There's a growing need for physician-scientists who can see from both sides of the table. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Physician-scientists are a group of specialized researchers at the intersection of medicine and technology. Earning both medical degrees and Ph.D.s, they offer a perspective beyond the scope of clinical practice.

Three such researchers discussed how they make the connections between discovery and patient care.

Why a dual education matters

Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston and M.D. Anderson professor of biology and biochemistry, knows exactly what the clinical demands are.

"I can see from the M.D. perspective, but at the same time I have a Ph.D. — I know how to design research properly," he says. "In the clinic, you're faced with reality that a patient is struggling but you don't have the tools to treat those patients. If you engage in research you can create a tool."

Zhang says clinicians know the need but may struggle to design a solution. A Ph.D., on the other hand, may only know basic research.

Renowned hormone researcher Jan-Åke Gustafsson, Robert A. Welch professor of biology and biochemistry and founding director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, agrees.

"The dual education makes it possible for you to see which diseases are in need of more research, drugs and so on," he says.

Physician-scientists are the driving force behind many advances of modern medicine.

"The way I look at it is, practicing medicine is relatively easy but coming up with the next diagnostic device or the next treatment for a disease is way more difficult, way more challenging," says Chandra Mohan, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Endowed professor of biomedical engineering at UH.

"You see patients with certain diseases, and you know there's a dire need for better diagnostics, earlier treatment, earlier diagnosis with fewer side effects," he says.

While researchers spend time primarily in the laboratory and clinical practitioners interact with patients, they both want to make an impact.

"We have made some discoveries which have led to the development of new drugs and better understanding of certain diseases," says Gustafsson. "There's a great satisfaction that it may help people to get healthy."

Traditional research brings value to a university

The synergy of this dual education makes these investigators valuable not only to academia, but also to medical science.

"I can't imagine doing translational research without medical training," Zhang says. "If you have this part without the other, you don't know where to go. With medical training, you know exactly which direction to go."

Mohan echos that assessment.

"When you start doing research there are so many questions you can answer," he says. "Sometimes there are questions which are just too basic. They're too far removed from how it will impact a patient's life. So what are the most important questions? I think questions that really make a difference in the patient's life are the most important."

Zhang notes that the National Institutes of Health has switched its funding philosophy — once focused on basic science, it now is more interested in translational research, with a direct relationship to patient health.

As physician-scientists, these "translators" of medical research are able to bridge the chasm.

Amr Elnashai, vice president/vice chancellor of research and technology transfer at UH, says physician-scientists play an important role.

"The increasing importance of deploying technology in medicine renders it essential for a progressive research university to hire medical Ph.D. holders who are in an ideal position to bridge the gap between engineering and science on the one hand, and the broad field of medicine on the other," he says.

Research groups that bring both fields together not only have a much higher probability of impacting lives by adopting the latest technology in medical applications, he adds, but they also give interdisciplinary teams greater access to specific funding pursue such solutions.

In that sense, says Elnashai, medical Ph.D. researchers play an important part of the future research university.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Nitiya Spearman is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

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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."


Texas ranks as a top state for female entrepreneurs

women in business

Texas dropped three spots in Merchant Maverick’s annual ranking of the top 10 states for women-led startups.

The Lone Star State landed at No. 5 thanks in part to its robust venture capital environment for women entrepreneurs. Last year, Texas ranked second, up from its No. 6 showing in 2021.

Merchant Maverick, a product comparison site for small businesses, says Texas “boasts the strongest venture capital scene” for women entrepreneurs outside California and the Northeast. The state ranked fourth in that category, with $6.5 billion invested in the past five years.

Other factors favoring Texas include:

  • Women solely lead 22 percent of all employees working for a business in Texas (No. 4).
  • Texas lacks a state income tax (tied for No. 1).

However, Texas didn’t fare well in terms of the unemployment rate (No. 36) and the rate of business ownership by women (No. 29). Other Texas data includes:

  • Average income for women business owners, $52,059 (No. 19).
  • Early startup survival rate, 81.9 percent (No. 18).

Appearing ahead of Texas in the 2023 ranking are No. 1 Colorado, No. 2 Washington, No. 3 California, and No. 4 Arizona.

Another recent ranking, this one from NorthOne, an online bank catering to small businesses, puts Texas at No. 7 among the 10 best states for women entrepreneurs.

NorthOne says Texas provides “a ton of opportunities” for woman entrepreneurs. For instance, it notches one of the highest numbers of women-owned businesses in the country at 1.4 million, 2.1 percent of which have at least 500 employees.

In this study, Texas is preceded by Colorado at No. 1, Nevada at No. 2, Virginia at No. 3, Maryland at No. 4, Florida at No. 5, and New Mexico at No. 6. The rankings are based on eight metrics, including the percentage of woman-owned businesses and the percentage of women-owned businesses with at least 500 employees.