made up of carbon nanotubes and can indicate slight body temperature changes. It's thin and pliable, making it ideal for a wearable health tech device.

"Your body can tell you something is wrong before it becomes obvious," says Seamus Curran, a physics professor at the University of Houston and co-author on the paper, in a news release.

Curran's nanotechnology research with fellow researchers Kang-Shyang Liao and Alexander J. Wang, which also has applications in making particle-blocking face masks, began almost 10 years ago.

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Building Houston

 
 

Percy Miller, aka Master P, took the virtual stage at the Houston Tech Rodeo kick-off event. Photo courtesy of HTR

Percy Miller developed his music career as Master P, but it's far from his only entrepreneurial endeavor. At Houston Exponential's kick-off event for the 2021 Houston Tech Rodeo, Miller took the virtual stage with Zack O'Malley Greenburg, a journalist and author.

In the discussion, Miller shared his experience in his many fields of entrepreneurship, including music, fashion, consumer packaged goods, and more. He focused on trusting your own hard work, surrounding yourself with a good support system, and embracing failure — something he's done throughout his career.

"I don't look at it as a loss. I look at it as a lesson. Every 'L' is a lesson," he says. "Every time I had a business fail, I learned something from it and it opened up a door into a future."

To hit the highlights from the fireside chat with Master P, check out some overheard moments below. To stream the full broadcast, click here.

“A music career only lasts 3 to 5 years at the most. … I started diversifying my portfolio and I looked at the tech side and said, ’This is where you got to be at.’”

Miller says he was out in the Bay Area in the '90s and early '00s, and he saw first hand the tech scene developing in Silicon Valley. He even released an album in 2005 called Ghetto Bill, a reference to Bill Gates.

“I have failed a lot — don’t be afraid to fail. Get out and take that chance on yourself.”

Miller's music career mirrors, in some ways, the dynamic path of a startup. He received a $10,000 investment from his grandparents and used it to launch his career.

"I created an empire with $10,000," he says.

But It wasn't always easy, and Miller remembers the hustle, selling his music from the trunk of his car, and his many failures.

“You have to be committed to what you do — and you have to love it. It never was about money. When you’re passionate about something, you have a purpose. You’ll get there. If you do it for money, you’ll probably never be successful.”

Passion is a key ingredient in the recipe for success, Miller explains. It drives accomplishment and, "if you get it that easy, you'll probably lose it even quicker," he continues.

“I have an entrepreneurial spirit — I have to learn everything about what I’m doing.”

When it came to developing his music career, Miller says he wore every different hat in the process because he knew he would work the hardest.

"For me, if I can be the talent and the person who runs the company, I feel like there's no limit," Miller says. "I knew I could depend on myself."

“Show me your friends, and I can show you your future.”

Miller started his own record label, No Limit Records, and it was here he cultivated an environment of artists who didn't just want to perform, get pampered, and hang out at the club.

"People at No Limit — it was like a university," he says. "Everybody was coming to study to not only learn how to be an artist but also learn entrepreneurship and financial literacy."

“Most people wanted that advanced check, that money upfront. But my thing was I wanted the control in the end. When you come from a poor culture, you look at things differently. At least I did.”

Miller says he learned this at a young age, that if you hold the power, you make the decisions. "I want better for my kids and the only way I am going to do that is by creating longevity where I own the largest percent of the company," he says.

“It’s all about economic empowerment — we’re stronger together.”

Miller says he's focused on product and taking over the grocery stores, as well as driving economic empowerment for other BIPOC-founded companies and putting money back into the community.

"I want to focus on other minority-owned companies and brands get their products on the shelves,' he says.

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