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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

 
 

A Rice research team is tapping into materials science to better understand Alzheimer’s disease, a UH professor is developing a treatment for hereditary vision loss, and a BCM researcher is looking at stress and brain cancer. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

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 life-saving health care research thanks to new technologies.

Rice University scientists' groundbreaking alzheimer's study

Angel Martí (right) and his co-authors (from left) Utana Umezaki and Zhi Mei Sonia He have published their latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S. by 2060. A group of scientists from Rice University are looking into a peptide associated with the disease, and their study was published in Chemical Science.

Angel Martí — a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, and materials science and nanoengineering and faculty director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program — and his team have developed a new approach using time-resolved spectroscopy and computational chemistry, according to a news release from Rice. The scientists "found experimental evidence of an alternative binding site on amyloid-beta aggregates, opening the door to the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with amyloid deposits."

Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a main feature of Alzheimer’s, per Rice.

“Amyloid-beta is a peptide that aggregates in the brains of people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, forming these supramolecular nanoscale fibers, or fibrils” says Martí in the release. “Once they grow sufficiently, these fibrils precipitate and form what we call amyloid plaques.

“Understanding how molecules in general bind to amyloid-beta is particularly important not only for developing drugs that will bind with better affinity to its aggregates, but also for figuring out who the other players are that contribute to cerebral tissue toxicity,” he adds.

The National Science Foundation and the family of the late Professor Donald DuPré, a Houston-born Rice alumnus and former professor of chemistry at the University of Louisville, supported the research, which is explained more thoroughly on Rice's website.

University of Houston professor granted $1.6M for gene therapy treatment for rare eye disease

Muna Naash, a professor at UH, is hoping her research can result in treatment for a rare genetic disease that causes vision loss. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston researcher is working on a way to restore sight to those suffering from a rare genetic eye disease.

Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is expanding a method of gene therapy to potentially treat vision loss in patients with Usher Syndrome Type 2A, or USH2A, a rare genetic disease.

Naash has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Eye Institute to support her work. Mutations of the USH2A gene can include hearing loss from birth and progressive loss of vision, according to a news release from UH. Naash's work is looking at applying gene therapy — the introduction of a normal gene into cells to correct genetic disorders — to treat this genetic disease. There is not currently another treatment for USH2A.

“Our goal is to advance our current intravitreal gene therapy platform consisting of DNA nanoparticles/hyaluronic acid nanospheres to deliver large genes in order to develop safe and effective therapies for visual loss in Usher Syndrome Type 2A,” says Naash. “Developing an effective treatment for USH2A has been challenging due to its large coding sequence (15.8 kb) that has precluded its delivery using standard approaches and the presence of multiple isoforms with functions that are not fully understood."

BCM researcher on the impact of stress

This Baylor researcher is looking at the relationship between stress and brain cancer thanks to a new grant. Photo via Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Stress can impact the human body in a number of ways — from high blood pressure to hair loss — but one Houston scientist is looking into what happens to bodies in the long term, from age-related neurodegeneration to cancer.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems is assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His lab is located at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and he also is a part of the Therapeutic Innovation Center, the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Recently, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, awarded Boeynaems a grant to continue his work studying how cells and organisms respond to stress.

“Any cell, in nature or in our bodies, during its existence, will have to deal with some conditions that deviate from its ideal environment,” Boeynaems says in a BCM press release. “The key issue that all cells face in such conditions is that they can no longer properly fold their proteins, and that leads to the abnormal clumping of proteins into aggregates. We have seen such aggregates occur in many species and under a variety of stress-related conditions, whether it is in a plant dealing with drought or in a human patient with aging-related Alzheimer’s disease."

Now, thanks to the CPRIT funding, he says his lab will now also venture into studying the role of cellular stress in brain cancer.

“A tumor is a very stressful environment for cells, and cancer cells need to continuously adapt to this stress to survive and/or metastasize,” he says in the release.

“Moreover, the same principles of toxic protein aggregation and protection through protein droplets seem to be at play here as well,” he continues. “We have studied protein droplets not only in humans but also in stress-tolerant organisms such as plants and bacteria for years now. We propose to build and leverage on that knowledge to come up with innovative new treatments for cancer patients.”

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