With this new grant, UH has a new center for researching bioactive materials crystallization. Photo via UH.edu

A new hub at the University of Houston is being established with a crystal-clear mission — and fresh funding.

Thanks to funding from Houston-based organization The Welch Foundation, the University of Houston will be home to the Welch Center for Advanced Bioactive Materials Crystallization. The nonprofit doled out its inaugural $5 million Catalyst for Discovery Program Grant to the new initiative led by Jeffrey Rimer, Abraham E. Dukler Professor of Chemical Engineering, who is known internationally for his work with crystals that help treat malaria and kidney stones.

“Knowledge gaps in the nascent and rapidly developing field of nonclassical crystallization present a wide range of obstacles to design crystalline materials for applications that benefit humankind, spanning from medicine to energy and the environment,” says Rimer in a news release. “Success calls for a paradigm shift in the understanding of crystal nucleation mechanisms and structure selection that will be addressed in this center.”

The Welch Foundation, which was founded in 1954, has granted over $1.1 billion to scientists in Texas. This new grant program targets researchers focused on fundamental chemical solutions. Earlier this year, the organization announced nearly $28 million in grants to Texas institutions.

"Support from the Welch Foundation has led to important advances in the field of chemistry, not only within Texas, but also throughout the United States and the world as a whole,” says Randall Lee, Cullen Distinguished University Chair and professor of chemistry, in the release. “These advances extend beyond scientific discoveries and into the realm of education, where support from the Welch Foundation has played a significant role in building the technological workforce needed to solve ongoing and emerging problems in energy and health care.”

Rimer and Lee are joined by the following researchers on the newly announced center's team:

  • Peter Vekilov, Moores Professor, chemical and biomolecular engineering
  • Alamgir Karim, Dow Chair and Welch Foundation Professor, chemical and biomolecular engineering;
  • Jeremy Palmer, Ernest J. and Barbara M. Henley Associate Professor, chemical and biomolecular engineering
  • Gül Zerze, chemical and biomolecular engineering
  • Francisco Robles Hernandez, professor of engineering technology.

The University of Houston also received another grant from the Welch Foundation. Megan Robertson, UH professor of chemical engineering, received $4 million for her work with developing chemical processes to transform plastic waste into useful materials.

“For the University of Houston to be recognized with two highly-competitive Welch Foundation Catalyst Grants underscores the exceptional talent and dedication of our researchers and their commitment to making meaningful contributions to society through discovery,” Diane Chase, UH senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, says in the release.

A UH researcher has fresh funding to support her life-saving, cancer-fighting drug. Photo via UH.edu

University of Houston researcher receives grant for first-of-its-kind breast cancer drug

funds granted

A University of Houston researcher was awarded a $2 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to develop a new drug that will initially target breast cancer, the university announced this month.

The drug is intended to impact a type of traditionally "undraggable" target of cancer, known as intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), which researchers have yet to gain fundamental understanding of. According to the release, approximately 70 percent of proteins impacted by cancer are considered IDPs.

Gül Zerze, an assistant professor in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, has specialized in research on the computational modeling and simulations of these IDPs, and is one of the 12 cancer researchers awarded such a grant by the CPRIT.

Candidates for Zerze's drug will be rapidly tested through collaborations within UH and MD Anderson, according to the statement.

Gül Zerze is an assistant professor in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

"One out of nearly six Texas women diagnosed with breast cancer will die of the disease. Importantly, Texan women of color are disproportionately impacted by the high mortality rate compared to white Texan women (41 percent higher mortality rate reported for Black Texan women in 2016)," Zerze said in a statement. "This high mortality rate, despite the substantial efforts made for early diagnosis, calls for better therapeutics urgently.”

Zerze was recruited by the CPRIT to come to UH from Princeton last November. She was part of the latest class of recruitment grants from the organization, totaling $38 million to “form a critical ecosystem of distinguished cancer-fighting talent” in Texas.

According to the CPRIT website, the organization has recruited 263 cancer researchers and their labs to Texas over the years. First launched in 2007, the CPRIT is now a $6 billion, 20-year initiative that's allowing institutions in Houston compete against the likes of Harvard and Stanford universities, and the Cleveland and Mayo clinics.

“The ideas proposed here will save lives," Zerze said in the statement. "And the products that will come out of this project have a great potential for commercialization and founding companies to contribute to the Texas economy.”

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.