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From robots to immunotherapy, TMC talks innovation at its annual address

The Texas Medical Center's CEO, Bill McKeon, ran down a list of exciting updates and innovations from the organization's member institutions at the annual State of the TMC. Photo via tmc.edu

In the Greater Houston Partnership's annual State of the Texas Medical Center address, TMC CEO Bill McKeon shared a status update of sorts for all the goings on at the largest medical center in the world.

McKeon ran down the list of member institutions to briefly touch base on each organization's innovations and growth. In the address, which took place at the Marriott Marquis on October 31, McKeon discussed exciting construction projects, new accelerator programs, and more. Here are some of the highlights from the presentation.

TMC3 and beyond

The TMC spans 1,400 acres and 50 million square feet of development — and growing. The largest medical city in the world will increase its size by 10 percent in the next two to three years, McKeon says. Here are some updates on each of the ongoing construction projects.

  • TMC3 is underway. The 37-acre research campus is expected to be completed in 2022.
  • CHI St. Luke's McNair Campus is expected to break ground on a new building before the end of the year.
  • Memorial Hermann's Sarofim Building is expected to open in 2020 with 18 stories, 26 new operating rooms, and 144 beds
  • Rice University has moved its synthetic biology program to BioScience Research Collaborative in the TMC.
  • Texas A&M University's EnMed program, which graduates students with a master's in engineering and a MD in four year, has launched. The university's med center building is underway at 1020 Holcombe, and is expected to be completed next May.
  • The University of Houston's new medical school us up and running, and the inaugural class's tuition was completely funded by an anonymous donor.
  • UTHealth's psychiatric hospital is expected to be the largest academic psychiatry hospital in country. The building is under construction and will be completed in 2021.

Building biobridges

In order to grow the TMC's global presence and bring the best innovations from around the world to Houston, McKeon says the organization has expanded its BioBridge partnerships.

The first partnership was with Australia in 2016, before the organization teamed up with the United Kingdom for the second one. Recently, the TMC has entered into its third BioBridge partnership with Denmark.

The partnerships are intended to encourage collaboration, particularly with TMCx. Now, TMCx startups break down from being a third of the companies from around the world, a third from other states in the U.S., and a third being from Texas.

"There's no greater collection of minds, patients, resources to really think about the next innovations in health care," Mckeon says.

Accelerating accelerators

TMCx is celebrating its fifth year and has worked with over 170 companies through its digital health and medical device accelerator programs.

"We're evolving to start to work more closely with our member institutions to understand their specific needs and how we can match novel technologies through them," says Lance Black, associate director of TMCx.

The TMC Innovation Institute supports 12 programs, and three have been introduced just this year.

  • TMCxi: A 40,000-square-foot space to support industry partners, investors, and other service providers that provides subject matter expertise and other resources for entrepreneurs.
  • TMCalpha: Programming for TMC doctors and staff who may have an idea for a new technology or startup.
  • TMC | ACT: An accelerator program for advancing cancer therapeutics and technologies.

Investing in robotics

Earlier this year, TMC announced plans to open a special robotics lab space with ABB Robotics. The space officially opened last month.

"Many of the things we do in our labs require pinpoint accuracy," McKeon says. "Many of the things we do now here are done by humans, but in the future, we have one of the most sophisticated robotics companies in the world thinking about how we can transform our labs."

The lab is just the beginning of ABB's connection to TMC and its member institutions.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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