A UH professor is fighting cancer with a newly created virus that targets the bad cells and leaves the good ones alone. Photo via Getty Images

Viruses attack human cells, and that's usually a bad thing — some Houston researchers have received fresh funding to develop and use the evil powers of viruses for good.

The developing cancer treatment is called oncolytic virotherapy and has risen in popularity among immunotherapy research. The viruses can kill cancer cells while being ineffective to surrounding cells and tissue. Basically, the virus targets the bad guys by "activating an antitumor immune response made of immune cells such as natural killer (NK) cells," according to a news release from the University of Houston.

However exciting this rising OV treatment seems, the early stage development is far from perfect. Shaun Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston, is hoping his work will help improve OV treatment and make it more effective.

“We have developed a novel strategy that not only can prevent NK cells from clearing the administered oncolytic virus, but also goes one step further by guiding them to attack tumor cells. We took an entirely different approach to create this oncolytic virotherapy by deleting a region of the gene which has been shown to activate the signaling pathway that enables the virus to replicate in normal cells,” Zhang says in the release.

Zhang, who is also a M.D. Anderson professor in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, has received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue his work.

Zhang and his team are specifically creating a new OV — called FusOn-H2 and based on the Herpes simplex 2 virus.

“Our recent studies showed that arming FusOn-H2 with a chimeric NK engager (C-NK-E) that can engage the infiltrated natural killer cells with tumor cells could significantly enhance the effectiveness of this virotherapy,” he says. “Most importantly, we observed that tumor destruction by the joint effect of the direct oncolysis and the engaged NK cells led to a measurable elicitation of neoantigen-specific antitumor immunity.”

Shaun Zhang is the director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston and M.D. Anderson professor in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry. Image via UH.edu

Houston's Nobel Prize winner, Jim Allison, is the star of Breakthrough, which premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App. Photo via SXSW.com

Documentary featuring Houston Nobel Prize winner to air on PBS

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Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, our current coronavirus heroes are donning face masks as they save lives. One local health care hero has a different disease as his enemy, and you'll soon be able to stream his story.

Dr. James "Jim" Allison won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has quietly and often, singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.

The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as "the most cheering film of the year" by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison's personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease killed his mother.

Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts Alice, Texas native as he enrolls at the University of Texas, Austin and ultimately, cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin's legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system's power to protect the body from disease, Allison's research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.

Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison's personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison's clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.

"We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing," said Haney, in a statement. "Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I'll bet they become yours!"

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston researchers are hard at work in the lab to progress medical advancements at the bedside. Getty Images

These 3 medical innovations are ones to watch in Houston

Research roundup

Every day, important research is being completed under the roofs of Houston medical institutions. From immunotherapy to complex studies on how a memory is made, Houston researchers are discovering and analyzing important aspects of the future of medicine.

Here are three research projects currently being conducted around town.

University of Houston's potential solution to sickle cell disease

Vassiliy Lubchenko is a University of Houston associate professor of chemistry. Courtesy of UH

For the most part, sickle cells have been a mystery to scientists, but one University of Houston professor has recently reported a new finding on how sickle cells are formed — enlightening the medical community with hopes that better understanding the disease may lead to prevention.

Vassiliy Lubchenko, UH associate professor of chemistry, shared his new finding in Nature Communications. He reports that "droplets of liquid, enriched in hemoglobin, form clusters inside some red blood cells when two hemoglobin molecules form a bond — but only briefly, for one thousandth of a second or so," reads a release from UH.

In sickle cell disease, or anemia, red blood cells are crescent shaped and don't flow as easily through narrow blood vessels. The misshapen cells are caused by abnormal hemoglobin molecules that line up into stiff filaments inside red blood cells. Those filaments grow when the protein forms tiny droplets called mesoscopic.

"Though relatively small in number, the mesoscopic clusters pack a punch," says Lubchenko in the release. "They serve as essential nucleation, or growth, centers for things like sickle cell anemia fibers or protein crystals. The sickle cell fibers are the cause of a debilitating and painful disease, while making protein crystals remains to this day the most important tool for structural biologists."

Lubchenko conclusion is that the key to prevent sickle cell disease is to is to stop the formation of the initial clusters so fibers aren't able to grow out of them.

Baylor College of Medicine's immunotherapy research in breast cancer

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Baylor College of Medicine researchers are looking into the complexities of immune cells in breast cancer. Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are leading an initiative to figure out the potential effect of immunotherapy on different types of breast cancers. Their report is featured in Nature Cell Biology.

The scientists zoned in on two types of immune cells — neutrophils and macrophages — and they found frequency differed in a way that indicated potential roles in immunotherapy.

"Focusing on neutrophils and macrophages, we investigated whether different tumors had the same immune cell composition and whether seemingly similar immune components played the same role in tumor growth. Importantly, we wanted to find out whether differences in immune cell composition contributed to the tumors' responses to immunotherapy," says Dr. Xiang 'Shawn' Zhang, professor at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center and member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in a news release.

Further exploring the discrepancies between the immune cells and the role they play in tumor growth will help better understand immunotherapy's potential in certain types of breast cancer.

"These findings are just the beginning. They highlight the need to investigate these two cellular types deeper. Under the name 'macrophages' there are many different cellular subtypes and the same stands for neutrophils," Zhang says. "We need to identify at single cell level which subtypes favor and which ones disrupt tumor growth taking also into consideration tumor heterogeneity as both are relevant to therapy."

Rice University, UTHeath, and UH's memory-making study

Researchers from all corners of Houston are diving into how memories are made. Courtesy of Rice University

When you make a memory, your brain cells structurally change. Through a multi-institutional study with researchers from UH, Rice University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, we now know more about the way memories are made.

When forming memories, three moving parts work together in the human brain — a binding protein, a structural protein and calcium — to allow for electrical signals to enter neural cells and change the molecular structures in cognition. The scientists compared notes on how on that binding protein works.

The team's study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Peter Wolynes, a theoretical physicist at Rice, UH physicist Margaret Cheung, and UTHealth neurobiologist Neal Waxham worked together to understand the complex process memories experience in the process of being made.

"This is one of the most interesting problems in neuroscience: How do short-term chemical changes lead to something long term, like memory?" Waxham says in a release from Rice. "I think one of the most interesting contributions we make is to capture how the system takes changes that happen in milliseconds to seconds and builds something that can outlive the initial signal."

Houston-based Moleculin Biotech now has four different oncology treatment currently in trials. Getty Images

Houston cancer-fighting biotech company introduces its 4th ongoing clinical trial

health report

A Houston-based biotech company has wrapped up enrollment for its most recent clinical trial of its cancer-fighting drug.

Moleculin Biotech Inc. (Nasdaq: MBRX) has launched its fourth ongoing trial — this time focusing on Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma, or CTCL, treatment. The company's other three trials include treatment for glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers in oncology, and acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.

To treat these various types of cancers, Moleculin has a several drugs it's in preclinical or clinical trials testing — most biotech companies have only one they focus on. WP1220 is the drug that will be used in this trial for topical CTCL treatment of the cancer's resulting skin lesions.

"We believe there continues to be an unmet need for an improved topical therapy for Stage I-III CTCL skin lesions," says Walter Klemp, Moleculin's chairman and CEO, in a news release, "especially one that may avoid significant unwanted side effects."

WP1220 is what's known as a p-STAT3 inhibitor. STAT3 is a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. Moleculin's technology directly attacks the tumor, but also quiets T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

"This proof of concept, if successful, could be an important first demonstration of a therapeutic effect in humans from such a p-STAT3 inhibitor," Klemp continues. "We are pleased with how quickly this trial reached full recruitment and we are hopeful to be able to announce results from this trial yet this year."

Klemp founded the company in 2007, and Moleculin went public in 2016. Now, with the company's four clinical trials, Moleculin is even closer to saving lives with its products.

"Notwithstanding the relatively rare nature of CTCL, we believe showing activity with one of our STAT3 inhibitors, within our WP1066 family of molecules, could be an indicator of both the value of p-STAT3 as a target and the potential for our drugs in other cancers where STAT3 is highly activated," Klemp says in the release.

Dr. Colleen O'Connor has adapted immunotherapy treatments to be used in dogs. Courtesy of CAVU Biotherapies

Houston-based veterinary biotech startup modernizes cancer treatments for dogs

Paw-dern medicine

More than three years after its founding, Houston-based veterinary biotech company CAVU Biotherapies recently accomplished a significant milestone. In October, CAVU's specialized immunotherapy was administered to its first cancer patient: a black Labrador in Pennsylvania diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma.

Dr. Colleen O'Connor, CEO and founder of CAVU Biotherapies, established the company in July 2015 with a goal to help pets live longer post-cancer diagnoses. O'Connor, who earned a PhD in toxicology with a specialty in immunology, has more than a decade of hands-on experience researching cancer treatments.

"Our goal is to scale up and be able to increase our dogs' qualities of life with us," O'Connor said. "We want to keep families intact longer and we want to be able to modernize cancer care for our animals."

At CAVU, O'Connor dedicates her time to modernizing cancer care for dogs by developing an Autologous Prescription Product, otherwise known as adoptive T-cell therapy for dogs. The T-cell therapy is currently offered as a companion treatment to other canine cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, O'Connor said.

Historically, cancer research for animals has lagged behind that of humans, and cancer diagnoses have come late due to the language barrier, O'Connor said. Of the dogs who enter remission, a majority of them relapse within 10 months to one year, she said.

"A majority [of dogs] are diagnosed at stage four, and you have to become very aggressive," O'Connor said. "For B-cell lymphoma, with the current treatments right now and the current standard of [therapies], less than 20 percent make it to two years post-diagnosis."

Launching CAVU
O'Connor first began studying T-cell therapy for humans with cancer during her post-doctoral fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Her fellowship also partnered with Texas A&M University's Small Animal Hospital to develop a clinical trial studying the effects of adoptive T-cell therapies on dogs with B-cell lymphoma.

T-cell therapy is a cellular-based treatment in which a type of white blood cells — or the cells that fight off tumors and infections — are harvested from blood samples drawn from patients. The cells are then injected back into the patient through an IV to fight the cancerous cells, O'Connor said.

Unexpectedly, O'Connor's 19-year-old dog, Bubbles, was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma in 2008 and later dying from it in December 2009. Five years later, O'Connor's sister's 6-year-old dog, Daisy, also died from transitional cell carcinoma. O'Connor said she remembers feeling helpless as she watched the dogs succumb to the disease.

"I was giving them drugs and protocols that were from 1980 … and I was really upset that there wasn't much more we could do for our dogs — especially because I treat my dogs like family," O'Connor said.

That was when O'Connor realized she wanted to help prevent other people from feeling the pain of losing their furry family members. While T-cell therapy is not a new method of treating cancer in humans, O'Connor focused on modifying the serum to create a treatment plan appropriate for dogs.

However, launching a company focusing specifically on treating cancer in animals was not without its challenges; O'Connor said she had to learn how to start a business, make industry connections, and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.

To help with this, CAVU also connected with various entrepreneurial accelerators, such as Houston Technology Center and Station Houston, which are associations that help place young businesses in front of investors.

CAVU later became a member of the Houston Angel Network — a group of private investors of high net worth individuals that as a group invest in startups. By presenting her business to HAN and its investors, CAVU was able to gain financial backing.

CAVU also recently joined the Capital Factory in early 2018, an Austin-based accelerator program for entrepreneurs in Texas. O'Connor said the program has helped her meet investors, mentors and other startups.

"The way I overcame a lot of this [the early challenges] is by education, listening and trying to navigate and talk with as many of the right people as I could that had experience," she said.

The future of CAVU
Since CAVU treated its first patient in October, CAVU's adoptive T-cell therapy treatment has been administered to six dogs, O'Connor said. CAVU's T-cell therapy is currently available at more than 12 veterinary clinics across the country, including clinics in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, and Missouri.

Additionally, four Houston-area clinics currently offer the T-cell therapy treatment: Garden Oaks Veterinary Clinic, Bayou City Veterinary Hospital, Memorial-610 Hospital for Animals, and Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists.

In order for a dog to be considered as a candidate — though it is ultimately up to the veterinarian on whether the T-cell therapy is right for specific dogs — the dogs must weigh more than 8 pounds, not be allergic to mouse or cow products and have no active autoimmune diseases.

The company also launched a new clinical trial with A&M University in October, looking at the effects of CAVU's T-cell therapy coupled with reduced chemotherapy periods for dogs, from roughly 19 to 26 weeks of chemotherapy to 6 to 8 weeks.

While CAVU's therapy is currently only available for dogs, O'Connor said her team plans to modify the T-cell therapy to be administered in other animals.

"We have a lot of cat owners ask us [about treatment] and we are going to do that for the next round in funding," she said. "We're going to look at how to translate this for cats and eventually horses."

O'Connor said that CAVU will launch more clinical trials with A&M University's Small Animal Hospital in the future, with CAVU aiming to make T-cell therapy treatments for cats and horses available in 2020.

Looking back, O'Connor said she has come a long way in her career path: from working with sea animals at the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky to studying human immunology and toxicology, but she's returned to studying animals.

"It's amazing how I pivoted, but at the end of the day I kind of came back to animals … and I came back full circle in a way I could have never expected," she said.

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Houston named a market to watch within the life science sector

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Houston is receiving more kudos for its robust life sciences sector.

Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Here’s how Houston fares in each of the ranking’s three categories:

  • No. 12 for supply of life sciences-oriented commercial real estate
  • No. 14 for access to life sciences talent
  • No. 15 for life sciences grant funding and venture capital

Earlier this year, Houston scored a 13th-place ranking on a list released by JLL competitor CBRE of the country’s top 25 life sciences markets. Meanwhile, commercial real estate platform CommercialCafe recently placed Houston at No. 10 among the top U.S. metros for life sciences.

JLL applauds Houston for strong growth in the amount of life sciences talent along with “an impressive base of research institutions and medical centers.” But it faults Houston for limited VC interest in life sciences startups and a small inventory of lab space.

“Houston is getting a boost [in life sciences] from the growing Texas Medical Center and an influx of venture capital earmarked for life sciences research,” the Greater Houston Partnership recently noted.

Boston appears at No. 1 in this year’s JLL ranking, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, Washington, D.C./Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

Last year’s JLL list included only 10 life sciences markets; Houston wasn’t among them.

“The long-term potential of the sector remains materially unchanged since 2021,” Travis McCready, head of life sciences for JLL’s Americas markets, says in a news release.

“Innovation is happening at a more rapid pace than ever before, the fruits of research into cell and gene therapy are just now being harvested, and revenue growth has taken off in the past five years as the sector becomes larger, an atypical growth track.”

Texas startup developing lab-grown brisket earns national spotlight

futuristic food

Brisket, a barbecue staple in Texas, is as synonymous with the Lone Star State as the Alamo and oil wells. A Texas company recently recognized as the state’s most innovative startup wants to elevate this barbecue staple to a new high-tech level.

BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. The Austin-based company made the Bloomberg news service’s new list of the 50 startups to watch in the U.S. — one startup for each state.

The co-founders of BioBQ are Austin native Katie Kam, a vegan with five college degrees (four from the University of Texas and one from Texas A&M University), and Janet Zoldan, a “hardcore carnivore” who’s a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. Kam is the CEO, and Zoldan is the chief science officer.

This kind of meat is genuine animal meat that’s produced by cultivating animal cells in a lab, according to the Good Food Institute.

“This production method eliminates the need to raise and farm animals for food. Cultivated meat is made of the same cell types arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, thus replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat,” the institute says.

It turns that before becoming a vegan, Kam worked at the now-closed BB’s Smokehouse in Northwest Austin as a high school student. She’d chow down on sauce-slathered brisket and banana pudding during on-the-job breaks.

“But then over time, as I learned more about factory farming and could no longer make the distinction between my dogs and cats I loved and the animals that were on my plate, I decided to become vegan,” Kam writes on the BioBQ website.

Hearing about the 2013 rollout of the first cell-cultured hamburger set Kam off on her path toward starting BioBQ in 2018. Zoldan joined the startup as co-founder the following year.

Now, BioBQ aims to be the first company in the world to sell brisket and other barbecue meats, such as jerky, made from cultured cells rather than slaughtered animals.

According to BioBQ’s profile on the Crunchbase website, the startup relies on proprietary technology to efficiently produce meat products in weeks rather than the year or more it takes to raise and slaughter cattle. This process “allows control of meat content and taste, reduces environmental impacts of meat production, and takes BBQ to the next tasty, sustainable level consumers want,” the profile says.

In 2020, Texas Monthly writer Daniel Vaughn questioned BioBQ’s premise.

He wrote that “there is something about the idea of lab-grown brisket that keeps bothering me, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. If you could design any cut of beef from scratch, why choose one that’s so difficult to make delicious? Why not a whole steer’s worth of ribeyes?”

Kam offered a very entrepreneur-like response.

“I’m from Austin, and I know that brisket’s kind of a big deal here,” Kam told Vaughn. “It seemed like a great, challenging meat to demonstrate this technology working.”

Meanwhile, Zoldan came up with a more marketing-slanted reaction to Vaughn’s bewilderment.

“I don’t think cell-based meats will take over the market, but I think there’s a place for it on the market,” Zoldan she told Vaughn.

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This article originally ran on CultureMapCultureMap.

Why the banking biz is ripe for innovation, according to this Houston founder

guest column

After our doctor and our child’s school, a bank is an institution with which we share the relationship that is most personal and vital to our well-being in this world. Some might put a good vet third, but other than that, no private entity is more responsible for escorting us to a healthier and happier outcome over the course of our lives.

The bank vault is a traditional symbol of security and prosperity, and not just for our pennies. We safeguard possessions in banks that are so important we don’t even trust keeping them in our own houses. Wills, birth certificates, and the precious family heirlooms of countless families are held in safety deposit boxes behind those giant vault doors, and banks have been the traditional guardians not only of our wealth but our identity and future as well.

The importance of relationship banking

Faith and confidence in our banks is so fundamental to the customer relationship that it has evolved into a unique and otherwise unthinkable arrangement for any good capitalist in a healthy marketplace: banks pay us to be their customers. Imagine a doctor offering you $20 for trusting them to give you a colonoscopy and you’re on the road to understanding the sacrosanct union between bank and customer.

In fact, this trust is so deeply anchored in the American psyche that a new generation of digital banking companies has sprung up on the idea that it doesn’t need to exist in physical reality. The fintech industry has exploded in the last decade, and today, over 75 percent of Americans are engaged in online banking in one form or another. Every single one of those 200 million customers are taking for granted that they will be well served, despite having no personal guidance through any of the financial products and services that these online entities provide.

Benefits of fostering relationships with banking customers

In the late 90s and early 2000s brick-and-mortar banks realized that greater personalized care for their customers was going to be a critical point of competition. The in-person experience is an opportunity to offer advice and incentives for a wide range of products and financial management assistance. It’s rooted in an incredibly simple axiom that is taking hold in every aspect of modern society: everyone benefits if we all get along better.

There’s a lot of statistical traction behind this theory. Customers who report they are “financially healthy” are down 20 percent over the last year, which means people are looking for guidance. 73 percent of customers who visit a local bank branch report having a personal relationship with their bank, while only 53 percent say the same of their digital institution. Most importantly, although many digital banks are offering similar products and services to their real-world counterparts, customer engagement remains very low.

It starts with your products

The truth is, today’s bank customers still want that same personal relationship their great-grandparents had before they engage with deeper financial products and services. They believe it makes them more financially successful, and confirm that human connections and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand.

Products that are Challenging for Digital Markets

Residential mortgages, for example, are an $18 trillion dollar industry that deals in durations longer than most digital banking services have even existed. The perception of continuity and stability is highly valued by clients in the mortgage relationship. Today, most customers feel that only comes with a handshake and a smile from an employee who has to fit in a meeting before they pick their kids up from school.

While digital firms have proven themselves capable of offering savings and checking services, most have fallen flat on the mortgage front because of the premium on personal relationships. Loyalty is the reward for time, service, and shared experience, and financial institutions that cannot provide that package for their customers are never going to access a deeper and more meaningful portfolio of services.

Finding Well-suited Products for Digital Finance

The message for the digital finance world is as clear as it is pressing. The future of the industry will revolve around more personalized experiences, interactions, and long-term products. At the same time, the American public has embraced digital banking, and we are looking at a new generation of bank users who may never walk through a branch door in their life.

In order to compete, the digital industry will need to identify and develop a range of long-term products and services that make sense for customers in today’s environment. Mortgages may be out of the question, but the safety deposit box holds great promise for industry in-roads. Optimal services for deeper, more personal customer engagement include things like:

  • Legacy and estate planning
  • Will preparation and safeguarding
  • Preservation of cherished photos and videos
  • Important personal data storage


Because these things are product-based, they are well suited to the digital ecosystem. The cryptocurrency industry and modern online banking have solidified consumer confidence in the digital bank vault, and there is a great deal of faith in the perpetuity of electronic documents and storage.

The IRS estimates that upwards of 90 percent of Americans are E-filing their taxes and that only comes with a widespread belief that our highly sensitive information can and will be preserved and protected by digital architecture.

Secure your future

Digital banking firms that want to thrive in the upcoming decades are going to need to innovate in long-term financial planning products that bring their customers into a closer, more personal relationship with them.

The finance world will continue to change and develop, but the hopes, fears, and dreams of people trying to build and secure a better future for themselves and their children will remain the same for tomorrow’s customers as they were for their parents and grandparents.

It is up to the digital finance industry to adapt and develop to provide the customers of today—and tomorrow— with these invaluable services and securities.

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Emily Cisek is the founder and CEO of The Postage, a tech-enabled, easy-to-use estate planning tool.