MD Anderson’s goal with the new Institute for Data Science in Oncology is to advance collaborative projects that will bring the power of data science to every decision made at the hospital. Photo via mdanderson.org

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is one step closer to ending cancer thanks to its new institute that's focused on data science.

MD Anderson’s goal with the new Institute for Data Science in Oncology (IDSO) is to advance collaborative projects that will bring the power of data science to every decision made at the hospital. And now, the IDSO has announced its inaugural cohort of 33 scientists, clinicians, and staff that will bring it to life, joining the already appointed leadership and focus area co-leads.

“By engaging diverse expertise across all of our mission areas, we will enhance the rich and productive data science ecosystem at MD Anderson to deliver transformational impact for patients,” David Jaffray, Ph.D., director of IDSO and chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, says in a press release.

The focus areas for the IDSO are quantitative pathology and medical imaging; single-cell analytics; computational modeling for precision medicine; decision analytics for health; and safety, quality, and access.

The IDSO Affiliates, as they are known, are a mix of existing contributors to the IDSO and team members who were recruited specifically for their expertise in data science. The affiliates were chosen to fulfill a two-year term, during which they will focus on IDSO projects related to the focus areas above. The diverse roster of professionals includes:

“Our affiliates bring expertise, perspectives and commitment from across the institution to foster impactful data science in order to tackle the most urgent needs of our patients and their families,” said Caroline Chung, M.D., director of Data Science Development and Implementation for IDSO and chief data officer at MD Anderson. “People and community are at the heart of our efforts, and establishing the IDSO Affiliates is an exciting step in growing the most impactful ecosystem for data science in the world.”

A Houston health care company received the green light from the FDA to advance a treatment that's targeting a deadly cancer. Photo via Getty Images

Houston immunotherapy company achieves FDA designation for cancer-fighting vaccine

got the green light

The FDA has granted a Houston-based company a Fast Track designation.

Diakonos Oncology Corp. is a clinical-stage immuno-oncology company that has developed a unique dendritic cell vaccine, DOC1021. The vaccine targets glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most common and most lethal malignant brain tumor in adults. The aggressive tumors come with a life expectancy of about 15 months following diagnosis. About 7 percent of those diagnosed survive five years, while the 10-year outlook only sees a one-percent survival rate.

“The FDA’s decision acknowledges the potential of this new treatment approach for a very challenging disease,” Diakonos CEO Mike Wicks says in a press release. “Our protocol represents a first for cancer immunotherapy and could be viable for many types of cancers beyond GBM.”

FDA Fast Track designations are intended to expedite the haste with which drugs with early clinical promise are reviewed, likely taking them to market faster.

DOC1021 uses the body’s natural anti-viral immune response to fight GBM. The vaccine mimics viral infection with the patient’s cancer markers. Essentially, DOC1021 uses the body’s own natural ability to detect and eliminate infected cells.

The technology uses dendritic cells, white blood cells that are able to perceive threats, to its advantage. The unique cancer markers are loaded both internally and externally into the immune cells, just as they would simultaneously occur in a viral infection. The individualized treatment is administered through three precise injections that target deep cervical lymph node chains. By dosing this way, the immune responses are directed straight to the central nervous system.

The results have spoken for themselves: All of the patients who have tried the treatment have exceeded survival expectations. And just as importantly, DOC1021 appears to be extremely safe. No serious adverse effects have been reported.

“Because Phase I clinical trials are generally not statistically powered to demonstrate efficacy, detection of a statistically significant efficacy signal is very promising,” says William Decker, associate professor of immunology at Baylor College of Medicine and inventor of the DOC1021 technology.

The Phase 1 open-label trial of DOC1021 (NCT04552886) is currently taking place at both the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston and at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, NJ. The trial is expected to complete this year.

The Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory has named the 16 companies making up the inaugural cohort in the Innovate UK Global Incubator Programme. Photo via tmc.edu

TMC names inaugural cohort for unique accelerator with UK

coming to HOU

Sixteen digital health and medical device startups founded in the United Kingdom have been selected for a customized accelerator at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory.

In partnership with Innovate UK, TMCi created the Innovate UK Global Incubator Programme, a new accelerator that supports UK businesses as they build their United States go-to-market plan. The program builds the BioBridge relationship between TMC and the UK that was originally established five years ago.

“The TMC UK BioBridge program was launched with the UK Department for Business and Trade in 2018 to serve as a gateway for advancing life sciences and foster innovation and research between our two countries," says Ashley McPhail, chief external affairs and administration officer for TMC, in a news release. "We saw an opportunity to work with Innovate UK to develop a larger program with the UK after the success of the 11 companies that previously participated in our health tech accelerator."

The 16 companies will participate in the program from June to November. The cohort is expected to arrive in Houston on June 5 and have access to TMCi's facilities, network of mentors and potential clients, funding, potential customers, and curated programing — all while being a unique entry point into the US. The new offering joins three other globally recognized curriculums: Biodesign, Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics, and Health Tech.

“TMCi nurtures long-term growth, development, and competitiveness to increase startups chances of success and global expansion," says Emily Reiser, associate director of TMC Innovation. "By bringing their novel technologies and exposing them to a curated selection of TMC’s expert network, startups receive support and evaluation to build, scale, and expand in the US market."

Two of the cohort's specialties include cardiovascular and oncology — two of TMC's strongest areas of expertise — with solutions ranging from surgical devices to AI-enabled risk stratification and hospital efficiency.

Innovate UK is the country's national innovation agency dedicated to supporting business-led innovation in all sectors.

“The United Kingdom is fully committed to improving global healthcare through scientific collaboration," says His Majesty’s Consul General in Texas Richard Hyde in the release. "Through the expansion of the TMC UK BioBridge and in partnership with Innovate UK, this programme will help to expose the brightest and best British companies to the world’s largest medical city. Our companies will collaborate and grow as they work to develop cutting edge technology. The partnership between the UK Government and TMC demonstrates that international collaboration can drive both economic growth and improvement to quality of life.”

The 16 companies making up the inaugural cohort are as follows, according to TMC.

  • AINOSTICS aims to revolutionize the treatment and prevention of neurological conditions, such as dementia, by developing innovative AI-enabled solutions that draw novel insights from routinely acquired non-invasive medical scans to deliver accurate diagnosis and outcome prediction, and in turn facilitate personalized care and timely access to disease-modifying treatments for patients.
  • Alvie is a blended human plus AI-enabled digital solution providing personalised pre and rehabilitation coaching and supportive care for cancer and surgery. Alvie's technology combines data profiling, risk-stratification and tailored prescriptions of health and well-being with curated educational content, targeted behaviour change coaching and expert support through chat messaging and virtual consultations.
  • C the Signs™ is a validated AI cancer prediction platform, which can identify patients at risk of cancer at the earliest and most curable stage of the disease. Used by healthcare professionals, C the Signs can identify which tumor type a patient is at risk of and recommend the most appropriate next step in less than 30 seconds. The platform has detected over 10,000 patients with cancer, with over 50 different types of cancer diagnosed, and with a sensitivity of >98% for cancer.
  • At PEP Health, We believe all patients deserve the best care possible. Our cutting-edge machine-learning technology enables healthcare organisations, regulators, and insurers the real-time, actionable insights they need to have a direct and dramatic impact on patient experiences.
  • PreciousMD improves the lives of lung-cancer and other lung-related illnesses patients worldwide by enabling imaging-based diagnostics needed for personalized treatment pathways.
  • Ufonia is an autonomous telemedicine company, we use large language models and voice AI to increase the capacity of clinical professionals.
  • My mhealth offers digital therapeutics for a range of long-term conditions- COPD, Asthma, Diabetes and Heart Disease. Our product has been successfully deployed in the UK and India, with >100,000 users registered to date. Our solutions empower patients to self-manage their conditions, resulting in dramatic improvements in outcomes, as evidenced through multiple clinical trials and real-world evaluations.
  • At Surgery Hero, we offer a clinically backed solution that ensures whole-human support before and after surgery. We help health systems, employers and health plans cut costs without sacrificing quality of care.
  • Panakeia's software platform enables extremely rapid multi-omics profiling in minutes directly from routinely used tissue images without needing wet lab assays.
  • QV Bioelectronics are striving to deliver longer, better quality lives for brain tumour patients. Using their first-of-its-kind implantable electric field therapy device, GRACE, QV will provide effective, focal & continuous treatment without impacting patient quality of life.
  • 52 North is a med-tech company focused on improving health outcomes and health equity by reinventing care pathways. The NeutroCheck® solution is a finger-prick blood test and digital platform built to significantly improve safety and quality of life for cancer patients, by helping to identify at-home those patients who are at risk of the most fatal side-effect of chemotherapy: neutropenic sepsis.
  • Somnus is fulfilling an unmet need in global healthcare by developing real-time, point of care blood propofol monitoring. Its products will improve the care of sedated and anaesthetised patients, save money for hospitals, and facilitate a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • ScubaTx is a breakthrough organ transplant preservation company established to solve the global unmet need for cost-efficient and longer-duration organ preservation technology. ScubaTx has developed a simple, small and affordable device which uses Persufflation to extend the preservation of organs.
  • IBEX is on a mission to help people live active, healthy and productive lives by increasing their access to early diagnosis of osteoporosis. The IBEX BH software as medical device delvers routine, automated assessment of fracture risk from routine radiology for earlier detection and more equitable treatment of osteoporosis.
  • NuVision produces products derived from donated human amniotic membrane that are used in ophthalmology to help patients with chronic, traumatic and post-surgical wounds of the eye to be treated earlier and recover more fully and more quickly. The company’s products are also used in the management of dry eye disease, a debilitating conditions that affects around 17m people in the USA.
  • Calon Cardio-Technology is on a mission to improve quality of life for patients with Left Ventricular Assist devices (LVAD) and reduce the common post operative complications associated with these implantable heart pumps. We plan to do this by introducing a completely wireless heart pump system and augment patient follow-up with built-in remote monitoring capabilities.
Houston-based Moleculin Biotech now has four different oncology treatment currently in trials. Getty Images

Houston cancer-fighting biotech company introduces its 4th ongoing clinical trial

health report

A Houston-based biotech company has wrapped up enrollment for its most recent clinical trial of its cancer-fighting drug.

Moleculin Biotech Inc. (Nasdaq: MBRX) has launched its fourth ongoing trial — this time focusing on Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma, or CTCL, treatment. The company's other three trials include treatment for glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers in oncology, and acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.

To treat these various types of cancers, Moleculin has a several drugs it's in preclinical or clinical trials testing — most biotech companies have only one they focus on. WP1220 is the drug that will be used in this trial for topical CTCL treatment of the cancer's resulting skin lesions.

"We believe there continues to be an unmet need for an improved topical therapy for Stage I-III CTCL skin lesions," says Walter Klemp, Moleculin's chairman and CEO, in a news release, "especially one that may avoid significant unwanted side effects."

WP1220 is what's known as a p-STAT3 inhibitor. STAT3 is a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. Moleculin's technology directly attacks the tumor, but also quiets T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

"This proof of concept, if successful, could be an important first demonstration of a therapeutic effect in humans from such a p-STAT3 inhibitor," Klemp continues. "We are pleased with how quickly this trial reached full recruitment and we are hopeful to be able to announce results from this trial yet this year."

Klemp founded the company in 2007, and Moleculin went public in 2016. Now, with the company's four clinical trials, Moleculin is even closer to saving lives with its products.

"Notwithstanding the relatively rare nature of CTCL, we believe showing activity with one of our STAT3 inhibitors, within our WP1066 family of molecules, could be an indicator of both the value of p-STAT3 as a target and the potential for our drugs in other cancers where STAT3 is highly activated," Klemp says in the release.

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Houston biotech company aims to enhance oncology treatment of highly resistant cancers

Med tech

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.

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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.