The Butterfly iQ, a device developed with Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, is headed to the ISS. Photo courtesy of TRISH

An innovative ultrasonography device that has been developed with the future of space health in mind has hitched a ride on SpaceX's Dragon cargo resupply mission. The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine is supporting the product's first user demo in space.

The Butterfly iQ device was developed by Connecticut-based Butterfly Network Inc. (NYSE: BFLY) and is "the world's first handheld, single-probe whole-body ultrasound system using semiconductor technology," according to a press release.

TRISH has been supporting the device's development since the organization realized the impact it can have on astronauts' ability to administer their own health care.

"NASA is returning to the moon and our astronauts will need to be more self-reliant when it comes to medical care. TRISH is investing in innovations that enable healthcare to be provided in new ways," says Dr. Dorit Donoviel, director of TRISH, in the release. "On deep space missions, tools such as the Butterfly iQ will help the astronauts monitor themselves for concerns such as kidney stones, fluid in the lungs, blood clots and swelling of the optic nerve."

When the device reaches the International Space Station, the astronauts will provide feedback on how they used the device, the quality of the produced ultrasound images, and the efficiency of image acquisition.

"We're thrilled that TRISH has identified the potential of Butterfly iQ to advance care delivery in remote – and extremely remote – care settings. We are confident that the iQ's combination of diagnostic power, portability, reliability and ease of use will prove a useful addition to the medical toolkit of the International Space Station," said Dr. Todd Fruchterman, president and CEO of Butterfly Network, in the release. "It is an honor to know that a Butterfly device will help NASA safeguard the health of its incredible astronauts by providing actionable diagnostic insights."

The device was recently introduced into CHI St. Luke's Health point of cair practice — specifically for COVID-19 treatment. Dr. Jose Diaz-Gomez, an anesthesiologist and ultrasonography expert at the hospital, says the Butterfly iQ's portable ultrasonography technology has been a key diagnostic tool in his team's point of care for COVID-19 patients.

Moving beyond the pandemic, Diaz-Gomez explained the pertinent use of lower cost, portable ultrasound tools like Butterfly iQ to increase access to health care — even here on earth.

"In conditions that are dynamic, you want to have a diagnostic tool that, over time as you're treating a patient, you can see meaningful changes — good or bad," Diaz-Gomez previously told InnovationMap. "The pandemic has enabled us to use — from the initial care to when they are on the ventilator — ultrasonography to see the changes in the patient's' lungs."

TRISH is focused on identifying and supporting technologies like Butterfly iQ through its network of space health experts, BCM, and NASA, which recently granted renewal for its TRISH partnership granted renewal for its TRISH partnership earlier this year. NASA will continue to work with TRISH to conduct biomedical research geared at protecting astronauts in deep space through 2028.

CHI St. Luke's Health has invested in around 40 of the Butterfly iQ devices that can be used to provide accurate and portable ultrasonography on COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of CHI St. Luke's

Houston hospital taps new tech to provide more accurate COVID-19 diagnostics and treatment

hand held

With such a dynamic virus like COVID-19 that affects patients with different levels of severity, the first challenge doctors face when treating infected patients is assessing the situation. CHI St. Luke's Health has been implementing a new technology that allows its physicians better access to that initial diagnosis.

Dr. Jose Diaz-Gomez, an anesthesiologist at CHI St. Luke's Health and ultrasonography expert, says the Butterfly iQ's portable ultrasonography technology has been a key tool in his team's point of care for COVID-19 patients. Over the past few years, ultrasonography equipment has been evolving to be more portable and more accurate. That's what the Butterfly iQ technology provides, and Diaz-Gomez says his team was quick to realize how the technology can help in diagnostics and treatment of coronavirus patients.

A traditional approach to examining a patient's lungs would mean radiography, but Diaz-Gomez says his team saw the opportunity ultrasonography and these new, portable devices had on providing more accurate and timely diagnostics.

"In conditions that are dynamic, you want to have a diagnostic tool that, over time as you're treating a patient, you can see meaningful changes — good or bad," Diaz-Gomez says. "The pandemic has enabled us to use — from the initial care to when they are on the ventilator — ultrasonography to see the changes in the patient's' lungs."

Jose Diaz-Gomez is an anesthesiologist at CHI St. Luke's. Photo courtesy of CHI St. Luke's

The Butterfly iQ device is different from its ultrasound predecessors in that it's built to be more accurate, portable, easy to use, and low cost (even being made available for commercial purchase). According to Diaz-Gomez, he could train someone on the device in just a few hours.

Ahead of the pandemic, CHI St. Luke's had 20 of these devices and now has doubled that initial fleet. Along with the other non-Butterfly iQ ultrasonography devices, Diaz-Gomez's team has access to 70 ultrasonography devices — 80 percent of which are dedicated to COVID-19 patients.

"Our institution was very supportive of bringing a very robust roll-out program for point-of-care ultrasonography during the pandemic," Diaz-Gomez says. "We were able to incorporate 40 ultrasound devices — the Butterfly system. Not only that, we actually implemented a very rigorous infection control process to make sure we do it in a safe manner. You don't want to bring tools that will be another source of transmission from patient to patient."

While this new technology is continuing to make a difference in St. Luke's COVID units, Diaz-Gomez is already looking forward to the difference the devices will make post pandemic.

"Whatever we will face after the pandemic, many physicians will be able to predict more objectively when a patient is deteriorating from acute respiratory failure," he says. "Without this innovation, we wouldn't have been able to be at higher standards with ultrasonography."

The device, with its portability, low cost, and ease of use, also has an application for telemedicine and at-home health, and that's something that's exciting for Diaz-Gomez. However, both in his COVID units or in the home setting, the device is only as good as the clinician who's interpreting the images paired with the other diagnostics.

"The integration of ultrasonography with the clinical practice itself — it has to go hand in hand," Diaz-Gomez says. "The clinical decision will depend on that integration."

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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.