Rice University's SynthX Center, a collaborative lab focused on cancer treatments, named its inaugural seed grant recipients. Photo via Getty Images

Three groundbreaking projects have just received seed grants from a new Houston-based source.

This spring, Rice University launched its Synthesis X Center with the goal of fostering the growth of cancer technologies and medications. Now, the SynthX, as it is known, and Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center have announced joint awards of grants to promising teams, all of which have principals at either Rice or Baylor.

The teams include:

  • A project from Drs. Pabel Miah of Baylor and Lei Li of Rice that involves the development and optimization of high-resolution imaging technology that’s intended for use in removing breast cancer from patients. The researchers combine ultrasound with photoacoustic technology to produce real-time imaging that allows surgeons to spot hard-to-locate tumors. This could reduce or eliminate tumor localization procedures which are invasive and costly.
  • A leukemia treatment profiting from molecular jackhammers, a type of molecule invented in the Rice University lab of Dr. James Tour. He’s joined in the project by Drs. Xin Li and Yongcheng Song, both of Baylor. Molecular jackhammers vibrate more than a trillion times per second when activated by a specific light frequency. Doing this can kill nearby cancer cells. The new treatment is intended to disrupt the activity of a transcription protein called ENL that helps fuel the growth of leukemia cells in several acute forms of the disease.
  • A project that could discover how to inspire cancer cells to kill themselves, using a cancer-associated enzyme called lysine demethylase 4A. Baylor’s Dr. Ruhee Dere and Rice’s Dr. Anna Karin-Gustavsson are studying the KDM4A with the process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in mind for the aberrant cells.

The seed grants are managed by Rice’s office for Educational and Research Initiatives for Collaborative Health (ENRICH). Each of the three grants is intended to last two years and includes funds of up to $80,000.

The goal is to allow research teams to collect preliminary data that can be used to apply for more substantial grants from bodies like the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) or the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Three quarters of the funds will be provided in the first year. Teams that produce grant submissions with multiple principal investigators in that first year will be eligible to collect the additional quarter.

CellChorus created a visualization AI program that helps scientists to better understand the functioning of cells, including their activation, killing and movement. Photo via Getty Images

Houston health tech startup scores $2.5M SBIR grant to advance unique cell therapy AI technology

fresh funding

A Houston biotech company just announced a new award of $2.5 million.

CellChorus, a spinoff of the Single Cell Lab at the University of Houston, announced the fresh funding, which comes from an SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) through its National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).

CellChorus is the business behind a technology called TIMING, which stands for Time-lapse Imaging Microscopy In Nanowell Grids. It’s a visualization AI program that helps scientists to better understand the functioning of cells, including their activation, killing and movement. This more in-depth knowledge of immune cells could be instrumental in developing novel therapies in countless disorders, including cancers and infectious diseases.

“While many cell therapies have been approved and are in development, the industry needs an integrated analytical platform that provides a matrix of functional readouts, including cell phenotype and metabolism on the same cells over time,” Rebecca Berdeaux, vice president of science at CellChorus, says in a press release. “We are grateful to NCATS for its support of the development of application-specific kits that apply dynamic, functional single-cell analysis of immune cell phenotype and function. The product we will develop will increase the impact of these therapies to improve the lives of patients.”

A two-year, $2.1 million Phase II grant will begin after the company achieves predetermined milestones under a $350,000 Phase I grant that is currently taking place. As Berdeaux explained, the funds will be used to develop TIMING kits which will manufacture analytics that provide end-users with rapid, specific and predictive results to accelerate translational research and the development and manufacture of more effective cell therapies.

TIMING is more than a great idea whose time has yet to come. It has already been proven in great depth. In fact, last June, CellChorus CEO Daniel Meyer told InnovationMap that he was initially attracted to the technology because it was “very well validated.” At the time, CellChorus had just announced a $2.3 million SBIR Fast-Track grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The company also went on to win an award in the Life Science category of the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards.

That confirmation of success comes from more than 200 peer-reviewed papers that describe myriad cell types and types of therapy, all of which used data from TIMING assays. TIMING data has benefited industry leaders in everything from research and clinical development to manufacturing. With the new grant, TIMING will become more widely available to scientists making important discoveries relating to the inner workings of the cells that drive our immunity.

The NIH grant goes toward TransplantAI's work developing more precise models for heart and lung transplantation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston health tech company scores $2.2M grant to use AI to make organ transplants smarter, more successful

future of medicine

The National Institute of Health has bestowed a Houston medtech company with a $2.2 million Fast-Track to Phase 2 award. InformAI will use the money for the product development and commercialization of its AI-enabled organ transplant informatics platform.

Last year, InformAI CEO Jim Havelka told InnovationMap, “A lot of organs are harvested and discarded.”

TransplantAI solves that problem, as well as organ scarcity and inefficiency in allocation of the precious resource.

How does it work? Machine learning and deep learning from a million donor transplants informs the AI, which determines who is the best recipient for each available organ using more than 500 clinical parameters. Organ transplant centers and organ procurement organizations (OPOs) will be able to use the product to make a decision on how to allocate each organ in real time. Ultimately, the tool will service 250 transplant centers and 56 OPOs around the United States.

The NIH grant goes toward developing more precise models for heart and lung transplantation (kidney and liver algorithms are further along in development thanks to a previous award from the National Science Foundation), as well as Phase 2 efforts to fully commercialize TransplantAI.

"There is an urgent need for improved and integrated predictive clinical insights in solid organ transplantation, such as for real-time assessment of waitlist mortality and the likelihood of successful post-transplantation outcomes," according to the grant’s lead clinical investigator, Abbas Rana, associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine.

“This information is essential for healthcare teams and patients to make informed decisions, particularly in complex cases where expanded criteria allocation decisions are being considered," Rana continues. "Currently, the separation of donor and recipient data into different systems requires clinical teams to conduct manual, parallel reviews for pairing assessments. Our team, along with those at other leading transplant centers nationwide, receives hundreds of organ-recipient match offers weekly.”

Organ transplantation is moving into the future, and Transplant AI is at the forefront.

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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.