“This breakthrough technology has the potential to reshape the landscape of disease treatment and the future of research and development in the field of cell-based therapies." Photo via Getty Images

Rice University’s Biotech Launchpad has created an electrocatalytic on-site oxygenator, or ecO2, that produces oxygen intended to keeps cells alive. The device works inside an implantable “living pharmacy,” which the Rice Biotech Launch Pad team believes will one day be able to administer and regulate therapeutics within a patient’s body.

Last week, Rice announced a peer-reviewed publication in Nature Communications detailing the development of the novel rechargeable device. The study is entitled “Electrocatalytic on-site oxygenation for transplanted cell-based-therapies.”

How will doctors use the “living pharmacy?” The cell-based therapies implanted could treat conditions that include endocrine disorders, autoimmune syndromes, cancers and neurological degeneration. One major challenge standing in the way of bringing the technology beyond the theoretical has been ensuring the survival of cells for extended periods, which is necessary to create effective treatments. Oxygenation of the cells is an important component to keeping them alive and healthy and the longer they remain so, the longer the therapeutics will be helpful.

Other treatments to deliver oxygen to cells are ungainly and more limited in terms of oxygen production and regulation. According to Omid Veiseh, associate professor of bioengineering and faculty director of the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, oxygen generation is achieved with the ecO2 through water splitting that is precisely regulated using a battery-powered, wirelessly controlled electronic system. New versions will have wireless charging, which means it could last a patient’s entire lifetime.

“Cell-based therapies could be used for replacing damaged tissues, for drug delivery or augmenting the body’s own healing mechanisms, thus opening opportunities in wound healing and treatments for obesity, diabetes and cancer, for example. Generating oxygen on site is critical for many of these ‘biohybrid’ cell therapies: We need many cells to have sufficient production of therapeutics from those cells, thus there is a high metabolic demand. Our approach would integrate the ecO2 device to generate oxygen from the water itself,” says Jonathan Rivnay of Northwestern University, who co-led the study with Tzahi Cohen-Karni of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

The study’s co-first authors are Northwestern’s Abhijith Surendran and CMU’s Inkyu Lee.

Northwestern leads the collaboration with Rice to produce therapeutics onsite within the device. The research supports a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) cooperative agreement worth up to $33 million to develop the implantable “living pharmacy” to control the human body’s sleep and wake cycles.

“This breakthrough technology has the potential to reshape the landscape of disease treatment and the future of research and development in the field of cell-based therapies. We are working toward advancing this technology into the clinic to bring it one step closer to those in need,” says Veiseh.

A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

Rice researchers score $45M from NIH for cancer-fighting tech

freshly funded

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

The first of Rice University's new moonshot initiatives, the Rice Biotech Launch Pad was announced on the 61st anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's address at Rice Stadium. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

New biotech lab, accelerator emerges in Houston to speed up commercialization of life-saving cures

ready to launch

A new initiative from Rice University is launching with an ambitious goal — to take biotech innovations from concept to clinical trials in five years or less.

The Rice Biotech Launch Pad is a newly announced initiative that will expedite Rice University's health and medical technology innovations. The accelerator, which will occupy 15,000 square feet of space on campus, will be funded through federal grants and donations.

“The Rice Biotech Launch Pad will ensure that our faculty and students have the skills, partnerships, tools and support to create technologies that can transform our city and the world,” Rice President Reginald DesRoches says in a press release. “More importantly, the accelerator will provide a pathway for these creations and discoveries to be turned into medical cures that significantly impact people’s lives. Rice researchers have been doing this for years. This development will allow them to do even more and at a quicker, more efficient pace.”

Leading the program are two seasoned experts: associate professor of bioengineering at Rice, Omid Veiseh, and biotech entrepreneur Paul Wotton, who co-founded Avenge Bio and other startups with technology discovered in Veiseh’s lab. Veiseh will serve as faculty director, and Wotton will lead as executive director. Veiseh says the team behind the new lab will assist faculty in their mission to garner funding — via grants from organizations such as ARPA-H, DARPA and the NIH — as well as creating pathways for licensing revenue for the university.

“We have the infrastructure, financial backing and talent in Houston to do more in creating new medicines to cure disease," Veiseh says in the release. "This is a thriving environment that warrants more attention and dedication to bring forward Houston’s medical discoveries. I am proud to help make this happen.”

The accelerator’s founding advisory council members from Rice are:

  • Paul Cherukuri, Rice’s vice president for innovation.
  • Jacob Robinson, professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering and founder and CEO of Motif Neurotech.
  • Ashok Veeraraghavan, professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science and co-founder of Synopic.
  • Yael Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and the Ralph S. O'Connor Professor of Finance and Entrepreneurship at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.

“The Biotech Launch Pad is the first in a series of Rice Moonshots that are hyper-focused on building a ‘speed and scale’ innovation ecosystem across Houston," Cherukuri says. "We at Rice are committed towards driving the Biotech Launch Pad in collaboration with our partners within the Texas Medical Center and the new Helix Park campus.”

Rice University bioengineers are designing a vascularized, insulin-producing implant for Type 1 diabetes. Photo by Jeff Fitlow courtesy of Rice University

Rice University bioengineers create insulin-producing medical device

health tech

A team of bioengineers at Houston's own Rice University have created an implant that can produce insulin for Type 1 diabetics. The device is being created by using 3D printing and smart biomaterials.

Omid Veiseh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, and Jordan Miller, associate professor of bioengineering, have been working on the project for three years and have received support from JDRF by way of a grant. Veiseh has a decade of experience developing biomaterials that protect implanted cell therapies from the immune system an Miller has spent more than 15 years specializing in 3D print tissues with vasculature, or networks of blood vessels.

"If we really want to recapitulate what the pancreas normally does, we need vasculature," Veiseh says in a news release. "And that's the purpose of this grant with JDRF. The pancreas naturally has all these blood vessels, and cells are organized in particular ways in the pancreas. Jordan and I want to print in the same orientation that exists in nature."

The challenge with Type 1 diabetes is balancing insulin intake, and studies estimate that less than a third of Type 1 diabetics in the U.S. are able to achieve target blood glucose levels consistently. Veiseh and Miller are working toward demonstrating that their implants can properly regulate blood glucose levels of diabetic mice for at least six months. To do that, they'll need to give their engineered beta cells the ability to respond to rapid changes in blood sugar levels.

"We must get implanted cells in close proximity to the bloodstream so beta cells can sense and respond quickly to changes in blood glucose," Miller says, adding that the insulin-producing cells should be no more than 100 microns from a blood vessel. "We're using a combination of pre-vascularization through advanced 3D bioprinting and host-mediated vascular remodeling to give each implant several shots at host integration."

Another challenge these experts are facing is a potential delay that can happen if the implant is too slow to respond to high or low blood sugar levels.

"Addressing that delay is a huge problem in this field," Veiseh says. "When you give the mouse — and ultimately a human — a glucose challenge that mimics eating a meal, how long does it take that information to reach our cells, and how quickly does the insulin come out?"

By incorporating blood vessels in their implant, he and Miller hope to allow their beta-cell tissues to behave in a way that more closely mimics the natural behavior of the pancreas.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.