research roundup

Houston researchers tap into tech to provide new brain-related health care solutions

From advanced computation to robots, Rice University, the University of Houston, and Houston Methodist are all working on using technology for medical innovation. Graphic via Getty Images

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on brain-related health care solutions thanks to technologies.

University of Houston research team focused on brain injury treatment through computation

Badri Roysam and his team at the University of Houston are working with the National Institute of Health to develop tools to treat concussions and brain injuries. Photo via uh.edu

A University of Houston researcher is tapping into technology to better treat brain injuries and conditions that scientists have not yet figured out treatment for. Badri Roysam, the current chair of electrical and computer engineering at UH and a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor, and his team have created a new computational image analysis methods based on deep neural networks.

"We are interested in mapping and profiling unhealthy and drug-treated brain tissue in unprecedented detail to reveal multiple biological processes at once - in context," Roysam says in a UH press release about his latest paper published in Nature Communications. "This requires the ability to record high-resolution images of brain tissue covering a comprehensive panel of molecular biomarkers, over a large spatial extent, e.g., whole-brain slices, and automated ability to generate quantitative readouts of biomarker expression for all cells."

Roysam's system, which was developed at the the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, analyzes the images on UH's supercomputer automatically and can reveal multiple processes at once – the brain injury, effects of the drug being tested and the potential side effects of the drug, per the release.

"Compared to existing screening techniques, using iterative immunostaining and computational analysis, our methods are more flexible, scalable and efficient, enabling multiplex imaging and computational analysis of up to 10 – 100 different biomarkers of interest at the same time using direct or indirect IHC immunostaining protocols," says Roysam in the release.

The open-source toolkit, which was developed thanks to a $3.19 million grant from the National Institute of Health, is also adaptable to other tissues.

"We are efficiently overcoming the fluorescence signal limitations and achieving highly enriched and high-quality source imagery for reliable automated scoring at scale," says Roysam. "Our goal is to accelerate system-level studies of normal and pathological brains, and pre-clinical drug studies by enabling targeted and off-target drug effects to be profiled simultaneously, in context, at the cellular scale."

Houston Methodist and Rice University launch new collaboration to use robotics for clinical solutions

Rice University's Behnaam Aazhang and Marcia O'Malley are two of the people at the helm of the new center along with Houston Methodist's Dr. Gavin Britz. Photos via Rice.edu

Rice University and Houston Methodist have teamed up to create a new partnership and to launch the Center for Translational Neural Prosthetics and Interfaces in order to bring together scientists, clinicians, engineers, and surgeons to solve clinical problems with neurorobotics.

"This will be an accelerator for discovery," says the new center's co-director, Dr. Gavin Britz, chair of the Houston Methodist Department of Neurosurgery, in a news release. "This center will be a human laboratory where all of us — neurosurgeons, neuroengineers, neurobiologists — can work together to solve biomedical problems in the brain and spinal cord. And it's a collaboration that can finally offer some hope and options for the millions of people worldwide who suffer from brain diseases and injuries."

The center will have representatives from both Rice and Houston Methodist and also plans to hire three additional engineers who will have joint appointments at Houston Methodist and Rice.

"The Rice Neuroengineering Initiative was formed with this type of partnership in mind," says center co-director Behnaam Aazhang, Rice's J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who also directs the neuroengineering initiative. "Several core members, myself included, have existing collaborations with our colleagues at Houston Methodist in the area of neural prosthetics. The creation of the Center for Translational Neural Prosthetics and Interfaces is an exciting development toward achieving our common goals."

The team will have a presence on the Rice campus with 25,000 square feet of space in the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative laboratories and experimental spaces in the university's BioScience Research Collaborative. The space at Houston Methodist is still being developed.

"This partnership is a perfect blend of talent," says Rice's Marcia O'Malley, a core member of both the new center and university initiative. "We will be able to design studies to test the efficacy of inventions and therapies and rely on patients and volunteers who want to help us test our ideas. The possibilities are limitless."

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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