OncoResponse in partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center received a portion of $73 million the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has doled out this spring. Photo via oncoresponse.com

A biotech company has landed a more than $13 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The nearly $13.3 million grant given to OncoResponse — which is relocating from Seattle to Houston, according to CPRIT's news release — will help the company develop fully human monoclonal antibodies for treatment of cancer that otherwise would not respond to immunotherapy. OncoResponse already has a partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center, which is one of the company’s investors.

“We are thrilled to receive this recognition from CPRIT in supporting the potential of our immunotherapy candidate OR502. We greatly appreciate the additional support from our investors as we continue to make significant progress with our drug development efforts advancing immunotherapies derived from clues of Elite Responders,” says Clifford Stocks, CEO of OncoResponse, in a news release.

Aside from the grant, OncoResponse just hauled in $14 million from existing investors in a round led by RiverVest Venture Partners. Other participants in the series D round include Venture Partners, Canaan Partners, 3B Future Health Fund, Bering Capital, Takeda Ventures, and InterVest Capital Partners.

To date, OncoResponse has raised more than $180 million, according to market research company CB Insights.

A representative of OncoResponse couldn’t be reached for comment about the company’s relocation to Houston.

MD Anderson and Seattle-based Theraclone Sciences launched OncoResponse in 2015. Rice University was among the inaugural investors.

OncoResponse’s OR2805 immunotherapy product is being evaluated in a Phase 1 clinical trial. It’s the company’s leading immunotherapy candidate. OncoResponse is also working on OR502, an antibody being prepared for investigational and clinical studies.

“The modern treatment of cancer activates the body’s own immune system to attack cancer,” OncoResponse says in a summary posted on the website of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

“These treatments, called immunotherapy, may not be successful if the cancer can recruit bad-acting cells, such as tumor associated macrophages, or TAMs, that create barriers preventing immunotherapies from activating the body’s own defenses against the cancer. To find drugs that may help counteract these TAMs, OncoResponse looked to patients who had responded very well to immunotherapy to see if their bodies made factors to block TAMs and helped them fight their cancers.”

OncoResponse’s OR502 prevents TAMs from shutting down the body’s response to cancer, thus restoring tumor-killing immune activity, CPRIT explains.

In addition to OncoResponse, recent CPRIT grant recipients from the Houston area are:

  • Houston-based 7 Hills Pharma, $13,439,001. The company is working on immunotherapies for treatment of cancer and prevention of infectious diseases.
  • Houston-based Allterum Therapeutics, $11,721,150. The company is coming up with an antibody for treatment of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This type of cancer affects blood and bone marrow.
  • Houston-based Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, $9.1 million. The center is a joint venture between National Resilience and MD Anderson Cancer Center that is developing cell therapy manufacturing technologies to support biotech partnerships.
  • Houston-based Pulmotect, $8,851,165. The company’s PUL-042 product is aimed at treating and preventing respiratory complications in cancer patients.
  • Cancer researcher Michael King, $6 million. The grant helped lure King to Rice from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, where he’s been the chair of biomedical engineering. King’s lab at Vanderbilt has been testing therapies for metastatic breast cancer and prostate cancer.
  • Missouri City-based OmniNano Pharmaceuticals, $2,711,437. The pharmatech company is working on two drugs for treatment of solid tumors in patients with pancreatic cancer.

“Texas is unique because of CPRIT’s ability to invest in cutting-edge research when private capital is scarce. This is yet another way Texas is leading the nation in the fight against cancer,” Wayne Roberts, CEO of CPRIT, says in a news release.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.