At Rezvani Lab in MD Anderson Cancer Center, scientists train immune cells to fight cancer. Photo via Getty Images

Replay, a genome-writing company headquartered in San Diego, has announced that its first patient has been dosed with an engineered T-Cell Receptor Natural Killer (TCR-NK) cell therapy for relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma.

What does that have to do with Houston? Last year, Replay incorporated a first-in-class engineered TCR-NK cell therapy product company, Syena, using technology developed by Dr. Katy Rezvani at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Rezvani, a professor of stem cell transplantation and cellular therapy, is the force behind MD Anderson’s Rezvani Lab, a group of 55 people, all focused on harnessing natural killer cells to combat cancer.

“Everybody thinks that the immune system is fighting viruses and infections, but I feel our immune system is capable of recognizing and killing abnormal cells or cells that are becoming cancerous and they're very powerful. This whole field of immunotherapy really refers to the power of the immune system,” Rezvani tells InnovationMap.

Dr. Katy Rezvani is a professor of stem cell transplantation and cellular therapy and the force behind MD Anderson’s Rezvani Lab, which is focused on harnessing natural killer cells to combat cancer. Photo via mdanderson.org

At Rezvani Lab, scientists train immune cells to fight cancer. While cancer drugs like chemotherapy are still the norm, immunotherapy has gained ground, led by Houston research, including the work of Nobel laureate Jim Allison. The harnessed cells are taught to attack cancerous cells, while ignoring healthy ones, says Rezvani. “We’re turning them into heat-seeking missiles,” she explains.

However, there must be a beacon to signal to those “missiles” that there is something to attack. Much of the field has used chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) to achieve that. But they have limitations.

“CARs can only recognize beacons that sit on the surface of the tumor cells,” Rezvani says. “So basically, it's like the tumor cell has to have a hat on it.”

She says that this usually means that the targets that send off a signal are relatively limited, mostly blood cancers. Using T cell receptors (TCRs) may be able to open up the field to look beyond the “hat.” In other words, TCRs can peer inside cells and see what differentiates a tumor cell from healthy cells. With Replay, Rezvani Lab has developed a first-in-class and first-in-human approach of engineering natural killer cells to express the TCR.

There are six different FDA-approved products that use CAR-T cells, but Rezvani says that her TCR-NK-based technology, though still in its early phases, shows great promise.

“We could use it to target many different types of antigens, many different types of cancers, especially solid tumors," she explains. "These cell therapies have a lot of potential — we call them living drugs… It's not like chemotherapy where you have to keep giving different multiple cycles, these cells are very long lived.”

Rezvani, who started her career in London, says that Houston has been instrumental in the success of her lab.

“There are so many opportunities because we have access to some of the most brilliant minds in research,” Rezvani says. “We have some of the best clinicians in the world. We have patients who come to us who are willing to participate in our clinical trials — really put their trust in us — and are committed and want to participate in these clinical studies.”

The role of funding also plays a part. As Rezvani admitted, bringing a new technology to the market is expensive. The philanthropists who help support trials can’t be forgotten among Houston’s finest.

Whether or not Syena produces the first TCR-NK product on the market, Rezvani is enthusiastic and hopeful for the future of her patients.

“The field of immunotherapy is really expanding, the field of cell therapies is expanding, and there is so much promise,” she says. “The promise of AI, big data, all the engineering tools that we have available, the promise of CRISPR — all of that is going to bring what we've learned from biology, from basic science, together to help us make the cell therapies that are going to be safe and and also very effective for our patients.”

Early-stage cell therapy startup March Biosciences has partnered with CTMC. Photo via march.bio

Cancer-fighting startup partners with Houston cell therapy accelerator

marching on

When it came time to name their cell therapy startup, Houston life science innovators simply had to look to their calendar.

“I would argue that March is the best month in Houston,” Sarah Hein tells InnovationMap. “We started talking about putting this company together during COVID, so we were outside a lot. And we actually got together in March.”

That’s why the CEO and her co-founders Max Mamonkin and Malcolm Brenner decided to name their company March Biosciences.

It's a fresh, unstuffy name for a startup that has an innovative take on cancer immunotherapy. Their lead asset is an advanced cellular therapy known as MB-105, an autologous CD5 CAR T cell therapy. For patients with T-cell lymphoma and leukemia who have failed all currently available lines of therapy, the prognosis is understandably extremely poor. But in a phase one study, MB-105 has been proven to safely treat those patients. The phase two study is expected to begin in the first half of 2024.

Hein met Mamonkin at the TMC Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics (ACT), at which the alumna of Resonant Therapeutics and Courier Therapeutics was an entrepreneur in residence.

“It's a perfect example of the opportunities here in Houston where you can go from bench to bedside, essentially, in the same institution. And Baylor has been particularly good at that because of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy,” says Hein.

The serial entrepreneur first came to Houston as a PhD student in molecular and cellular biology at Baylor College of Medicine, but during her studies she became excited by the startup ecosystem in her new hometown. After earning her degree, she became a venture fellow at the Mercury Fund. Her experience in both science and business made her an ideal candidate to take March Biosciences to the next level.

In September, the company announced that it formed a strategic alliance with CTMC (Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center), a joint venture between MD Anderson Cancer Center and National Resilience.

“Our unique risk-sharing model allows us to collaborate with organizations like March Biosciences to accelerate the development and manufacture of innovative cell therapies, like MB-105, and bring them into the clinic with a consistent and scalable manufacturing process,” said CTMC’s CEO, Jason Bock in a press release.

The partnership “has allowed us to move really quickly,” Hein says.

That’s because what CTMC does uniquely well is take early stage companies like March Biosciences and advance them to a state that’s ready for manufacturing in a short time, around 18 months, says Hein.

According to Hein, March Biosciences’ success is a testament to Houston and its world-class medical center.

“It’s a great example of the opportunities you see here in Houston, where we have a technology that was developed by brilliant scientists here in Houston and we can pull together the resources that we need to take it to the next level,” Hein says. "Working with partners here in Houston, we have all the pieces and the community rises to the occasion to support you.”

CellChorus, a biotech startup operating out of the University of Houston Technology Bridge, has secured fresh funding. Photo via Getty Images

Houston biotech startup secures $2.3M grant

cha-ching

They say it’s all in the timing. For CellChorus, it’s all in the TIMING. That’s Time-lapse Imaging Microscopy In Nanowell Grids. TIMING is a visual AI program that evaluates cell activation, killing and movement, which allows scientists to better understand how cells function.

The technology is important to the development of novel therapies in the realms of oncology, infectious diseases, and countless other disorders and diseases. By allowing scientists to observe those maladies at their roots, it will enable them to create, and ultimately deliver new medications and other therapies faster, at lower cost, and with a higher success rate.

CellChorus is a spinoff of the Single Cell Lab at the University of Houston. Part of UH’s Technology Bridge, CEO Daniel Meyer connected with co-founder and leader of Single Cell Lab, Navin Varadarajan, through co-founder Laurence Cooper.

“The company had been established, but there were limited operations,” recalls Meyer during a phone call with InnovationMap.

That was the fall of 2020. Now, the team has just announced a $2.3 million SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) Fast-Track grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

“This funding will support development of a product offering that builds on the success of our early access laboratory,” Cooper said in a press release. “As the next frontier of cellular analysis, dynamic single-cell analysis will increase the impact that immunotherapies have in improving the lives of patients.”

Meyer is based in the Bay Area, but the rest of the team is in Houston. Meyer has a proven track record as an investor and early stage entrepreneur in life sciences companies, including work as COO of Genospace, which was acquired by HCA Healthcare.

Meyer says that what attracted him to CellChorus was a combination of a clear need for the technology and the fact that it was “very well validated.“

“Developers of immunotherapies need better functional data earlier so that they can develop and deliver better therapies,” he explains.

Another aspect of its appeal was the fact that more than 10 publications featured data from the TIMING platform.

“We’ve had both large and small biopharmas publish data,” says Meyer. “That’s important as well because it shows there’s applicability in both nonprofit and for-profit research.”

Though Meyer himself doesn’t currently live in Houston, he recognizes its importance to CellChorus. He says that it can be difficult for an early stage company to find appropriate lab space, so Technology Bridge was of exceptional importance for CellChorus. Since opening the lab a year and a half ago, Varadarajan and his team have been busy.

“Example projects we have completed include understanding mechanism of action for cell therapy products, selecting lead candidates for T cell engagers, identifying biomarkers of response to cell therapies, and quantifying potency and viability for cell therapy manufacturing technologies,” says Meyer.

And now, CellChorus is collaborating with leaders in the industry.

“These include top-25 biopharmaceutical companies and promising venture-backed biotechnology companies, as well as leading not-for-profit research institutions,” says Meyer in a press release. It’s clear that the TIMING is right for CellChorus to excel.

Jason Bock, founder and CEO of the Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain the complicated — yet necessary — process of scaling cell therapies. Photo courtesy

Houston innovator aims to scale cancer-curing cell therapies

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 185

It's almost unreal what can be done with therapeutics today, especially in the specialty of cell therapy.

"It feels like science fiction," says Jason Bock, founder and CEO of the Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, or CTMC, a joint venture between National Resilience and MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Cell therapy is essentially personalized medicine, he explains. The process includes taking out a patient’s own immune cells, identifying specifically the T-cells, and engineer them to have them target cancer before expanding them and reintroducing them to the patient.

“The supply chain begins with the patient,” Bock explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “If the patient is going to be an integral part of the supply chain, one way to simplify your supply chain is to locate your manufacturing very close to where your patients are.”

That's where CTMC, located in the heart of the Texas Medical Center, comes in. Bock moved to Houston from the East Coast four years to stand up the program at MD Anderson. The founding thesis was to work with faculty members who have interesting ideas for biologics or cell therapies, help them industrialize them, and then bring them into the MD Anderson clinic to evaluate in patients.

Last year, the entity spun out into a joint venture structure with National Resilience, a company that was founded amid the pandemic to build resilience in the nation for complex biologics manufacturing — like vaccines, for instance — in order to expedite the process of getting these treatments to patients.

With access to patients established, how do you address scalability of this treatment in a field that's so customized?

While it might sound like a challenge to scale personalized medicine — it's a worthwhile challenge. Bock says that even though cell therapy is in its early stages still — the first treatment was approved by the FDA just five years ago — early studies have shown patients, who essentially have no other treatment options, can see life-saving results in as little as one treatment.

"We see in a large group of patients — 30 to 50 percent of patients — are cured with one dose," he says on the show.

CTMC has a 60,000-square-foot space two blocks away from MD Anderson. This critical lab space with 14 clean rooms was made available after its previous biotech tenant moved out. The setup can support up to 140 people, and the organization has grown to 80 people over the past few years.

Bock says CTMC is an engine for cell therapy research — one that can take a therapeutic from research to the clinic in about one to two years. Every year, he says CTMC can roll three to five therapeutics into the clinic phase.

And, Houston's an ideal place to do that.

"Houston has a chance to play a role in all aspects of cell therapy," he says, from discovery to the clinical side. "Some really interesting cell therapies that are in development were discovered here in Houston."

Bock shares more on how the impact CTMC is making on cell therapy advancement on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


You can now hop online and invest in this promising cell therapy startup. Photo via Getty Images

Houston biopharma company launches equity crowdfunding campaign

money moves

A clinical-stage company headquartered in Houston has opened an online funding campaign.

FibroBiologics, which is developing fibroblast cell-based therapeutics for chronic diseases, launched a campaign with equity crowdfunding platform StartEngine. The platform lets anyone — regardless of their net worth or income level — to invest in securities issued by startups.

The funding, according to a press release, will be used to support ongoing operations of Fibrobiologics and advance its clinical programs in multiple sclerosis, degenerative disc disease, wound care, extension of life, and cancer.

"We're excited to partner with StartEngine on this campaign. StartEngine has over 600,000 investors as part of their community and has raised over half a billion dollars for its clients," says FibroBiologics' Founder and CEO Pete O'Heeron, in the release.

"This is an exciting time at FibroBiologics as we continue progressing our clinical pipeline and developing innovative therapies to treat chronic diseases," he continues. "This new funding will fuel our growth in the lab and bring us one step closer to commercialization."

The campaign, launched this week, already has over 100 investors, at the time of publication, and has raised nearly $2 million, according to the page. The minimum investment is set at around $500, and the company's indicated valuation is $252.57 million.

In 2021, FibroBiologics announced its intention of going public. Last year, O'Heeron told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast of the company's growth plans as well as the specifics of the technology.

Only two types of cells — stem cells and fibroblasts — can be used in cell therapy for a regenerative treatment, which is when specialists take healthy cells from a patient and inject them into a part of the body that needs it the most. As O'Heeron explains in the podcast, fibroblasts can do it more effectively and cheaper than stem cells.

"(Fibroblasts) can essentially do everything a stem cell can do, only they can do it better," says O'Heeron. "We've done tests in the lab and we've seen them outperform stem cells by a low of 50 percent to a high of about 220 percent on different disease paths."


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Houston cardiac health startup raises $43 million series B to grow AI-backed platform

money moves

A Houston-based tech company that has a product line of software solutions for cardiac health has raised funding.

Octagos Health, the parent company of Atlas AI — a software platform for cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators, ambulatory monitors and consumer wearables — has announced a $43 million series B raise that will bring their technology to many more hearts.

Morgan Stanley Investment Capital led the investment, which also included funds from Mucker Capital and other continuing strategic investors. The goal of the raise is to supply funds to accelerate Atlas AI’s growth across the United States and to expand into other areas of care, including ambulatory monitors, consumer wearables, and sleep.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate enhancements to our platform, in addition to scaling our commercial team and operations. We are currently the only company that helps cardiology practices migrate their historical data from legacy software providers and fully integrates with any EHR (exertion heart rate) system. We do this while enabling customized reporting supported by patient and practice decision-support analytics," says Eric Olsen, COO of Octagos Health, in a press release.

Octagos Health was founded by a team of healthcare pros including CEO Shanti Bansal, a cardiologist and founder of Houston Heart Rhythm, an atrial fibrillation center. The goal was to find a new way to deal with the massive amount of data that clinicians encounter each day in a way that combines software and the work of human doctors.

According to the Octagos Health website, “Our solution allows clinicians to focus on other ways of delivering meaningful healthcare and more efficiently manage their remotely monitored patients.”

It works thanks to customizable reporting features that allow patients’ healthcare teams to get help while monitoring them, but to do it precisely as they would if they were crunching numbers themselves.

"We are excited to partner with Octagos Health and support their vision of transforming cardiac care," says Melissa Daniels, managing director of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. "Octagos Health has demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation in a critical area of healthcare. We believe their platform and vertically integrated software and services significantly improve patient care and streamline cardiac monitoring processes for healthcare providers."

Will Hsu, co-founder and partner of Mucker Capital, agrees. “Octagos Health is poised for scale – industry leading gross margins, a very sticky product that doctors and clinical staff love, and a market ready for disruption with artificial intelligence. This is the new wave for diagnostic care,” he says. And with this raise, it will be available to even more clinicians and patients across the country.

Houston biotech company expands leadership as it commercializes sustainable products

joining the team

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos.

Parachin will lead the Cemvita team that’s developing technology for production of bio-manufactured oil.

“It’s a fantastic moment, as we’re poised to take our prototyping to the next level, and all under the innovative direction of our co-founder Tara Karimi,” Parachin says in a news release. “We will be bringing something truly remarkable to market and ensuring it’s cost-effective.”

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita, says the hiring of Parachin represents “the natural next step” toward commercializing the startup’s carbon-to-oil process.

“Her background prepared her to bring the best out of the scientists at the inflection point of commercialization — really bringing things to life,” says Moji Karimi, Tara’s brother.

Parachin joins Garcia on Cemvita’s executive team.

Before being promoted to vice president of commercialization, Garcia was the startup’s commercial director and business development manager. He has a background in engineering and business development.

Founded in 2017, Cemvita recently announced a breakthrough that enables production of large quantities of oil derived from carbon waste.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

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 logistics startup founder, a marketing expert, and a solar energy innovator.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Houston logistics SaaS innovator is making waves with its expanded maritime shipping platform. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now." Read more.

Arielle Rogg, principal and founder of Rogg Enterprises

Arielle Rogg writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about AI in the workforce. Photo via LinkedIn

Arielle Rogg isn't worried about artificial intelligence coming for her job. In fact, she has three reasons why, and she outlines them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The advent of AI pushes us humans to acquire new skills and hone our existing abilities so we can work alongside these evolving technologies in a collaborative fashion. AI augments human capabilities rather than replacing us. I believe it will help our society embrace lifelong learning, creating new industries and jobs that have never existed before," she writes in the piece. Read more.

Nathan Childress, founder of Solar Slice

Solar Slice Founder Nathan Childress says his new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet. Photo via LinkedIn

Nuclear engineer and entrepreneur Nathan Childress wants consumers to capture their own ray of sunlight to brighten the prospect of making clean energy a bigger part of the power grid. That's why he founded Solar Slice. The new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet.

Although trained in nuclear power plant design, solar power drew his interest as a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and Childress tells InnovationMap that he thinks that the transition to cleaner energy, in Texas especially, needs to step up.

Recent studies show that 80 to 90 percent of the money invested into fighting climate change “aren’t going to things that people actually consider helpful,” Childress says, adding that “they’re more just projects that sound good, that are not actually taking any action." Read more.