The University of Houston, a Tier One research institution, has a few ongoing projects focusing on treating or preventing COVID-19. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Researchers across the country are focusing on all things COVID-19 — from biotherapies and treatment to vaccines and prevention. A handful of researchers based out of the University of Houston are doing their best to move the needle on a cure or reliable vaccine.

Here are three research projects currently ongoing at UH.

UH pharmacy professors take it back to basics

UH College of Pharmacy professors Gomika Udugamasooriya (left) and Bin Guo are studying how the virus enters the human body. Photo via uh.edu

When thinking about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, two UH pharmacy professors are looking at how the virus enters the body. Then, this information can help develop protection of that entry point.

"The human entry of coronaviruses depends on first binding of the viral spike proteins to human cellular receptors that basically offer a cellular doorknob," says Gomika Udugamasooriya, associate professor of pharmacological and pharmaceutical sciences, in a press release. "The virus latches onto the specific human cellular receptor, ACE2, and sneaks inside to replicate itself within the cell to spread throughout the body."

Now, the goal of new drugs and vaccines is to protect that ACE2. Udugamasooriya is working with Bin Guo, associate professor of pharmaceutics, on this research, which is in the initial screening levels and identified drug-lead validations. They are working to apply their unique cell-screening technology to identify specific synthetic chemical drug leads called peptoids that can bind to ACE2 receptor, according to the release.

"Peptoids are easier to make, compatible with biological systems and economical to produce," says Udugamasooriya.

Duo aims to create inhalation vaccine for COVID-19

Navin Varadarajan, UH engineering professor (left), and pharmaceutics professor Xinli Liu, pharmaceutics professor, are collaborating on development and testing of a COVID-19 inhalation vaccine. Photo via uh.edu

If the disease itself is airborne, can't the vaccine be too? That's what M.D. Anderson Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Navin Varadarajan looking into.

"For airborne pathogens, the nasal mucosa is the first point of defense that needs to be breached," says Varadarajan in a news release. "Mucosal immunity and vaccines are fundamentally important for a wide range of pathogens including influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the current SARS-CoV-2."

Varadarajan is focusing on the spike protein to protect at virus entry. These proteins are known for building strong immune responses, flexibility and scalability, and absence of infectious particles. He is working with Xinli Liu, associate professor of pharmaceutics.

"As with any vaccine, a variety of factors determine their efficacy including the antigen used for electing a response, the adjuvants and immunomodulators, the efficient delivery of the antigen to appropriate target cells, and the route of vaccination," Varadarajan says.

The man with three different vaccine options

UH Professor Shaun Zhang is in the process of developing three COVID-19 vaccine candidates for injection. Photo via uh.edu

Shaun Zhang, director for the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, usually works on developing treatment or vaccines for cancer and viral infection. Now, he's switched gears to work on three different vaccine candidates for COVID-19.

"The data collected from our studies show that our vaccine candidates can generate neutralizing antibodies, which can protect cells from infection by SARS-CoV-2 when tested in vitro," says Zhang in a press release. "We are now working on further improvement for the vaccine design."

Zhang's approach is neutralizing antibody production, and he's tapped into using "subunit vaccine containing either the entire spike protein or the receptor binding portion, which helps the virus enter the target cell, and delivered either by DNA formulation or by a herpes simplex virus-based vector," according to the release. Low cost and simplicity are two priorities for Zhang's work.

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17 Houston entrepreneurs named finalists in annual regional competition

on to the next round

Entrepreneurs from the Houston area have been named finalists for one of the region’s most prestigious business awards.

The 17 finalists are competing for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year 2024 Gulf South Award. The Gulf South region includes parts of Texas, along with Louisiana and Mississippi.

An independent panel of judges selected the 48 finalists. Contenders were evaluated based on their demonstration of building long-term value through factors such as entrepreneurial spirit, purpose, growth, and impact.

The Houston-area finalists are:

  • Shannon Payne, Allied Fire Protection, Pearland
  • Jay McEntire IV, Arva Intelligence, Houston
  • Andrew Levy, Avelo Airlines, Houston
  • Derek Maetzold, Castle Biosciences, Friendswood
  • Scott Aronstein, Connectivity Source, Houston
  • Joshua Weisman, Construction Concepts, Houston
  • Feras Moussa and Ben Suttles, Disrupt Equity, Houston
  • John Poindexter, J.B. Poindexter, Houston
  • James Ross, LJA Engineering, Houston
  • Asher Kazmann, Locke Solutions, Houston
  • Chad Millis, Millis, Missouri City
  • Mike Francis, NanoTech Materials, Houston
  • Stuart Hinchen and Peter Jenkins, Quva Pharma, Sugar Land
  • Trevor Best and Suman Khatiwada, Syzygy Plasmonics, Houston
  • Hal Brumfield, Tachus Fiber Internet, The Woodlands
  • Jared Boudreaux, Vector Controls and Automation Group, Pearland
  • Ting Qiao, Wan Bridge, Houston

“The finalists of this year are audacious entrepreneurs who are making a significant impact in their respective industries and communities,” says Anna Horndahl, an EY partner and co-director of the EOY Gulf South Program.

“These pioneers, chosen by an independent panel of judges, showcase relentless commitment to their businesses, customers and communities. We are thrilled to acknowledge their accomplishments,” adds Travis Garms, an EY partner and co-director of the EOY Gulf South Program.

Houston makes top 10 list of metros with most millionaires

living large

Anew population analysis has unveiled an exclusive view into how the elite live in the U.S., including a surprising discovery that Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land has the No. 9 highest concentration of millionaire households in the country.

The study by online real estate marketplace Point2Homes compared household data among millionaires in the 30 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas, including four Texas metros, between 2017 and 2022.

The report found that the number of U.S. households that earned at least $1 million a year more than quadruped within the five-year period, with the highest concentration of millionaire households located in the New York-Newark-Jersey City area across New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

There are just under 2,900 millionaire homeowners living across the Houston metro, making up 0.11 percent of all households in the area. The report revealed a majority (32.9 percent) of millionaires in Houston are actually Gen Xers, with the second highest share going to baby boomers (28.9 percent).

Most interestingly, the youngest generation, Gen Z, make up 15.4 percent of all millionaire households in Houston, with millennials making up 21.5 percent, according to the report. But the Gen Z percentage is misleading; as the report clarifies, there aren't actually that many Gen Z millionaires walking among us in H-Town.

"Instead, this high share is most likely almost entirely due to the people aged 15 to 24 who are still living with their (millionaire) owner parents," the report explained. "Unfortunately, living in a millionaire owner household does not a millionaire owner make — but it does come with some serious perks."

Physicians make up Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land millionaires' main occupations across all age groups, the study also found.

This is how Houston's millionaires live
The saying goes, "Go big or go home," and Houston's millionaire homeowners are taking that to heart when it comes to their own lavish households.

The report discovered the typical home owned by a millionaire in Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land is a five bedroom, nine total-room house, with an average assessed value of $1,466,682. As for wheels, a Houston-based millionaire is likely to have less than three vehicles (2.8) on average.

By comparison, the average value for a millionaire homeowner's abode in San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, California is $2,816,196, the highest amount out of all 30 U.S. metros in the report.

Big, expensive homes don't come without big costs to maintain them, the report reminds. And when it comes to managing finances for wealthy earners, making more money doesn't necessarily mean they'll be saving that income.

"Rather, it just means bigger homes with bigger mortgages and maintenance expenses; more cars; much costlier schools; and more over-the-top lifestyles, which simply bite bigger chunks out of the family's big budget," the report said. "However, despite the 'risks,' most of us would probably choose to have rich people problems. Or, as the saying goes, crying in a Ferrari might just feel better than crying in a Toyota when all is said and done."

Millionaire lifestyles across Texas
In a comparison of all Texas metro areas, Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land claimed the highest share of millionaire homeowners statewide. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington took the No. 2 spot, while Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown rounded out the top three. San Antonio-New Braunfels took No. 4 in the statewide analysis.

Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington was right behind Houston in the national standings, ranking No. 10, with nearly 2,650 millionaire households situated in the Metroplex. DFW's millionaires are mainly chief executives and legislators, or physicians. Gen Xers (44.1 percent) make up the highest share of the metro's millionaires, with baby boomers (24.7 percent) not too far behind.

Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown, however, fell to No. 24 in the national ranking with only 749 millionaire households calling the Texas Capital home. Austin's millionaires are mainly chief executives and legislators, or other types of high-level mangers. Gen Xers (34.9 percent) make up the highest share of the metro's millionaires, with millennials (30.8 percent) not too far behind.

San Antonio-New Braunfels ranked at the bottom of the study at No. 29, above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There were only 414 millionaire households in the metro area between 2017-2022, and a majority of them (38.4 percent) were Gen X physicians.

The top 10 metros with the highest share of millionaires in the U.S. are:

  • No. 1 – New York-Newark-New Jersey City, New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania
  • No. 2 – Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California
  • No. 3 – San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, California
  • No. 4 – Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Massachusetts-New Hampshire
  • No. 5 – Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Virginia-Marland-West Virginia
  • No. 6 – Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin
  • No. 7 – Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, Florida
  • No. 8 – Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington
  • No. 9 – Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas
  • No. 10 – Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas

The full report and its methodology can be found on point2homes.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.