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

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."

Three UH researchers are revolutionizing the way we think the brain works. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

3 ways University of Houston researchers are innovating brain treatments and technologies

Brain teasers

While a lot of scientists and researchers have long been scratching their heads over complicated brain functionality challenges, these three University of Houston researchers have made crucial discoveries in their research.

From dissecting the immediate moment a memory is made or incorporating technology to solve mobility problems or concussion research, here are the three brain innovations and findings these UH professors have developed.

Brains on the move

Professor of biomedical engineering Joe Francis is reporting work that represents a significant step forward for prosthetics that perform more naturally. Photo courtesy of UH Research

Brain prosthetics have come a long way in the past few years, but a UH professor and his team have discovered a key feature of a brain-computer interface that allows for an advancement in the technology.

Joe Francis,a UH professor of biomedical engineering, reported in eNeuro that the BCI device is able to learn on its own when its user is expecting a reward through translating interactions "between single-neuron activities and the information flowing to these neurons, called the local field potential," according to a UH news release. This is all happening without the machine being specifically programmed for this capability.

"This will help prosthetics work the way the user wants them to," says Francis in the release. "The BCI quickly interprets what you're going to do and what you expect as far as whether the outcome will be good or bad."

Using implanted electrodes, Francis tracked the effects of reward on the brain's motor cortex activity.

"We assume intention is in there, and we decode that information by an algorithm and have it control either a computer cursor, for example, or a robotic arm," says Francis in the release.

A BCI device would be used for patients with various brain conditions that, as a result of their circumstances, don't have full motor functionality.

"This is important because we are going to have to extract this information and brain activity out of people who cannot actually move, so this is our way of showing we can still get the information even if there is no movement," says Francis.

Demystifying the memory making moments

Margaret Cheung, a UH professor, is looking into what happens when a memory is formed in the brain. Photo courtesy of UH Research

What happens when a brain forms a new memory? Margaret Cheung, a UH professor in the school of physics, computer science, and chemistry, is trying to find out.

Cheung is analyzing the exact moment a neuron forms a memory in our brains and says this research will open doors to enhancing memory making in the future.

"The 2000 Nobel laureate Eric Kandel said that human consciousness will eventually be explained in terms of molecular signaling pathways. I want to see how far we can go to understand the signals," says Cheung in a release.

Cheung is looking at calcium in particular, since this element impacts most of cellular life.

"How the information is transmitted from the calcium to the calmodulin and how CaM uses that information to activate decisions is what we are exploring," says Cheung in the release. "This interaction explains the mechanism of human cognition."

Her work is being funded by a $1.1 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Science from the National Institutes of Health, and she's venturing into uncharted territories with her calcium signaling studies. Previous research hasn't been precise or conclusive enough for real-world application.

"In this work we seek to understand the dynamics between calcium signaling and the resulting encoded CaM states using a multiphysics approach," says Cheung. "Our expected outcome will advance modeling of the space-time distribution of general secondary messengers and increase the predictive power of biophysical simulations."

New tech for brain damage treatment

Badri Roysam, chair of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is leading the project that uncovering new details surrounding concussions. Photo courtesy of UH Research

Concussions and brain damage have both had their fair shares of question marks, but this UH faculty member is tapping into new technologies to lift the curtain a little.

Badri Roysam, the chair of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is heading up a multimillion-dollar project that includes "super microscopes" and the UH supercomputer at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute. Roysam calls the $3.19 million project a marriage between these two devices.

"By allowing us to see the effects of the injury, treatments and the body's own healing processes at once, the combination offers unprecedented potential to accelerate investigation and development of next-generation treatments for brain pathologies," says Roysam in a release.

The project, which is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), is lead by Roysam and co-principal investigator John Redell, assistant professor at UTHealth McGovern Medical School. The team also includes NINDS scientist Dragan Maric and UH professors Hien Van Nguyen and Saurabh Prasad.

Concussions, which affect millions of people, have long been mysterious to scientists due to technological limitations that hinder treatment options and opportunities.

"We can now go in with eyes wide open whereas before we had only a very incomplete view with insufficient detail," says Roysam in the release. "The combinations of proteins we can now see are very informative. For each cell, they tell us what kind of brain cell it is, and what is going on with that cell."

The technology and research can be extended to other brain conditions, such as strokes, brain cancer, and more.

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4 program deadlines Houston innovators should know about

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Editor's note: It's safe to say 2023 has fully kicked off as Houston's startup and innovation ecosystem has switched into second gear. A handful of programs — local and national — have opened applications for accelerators and pitch competitions. Scroll through to find one that applies to your company or a startup you know of. Take careful note of the deadlines since they'll be here before you know it.

Is something missing? Email natalie@innovationmap.com for editorial consideration.

Carbon to Value Initiative

Greentown Labs announced its looking for innovative companies with carbon-related technology. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

Greentown Labs announced that its Carbon to Value (C2V) Initiative has opened applications for its third set of startups.

"Supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the C2V Initiative is a unique partnership among the Urban Future Lab at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Greentown Labs, and Fraunhofer USA that’s driving the creation of a thriving innovation ecosystem for the commercialization of carbontech—technologies that capture and convert CO₂ into valuable end products or services," reads the news release. "Since the C2V Initiative's inception in 2020, the program has supported 18 groundbreaking carbontech startups—chosen from an exceptional pool of more than 230 applications."

The program is looking for companies with technologies within carbon capture, management, removal, or conversion and between TRL 4 and TRL 7. Selected companies will receive a $10,000 stipend and participate in the six-month program.

Applications are due by the end of the day on March 31. For more information and to apply, click here.

MassChallenge accelerators

MassChallenge has two accelerators open for applications. Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

MassChallenge has two programs with open applications:

MassChallenge US Early Stage Accelerator (Deadline: March 3)

This three-month program is industry agnostic and provides intensive support, guidance, tools, and connectivity to the greater MassChallenge community. Around 200 startups are selected per cohort that range in stage from those currently engaged in customer discovery work to validating a technology or service. For more information and to apply, click here.

MassChallenge HealthTech Accelerator (Deadline: February 6)

The 2023 HealthTech Sprint is an eight-week program intended to work intensely with 20 to 25 startups to accelerate the tools and technologies that could transform healthcare. The HealthTech Sprint program is designed to support mid-stage companies that possess a product/solution ready for scaling. For more information and to apply, click here.

Houston Energy Transition Initiative's Energy Ventures Pitch Competition 

HETI is bringing back its CERAWeek pitch competition. Image via houston.org

The Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative, or HETI, is looking for participants for its Energy Ventures Pitch Competition at CERAWeek this year.

"This pitch competition brings together key members of the energy industry, investors, and startups to showcase the critical innovations and emerging technologies that create value from the world’s transition to low-carbon energy systems," reads the website.

HETI is looking for companies addressing challenges and opportunities in CCUS, hydrogen, energy storage, and the circular economy, are invited to present their well-developed business concepts to a world-class investor community.

Applications close February 9. For more information and to apply, click here.

Rice Business Plan Competition

The annual Rice Business Plan Competition has opened applications for student startups. Photo by Natalie Harms

Calling all student-founded startups — the largest and richest intercollegiate student startup competition, the Rice Business Plan Competition, has applications open. According to Rice, 784 RBPC alumni have raised $4.6 billion in funding and created over 5,500 jobs. This year's event is going to be held May 11 to 13.

The RBPC is open to all students from any university around the world. Teams must include at least one graduate-level student, and every team that is invited to compete in person at Rice University is guaranteed to take home at least one of the more that 60 expected cash prizes. For more information and to apply, click here.

Houston tech startup acquired by Tokyo-based multinational company

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A Houston company that provides analytics solutions within the chemicals industry has exited to a Japanese company.

Yokogawa acquired Fluence Analytics Inc. in a deal announced today. The terms of the deal were not disclosed and, effective immediately, the company operate as Yokogawa Fluence Analytics. Jay Manouchehri, who joined the company in 2022, will continue to serve as CEO of the entity.

“Combining forces with Yokogawa Electric enables us to capture the full value of our unique data sets, and we can't wait to deliver this added value to our customers," Manouchehri says in a news release. "Together, we will enable autonomous operations and digital transformation in the polymer and biopharma industries."

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, Fluence Analytics moved to Houston in 2021 following a $7.5 million venture capital raise led by Yokogawa Electric Corp., which has its North American headquarters in Sugar Land.

The company's technology — automatic continuous online monitoring of polymerizations (ACOMP) product — provides real-time analytics solutions to polymer and biopharmaceutical companies worldwide. According to the company, its ACOMP product is the only commercially available system that can measure and analyze multiple polymer properties in real time, which leads to an improved system and less energy consumption and waste.

“Polymers are used in nearly every aspect of modern society in the form of plastics, rubber, paint, and so on," says Kenji Hasegawa, a Yokogawa Electric vice president and head of the Yokogawa Products Headquarters, in the release. "Combining Fluence Analytics' ACOMP system and other technology with our industry know-how will enable us to work with our customers to digitalize and automate polymerization processes that are currently monitored and adjusted manually.

"This will assist customers to improve worker safety, profitability, and environmental performance. We also plan to apply this technology to polymer re-use. We believe this is truly a game-changer for the industry,” he continues.

Fluence Analytics offices in Stafford, just southwest of Houston and has a team of 25 employees. Last fall, Fluence Analytics won in the Hardtech Category of the Houston Innovation Awards.

Houston expert on the advantages of adopting robotic dog technology

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What has 4 legs, can recognize your face, and precisely obey commands on cue? If you guessed a dog, you’re half right.

I’m referring to robotic dogs, a modern marvel of innovative engineering. AT&T recently expanded our solution offers to include network-connected robotic dogs for public safety, defense, federal and state agencies, local police and fire departments, and commercial customers. We do this in collaboration with a leading provider of robotic dogs, Ghost Robotics.

Robotic dogs are just one way we are proving the innovation and transformational possibilities of 5G and IoT. Network-connected robotic dogs can deliver a broad range of IoT use cases, including many that have previously required putting personnel in dangerous situations. Here’s a quick look at some of the fantastic capabilities network-connected robotic dogs deliver.

  • Our robotic dogs can support public safety agencies and organizations on FirstNet – the nation’s only network built with and for America’s first responders. FirstNet delivers always-on prioritized network connectivity for these “first responder” robotic dogs, helping them stay connected during disaster response and recovery, facilities surveillance, and security operations. They can support search and rescue, venture into areas that could imperil human lives, and support the ability to reestablish local communications services following major infrastructure damage.
  • We can integrate Geocast into the robotic dogs to provide Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) operational command and control so that operators of the dogs can be located virtually anywhere in the world and remotely operate them. Geocast is an AT&T innovation covered by 37 patents.
  • The robotic dogs can be equipped with sensors that allow them to operate autonomously without human intervention. They can be outfitted with drones that can launch and return to their backs while in motion, allowing the drones and dogs to perform missions as an integrated team.
  • Rugged terrain? Water? Not a problem. These robotic dogs can move across natural terrain, including sand, rocks, hills, rubble, and human-built environments, like stairs. They can operate fully submerged in water and, like living dogs, can swim.
  • An early use case adopted by the military involves equipping our robotic dogs with wireless network-connected cameras and deploying them to patrol military bases. Robotic dogs we provided to the Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle are doing just that. Our robotic dogs patrol the flight line and base perimeter at Tyndall, feeding video data in real-time to base personnel who can safely track activity 24/7/365 and support the safety of base operations. They can perform the same task for commercial users, indoors or outdoors. For example, they can patrol the perimeters of large warehouses or outdoor fence lines.
  • They can also support hazmat efforts, inspect mines and high-voltage equipment, and detect explosive devices including improvised explosive devices (IEDs): all while keeping people out of harm’s way.
  • Another interesting use case involves equipping robotic dogs with Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs). LRADs are sound cannons that produce noise at high decibels and varying frequencies. We have discussed with the Navy the possibility of outfitting our robotic dogs with sound cannons to warn off wild boars and feral dog packs that have impeded operating crews working on telecommunications infrastructure located in remote areas of one of its bases.

Commercial applications for network-connected robotic dogs are proliferating. Utility companies, for example, are using robotic dogs equipped with video cameras to perform routine equipment inspections in substations. Human inspection requires operators to shut down the facilities during inspections; the robotic dogs eliminate the need to take this precaution. Allied Market Research projects a $13.4 billion global market for the particular use case of robotic dogs performing such inspections.

Our robotic dogs can also be equipped with technology that extends network connectivity into difficult-to-reach areas or mechanical arms that can grip and carry materials such as tools. Their use cases include Pick and Pack capabilities for warehouse operations to improve order fulfillment efficiency.

And this is just the beginning. We’ve said from the outset that the 5G journey of innovation and solution development would evolve to deliver new ways to conquer many challenges.

Now, we’ve let the dogs out.

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Lance Spencer is the Houston-based client executive vice president of defense at AT&T Public Sector.