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2 new COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

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While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Houston hospital receives $37M in donations to continue its life-saving cancer care

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A $25 million gift will support expansion of research conducted at the Houston Methodist Cancer Center and may help the center earn top-tier federal designation.

In honor of the $25 million donation from Dr. Mary Neal and husband Ron Neal, the cancer center is being renamed the Houston Methodist Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center. The hospital system will raise an additional $12 million in matching funds, bringing the total to $37 million.

Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, says the Bellaire couple's gift "plays an important role in advancing our leading medicine mission and bringing potentially life-saving cancer treatments to more patients throughout Houston and the nation."

Mary Neal, previously in private practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist, is now a part-time volunteer physician at Houston Methodist's San Jose Clinic. Ron Neal is co-founder and co-owner of offshore development company Houston Energy. He also is CEO of Houston-based HEQ Deepwater, a more than $400 million venture formed earlier this year by Houston Energy and Houston-based private equity firm Quantum Energy Partners to buy deepwater assets in the Gulf of Mexico.

With the donation from Dr. Mary Neal and husband Ron Neal, the cancer center is being renamed the Houston Methodist Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

The Neals' donation will boost ongoing research led by Dr. Jenny Chang, director of the cancer center and Emily Herrmann Presidential Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research. Chang's research has advanced cancer therapy with breakthroughs such as targeted drugs for treatment of breast cancer.

Mary Neal says she and her husband believe their contribution "will further advance pivotal and innovative research beyond chemotherapy and radiation."

The gift also will fund and retain three endowed chairs and complementary funding for early stage research and therapies, support recruitment and fellowship training, and expand clinical trials at all of the community hospitals within Houston Methodist. Part of the gift is dedicated to cancer innovation efforts within the Center for Drug Repositioning and Development.

"Our vision for the Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center is to grow our network of cancer physicians offering comprehensive care with the latest technologies and clinical trials so that patients across the region have the best access to cancer care," Chang says. "While the gift from the Neal family will have direct impact for patients at the community level in areas that are often deserts for cancer care, my hope is that it will also propel our ongoing research and work to the national level toward NCI designation."

Cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) meet rigorous standards for research and clinical care. The Neals' gift is aimed at elevating research done at the cancer center and helping retain talent to accelerate Houston Methodist's pursuit of NCI designation.

Texas is home to four NCI-designated cancer centers:

  • Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine.
  • University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, also in Houston.
  • Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
  • Mays Cancer Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

NCI designation represents "the highest federal rating a cancer center can achieve," according to the University of Chicago's NCI-designated cancer center. "It's the gold standard for cancer programs, and is bestowed upon the nation's top cancer centers in recognition of their innovative research and leading-edge treatments."

This designation can lead to benefits such as more research grants, quicker access to clinical trials for cancer treatments, and stepped-up recruitment of high-profile cancer researchers.

"At any given time, hundreds of research studies are under way at the cancer centers, ranging from basic laboratory research to clinical assessments of new treatments," the NCI says. "Many of these studies are collaborative and may involve several cancer centers, as well as other partners in industry and the community."

Houston entrepreneur launches diversity-focused fund, programming to address inequality in tech

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 111

Phillip Yates is juggling a lot. The Houston lawyer started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help diverse communities create lasting wealth. Now, he's also launching Diversity Fund Houston — a $3 million initiative to support diverse tech founders — ahead of the inaugural Black Entrepreneurship Week, which Yates is hosting in Houston starting Saturday, November 27.

While it is a handful, all three initiatives align with Yates's goal to move the needle on improving equity when it comes to access to capital, finding a community, and creating institutional change. Just like most Black professional, he's faced his share of challenges — but he's persevered thanks to his mentors, family, and supportive network.

"Everytime I failed, there was somebody there that made sure I stayed on track," Yates shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Now Yates, across his efforts, wants to help create this same type of support for others. Equaliberty connects users to a hyper-local network and mentor, as well as relationships to financial institutions and key resources.

"We're doing two things — we're creating a new asset class for banks and financial institutions, but then also we're building a group of wealth creators in the community who will take ownership in the geographical region they live in, which isn't happening," Yates says. "We throw the word 'gentrification' around, but we never attack it at the root problem, and a lot of times it's ownership."

Ultimately, Yates says he wants to help to move the needle on eliminating poverty in the United States — it's not going to happen overnight or with him alone. One huge step toward this goal is raising awareness of the issues, and that's what he hopes to do with Black Entrepreneurship Week.

BEW will feature several opportunities — from the Black Market, which will allow people to shop local Black merchants, to a special Giving Tuesday event to support Black-focused nonprofits in Houston. Specifically, Yates wants to target a multi-generational crowd — that's what's goring to drive lasting changes.

"When you have a wealth initiative, you can't just talk to the parents or the youth — you're still going to have a missing link there," Yates says on the show, explaining the week's wealth challenge that will reinforce this idea.

Access to wealth is a key focus for Yates, who announced the launch of Diversity Fund Houston this week co-founded by emerging fund managers Tiffany Williams, Kiley Summers, and Yates and in partnership with Bank of America, Houston Area Urban League, Hello Alice, Impact Hub Houston, Equiliberty, DivInc., and Prairie View A&M University.

The fund will target early-stage companies founded by diverse entrepreneurs — tapping into an underserved community, not just because it's the right thing to do but because there are real opportunities. And now is the time to make these changes, Yates says.

"The Black American community is at a point where millennials are coming into their own," Yates says explaining how he's at the opportune point in his life. "I'm stable enough and still young enough where I can make these contributions — and the same thing with my co-founders. ... Time is of the essence for our community."

Yates shares more on what to expect at BEW and with the new fund on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.