A University of Houston researcher has reported a 98.7-percent rate of accuracy for a method pioneered by his lab to identify cancers at their earliest stages. Photo via Getty Images

Could detecting cancer one day be as easy as taking a blood test? Wei-Chuan Shih, a University of Houston researcher and Cullen College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering, has reported a 98.7-percent rate of accuracy for a method pioneered by his lab to identify cancers at their earliest stages.

The technology combines Shih’s own PANORAMA (PlAsmonic NanO-apeRture lAbel-free iMAging) with fluorescent imaging to view nanometer-sized membrane sacs, called extracellular vesicles or EVs. EVs carry different types of cargo, including proteins, nucleic acids and metabolites, throughout the bloodstream.

“We observed differences in small EV numbers and cargo in samples taken from healthy people versus people with cancer and are able to differentiate these two populations based on our analysis of the small EVs,” reports Shih, in Nature Communications Medicine. “The findings came from combining two imaging methods – our previously developed method PANORAMA and imaging of fluorescence emitted by small EVs—to visualize and count small EVs, determine their size and analyze their cargo.”

Shih introduced PANORAMA in 2020. The technology uses a glass side covered with gold nano discs that allows users to monitor changes in the transmission of light as well as determine the characteristics of nanoparticles as small as 25 nanometers in diameter. For the new publication, Shih and his team just had to count the number of small EVs in order to detect cancer.

“Using a cutoff of 70 normalized small EV counts, all cancer samples from 205 patients were above this threshold except for one sample, and for healthy samples, from 106 healthy individuals, all but three were above this cutoff, giving a cancer detection sensitivity of 99.5% and specificity of 97.3%,” says Shih.

The team was able to report 100-percent accuracy with further testing that analyzed two independent sets of samples from stage I-IV or recurrent leiomyosarcoma/gastrointestinal stromal tumors and early-and-late-stage cholangiocarcinoma combined with healthy samples.

Shih and collaborator Steven H. Lin have founded Seek Diagnostics with the goal of commercializing the technology that they’ve innovated. In 2022, the duo joined the Texas Medical Center Innovation's cancer-focused accelerator.


Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

“This breakthrough technology has the potential to reshape the landscape of disease treatment and the future of research and development in the field of cell-based therapies." Photo via Getty Images

Rice lab cooks up breakthrough 'living pharmacy' research for potential cell therapy treatment

biotech innovation

Rice University’s Biotech Launchpad has created an electrocatalytic on-site oxygenator, or ecO2, that produces oxygen intended to keeps cells alive. The device works inside an implantable “living pharmacy,” which the Rice Biotech Launch Pad team believes will one day be able to administer and regulate therapeutics within a patient’s body.

Last week, Rice announced a peer-reviewed publication in Nature Communications detailing the development of the novel rechargeable device. The study is entitled “Electrocatalytic on-site oxygenation for transplanted cell-based-therapies.”

How will doctors use the “living pharmacy?” The cell-based therapies implanted could treat conditions that include endocrine disorders, autoimmune syndromes, cancers and neurological degeneration. One major challenge standing in the way of bringing the technology beyond the theoretical has been ensuring the survival of cells for extended periods, which is necessary to create effective treatments. Oxygenation of the cells is an important component to keeping them alive and healthy and the longer they remain so, the longer the therapeutics will be helpful.

Other treatments to deliver oxygen to cells are ungainly and more limited in terms of oxygen production and regulation. According to Omid Veiseh, associate professor of bioengineering and faculty director of the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, oxygen generation is achieved with the ecO2 through water splitting that is precisely regulated using a battery-powered, wirelessly controlled electronic system. New versions will have wireless charging, which means it could last a patient’s entire lifetime.

“Cell-based therapies could be used for replacing damaged tissues, for drug delivery or augmenting the body’s own healing mechanisms, thus opening opportunities in wound healing and treatments for obesity, diabetes and cancer, for example. Generating oxygen on site is critical for many of these ‘biohybrid’ cell therapies: We need many cells to have sufficient production of therapeutics from those cells, thus there is a high metabolic demand. Our approach would integrate the ecO2 device to generate oxygen from the water itself,” says Jonathan Rivnay of Northwestern University, who co-led the study with Tzahi Cohen-Karni of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

The study’s co-first authors are Northwestern’s Abhijith Surendran and CMU’s Inkyu Lee.

Northwestern leads the collaboration with Rice to produce therapeutics onsite within the device. The research supports a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) cooperative agreement worth up to $33 million to develop the implantable “living pharmacy” to control the human body’s sleep and wake cycles.

“This breakthrough technology has the potential to reshape the landscape of disease treatment and the future of research and development in the field of cell-based therapies. We are working toward advancing this technology into the clinic to bring it one step closer to those in need,” says Veiseh.

7 Hills Pharma, an innovative immunotherapy company, was awarded a $13.5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Photo via Getty Images

Houston immunotherapy company to use $13.5M grant to further develop cancer treatments

future of pharma

Between Bangalore and Chennai in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, you’ll find the town of Tirupati. It’s home to seven peaks that host a Hindu temple complex devoted to a form of Vishnu, Venkateshvara. It is also the region from which Upendra Marathi originally hails. It’s where his father, and many other family members, attended medical school.

“My father’s first job was to take care of the pilgrims,” recalls Marathi.

It's only natural that his groundbreaking Houston company would be named 7 Hills Pharma.

“That sort of selflessness and giving back, I wanted to embody it in the name of the company,” Marathi says.

Now, 7 Hills Pharma is announcing that last month, it was awarded a $13.5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). That’s on top of more than $13 million in NIH grants, making the company the second largest recipient of SBIR/STTR grants in Texas.

Launched in 2016, 7 Hills Pharma is working to develop drugs that can overcome the all-too-common problem of immunotherapy resistance. Thanks to the Nobel Prize-winning work of Jim Allison in the realm of immuno-oncology, the field was “very hot” at the time, says Marathi, particularly in Houston.

So what has 7 Hills developed? Oral small molecules that activate integrins — the receptors that allow cells to bind to one another — allowing for the cell-to-cell interactions that create a successful immune response to immune checkpoint inhibitors such as Yervoy. In other words, they have created capsules that increase the effectiveness of drugs that allow the body’s own immune response to fight cancers.

But that’s not all. Tests have shown that the same discovery, called alintegimod, can also augment the effectiveness of vaccines. The pill, which co-founder and co-inventor Peter Vanderslice calls “a beautiful way to amplify the vaccines,” can potentially be applied to anything from influenza to coronavirus.

Their greatest challenge, says Vanderslice, is the very fact that the technology is so novel.

“Most large pharmas are very risk averse,” he explains. “They only want to do ‘me-too’ kinds of drugs.”

7 Hills Pharma is the third company Marathi, both a PhD and an MBA, has helped to found based on technology he co-invented. Vanderslice is director of the molecular cardiology research laboratories at The Texas Heart Institute.

“It’s very much a homegrown company,” Marathi says.

And a small one, at least for now. Working out of JLabs@TMC, the full-time team is currently just Marathi and Siddhartha De, the senior director of development. Marathi convinced De to transplant himself and his family from India for the purpose of assisting 7 Hills with preparing its drugs for clinical readiness.

The CPRIT funds will allow 7 Hills Pharma to hire several long-time team members full-time and with benefits.

“The bringing of talent and bringing of technology to TMC and what was born at Texas Heart Institute is rather remarkable,” says Rob Bent, the company’s director of operations.

The next step for 7 Hills Pharma is a Phase Ib/IIa clinical trial in patients with treatment-resistant solid tumors. And the team just finalized the deck that will help raise another $10 million to $250 million in the company’s series A. And hopefully sooner rather than later, a new set of medical pilgrims will be thanking 7 Hill Pharma for its care.

A Houston biotech company has raised $38.1 million. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston-based cancer and disease bio-venture launches after $38.1M series A

money moves

Sporos Bioventures LLC launched this month after closing a $38.1 million round of series A financing.

The Houston-based biotech company aims to accelerate the development of breakthrough therapies for cancer and immune diseases by sharing resources, capital, access to clinical trial infrastructure, and talent from within its knowledgeable team of biotech executives, entrepreneurs, academic scholars, and investors. The company was launched with four entities: Tvardi Therapeutics, Asylia Therapeutics, Nirogy Therapeutics, and Stellanova Therapeutics.

The most advanced of the four entities, Tvardi, is currently in Phase 1 clinical trial to evaluate it's STAT3 oral inhibitor. It was named a "most promising" life sciences company at the 2020 Texas Life Science Forum, hosted by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance in December. The remaining entities are in the development stages and are focused on cancer, autoimmune disease, fibrosis, and tumor growth, among other conditions.

"Sporos was founded to accelerate the development of new medicines by addressing inefficiencies and risk in the establishment of new biotech companies," Peter Feinberg, Sporos co-founder, said in a statement. "By leveraging our extensive network, including the Texas Medical Center, we first identify transformative scientific opportunities and then deploy our top-tier talent, funding, and operational support to drive these insights into a growing pipeline of first-in-class treatment options."

In conjunction with the launch, Sporos named Michael Wyzga as the company's founding CFO. Wyzga was previously CFO at Genzyme for 12 years and has held various senior-level positions in the industry.

"By strategically deploying valuable resources to young companies that would not typically be supported by top-tier seasoned talent and infrastructure, we believe that we can efficiently bring a diverse set of therapies through clinical development," Wyzga said in a statement. "I am thrilled to join a team with decades of scientific and operational expertise and look forward to guiding our strategic and financial growth."

Wyzga joins a team of seasoned leaders in the biotech and cancer research fields, including Dr. Ronald DePinho, professor of Cancer Biology and past president of MD Anderson, who will serve as the chair of Sporos' Strategic Advisory Council. Jeno Gyuris, a biotech executive in oncology drug discovery and development with more than 25 years of experience, will serve as chief science officer. And Alex Cranberg, an experienced active early-stage biotech investor, serves as director.

Allterum Therapeutics Inc., a portfolio company of Fannin Innovation Studio, is using the funds to prepare for clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

Houston biotech startup raises millions to battle pediatric cancer

fresh funds

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

A new tool being used at Houston Methodist taps into artificial intelligence breast cancer diagnosis. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston hospital uses AI to create new breast cancer risk calculator

iBrisk

In the medical field, billions of dollars are wasted each year — about $935 billion, but who's counting? According to a paper published by the JAMA Network, an estimated $75.7 billion to $101.2 billion is wasted through overtreatment. Of the many procedures that can lead to wasted resources, breast cancer biopsies are a major source of overtreatment. Houston Methodist Hospital is using artificial intelligence to create a more efficient and accurate Breast Cancer Risk Calculator, called iBrisk.

Breast cancer is something that plagues the lives of many women, and some men. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.

Women are advised to start having annual mammograms to screen for breast cancer starting at age 40 to try to catch cancer in its earliest stages. With mammograms becoming a standard procedure, the process inevitably leads to more biopsies.

While more biopsies sound like the obvious course of action, Houston Methodist Hospital shares that out of 10,000 women biopsied, less than two will be positive while using the national standard. The result of a negative biopsy? Wasted time, resources, and money, as well as undue worry for the patient.

"It's not just wasteful. . .when you do an unnecessary procedure, you're potentially harming the patient," says Stephen Wong, Ph.D. After a negative biopsy, Dr. Wong explains that patients often begin to show emotional responses like high anxiety and low self-esteem. They often speculate the biopsies are wrong, and that they've had a missed cancer diagnosis by their medical provider.

Dr. Wong estimates that more than 700,000 patients have unnecessary biopsies in the breast cancer category alone.

Spearheading the iBrisk tool, Dr. Wong has found a way to utilize a smarter model than the current system for detecting breast cancer risk.

Hospitals across the country currently use the Breast Imaging Reporting and Database System score (BI-RADS), a system created by the American College of Radiology to determine breast cancer risk and biopsy decision-making.

To expand on BI-RADS data, Dr. Wong used multiple patient data points and AI technology to create the improved system. The iBRISK integrates natural language processing, medical image analysis, and deep learning on multi-modal BI-RADS patient data to make one of three recommendations: biopsy not recommended, consider biopsy, or biopsy recommended.

"While using AI, we try to simulate how the physician thinks," explains Dr. Wong. "The physician looks at different data: imaging, patient clinical data, demographic, history and other social factors. You don't rely on one particular thing."

To create iBrisk, Dr. Wong used 12 to 13 years of BI-RAD data at Houston Methodist Hospital to train the AI using deep learning.

He estimates that more than 80 percent of technical information is in the free text format, meaning unstructured data, in the United States.

"We applied an AI technique called natural language processing, which is using the computer to read the text automatically for us," explains Dr. Wong.

This data extraction tool was also used with imaging of mammogram ultrasounds by applying image analysis computer vision.

iBrisk also deploys deep learning, a machine learning tactic where artificial neural networks, inspired by the human brain, learn from large amounts of data. They determined approximately 100 parameters to analyze, including age, sex, socio-economic data, medical history, and insurance plans. After putting the data points into a deep learning method, the AI reduced the data points to the 20 risk indicators.

Houston Methodist Hospital used an estimated 11,000 cases for training, and then used 2,200 of its own data to test iBrisk. They have even been able to create unbiased independent validation by working with other hospitals like MD Anderson, testing their patients using iBrisk and confirming the results.

The potential of iBrisk to cut costs and contribute to less overtreatment has garnered support with other hospitals around the country. The breast cancer risk calculator is a collaboration with Dr. Jenny Chang of HMCC and breast oncologists at MD Anderson, UT San Antonio, and University of Utah Cancer Center.

While implicit racial bias has become a more prominent issue in the United States, Houston Methodist's iBrisk grants a neutral, unbiased lens. AI isn't immune to racial bias; in fact, computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Joy Buolamwini, uncovered the large gender and racial biases of AI systems sold by IBM, Amazon and Microsoft in a 2019 article for Time.

With AI's history of racial bias in mind, Dr. Wong set out to create an impartial, fair system. "Our AI data is not sensitive to race. . .it's unbiased," he explains.

Houston Methodist Hospital plans to expand the iBrisk model to other forms of cancer in the future, including its next venture into thyroid and incidental lung nodule screenings.

The AI allows patients to save the stress of getting a biopsy.

"We are very careful to put any drugs or any procedure into clinical workflow until we are very sure you really have to pick this [outcome]," explains Dr. Wong. Using advanced risk detectors like iBrisk allows medical practitioners to make more thorough, informed decisions for patients looking into biopsies.

The categories are broken into low, moderate and high-risk groups. The low-risk groups have seen a 99.8 percent accuracy in results, missing only two cases out of a sample of 1,228. Patients that have fallen into the high-risk groups (leading patients to get a biopsy) have seen an 85.9 percent accuracy, compared to radiology, which is 25 percent accurate according to Dr. Wong.

Dr. Wong notes that patients that fall in the moderate section of the risk assessment can then have a dialogue with their physician to determine if they want to move forward with the biopsy. In the moderate category, there is a 93.4 percent accuracy.

If implemented, iBrisk would be able to reduce 75 percent of unnecessary biopsies, estimates Dr. Wong.

Currently, Houston Methodist Hospital is using AI technology outside of oncology, with the recent release of a tool that can diagnose strokes using a smartphone, announced in Science Daily. The tool, which can diagnose abnormalities in a patient's speech and facial muscular movements, was made in collaboration with Dr. Jay Volpi of Eddy Scullock Stroke Center at Houston Methodist Hospital.

"We are answering bigger questions," explains Dr. Wong, who looks forward to continuing to expand AI capabilities and risk calculators at Houston Methodist Hospital.

In the future, Dr. Wong looks forward to doing a multicenter trial to bring this technology outside of Texas.

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Houston entrepreneurial community builder teams up with startup to provide AI-powered founder tools

howdy, partner

A new Houston company has launched to provide a new platform of resources for entrepreneurs powered by artificial intelligence, and the new business already has its first partner.

The Cannon, a coworking community with locations across Houston, and nstAI, a newly launched suite of services for founders, announced a new partnership.

“The opportunity for The Cannon to partner with nstAI to bring a value-driven service offering to growth stage startup organizations is huge for our community. We are constantly looking for areas where we can support every startup, no matter where they are in their journey,” Jon Lambert, The Cannon’s CEO, says in a statement. “The nstAI offering, delivered through The Cannon's platform, will bring tremendous value to emerging companies who are in perhaps the most critical stage of their journey, garnering true market presence and customer share.”

Founded by seasoned entrepreneurs, nstAI's support is targeted aid startup founders during the early phases of business development, including securing non-dilutive funding, creating pitch decks and other materials, as well as making meaningful connections with mentors and potential customers.

"The journey from post-Seed funding to Series B funding is often one of the most challenging phases for founders," John Cooper, a founding partner at nstAI, adds. "We've designed nstAI to be a trusted resource in that process, offering hands-on guidance, leveraging AI-powered tools, and providing access to an unmatched global network of experts and investors."

The nstAI platform will be integrated into The Cannon's digital platform, Cannon Connect, for its members.

"nstAI is more than just a service provider; we're a community of successful entrepreneurs dedicated to supporting each other's growth and success," Mark Voytek, founding partner at nstAI, says in the release.

Meet the Houston innovator setting student startups up for success

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 240

Rice University can barely keep up with the interest of students in entrepreneurial classes and programming — even in the summer.

The university's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship offers around 30 classes a year and over a dozen co-curricular programs — all focused on supporting student entrepreneurs.

"There is a huge desire for this across the campus," Taylor Anne Adams, head of venture acceleration at Lilie, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our class enrollment has just continued to skyrocket, and we've had to add on more classes and programs and that still seems to not be enough."

One of the newest additions to the scope of Rice's offerings is the Summer Venture Studio, which launched last year and returned for 2024 with huge interest in the program that was revamped by Adams, who received her MBA at Rice. She says one of her goals was to attract a wide range of technologies and innovations, which she did with the newly announced cohort.

"In the Summer Venture Studio, we have students from undergrad and from the MBA program — we've got PhDs, we've got master's of data science, and it just creates such a vibrant cohort community here," Adams says. "It's about making sure that we're tailoring our programs across the school year as well to make sure we're touching all parts of the campus."

Adams, who's worked with various Houston organizations, including The Cannon, DivInc, and Mercury, is not only passionate about supporting the Rice startup community, but also the greater Houston network of innovators. She's currently on the founding team of The Collectiv, a Houston-based venture firm that's currently raising its first fund to invest in sports tech.

"The people here are entrepreneurial by nature. Houston was founded by entrepreneurs. Yes, we have a lot of traditional industry here, but that wasn't always the case. People had to build those industries from the ground up," Adams says. "It's in the DNA of the city."

Texas organization grants over $40M to chemistry research in Houston and beyond

fresh funding

Two local professors are among the newly announced recipients of funding from the Houston-based Welch Foundation, which finances chemical research projects.

The two professors are:

  • Jacinta Conrad, the Frank M. Tiller Professor in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of Houston. Conrad will use her grant to investigate glass transition, a temperature change that affects polymers. She describes glass transition as one of the “most intriguing open problems in physical chemistry.”
  • James Shee, assistant professor in the Chemistry Department at Rice University. Shee will put his grant toward advancing theoretical chemistry.

Every year, the foundation provides annual grants totaling at least $100,000 to support chemistry research being carried out by full-time faculty members at colleges, universities, and other educational institutions in Texas.

In all, the Welch Foundation on June 4 announced more than $40.5 million in academic research grants, equipment grants, and fellowships.

Part of the announced funding will go toward the foundation’s new Postdoctoral Fellows Grant Program. The program provides three-year fellowships to recent PhD graduates to support clinical research careers in Texas. A total of $900,000 in postdoctoral fellowships were funded at Rice University, Texas A&M University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Since 1954, the Welch Foundation has contributed over $1.1 billion for Texas-nurtured advancements in chemistry through research grants, endowed chairs, and other chemistry-related ventures.

“Ongoing basic chemical research is critically important for helping to solve current and future problems,” said Adam Kuspa, President of the Welch Foundation. “We strongly believe the foundation’s continued support of the research grant program, combined with … new programs, will yield even more exciting developments as we work to advance chemistry and improve our lives.”