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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

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A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

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An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.