A Houston research team is studying the effects of regenerative medicine on hearts. Photo via TMC.org

Ask any high achiever and they’ll tell you — failure is the path to success.

As Camila Hochman-Mendez puts it, “I’m like Thomas Edison, right? I know a thousand ways of how not to create a lightbulb.” But she’s not really talking about electricity. Hochman-Mendez is director of Regenerative Medicine Research and the Biorepository Core at Texas Heart Institute.

Hochman-Mendez follows another pioneering woman in the role, Doris Taylor. The younger scientist took on the prime job when Taylor left in 2020. By then, Hochman-Mendez had been at The Texas Heart Institute for three years, moving from research scientist to assistant director in just four months.

Regenerative Medicine is every bit as exciting as it sounds. At Hochman-Mendez’s lab, her team creates ghost hearts — organs from which all cells are scrubbed, leaving collagen, fibronectin, and laminin in the shape of the formerly beating ticker. The goal is to use the decellularized organs as protein scaffolds that, once injected with stem cells, will once again contract and pump blood.

Hochman-Mendez cautions that we are still years away from that point, but her lab is working hard to get there.

“The ultimate goal is to develop functional hearts that can be used for transplant,” says Hochman-Mendez.

Those hearts would be made from the patient’s own cells, avoiding organ rejection, which the scientist says is essentially trading one disease for another. But she is realistic about that fact that there are many barriers to her success.

“It does come with a lot of technical challenges,” she says.

These challenges include the simple number of cells that billions, and potentially hundreds of billions of cardiomyocytes are needed to recreate a human heart. The necessary protocols, Hochman-Mendez explains, are extremely costly and labor intensive.

It also takes 60 days for the cells to reach a maturity at which they can function. The lab recently received a pair of grants targeted at creating bioreactors that can be reliable for at least those 60 days.

The third major issue facing the Regenerative Medicine lab is contamination.

“It needs to be very sterile,” says Hochman-Mendez. “It needs to be so clean that if you have one tiny bacteria there, you’re screwed.”

Fortunately, the scientist says that her favorite hobby is computer programming. She and a physician colleague have created a robotic arm that can help to prevent the contamination that often stemmed from humans manually injecting stem cells into the decellularized organs.

This not only works towards solving the contamination problem, it also allows the team to more accurately distribute the cells that they add, using an injection map. To that end, she is producing a three-dimensional model of a protein scaffold that will allow her team and other scientists in the field of regenerative medicine to understand how the cells really disperse when they inject them.

When will her lab produce working hearts?

“I try to be very conservative on timing,” she says.

She explains that it will take significant leaps in technology to make a heart mature to the level at which it’s usable for an adult body in 60 days.

“That’s magic and I don’t believe in magic,” she says, but adds that she hopes to have a prototype ready to be tested in five years.

Hochman-Mendez does this all with a small team of nine researchers, most of whom happen to be female.

“The best candidates are the ones that I select," she says. "The majority are females. I think it’s a mix of trying to be very unbiased, but I usually don’t even look at the name before looking at the CV to preselect the people that I interview.”

And together, Hochman-Mendez are making medical history, one success-spawning failure at a time.

Camila Hochman-Mendez is director of Regenerative Medicine Research and the Biorepository Core at Texas Heart Institute. Photo via texasheart.org

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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.