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

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."

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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Cancer-fighting company based in Houston emerges from stealth and snags $74M in its latest round

fresh funds

A Houston-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company has raised millions in its latest round.

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team."

Through Slate Path Capital's investment, Jamie McNab, partner at the firm, will join Tvardi's board of directors.

"Tvardi is the leader in the field of STAT3 biology and has compelling proof of concept clinical data," McNab says in the release. "I look forward to partnering with the management team to advance Tvardi's mission to develop a new class of breakthrough medicines for cancer, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis."

Tvardi's latest fundraise will go toward supporting the company's products in their mid-stage trials for cancer and fibrosis. According to the release, Tvardi's lead product, TTI-101, is being studied in a Phase 1 trial of patients with advanced solid tumors who have failed all lines of therapy. So far, the drug has been well-received and shown multiple durable radiographic objective responses in the cancer patients treated.

Dr. Keith Flaherty, who is a member of Tvardi's scientific advisory board and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, offered his support of the company.

"STAT3 is a compelling and validated target. Beyond its clinical activity, Tvardi's lead molecule, TTI-101, has demonstrated direct downregulation of STAT3 in patients," he says in the release. "As a physician, I am eager to see the potential of Tvardi's molecules in diseases of high unmet medical need where STAT3 is a key driver."

Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

houston voices

In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Houston data management company closes $18M in fresh funding

money moves

A Houston company that's created a centralized log management solution has closed a new round in funding.

Graylog closed its $18 million growth equity round led by Richmond, Virginia-based Harbert Growth Partners, a new investor, and Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Piper Sandler Merchant Banking, the company announced today. The round also received contribution from existing investors Houston-based Mercury Fund and Integr8d Capital, as well as Germany-based HTGF.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate our global go-to-market strategies and enhancements to the award-winning solutions we deliver for IT, DevOps, and Security teams," says Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, in a press release. "We're excited to have the support of new and existing investor partners to help us realize our potential."

Andy Grolnick is CEO of Graylog. Photo courtesy

Per the release, the funds will go toward growing the company's platform that allows its users the ability to capture, store, and enable real-time analysis of terabytes of machine data.

"Graylog is well-positioned to be a long-term winner in the rapidly growing market for log management and analysis solutions," says Brian Carney, general partner of Harbert Growth Partners, in the release. "With its focus on delivering a superior analyst experience coupled with a vibrant Open Source community, the company provides customers a compelling alternative to other log management solutions plagued with high complexity and high total cost of ownership (TCO). We are thrilled to partner with the Graylog team to leverage the significant opportunity that lies ahead for the company."

Over the past year, despite the challenging business climate, the company saw growth in business and even expanded its European operations, according to the release.

"As a long-standing customer, Graylog is strategic to our success. We are excited to see new investment that will enable the company to accelerate innovation and continue to deliver excellent log management and SIEM solutions," says Rob Reiner, CTO of PROS, in the release.