Five cancer research teams have been selected to receive funds from a new initiative from the University of Texas. Photo via news.utexas.edu

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

Three health and tech research projects coming out of the Houston area have received grants to continue their work. Getty Images

These 3 Houston-area researchers receive millions in grants for ongoing innovation projects

Research roundup

Money makes the world go 'round, and that's certainly the case with research projects. Grants are what drives research at academic institutions across the country and fuel the next great innovations.

These three projects coming out of Houston-area universities were all granted multimillion-dollar sums in order to continue their health tech, cancer-prevention, and even electric vehicle battery research projects,

University of Houston's $3.2 million grant for its next-generation micro CT scan

Associate professor of physics Mini Das developed a better way to approach CT scans. Photo via uh.edu

In an effort to improve imaging and lower radiation, Mini Das, associate professor of physics at the University of Houston, is moving the needle on introducing the next generation of micro computed tomography (CT) imaging. Das recently received a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to help move along her work in this field.

"This has the potential to transform the landscape of micro-CT imaging," says Das in a news release.

Das is responsible for developing the theory, instrumentation and algorithms for spectral phase-contrast imaging (PCI) that allows for lower radiation with higher image details, according to the release.

"Current X-ray and CT systems have inherent contrast limitations and dense tissue and cancer can often look similar. Even if you increase the radiation dose, there is a limit to what you can see. In addition, image noise becomes significant when increasing resolution to see fine details, often desirable when scanning small objects," says Das.

Rice University researcher's $2.4 million grant to advance on car batteries

This company’s machine learning programs are making driving in Houston safer — and cheaper

A Rice University scientist is looking to optimize car batteries. Pexels

A Rice University scientist is working toward improving batteries for electric vehicles. Materials scientist Ming Tang and his colleagues — backed by a $2.4 million grant from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium — are working on a project led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, which will run for 36 months and will focus on low-cost and fast-charging batteries.

"Traditional battery electrodes are prepared by the slurry casting method and usually have uniform porosity throughout the electrode thickness," says Tang, an assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering, in a news release. "However, our earlier modeling study shows that an electrode could have better rate performance by having two or more layers with different porosities.

"Now with the Missouri University of Science and Technology and WPI developing a new dry printing method for battery electrode fabrication, such layered electrodes can be manufactured relatively easily," he said. Tang's group will use modeling to optimize the structural parameters of multilayer electrodes to guide their fabrication.

The academics will also work with a manufacturer, Microvast, that will assemble large-format pouch cells using layered electrodes and evaluate the electrochemical performance against the program goals, according to the release.

"The public/private partnership is critical to steer the research performed at universities," Tang says. "It helps us understand what matters most to commercial applications and what gaps remain between what we have and what is needed by the market. It also provides valuable feedback and gives the project access to the state-of-the-art commercial battery fabrication and testing capabilities."


Texas A&M faculty member's $5 million grant for cancer research

Tanmay Lele of Texas A&M University is looking at how cells react to mechanical forces in cancer. Photo via tamu.edu

Tanmay Lele, a new faculty member in Texas A&M University's Department of Biomedical Engineering, received a $5 million Recruitment of Established Investigators grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) in May to research how cancer progresses.

More specifically, Lele's research focuses on mechanobiology and how cells sense external mechanical forces as well as how they generate mechanical forces, and how these mechanical forces impact cell function, according to a news release from A&M.

"The nuclei in normal tissue have smooth surfaces, but over time the surfaces of cancer nuclei become irregular in shape," Lele says in the release. "Now, why? Nobody really knows. We're still at the tip of the iceberg at trying to figure this problem out. But nuclear abnormalities are ubiquitous and occur in all kinds of cancers — breast, prostate and lung cancers."

Lele will work from two laboratories — one in College Station and one in the Texas A&M Health Science Center's Institute of Biosciences & Technology in Houston. THe will collaborate with Dr. Michael Mancini and Dr. Fabio Stossi from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Like any other basic field, we are trying to make discoveries with the hope that they will have long-term impacts on human health," Lele says.

iBiochips was awarded a $1.5 million grant in September to help develop a new technology that delivers data about the cell's genetic makeup and reports abnormalities. Getty Images

Houston-based biotech company aims to revolutionize cellular dissection technology

digital disease detective

Innovative Biochips, a Houston-based biotechnology company, is one step closer to commercializing technology that the company hopes will provide an opportunity for researchers to detect diseases earlier.

The company was founded three years ago by Dr. Lidong Qin, a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine. He launched iBiochips as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist. Qin says he wanted to engineer and manufacture devices that focus on revolutionizing single-cell isolation and genetic analysis.

Qin says it can be difficult to launch a biotech startup in Houston, since the industry requires hefty initial funds to open a facility, get patents and hire a team of researchers.

"In the Houston area, even though it looks like it's a lot of state money (grants) around, it's very limited, and that's been a challenge of ours," Qin says.

But with the help of a $1.5 million investment from a private investor, Qin was able to launch iBiochips in 2015, and shortly after opened his own lab on Kirby Drive.

Recently, iBiochips was awarded a $1.5 million grant in September from the National Institutes of Health's Small Business Technology Transfer program. The grant will further support the company's research and development of an automated yeast dissection chip, which is designed to perform a raw analysis of single cells and deliver data about the cell's genetic makeup and report abnormalities.

Prior to the phase two grant, iBiochips was also awarded NIH's phase one grant of $225,000 in September 2017 to develop a prototype for the company's flagship cell isolation product, the Smart Aliquotor.

The Smart Aliquotor is a single-cell isolation dissection platform that allows scientists to analyze larger amounts of cells at a much faster rate than traditional isolation methods, Qin says. He says the system is also more convenient for researchers to operate because traditional cell isolation techniques require a lot of human effort.

To isolate the cells with a Smart Aliquotor, a scientist would take a patient's blood sample and inject it into a single point in the device. The blood sample would then travel through microfluidic channels into the device's 60 to 100 isolated holes, Qin says.

"In three days, we can handle about one million cells," Qin says. "In a traditional approach, people can handle only one or two cells in three days. So that is how we came to the [idea of the] chip can help a scientist do 20 years of work in three days."

The Smart Aliquotor can then be examined with iBiochips' newly funded automated dissection chip, which Qin says has the potential to detect cancer or infectious diseases earlier than before.

"If you isolate a cell by itself — even in the very beginning stage when the aggressive cells are not as dominating yet — you can still see that [abnormality in the sample]," Qin says.

iBiochips' products are currently only being manufactured for research use at clinical labs, universities and pharmacies. However, with the recent grant award, Qin says the company's research team plans to spend the next three to five years preparing the products for worldwide commercialization.


Dr. Lidong Qin is a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine. He launched iBiochips as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist.Courtesy of Lidong Qin

Dr. Colleen O'Connor has adapted immunotherapy treatments to be used in dogs. Courtesy of CAVU Biotherapies

Houston-based veterinary biotech startup modernizes cancer treatments for dogs

Paw-dern medicine

More than three years after its founding, Houston-based veterinary biotech company CAVU Biotherapies recently accomplished a significant milestone. In October, CAVU's specialized immunotherapy was administered to its first cancer patient: a black Labrador in Pennsylvania diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma.

Dr. Colleen O'Connor, CEO and founder of CAVU Biotherapies, established the company in July 2015 with a goal to help pets live longer post-cancer diagnoses. O'Connor, who earned a PhD in toxicology with a specialty in immunology, has more than a decade of hands-on experience researching cancer treatments.

"Our goal is to scale up and be able to increase our dogs' qualities of life with us," O'Connor said. "We want to keep families intact longer and we want to be able to modernize cancer care for our animals."

At CAVU, O'Connor dedicates her time to modernizing cancer care for dogs by developing an Autologous Prescription Product, otherwise known as adoptive T-cell therapy for dogs. The T-cell therapy is currently offered as a companion treatment to other canine cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, O'Connor said.

Historically, cancer research for animals has lagged behind that of humans, and cancer diagnoses have come late due to the language barrier, O'Connor said. Of the dogs who enter remission, a majority of them relapse within 10 months to one year, she said.

"A majority [of dogs] are diagnosed at stage four, and you have to become very aggressive," O'Connor said. "For B-cell lymphoma, with the current treatments right now and the current standard of [therapies], less than 20 percent make it to two years post-diagnosis."

Launching CAVU
O'Connor first began studying T-cell therapy for humans with cancer during her post-doctoral fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Her fellowship also partnered with Texas A&M University's Small Animal Hospital to develop a clinical trial studying the effects of adoptive T-cell therapies on dogs with B-cell lymphoma.

T-cell therapy is a cellular-based treatment in which a type of white blood cells — or the cells that fight off tumors and infections — are harvested from blood samples drawn from patients. The cells are then injected back into the patient through an IV to fight the cancerous cells, O'Connor said.

Unexpectedly, O'Connor's 19-year-old dog, Bubbles, was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma in 2008 and later dying from it in December 2009. Five years later, O'Connor's sister's 6-year-old dog, Daisy, also died from transitional cell carcinoma. O'Connor said she remembers feeling helpless as she watched the dogs succumb to the disease.

"I was giving them drugs and protocols that were from 1980 … and I was really upset that there wasn't much more we could do for our dogs — especially because I treat my dogs like family," O'Connor said.

That was when O'Connor realized she wanted to help prevent other people from feeling the pain of losing their furry family members. While T-cell therapy is not a new method of treating cancer in humans, O'Connor focused on modifying the serum to create a treatment plan appropriate for dogs.

However, launching a company focusing specifically on treating cancer in animals was not without its challenges; O'Connor said she had to learn how to start a business, make industry connections, and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.

To help with this, CAVU also connected with various entrepreneurial accelerators, such as Houston Technology Center and Station Houston, which are associations that help place young businesses in front of investors.

CAVU later became a member of the Houston Angel Network — a group of private investors of high net worth individuals that as a group invest in startups. By presenting her business to HAN and its investors, CAVU was able to gain financial backing.

CAVU also recently joined the Capital Factory in early 2018, an Austin-based accelerator program for entrepreneurs in Texas. O'Connor said the program has helped her meet investors, mentors and other startups.

"The way I overcame a lot of this [the early challenges] is by education, listening and trying to navigate and talk with as many of the right people as I could that had experience," she said.

The future of CAVU
Since CAVU treated its first patient in October, CAVU's adoptive T-cell therapy treatment has been administered to six dogs, O'Connor said. CAVU's T-cell therapy is currently available at more than 12 veterinary clinics across the country, including clinics in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, and Missouri.

Additionally, four Houston-area clinics currently offer the T-cell therapy treatment: Garden Oaks Veterinary Clinic, Bayou City Veterinary Hospital, Memorial-610 Hospital for Animals, and Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists.

In order for a dog to be considered as a candidate — though it is ultimately up to the veterinarian on whether the T-cell therapy is right for specific dogs — the dogs must weigh more than 8 pounds, not be allergic to mouse or cow products and have no active autoimmune diseases.

The company also launched a new clinical trial with A&M University in October, looking at the effects of CAVU's T-cell therapy coupled with reduced chemotherapy periods for dogs, from roughly 19 to 26 weeks of chemotherapy to 6 to 8 weeks.

While CAVU's therapy is currently only available for dogs, O'Connor said her team plans to modify the T-cell therapy to be administered in other animals.

"We have a lot of cat owners ask us [about treatment] and we are going to do that for the next round in funding," she said. "We're going to look at how to translate this for cats and eventually horses."

O'Connor said that CAVU will launch more clinical trials with A&M University's Small Animal Hospital in the future, with CAVU aiming to make T-cell therapy treatments for cats and horses available in 2020.

Looking back, O'Connor said she has come a long way in her career path: from working with sea animals at the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky to studying human immunology and toxicology, but she's returned to studying animals.

"It's amazing how I pivoted, but at the end of the day I kind of came back to animals … and I came back full circle in a way I could have never expected," she said.

Jim Allison's groundbreaking work with T cells helped him net the award. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Houston scientist wins Nobel Prize for breakthrough cancer treatment

Research Recognition

A University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center scientist has been lauded for his cancer research. Jim Allison, Ph.D., was announced as the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 1.

Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform, is the first MD Anderson scientist to receive the world's most coveted award for discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine. Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor, according to a release.

"I'm honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition," Allison says in a statement. "A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells to travel our bodies and work to protect us."

Allison shares the award with Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan. When announcing the honor, the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm noted in a statement that "stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year's Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy."

The prize recognizes Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer. According to MD Anderson, Allison's crucial insight was to block a protein on T cells that acts as a brake on their activation, freeing the T cells to attack cancer. He developed an antibody to block the checkpoint protein CTLA-4 and demonstrated the success of the approach in experimental models.

Allison's work led to the development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug which would become the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma. Follow-up studies show 20 percent of those treated live for at least three years, with many living for 10 years and beyond, unprecedented results, according to the cancer center.

"Jim Allison's accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated," says MD Anderson president Peter WT Pisters, M.D., in a statement. "His research has led to life-saving treatments for people who otherwise would have little hope. The significance of immunotherapy as a form of cancer treatment will be felt for generations to come."

"I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has," Allison adds. "It's a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who've been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade. They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work."

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston again recognized as a top major city of the future

Bragging rights

Houston, the future looks bright.

A new study from the fDi Intelligence division of the Financial Times places Houston at No. 7 among the top major cities of the future for 2021-22 across North, South, and Central America. Among major cities in the Americas, Houston appears at No. 3 for business friendliness and No. 4 for connectivity.

"Houston is known as one of the youngest, fastest-growing, and most diverse cities anywhere in the world. I am thrilled that we continue to be recognized for our thriving innovation ecosystem," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is quoted as saying in the fDi study.

Toronto leads the 2021-22 list of the top major cities in the Americas, followed by San Francisco, Montreal, Chicago, and Boston.

The rankings are based on data in five categories:

  • Economic potential
  • Business friendliness
  • Human capital and lifestyle
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Connectivity

Houston's no stranger to the list. Last year, the city ranked No. 3 on the same study, and in 2019, claimed the No. 5 spot.

"The fact that Houston consistently ranks among the top markets for foreign direct investment speaks to our region's connectivity and business-friendly environment," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer at the Greater Houston Partnership. "Many of the industry sectors we target for expansion and relocation in Houston are global in nature — from energy 2.0 and life sciences to aerospace and digital tech. The infrastructure and diverse workforce that make these prime growth sectors for us among domestic players are equally attractive to international companies looking to establish or strengthen ties in the Americas."

International trade is a cornerstone of the Houston area's economy. In 2020, the region recorded $129.5 billion in exports, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. China ranked as the region's top trading partner last year, followed by Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

Houston's role as a hub for foreign trade and international business "is likely to support the region's economic recovery in the months and years ahead," the partnership noted in May.

"We talk often of Houston as a great global city — one that competes with the likes of London, Tokyo, São Paulo, and Beijing. But that's only possible because of our infrastructure — namely our port — and our connections around the world," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the partnership, said last month. "Houston's ties abroad remain strong."

Houston shopping center opts for buzzy new environmental project

bee's knees

Bees are glorious creatures, tasked with pollination and the no-big-deal duty of balancing our planet's ecosystem and keeping the circle of life moving. Oh, and the honey!

No surprise, then, that beekeeping is all the buzz. With that in mind, a local outlet center is launching its own honeybee colony on its rooftop. Tanger Outlets Houston is taking off with a new pollinator project, and the public is welcome to join and learn about these precious winged buddies. The project is a partnership with Alvéole, a social beekeeping company.

Expect educational bee workshops for retailers and shoppers, meant to reinforce the benefits of urban beekeeping. Resident beekeeper Evan Donoho Gregory will offer a hands-on, interactive experience designed to get shoppers sweet on honeybees and more connected to their environment, per a press release.

Gregory will also make regular visits to the center to maintain and care for the colonies; enthusiasts can follow along on social media.

A little about the hive: it's set up to allow the bees to pollinate the area's flora and thrive within a three-mile radius. At the height of the season, per press materials, each hive will contain up to 50,000 honeybees. That swarm will include some 90 percent worker bees (females) and 10 percent drones (males). Natch, each hive contains one queen bee. (There can be only one!)

With hope, the industrious honeybees will produce the equivalent of 100 jars of hyperlocal, artisanal honey per urban apiary. Tanger Outlets Houston plans to harvest the honey to share with its neighbors, per a release.

"Sharing the city with our winged neighbors is a simple, natural way to positively impact the environment," said Tanger Outlets marketing director Oliver Runco, in a statement. "We're eager to share the buzzworthy details of upcoming workshops that will educate our shoppers, brands and community on the critical role honeybees play in our ecosystem."

Bee fans can watch the progress, check out photos, videos, and upcoming beekeeper visit dates at MyHive Tanger Outlets Houston. For information on upcoming workshops, visit tangeroutlet.com/Houston and follow along on Facebook and Instagram.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.