Yaxin Wang is director of THI's Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. Photo via texasheart.org

The United States Department of Defense has awarded a grant that will allow the Texas Heart Institute and Rice University to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation and are a long-term option in end-stage heart failure.

The grant is part of the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). It was awarded to Georgia Institute of Technology, one of four collaborators on the project that will be designed and evaluated by the co-investigator Yaxin Wang. Wang is part of O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s team at Texas Heart Institute, where she is director of Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. The other institution working on the new LVAD is North Carolina State University.

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. As Wang explained to us last year, an LVAD is a minimally invasive device that mechanically pumps a person’s own heart. Frazier claims to have performed more than 900 LVAD implantations, but the devices are far from perfect.

The team working on this new research seeks to minimize near-eventualities like blood clot formation, blood damage, and driveline complications such as infection and limitations in mobility. The four institutions will try to innovate with a device featuring new engineering designs, antithrombotic slippery hydrophilic coatings (SLIC), wireless power transfer systems, and magnetically levitated driving systems.

Wang and her team believe that the non-contact-bearing technology will help to decrease the risk of blood clotting and damage when implanting an LVAD. The IDEA Lab will test the efficacy and safety of the SLIC LVAD developed by the multi-institutional team with a lab-bench-based blood flow loop, but also in preclinical models.

“The Texas Heart Institute continues to be a leading center for innovation in mechanical circulatory support systems,” said Joseph G. Rogers, MD, the president and CEO of THI, in a press release.

“This award will further the development and testing of the SLIC LVAD, a device intended to provide an option for a vulnerable patient population and another tool in the armamentarium of the heart failure teams worldwide.”

If it works as hypothesized, the SLIC LVAD will improve upon current LVAD technology, which will boost quality of life for countless heart patients. But the innovation won’t stop there. Technologies that IDEA Lab is testing include wireless power transfer for medical devices and coatings to reduce blood clotting could find applications in many other technologies that could help patients live longer, healthier lives.

The study will include 10 hospitals enrolled as possible sites and is slated to begin in 2024. One location is Houston’s own Texas Heart Institute. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Houston medical device company with long-lasting artificial heart reaches FDA milestone

feasibility focused

A Houston company with a breakthrough heart health tech has received a green light from the FDA.

BiVACOR, a Houston-headquartered medical device company, has received FDA approval for its Total Artificial Heart (BTAH) IDE first-in-human early feasibility study (EFS). The BTAH device itself is designed to take over all function for patients with heart failure. The BTAH is roughly the size of a human fist, which means that, while it could support an active adult male, it may also fit many women and children.

Led by CEO Thomas Vassiliades, a former heart surgeon, BiVACOR is based on a system of magnetic levitation. “Our pump is just one moving impeller that sits in the middle of the housing where the blood is. Imagine an artificial heart — the container that has your blood — and the device spinning in the inside — basically a wheel spinning your blood to the rest of your body. The device is suspended by magnets — it's not touching anything,” Vassiliades told InnovationMap in a podcast earlier this year.

Because of that, BiVACOR could potentially last for a patient’s entire life with no wear — something, Vassiliades explains, is new to the field.

The EFS includes 10 hospitals enrolled as possible sites and is slated to begin in 2024. One location is Houston’s own Texas Heart Institute.

“I am eager to begin the BiVACOR Total Artificial Heart EFS to evaluate what I believe is a promising and potentially life-saving technology,” Joseph Rogers, CEO of the Texas Heart Institute, says in a press release. “The implantation of a TAH system is a potential treatment option for patients with heart failure who need support while on the heart transplant waiting list and for those who do not qualify for a transplant. The BTAH is designed to replace the function of the native heart completely. It is an impressive technology, and I am excited to see the potential of BTAH in treating patients with severe heart failure.”

BiVACOR’s chief medical officer is Texas Heart Institute cardiac surgeon William Cohn. He said that this EFS is a “critical milestone” for him and the BiVACOR team.

“This device will provide a unique approach to help patients currently with limited clinical options,” he explains.

The upcoming study is planned for biventricular heart failure patients who need a mechanical circulatory support device as a bridge to later transplantation. However, the team hopes that future studies will follow to chart the BTAH’s success with short-term and long-term destination therapy.

The Texas Heart Institute recently received its largest charitable donation in its history. Photo courtesy of THI

Massive $32M gift from former patient, new UH deal pump big changes into Houston organization

all heart

Leadership at The Texas Heart Institute has two major things to celebrate. First, it just received a $32 million donation from a patient — the largest charitable donation in its history.

Shortly after that news came out, the institute announced a new partnership with the University of Houston Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine that allows those UH medical students to join a clinical rotation at The Texas Heart Institute. The alliance means valuable insights and experience with both inpatient and outpatient cardiology for UH's future doctors.

"Students will have the chance to develop their skills in the diagnosis and management of cardiovascular conditions and will be taught by outstanding clinical educators,” said Dr. Joseph G. Rogers, president and CEO of The Texas Heart Institute and heart failure specialist at The Texas Heart Institute Center for Cardiovascular Care, in a press release announcing the news.

A game-changing gift that's all heart

As for that mammoth gift, the $32 million donation comes from Dr. Frederick M. Weissman, a neurologist from New York who was a patient at the Institute 40 years ago. Fittingly, huis gift will be used to support cardiovascular research.

This isn't Weissman's first gift to the institution. That came following his experience there in the mid-1980s, when he was treated by world-renowned cardiac surgeon Dr. Denton A. Cooley.

In November of 1986, Weissman wrote a check for $5,000; another followed the next month, with a note that read, in part, “my conscience compels me to make another contribution to The Texas Heart Institute. I don’t think I could ever repay you for what you and your staff have done for me.” Weissman and Cooley would go on to be friends throughout their lives.

When Dr. Weissman died in 2005, he left The Texas Heart Institute $500,000. The organization recently received the residual of his estate — valued at more than $32 million.

“Those of us who were fortunate enough to work with and be trained by Dr. Cooley know he was much more than just an incredibly gifted surgeon," renowned transplant surgeon and Co-director of THI’s Center for Preclinical Surgical & Interventional Research, Dr. O.H. “Bud” Frazier, said in press materials announcing the donation. "He established lifelong relationships with his patients and encouraged all of us to do the same. Dr. Weissman’s extraordinary generosity reflects the impact Dr. Cooley still has on the Institute he founded.”

A big leap for THI and the Coogs

Looking ahead, this game-changing gift and new affiliation with UH promises big things for students, doctors, researchers, and patients.

Medical students in rotation at The Texas Heart Institute will be exposed to progressive clinical care, allowing them to gain a deep understanding of the etiology, pathophysiology and management of cardiovascular disease from prevention to the most contemporary treatments available today. This level of hands-on experience is invaluable for future physicians, and will certainly contribute to the advancement of cardiovascular medicine.

"We are honored to launch this new affiliation with Fertitta Family College of Medicine,” said Dr. Jorge Escobar, director of undergraduate medical education at The Texas Heart Institute. "With new advances in diagnostic imaging, bedside testing, and clinical trials coupled with the complex care we provide to our patients, the rotation will be an impactful experience for the students."

Pumping with growth

Meanwhile, THI recently established The Texas Heart Institute Research Innovation Fund to propel the next generation of cardiovascular research by sparking discovery, supporting innovation, and recognizing excellence in high-risk, high-reward scientific exploration.

To that end, $5 million of the Weissman bequest has been designated to match philanthropic commitments of $10,000 or greater made to THI’s Research Innovation Fund and its priority initiatives in 2023, allowing donors the opportunity to double the impact of their research investment.

Founded in 1962, THI performed the first successful heart transplant and total artificial heart implant in the United States. It has gone on to become one of the world's leading institutions for cardiovascular treatment and research.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Dr. Joseph Rogers of the Texas Heart Institute, Allie Danziger of Ampersand, Jeff Carlson of RioRaiz. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

WHO'S WHO

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from SaaS to biotech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Dr. Joseph Rogers, president and CEO of the Texas Heart Institute

Dr. Joseph Rogers has been at the helm of the Texas Heart Institute for around two years. He shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast about the innovative past, present, and future of THI. Photo via texasheart.org

Dr. Joseph Rogers, the president and CEO of the Texas Heart Institute, is passionate about preventative health care for THI and its patients, as he shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. What's required is a comprehensive culture shift away from just using a pill to accomplish this goal.

Rogers says health care organizations are going to need to partner with other players — nonprofits, universities, local government — in ways never been done before. And THI is dedicated to this mission.

"Houston is the place to do this," he says. "The reason I think this is such an important community to address this problem is it's the most diverse city in the United States. And I've never lived anywhere or heard of another city that I was so convinced believed they could do anything they set their minds to. It's about making the community aware of the problem and a potential solution — and then working on trying to solve it."Read more.

Allie Danziger, senior vice president and general manager of student success at Ascent

Ampersand has been acquired by a college loan and student services provider based in San Diego. Photo ampersandpro.com

San Diego, California-based Ascent, a collegiate student loan company that also provides student support services, announced it has acquired Houston-based Ampersand, a software platform that provides skills training to young professionals.

With the acquisition, Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand, joins Ascent as senior vice president and general manager of student success. She will lead the company's educational program that focuses on equipping students with skills from education to employment.

“Since launching Ampersand in 2020, we’ve received constant praise from employers, students, and universities on the real education-to-employment skills gap we are filling,” says Danziger in a news release. “I take immense pride in the fact that we’ve helped thousands of students enter the workforce with confidence, earn higher salaries, and get set on the right career path. I know joining the Ascent team will unlock even more opportunities for our combined companies, expanding our collective impact to millions of students and job seekers.” Read more.

Jeff Carlson, president and CEO of RioRaiz

With its blend of biotechnology, conservation, and education, RioRaiz seeks to inspire a new generation of conservationists. Photo via RioRaiz.org

Not only is Houston-based nonprofit RioRaiz looking to preserve biodiversity through biotechnology, the innovative organization also wants to offer transformative learning experiences to contribute to a healthier planet.

Led by Jeff Carlson, the president and CEO, RioRaiz's mission is driven by three core pillars: conservation, scientific discovery, and education.

"We have a list of priorities that is cataloged from input from our scientific collaborators, as well as our ability to deliver on our promises to our donors and supporters,” Carlson tells InnovationMap. Read more.

Dr. Joseph Rogers has been at the helm of the Texas Heart Institute for around two years. He shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast about the innovative past, present, and future of THI. Photo via texasheart.org

Houston health care leader drives innovation, preventive cardiovascular care

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 196

For 60 years, the Texas Heart Institute has been a part of Houston's innovation DNA. The organization's founder, Dr. Denton Cooley, performed first total artificial heart implantation in 1969 at THI. Now, decades later, the institutions third CEO continues to lead the innovation within cardiovascular care.

"Despite all of the advances, cardiovascular disease is still one of the largest killers of Americans. It actually kills more Americans than all types of cancer combined," Dr. Joseph Rogers, who was appointed president and CEO of THI in 2021, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rogers shares just a fraction of what the medical professionals are working on at THI on the show — from developing a drug that can improve the efficacy cell therapies, vaccines, and more to revolutionary stem cell treatments. Even with all this groundbreaking innovation in cardiovascular treatment, Rogers says one of the most crucial elements is prevention.

"The challenge of preventative medicine in general terms is there has been an under investment in terms of research," Rogers says. "I also think that many of us who live in developed countries have said, 'I think I can just take a pill to manage an underlying problem and I can continue to do whatever I'd like.'

"We use medicine as a crutch to allow us to continue living an opulent lifestyle," he continues.

THI is on a mission to evolve that way of thinking, Rogers says, but it's a comprehensive cultural shift that's needed.

"Medicine can control about 20 percent of this," Rogers says. "The rest is driven by the social drivers of health — early childhood experiences, food deserts, a lack of safe exercise facilities."

Rogers says health care organizations are going to need to partner with other players — nonprofits, universities, local government — in ways never been done before. And THI is dedicated to this mission.

"We should act as a convener," Rogers says. "Houston is the place to do this.

"The reason I think this is such an important community to address this problem is it's the most diverse city in the United States. And I've never lived anywhere or heard of another city that I was so convinced believed they could do anything they set their minds to. It's about making the community aware of the problem and a potential solution — and then working on trying to solve it," he continues. "But I think all of the pieces are here to show the world how to do this at a community level."

Rogers shares more of his optimism about Houston as a heart health leader and innovator on the show. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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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.