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

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

science-Digital Composite Image Of Male Scientist Experimenting In Laboratory

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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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco