TRISH’s Diversity Partnership Solicitation Program selected two research teams to receive funding and support. Photo via BCM.edu

A local organization announced two newly funded partnerships to advance research and innovation within space health.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has announced — along with partner organizations Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — $300,000 in funding for teams at Texas State University and the University of Florida.

The two schools have been named awardees of TRISH’s Diversity Partnership Solicitation Program that was founded to support TRISH’s ongoing commitment to increasing engagement from underrepresented groups in the field of space health research.

“We go to space to improve life everywhere, and we must do so representing everyone,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of TRISH’s Diversity Advisory Board, in a news release. “The members of TRISH’s Diversity Advisory Board helped select two strong partners through our Diversity Partnership Program, and their work will move us closer to achieving that reality for the future of space exploration for all.”

The two projects that were selected for the program include:

  • B-SURE: Boosting Spaceflight Underrepresented Researcher Equity:
    • Principal Investigator: Dr. Rachael Seidler, University of Florida
    • Co-Investigators: Drs. Josephine Allen and Christine Wegner, University of Florida; Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles, Texas A&M University.
    • Dr. Rachael Seidler and her University of Florida team is partnered with Texas A&M University to survey the field and build a database of underrepresented researchers interested in pursuing space health research and a second database of leaders in this field open to new collaborators and mentorship.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson Institute for STEM Education and Research Space Health Inclusion Partnership
    • Principal Investigator: Dr. Kristina Collins, Texas State University
    • Co-Investigators and Collaborators: Drs. Leslie Huling, Barbie Buckner and Sara Torres, Deepika Sangam, Texas State University.
    • Dr. Collins and her team will use Texas State's existing virtual education tools to launch a set of novel space health content with digital badges and certifications.

Each of the projects were selected for "their innovative means of facilitating underrepresented researcher engagement," per the news release. Both teams will establish a cohort of underrepresented researchers dedicated to innovating future applications for space health research funding.

TRISH is funded by NASA’s Human Research Program and seeks both early stage and translation-ready research and technology to protect and improve the health and performance of space explorers. Last month, TRISH released a free-to-watch documentary on space health.

Baylor College of Medicine hosted U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia (TX-29) for a check presentation. Photo courtesy of BCM

Houston institution receives $1.1M for long-COVID clinic

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A new funding project that's a part of the Bipartisan Omnibus Appropriations Bill doled out over $10 million to health care institutions — and a Houston initiative is cashing in on a chunk of that funding.

Baylor College of Medicine and Harris Health’s long-COVID care clinics received $1.1 million from the the Congressional Community Project Funding program. U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia (TX-29) attended the check presentation of the funding, as did Harris Health CEO Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, BCM President, CEO, and Executive Dean Dr. Paul Klotman, and Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Sima Ladjevardian.

Long-COVID symptoms, which are categorized by any level of severity of the disease, can affect organ systems such as the heart, lungs, or brain, and include persistent shortness of breath, brain fog or anxiety. BCM started post-COVID treatment initiatives in 2021.

The organization's long-COVID care facilities will be expanding to Harris Health’s Strawberry Clinic located in East Harris County in the 29th Congressional District. Baylor's Institute for Clinical and Translational Research experts will also work to develop, maintain, and analyze a COVID-19 database.

“Rep Garcia was instrumental in guiding this project through to its approval,” says Klotman in a news release. “She understands the health disparities of her district and the greater Houston community and spearheaded efforts for the BCM program’s inclusion in the Appropriations Bill.”

Garcia, according to the release, is responsible for spearheading the effort for nine Houston area community projects that are currently being funding.

"In my district we know we have a high rate of COVID and we know we will have a high long-COVID impact," says Rep. Garcia. "It is important to support care and research because it is impacting their quality of life and it is impacting their ability to work. The long-COVID treatment and research projects going on here at Baylor are some of the best. We are doing the work, we are doing the research, and we will continue to do it together."

NASA has renewed its support for Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of NASA

Houston research organization receives renewal from NASA and millions in funding for space health projects

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Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, was granted renewal from NASA this week, which will allow the organization to continue to conduct biomedical research geared at protecting astronauts in deep space through 2028.

According to a statement, NASA reviewed TRISH in December 2020 ahead of the five year mark of its cooperative agreement with BCM's Center for Space Medicine. NASA opted to continue the partnership and now TRISH will receive additional funding of up to $134.6 million from 2022 to 2028.

"NASA has received outstanding value from our bold approach to sourcing and advancing space health research and technologies," institute director Dorit Donoviel, said in a statement. "We are proud to be NASA's partner in its human space exploration mission and to be supporting the research necessary to create new frontiers in healthcare that will benefit all humans."

The institute will focus its efforts on Mars exploration missions in the next six years and has been given three main objectives, according to the release:

  • To build strategic partnerships that will increase the volume of available biometric data on the impact of space travel on health and astronaut performance
  • To build a digital platform that simulates the spaceflight environment and will allow researchers to model and test new health technologies on Earth
  • To develop tissue chip technology that will allow astronauts to place a variety of human cells in lunar orbit during the NASA Artemis research missions to track the effects of space radiation and microgravity on humans

Since TRISH was founded in 2016 it has led the charge in space health research and has partnered with and provided grants to an array of innovative startups to do so.

In 2020 is granted Houston-based Z3VR $50,000 to explore the ways virtual reality can boost physical and mental health among astronauts and it has funded several projects surrounding space radiation levels.

At the time of 2020 review, TRISH had developed and transitioned 34 completed astronaut health and protection projects to NASA and had connected 415 first-time NASA researchers with opportunities to develop space health solutions.

A new AI-optimized COVID screening device, a free response resource, and more — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions

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Researchers across the Houston area are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

From a COVID breathalyzer to a new collaboration in Houston — here's your latest roundup of local coronavirus research news.

A&M System to collaborate on a COVID-19 breathalyzer

A prototype of the device will be used on the Texas A&M campus. Photo via tamu.edu

Researchers at Texas A&M University System are collaborating on a new device that uses artificial intelligence in a breathalyzer situation to detect whether individuals should be tested for COVID-19. The technology is being developed through a collaboration with Dallas-based company, Worlds Inc., and the U.S. Air Force.

The device is called Worlds Protect and a patient can use a disposable straw to blow into a copper inlet. In less than a minute, test results can be sent to the person's smartphone. Worlds Inc. co-founders Dave Copps and Chris Rohde envision Worlds Protect kiosks outside of highly populated areas to act as a screening process, according to a news release.

"People can walk up and, literally, just breathe into the device," says Rohde, president of Worlds Inc., in the release. "It's completely noninvasive. There's no amount of touching. And you quickly get a result. You get a yay or nay."

The university system has contributed $1 million in the project's development and is assisting Worlds Inc. with engineering and design, prototype building and the mapping of a commercial manufacturing process. According to the release, the plan was to test the prototypes will be tried out this fall on the Texas A&M campus.

"Getting tech innovations to market is one of our sweet spots," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release. "This breakthrough could have lasting impact on global public health."

Baylor College of Medicine researchers to determine cyclosporine’s role in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients

BCM researchers are looking into the treatment effect of an existing drug on COVID-19 patients. Photo via BCM.edu

The Baylor College of Medicine has launched a randomized clinical trial to look into how the drug cyclosporine effects the prevention of disease progression in pre-ICU hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drug has been used for about 40 years to prevent rejection of organ transplants and to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

"The rationale is strong because the drug has a good safety profile, is expected to target the body's hyperimmune response to COVID and has been shown to directly inhibit human coronaviruses in the lab," says Dr. Bryan Burt, chief of thoracic surgery in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, says in a press release.

Burt initiated this trial and BCM is the primary site for the study, with some collaboration with Brigham and Women's. The hypothesis is that the drug will help prevent the cytokine storm that patients with COVID-19 experience that causes their health to decline rapidly, according to the release.

The study, which is funded by Novartis, plans to enroll 75 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center who are not in the ICU. There will be an initial evaluation at six months but Burt expects to have the final study results in one year.

Rice launches expert group to help guide pandemic response

A new response team is emerging out of a collaboration led by Rice University. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University is collaborating with other Houston institutions to create the Biomedical Expert Panel, supported by Texas Policy Lab, to assist officials in long-term pandemic recovery.

"Not all agencies and decision-makers have an in-house epidemiologist or easy access to leaders in infectious disease, immunology and health communications," says Stephen Spann, chair of the panel and founding dean of the University of Houston College of Medicine, in a news release. "This panel is about equity. We must break out of our knowledge siloes and face this challenge together, with a commitment to inclusivity and openness."

The purpose of the panel is to be available as a free resource to health departments, social service agencies, school districts and other policymakers. The experts will help design efficient public health surveillance plans, advise on increasing testing capacity and access for underserved communities, and more.

"The precise trajectory of the local epidemic is difficult to predict, but we know that COVID-19 will continue to be a long-term challenge," says E. Susan Amirian, an epidemiologist who leads the TPL's health program, in the release. "Although CDC guidelines offer a good foundation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when managing a crisis of this magnitude across diverse communities with urgent needs."

Five research teams are studying space radiation's effect on human tissue. Photo via NASA/Josh Valcarcel

2 Houston research teams to receive support from local space health organization

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A Houston-based organization has named five research projects to advance the understanding of space radiation using human tissue. Two of the five projects are based in Houston.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, is based at Baylor College of Medicine and funds health research and tech for astronauts during space missions. The astronauts who are headed to the moon or further will be exposed to high Galactic Cosmic Radiation levels, and TRISH wants to learn more about the effects of GCR.

"With this solicitation, TRISH was looking for novel human-based approaches to understand better Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) hazards, in addition to safe and effective countermeasures," says Kristin Fabre, TRISH's chief scientist, in a news release. "More than that, we sought interdisciplinary teams of scientists to carry these ideas forward. These five projects embody TRISH's approach to cutting-edge science."

The five projects are:

  • Michael Weil, PhD, of Colorado State University, Colorado — Effects of chronic high LET radiation on the human heart
  • Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD of Columbia University, New York — Human multi-tissue platform to study effects of space radiation and countermeasures
  • Sharon Gerecht, PhD of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland — Using human stem-cell derived vascular, neural and cardiac 3D tissues to determine countermeasures for radiation
  • Sarah Blutt, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Use of Microbial Based Countermeasures to Mitigate Radiation Induced Intestinal Damage
  • Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Counteracting space radiation by targeting neurogenesis in a human brain organoid model

The researchers are tasked with simulating radiation exposure to human tissues in order to study new ways to protect astronauts from the radiation once in deep space. According to the release, the tissue and organ models will be derived from blood donated by the astronaut in order to provide him or her with customized protection that will reduce the risk to their health.

TRISH is funded by a partnership between NASA and Baylor College of Medicine, which also includes consortium partners Caltech and MIT. The organization is also a partner to NASA's Human Research Program.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions

Research roundup

As Houston heads toward the end of summer with no major vaccine or treatment confirmed for COVID-19, local research institutions are still hard at work on various coronavirus-focused innovations.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news.

Baylor College of Medicine genomics team to partner for local COVID-19 testing

Houston millionaire to start biotech accelerator for companies focusing on regenerative medicine

Two departments at BCM are working with the county on COVID-19 testing. Getty Images

Two Baylor College of Medicine institutions have teamed up to aid in local COVID-19 testing. The Human Genome Sequencing Center and the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research — under the leadership of BCM — are partnering with local public health departments to provide polymerase chain reaction testing of COVID-19 samples, according to a news release from BCM.

"We are pleased to work with the outstanding local government groups in this critical public health effort," says Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the HGSC and Wofford Cain chair and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, in the release. "We are proud of the tireless determination and expertise of our centers and college staff that enabled the rapid development of this robust testing capacity to serve the greater Houston community."

Baylor is among the testing providers for Harris County Public Health, and people can receive testing following a pre-screening questionnaire online.

"We are fortunate to have Baylor College of Medicine as a close partner during the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, in the release. "This is a challenging time for our community and as the need for increased testing capacity and getting results to residents faster has grown, Baylor has risen to the occasion. There are countless unsung heroes across Harris County who have stepped up to the plate during this pandemic and Baylor College of Medicine is one of them."

COVID-19 testing samples are collected from testing sites and delivered to the Alkek Center. After isolating the virus, genomic material is extracted and sent to the HGSC to quantitative reverse transcription PCR testing. Should the sample's RNA sequence match the virus, then it is positive for COVID-19. The sequencing must test positive three times to be considered overall positive.

Results are returned within 48 hours, and the lab has a capacity of more than 1,000 samples a day. Since May, the team has tested over 30,000 samples.

"We knew we had all the pieces to stand up a testing center fast – large scale clinical sequencing, experts in virology and molecular biology, and a secure way to return results to patients," says Ginger Metcalf, Human Genome Sequencing Center Director of Project Development, in the release. "We are also fortunate to have such great partners at Harris County Public Health, who have done an amazing job of gathering, tracking and delivering samples, especially for the most at-risk members of our community."

National Science Foundation renews Rice University funding amid pandemic

José Onuchic (left) and Peter Wolynes are co-directors of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics has been granted a five-year extension from the National Science Foundation. The grant for $12.9 million will aid in continuing the CTBP's work at the intersection of biology and physics.

The center — which was founded in 2001 at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to Rice in 2011 — is led by Peter Wolynes and José Onuchic.

"We have four major areas at the center," Onuchic says in a news release. "The first is in chromatin theory and modeling, developing the underlying mathematical theory to explain the nucleus of the cell — what Peter calls the 'new nuclear physics.' The second is to test ideas based on the data being created by experimentalists. The third is to understand information processing by gene networks in general, with some applications related to metabolism in cancer. The fourth is to study the cytoskeleton and molecular motors. And the synergy between all of these areas is very important."

Onuchic adds that an upcoming donation of a supercomputer by AMD will help the center's ongoing research into COVID-19 and four institutions — Rice, Northeastern, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston — are working collaboratively on the study,

"We're all set to move on doing major COVID-related molecular simulations on day one," he says in the release. "The full functioning of a center requires a synergy of participation. Rice is the main player with people from multiple departments, but Baylor, Northeastern and Houston play critical roles."

University of Houston offers free mental health therapy for restaurant workers

Texas restaurant workers can get free mental health care from a UH initiative. Photo via Elle Hughes/Pexels

Through a collaboration with Southern Smoke and Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the University of Houston Clinical Psychology program launched a a free mental health care program for Texas-based food and beverage employees and their children.

"During normal times this is a high stress industry where people work very hard in environments where they are just blowing and going all the time," says John P. Vincent, professor of psychology and director of the UH Center for Forensic Psychology, in a news release.

The program has 14 graduate students who converse with a total of 30 patients and meet weekly with supervisors at UH.

"This opportunity allows our clinical program to reach people in the community who usually don't have access to mental health services," says Carla Sharp, professor of psychology and director of clinical training, in the release.

For restaurant industry workers looking for help and care, they can visit the Mental Health Services page on Southern Smoke's website.

According to Vincent, this is just the beginning.

"We're discussing it," says Vincent in the release. "But as far as I'm concerned it can just keep going and going."

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Houston biopharma company launches equity crowdfunding campaign

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A clinical-stage company headquartered in Houston has opened an online funding campaign.

FibroBiologics, which is developing fibroblast cell-based therapeutics for chronic diseases, launched a campaign with equity crowdfunding platform StartEngine. The platform lets anyone — regardless of their net worth or income level — to invest in securities issued by startups.

The funding, according to a press release, will be used to support ongoing operations of Fibrobiologics and advance its clinical programs in multiple sclerosis, degenerative disc disease, wound care, extension of life, and cancer.

"We're excited to partner with StartEngine on this campaign. StartEngine has over 600,000 investors as part of their community and has raised over half a billion dollars for its clients," says FibroBiologics' Founder and CEO Pete O'Heeron, in the release.

"This is an exciting time at FibroBiologics as we continue progressing our clinical pipeline and developing innovative therapies to treat chronic diseases," he continues. "This new funding will fuel our growth in the lab and bring us one step closer to commercialization."

The campaign, launched this week, already has over 100 investors, at the time of publication, and has raised nearly $2 million, according to the page. The minimum investment is set at around $500, and the company's indicated valuation is $252.57 million.

In 2021, FibroBiologics announced its intention of going public. Last year, O'Heeron told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast of the company's growth plans as well as the specifics of the technology.

Only two types of cells — stem cells and fibroblasts — can be used in cell therapy for a regenerative treatment, which is when specialists take healthy cells from a patient and inject them into a part of the body that needs it the most. As O'Heeron explains in the podcast, fibroblasts can do it more effectively and cheaper than stem cells.

"(Fibroblasts) can essentially do everything a stem cell can do, only they can do it better," says O'Heeron. "We've done tests in the lab and we've seen them outperform stem cells by a low of 50 percent to a high of about 220 percent on different disease paths."


Texas ranks as a top state for female entrepreneurs

women in business

Texas dropped three spots in Merchant Maverick’s annual ranking of the top 10 states for women-led startups.

The Lone Star State landed at No. 5 thanks in part to its robust venture capital environment for women entrepreneurs. Last year, Texas ranked second, up from its No. 6 showing in 2021.

Merchant Maverick, a product comparison site for small businesses, says Texas “boasts the strongest venture capital scene” for women entrepreneurs outside California and the Northeast. The state ranked fourth in that category, with $6.5 billion invested in the past five years.

Other factors favoring Texas include:

  • Women solely lead 22 percent of all employees working for a business in Texas (No. 4).
  • Texas lacks a state income tax (tied for No. 1).

However, Texas didn’t fare well in terms of the unemployment rate (No. 36) and the rate of business ownership by women (No. 29). Other Texas data includes:

  • Average income for women business owners, $52,059 (No. 19).
  • Early startup survival rate, 81.9 percent (No. 18).

Appearing ahead of Texas in the 2023 ranking are No. 1 Colorado, No. 2 Washington, No. 3 California, and No. 4 Arizona.

Another recent ranking, this one from NorthOne, an online bank catering to small businesses, puts Texas at No. 7 among the 10 best states for women entrepreneurs.

NorthOne says Texas provides “a ton of opportunities” for woman entrepreneurs. For instance, it notches one of the highest numbers of women-owned businesses in the country at 1.4 million, 2.1 percent of which have at least 500 employees.

In this study, Texas is preceded by Colorado at No. 1, Nevada at No. 2, Virginia at No. 3, Maryland at No. 4, Florida at No. 5, and New Mexico at No. 6. The rankings are based on eight metrics, including the percentage of woman-owned businesses and the percentage of women-owned businesses with at least 500 employees.