A UH professor is fighting cancer with a newly created virus that targets the bad cells and leaves the good ones alone. Photo via Getty Images

Viruses attack human cells, and that's usually a bad thing — some Houston researchers have received fresh funding to develop and use the evil powers of viruses for good.

The developing cancer treatment is called oncolytic virotherapy and has risen in popularity among immunotherapy research. The viruses can kill cancer cells while being ineffective to surrounding cells and tissue. Basically, the virus targets the bad guys by "activating an antitumor immune response made of immune cells such as natural killer (NK) cells," according to a news release from the University of Houston.

However exciting this rising OV treatment seems, the early stage development is far from perfect. Shaun Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston, is hoping his work will help improve OV treatment and make it more effective.

“We have developed a novel strategy that not only can prevent NK cells from clearing the administered oncolytic virus, but also goes one step further by guiding them to attack tumor cells. We took an entirely different approach to create this oncolytic virotherapy by deleting a region of the gene which has been shown to activate the signaling pathway that enables the virus to replicate in normal cells,” Zhang says in the release.

Zhang, who is also a M.D. Anderson professor in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, has received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue his work.

Zhang and his team are specifically creating a new OV — called FusOn-H2 and based on the Herpes simplex 2 virus.

“Our recent studies showed that arming FusOn-H2 with a chimeric NK engager (C-NK-E) that can engage the infiltrated natural killer cells with tumor cells could significantly enhance the effectiveness of this virotherapy,” he says. “Most importantly, we observed that tumor destruction by the joint effect of the direct oncolysis and the engaged NK cells led to a measurable elicitation of neoantigen-specific antitumor immunity.”

Shaun Zhang is the director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston and M.D. Anderson professor in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry. Image via UH.edu

A UH researcher has fresh funding to support her life-saving, cancer-fighting drug. Photo via UH.edu

University of Houston researcher receives grant for first-of-its-kind breast cancer drug

funds granted

A University of Houston researcher was awarded a $2 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to develop a new drug that will initially target breast cancer, the university announced this month.

The drug is intended to impact a type of traditionally "undraggable" target of cancer, known as intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), which researchers have yet to gain fundamental understanding of. According to the release, approximately 70 percent of proteins impacted by cancer are considered IDPs.

Gül Zerze, an assistant professor in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, has specialized in research on the computational modeling and simulations of these IDPs, and is one of the 12 cancer researchers awarded such a grant by the CPRIT.

Candidates for Zerze's drug will be rapidly tested through collaborations within UH and MD Anderson, according to the statement.

Gül Zerze is an assistant professor in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

"One out of nearly six Texas women diagnosed with breast cancer will die of the disease. Importantly, Texan women of color are disproportionately impacted by the high mortality rate compared to white Texan women (41 percent higher mortality rate reported for Black Texan women in 2016)," Zerze said in a statement. "This high mortality rate, despite the substantial efforts made for early diagnosis, calls for better therapeutics urgently.”

Zerze was recruited by the CPRIT to come to UH from Princeton last November. She was part of the latest class of recruitment grants from the organization, totaling $38 million to “form a critical ecosystem of distinguished cancer-fighting talent” in Texas.

According to the CPRIT website, the organization has recruited 263 cancer researchers and their labs to Texas over the years. First launched in 2007, the CPRIT is now a $6 billion, 20-year initiative that's allowing institutions in Houston compete against the likes of Harvard and Stanford universities, and the Cleveland and Mayo clinics.

“The ideas proposed here will save lives," Zerze said in the statement. "And the products that will come out of this project have a great potential for commercialization and founding companies to contribute to the Texas economy.”

Twenty investigators and early-stage biotechnology companies have been named to the latest Texas Medical Center's cohort. Courtesy of TMC

Houston cancer therapeutics accelerator announces newest cohort

ending cancer

Texas Medical Center Innovation named 20 oncology startups to the 2022 cohort of its groundbreaking Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics this week in celebration with the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act.

The group of Texas-based companies and academic researchers will participate in 9 months of clinical and business development education through the accelerator, with the goal of reaching new milestones, developing strategic plans for their companies, commercializing, and preparing for clinical trials. At the close of the session, the companies will be eligible to apply for grants and pitch investors and corporate partners.

"With the ongoing pandemic, which poses more threat to at-risk populations, it has never been more important to mature novel cancer therapeutics," says Emily Reiser, associate director of TMC Innovation, in a statement. "Any drug currently on the market is developed in the spirit of scientific discovery. The importance of developing innovative solutions is not just something that drives TMCi and our Accelerators, and it is at the heart of our ability to improve patient care and outcomes."

The researchers and companies in the 2022 cohort are developing inventive cancer solutions that consider everything from vaccines against cancer to noninvasive therapies to image-guided technologies and advanced diagnosis. The full list of members includes:

TMiC's ACT was launched in 2019 thanks to a grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and is in association with the Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC) and the University of Texas Medical Branch. That year, the CPRIT announced 71 statewide grants, awarding the TMC $5 million to launch the accelerator.

The ACT's first cohort kicked off in January of 2021 with a group split about evenly between companies and academic researchers-all hailing from Texas.

Houston has become a hub for oncology innovation in recent years, in part thanks to the ACT's work. Click here to listen to Innovation Map's interview with Enrique Gomez, the ACT's entrepreneur in residence, on how the TMC and other Texas institutions are looking at "every possible strategy to tackle cancer."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston named a market to watch within the life science sector

h-town on the rise

Houston is receiving more kudos for its robust life sciences sector.

Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Here’s how Houston fares in each of the ranking’s three categories:

  • No. 12 for supply of life sciences-oriented commercial real estate
  • No. 14 for access to life sciences talent
  • No. 15 for life sciences grant funding and venture capital

Earlier this year, Houston scored a 13th-place ranking on a list released by JLL competitor CBRE of the country’s top 25 life sciences markets. Meanwhile, commercial real estate platform CommercialCafe recently placed Houston at No. 10 among the top U.S. metros for life sciences.

JLL applauds Houston for strong growth in the amount of life sciences talent along with “an impressive base of research institutions and medical centers.” But it faults Houston for limited VC interest in life sciences startups and a small inventory of lab space.

“Houston is getting a boost [in life sciences] from the growing Texas Medical Center and an influx of venture capital earmarked for life sciences research,” the Greater Houston Partnership recently noted.

Boston appears at No. 1 in this year’s JLL ranking, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, Washington, D.C./Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

Last year’s JLL list included only 10 life sciences markets; Houston wasn’t among them.

“The long-term potential of the sector remains materially unchanged since 2021,” Travis McCready, head of life sciences for JLL’s Americas markets, says in a news release.

“Innovation is happening at a more rapid pace than ever before, the fruits of research into cell and gene therapy are just now being harvested, and revenue growth has taken off in the past five years as the sector becomes larger, an atypical growth track.”

Texas startup developing lab-grown brisket earns national spotlight

futuristic food

Brisket, a barbecue staple in Texas, is as synonymous with the Lone Star State as the Alamo and oil wells. A Texas company recently recognized as the state’s most innovative startup wants to elevate this barbecue staple to a new high-tech level.

BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. The Austin-based company made the Bloomberg news service’s new list of the 50 startups to watch in the U.S. — one startup for each state.

The co-founders of BioBQ are Austin native Katie Kam, a vegan with five college degrees (four from the University of Texas and one from Texas A&M University), and Janet Zoldan, a “hardcore carnivore” who’s a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. Kam is the CEO, and Zoldan is the chief science officer.

This kind of meat is genuine animal meat that’s produced by cultivating animal cells in a lab, according to the Good Food Institute.

“This production method eliminates the need to raise and farm animals for food. Cultivated meat is made of the same cell types arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, thus replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat,” the institute says.

It turns that before becoming a vegan, Kam worked at the now-closed BB’s Smokehouse in Northwest Austin as a high school student. She’d chow down on sauce-slathered brisket and banana pudding during on-the-job breaks.

“But then over time, as I learned more about factory farming and could no longer make the distinction between my dogs and cats I loved and the animals that were on my plate, I decided to become vegan,” Kam writes on the BioBQ website.

Hearing about the 2013 rollout of the first cell-cultured hamburger set Kam off on her path toward starting BioBQ in 2018. Zoldan joined the startup as co-founder the following year.

Now, BioBQ aims to be the first company in the world to sell brisket and other barbecue meats, such as jerky, made from cultured cells rather than slaughtered animals.

According to BioBQ’s profile on the Crunchbase website, the startup relies on proprietary technology to efficiently produce meat products in weeks rather than the year or more it takes to raise and slaughter cattle. This process “allows control of meat content and taste, reduces environmental impacts of meat production, and takes BBQ to the next tasty, sustainable level consumers want,” the profile says.

In 2020, Texas Monthly writer Daniel Vaughn questioned BioBQ’s premise.

He wrote that “there is something about the idea of lab-grown brisket that keeps bothering me, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. If you could design any cut of beef from scratch, why choose one that’s so difficult to make delicious? Why not a whole steer’s worth of ribeyes?”

Kam offered a very entrepreneur-like response.

“I’m from Austin, and I know that brisket’s kind of a big deal here,” Kam told Vaughn. “It seemed like a great, challenging meat to demonstrate this technology working.”

Meanwhile, Zoldan came up with a more marketing-slanted reaction to Vaughn’s bewilderment.

“I don’t think cell-based meats will take over the market, but I think there’s a place for it on the market,” Zoldan she told Vaughn.

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This article originally ran on CultureMapCultureMap.

Why the banking biz is ripe for innovation, according to this Houston founder

guest column

After our doctor and our child’s school, a bank is an institution with which we share the relationship that is most personal and vital to our well-being in this world. Some might put a good vet third, but other than that, no private entity is more responsible for escorting us to a healthier and happier outcome over the course of our lives.

The bank vault is a traditional symbol of security and prosperity, and not just for our pennies. We safeguard possessions in banks that are so important we don’t even trust keeping them in our own houses. Wills, birth certificates, and the precious family heirlooms of countless families are held in safety deposit boxes behind those giant vault doors, and banks have been the traditional guardians not only of our wealth but our identity and future as well.

The importance of relationship banking

Faith and confidence in our banks is so fundamental to the customer relationship that it has evolved into a unique and otherwise unthinkable arrangement for any good capitalist in a healthy marketplace: banks pay us to be their customers. Imagine a doctor offering you $20 for trusting them to give you a colonoscopy and you’re on the road to understanding the sacrosanct union between bank and customer.

In fact, this trust is so deeply anchored in the American psyche that a new generation of digital banking companies has sprung up on the idea that it doesn’t need to exist in physical reality. The fintech industry has exploded in the last decade, and today, over 75 percent of Americans are engaged in online banking in one form or another. Every single one of those 200 million customers are taking for granted that they will be well served, despite having no personal guidance through any of the financial products and services that these online entities provide.

Benefits of fostering relationships with banking customers

In the late 90s and early 2000s brick-and-mortar banks realized that greater personalized care for their customers was going to be a critical point of competition. The in-person experience is an opportunity to offer advice and incentives for a wide range of products and financial management assistance. It’s rooted in an incredibly simple axiom that is taking hold in every aspect of modern society: everyone benefits if we all get along better.

There’s a lot of statistical traction behind this theory. Customers who report they are “financially healthy” are down 20 percent over the last year, which means people are looking for guidance. 73 percent of customers who visit a local bank branch report having a personal relationship with their bank, while only 53 percent say the same of their digital institution. Most importantly, although many digital banks are offering similar products and services to their real-world counterparts, customer engagement remains very low.

It starts with your products

The truth is, today’s bank customers still want that same personal relationship their great-grandparents had before they engage with deeper financial products and services. They believe it makes them more financially successful, and confirm that human connections and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand.

Products that are Challenging for Digital Markets

Residential mortgages, for example, are an $18 trillion dollar industry that deals in durations longer than most digital banking services have even existed. The perception of continuity and stability is highly valued by clients in the mortgage relationship. Today, most customers feel that only comes with a handshake and a smile from an employee who has to fit in a meeting before they pick their kids up from school.

While digital firms have proven themselves capable of offering savings and checking services, most have fallen flat on the mortgage front because of the premium on personal relationships. Loyalty is the reward for time, service, and shared experience, and financial institutions that cannot provide that package for their customers are never going to access a deeper and more meaningful portfolio of services.

Finding Well-suited Products for Digital Finance

The message for the digital finance world is as clear as it is pressing. The future of the industry will revolve around more personalized experiences, interactions, and long-term products. At the same time, the American public has embraced digital banking, and we are looking at a new generation of bank users who may never walk through a branch door in their life.

In order to compete, the digital industry will need to identify and develop a range of long-term products and services that make sense for customers in today’s environment. Mortgages may be out of the question, but the safety deposit box holds great promise for industry in-roads. Optimal services for deeper, more personal customer engagement include things like:

  • Legacy and estate planning
  • Will preparation and safeguarding
  • Preservation of cherished photos and videos
  • Important personal data storage


Because these things are product-based, they are well suited to the digital ecosystem. The cryptocurrency industry and modern online banking have solidified consumer confidence in the digital bank vault, and there is a great deal of faith in the perpetuity of electronic documents and storage.

The IRS estimates that upwards of 90 percent of Americans are E-filing their taxes and that only comes with a widespread belief that our highly sensitive information can and will be preserved and protected by digital architecture.

Secure your future

Digital banking firms that want to thrive in the upcoming decades are going to need to innovate in long-term financial planning products that bring their customers into a closer, more personal relationship with them.

The finance world will continue to change and develop, but the hopes, fears, and dreams of people trying to build and secure a better future for themselves and their children will remain the same for tomorrow’s customers as they were for their parents and grandparents.

It is up to the digital finance industry to adapt and develop to provide the customers of today—and tomorrow— with these invaluable services and securities.

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Emily Cisek is the founder and CEO of The Postage, a tech-enabled, easy-to-use estate planning tool.