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

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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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.