UH has announced a new multi-disciplinary institute to promote drug discovery. Photo courtesy of UH

The University of Houston has introduced a new institute to its campus. The multi-disciplinary program includes both on-campus and citywide collaboration.

UH has established the Drug Discovery Institute in order to streamline and modernize drug discovery. In partnership with the Texas Medical Center, as well as other organizations, the DDI will tap into technology and innovation to advance modern medicine. The institute will collaborate with the UH colleges of Pharmacy, Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Cullen College of Engineering.

"Our new Drug Discovery Institute could not have been launched at a more appropriate juncture. With the frantic quest for effective drugs to counter the current and future viral infections, the broad and deep strength of the University of Houston is being brought to bear and will no doubt advance the development of innovative cures," says Amr Elnashai, vice president for research and technology transfer, in a press release.

The university currently has about 100 faculty members conducting drug discovery-related research, but, according to the release, these efforts have been fragmented. With DDI, UH hopes to bring these efforts together under one roof in order to promote synergistic research.

F. Lamar Pritchard, dean of the UH College of Pharmacy, has been advocating for the idea of a collaborative drug discovery research center for more than a decade

"The breadth of this initiative will establish the institute and the University among the national leaders in drug discovery and become one of the first to fully embrace AI into its academic drug discovery programs," Pritchard says in the release.

The new institute will be led by Ruiwen Zhang, Robert L. Boblitt Endowed Professor in Drug Discovery at the College of Pharmacy,. He will hold the position of director for two years, before the title rotates through the collaboration of colleges.

"Working together is critical, none of us can do this alone," Zhang says in the release. "In drug discovery, a chemist needs a biologist, a biologist needs a pharmacologist, and so on. We will build a platform and infrastructure, along with the necessary tools, to bring everyone together."

The facility will work to promote each of the school's expertise across many aspects of the drug discovery process — including high-throughput screening technologies, organ-on-chip models, biosensing and biofeedback, molecular modeling and more.

"Practicing team science is key to making innovative discoveries and we are eager to collaborate with faculty across the University to develop cutting-edge research and ultimately to find treatments and cures for disease," says Dan Wells, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, in the release.

Additionally, DDI will offer seed grants for interdependent drug-discovery projects and encourage collaboration and the sharing of data with experts around the world

"I foresee one day in the near future that we are able to create some of the strongest databases and artificial intelligence approaches to drug discovery," Pritchard says in the release. "Rather than having to screen millions of compounds to find one therapy, we may be able to narrow that down to 1,000 and really streamline the process."

UH has been ranked among the top schools for new patents. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

University of Houston scores spot on top schools in the world for new patents

put a patent on it

A Houston school has ranked on a global list that recognizes new utility patents issued. University of Houston tied for No. 75 on the list with 39 utility patents issued in 2019.

The list is created by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association based on data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. UH has made the list every year for the past five years.

"The rankings show that UH continues to make a major contribution to the innovation enterprise on the U.S. and global stage," says Amr Elnashai, vice president/vice chancellor for research and technology transfer at UH.

"To be in the top 100 universities worldwide for U.S. patents emphasizes that the UH research enterprise has been successfully steered towards impactful research with the potential to address societal challenges."

A utility patent, known as a patent for invention, is the most commonly referred to type of patent and regards the creation of a new or improved product, process, or machine.

Two Texas schools ranked above UH on this year's list. The University of Texas ranked at No. 3 with 276 utility patents and Texas A&M University came in a few spots ahead of UH at No. 65 with 44 utility patents issued.

UH tied with Drexel University in Philadelphia, and the University of California scored the top spot by far with 631 utility patents filed last year. All in all, the ranking finds that 7,873 U.S. utility patents were issued in 2019, which is up from 1,046 patents in 2018.

UH's Technology Bridge was revamped in 2018 to focus on cultivating innovation and new technologies as they develop from the lab and into the marketplace.

There's a growing need for physician-scientists who can see from both sides of the table. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston researchers on why bridging the gap between academia and clinicians is key

Beaker to bedside

Physician-scientists are a group of specialized researchers at the intersection of medicine and technology. Earning both medical degrees and Ph.D.s, they offer a perspective beyond the scope of clinical practice.

Three such researchers discussed how they make the connections between discovery and patient care.

Why a dual education matters

Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston and M.D. Anderson professor of biology and biochemistry, knows exactly what the clinical demands are.

"I can see from the M.D. perspective, but at the same time I have a Ph.D. — I know how to design research properly," he says. "In the clinic, you're faced with reality that a patient is struggling but you don't have the tools to treat those patients. If you engage in research you can create a tool."

Zhang says clinicians know the need but may struggle to design a solution. A Ph.D., on the other hand, may only know basic research.

Renowned hormone researcher Jan-Åke Gustafsson, Robert A. Welch professor of biology and biochemistry and founding director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, agrees.

"The dual education makes it possible for you to see which diseases are in need of more research, drugs and so on," he says.

Physician-scientists are the driving force behind many advances of modern medicine.

"The way I look at it is, practicing medicine is relatively easy but coming up with the next diagnostic device or the next treatment for a disease is way more difficult, way more challenging," says Chandra Mohan, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Endowed professor of biomedical engineering at UH.

"You see patients with certain diseases, and you know there's a dire need for better diagnostics, earlier treatment, earlier diagnosis with fewer side effects," he says.

While researchers spend time primarily in the laboratory and clinical practitioners interact with patients, they both want to make an impact.

"We have made some discoveries which have led to the development of new drugs and better understanding of certain diseases," says Gustafsson. "There's a great satisfaction that it may help people to get healthy."

Traditional research brings value to a university

The synergy of this dual education makes these investigators valuable not only to academia, but also to medical science.

"I can't imagine doing translational research without medical training," Zhang says. "If you have this part without the other, you don't know where to go. With medical training, you know exactly which direction to go."

Mohan echos that assessment.

"When you start doing research there are so many questions you can answer," he says. "Sometimes there are questions which are just too basic. They're too far removed from how it will impact a patient's life. So what are the most important questions? I think questions that really make a difference in the patient's life are the most important."

Zhang notes that the National Institutes of Health has switched its funding philosophy — once focused on basic science, it now is more interested in translational research, with a direct relationship to patient health.

As physician-scientists, these "translators" of medical research are able to bridge the chasm.

Amr Elnashai, vice president/vice chancellor of research and technology transfer at UH, says physician-scientists play an important role.

"The increasing importance of deploying technology in medicine renders it essential for a progressive research university to hire medical Ph.D. holders who are in an ideal position to bridge the gap between engineering and science on the one hand, and the broad field of medicine on the other," he says.

Research groups that bring both fields together not only have a much higher probability of impacting lives by adopting the latest technology in medical applications, he adds, but they also give interdisciplinary teams greater access to specific funding pursue such solutions.

In that sense, says Elnashai, medical Ph.D. researchers play an important part of the future research university.

------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Nitiya Spearman is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

UH has maintained its spot on the top 100 global universities for number of patents issued. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

University of Houston ranks among top schools for issued patents

best in class

A new ranking shows the University of Houston is flexing its brains and its brawn as one of the most prolific producers of patents in the academic world.

The new ranking, published by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association, puts UH at No. 88 among the world's top 100 universities for patent activity in 2018.

"As the UH research portfolio grows and the medical school starts up, we would continue to anticipate a strong IP portfolio going forward for UH," says Tom Campbell, executive director of the Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation at UH.

UH tied with the Texas A&M University on this year's list; each recorded 28 patents in 2018. A year earlier, UH received 39 patents. The University of Texas was the only other Texas school on the new list. With 187 patents issued in 2018, it landed at No. 5.

Houston's Rice University showed up at No. 79 on the 2018 list but dropped out of this year's top 100.

Amr Elnashai, UH's vice president and vice chancellor for research and technology transfer since 2017, says his school's appearance in the ranking reflects an emphasis on converting faculty inventions into meaningful innovations. During the 2018 budget year, UH collected $43 million in patent royalties.

Among the patents UH received last year were those for a mutant herpes simplex virus connected to cancer therapy and a rechargeable alkaline battery.

"UH researchers are driven by making a positive impact on the quality of life," Elnashai says in a release. "From new remedies for persistent medical conditions to sustainable energy technologies, researchers from the University of Houston are addressing many of the world's most pressing challenges. The UH ranking, tied with our larger neighbor Texas A&M, is a testament to our emphasis on and excellence in technology transfer and innovation."

To ramp up UH's impact, the university last year rebranded its research park as the UH Technology Bridge. With 30,000 square feet of incubator space and over 700,000 square feet of space for labs, pilot-scale facilities, and light manufacturing, the Technology Bridge houses 21 startups and two established companies.

"From clean energy solutions and medicines to uses of artificial intelligence, data science tools and other emerging technologies, the University of Houston is focusing on bridging the gap between technological discoveries by our faculty and actual products that change peoples' lives," Elnashai said in 2018.

The list from the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association started in 2013. UH first cracked the top 100 in 2016 (for patents issued in 2015). That year, it ranked 88th. UH dropped to No. 91 on the 2017 list but rose to No. 67 on the 2018 list.

"The patents our universities produce represent important processes and collaborations which have the potential to make a significant impact on society on a local, regional, national, and global scale," says Paul Sanberg, president of the National Academy of Inventors.

The annual ranking relies on data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office regarding utility patents, which make up 90 percent of all patents issued.

According to Investopedia, a utility patent covers the creation of a new or improved — and useful — product, process, or machine. This type of patent prohibits other people or companies from making, using, or selling the invention without authorization.

"Patenting an invention is the first step towards making a lasting impact on the innovation ecosystem," says Jessica Landacre, deputy executive director of the Intellectual Property Owners Association.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.