Richard Willson (center) and his team are working to develop a mix-and-read antibody measurement system that uses fluorescent materials to determine the amount of antibody present in a sample. Photo via UH.edu

An engineering project at the University of Houston has been selected to join a $10 million effort to bring biopharmaceutical manufacturing into the future. The National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) chose the lab of Richard Willson, Huffington-Woestemeyer Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UH, as one of eight development projects that it will fund.

Willson and his team are working to develop a mix-and-read antibody measurement system that uses fluorescent materials to determine the amount of antibody present in a sample. The funding for this project is $200,000. This is the first grant UH has received from NIIMBL.

“In the course of the manufacturing processes, it's important to know the concentration of antibody in your sample and this measurement needs to be made many times in a typical manufacturing process,” said Willson in a press release. In the realm of fluorescents, he is also working to pioneer the use of glow sticks to detect biothreats for the U.S. Navy. His discoveries include a fluorescent material that emits one color of light when excited with another color of light.

Antibodies are what immune cells produce in response to alien substances such as bacteria and viruses. Lab-made antibodies, called monoclonal antibodies, have been in use since the 1980s. Antibody treatments now account for some of the world’s top-selling drugs.

“The nice thing about this reagent is that it becomes more fluorescent in the presence of antibodies, and you can determine the amount of antibody present in a sample by using it,” said Willson. “Along with our industrial partners Genentech, Agilent and Bristol Myers Squibb, we think that this might be a useful tool for people who do everything from growing the cells that make the antibodies, to determining concentrations of antibody before purifying them.”

Willson’s team also includes Katerina Kourentzi, research associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UH; Yan Chen, Agilent; Midori Greenwood-Goodwin, Genentech/Roche; and Mathura Raman, Bristol-Myers Squibb.

“One really distinguishing feature of this project is the tight coupling to industry,” said Kourentzi. “We got a lot of guidance from our industrial partners who volunteer to work with us through NIIMBL.” And through that, the technology could make it to the market in record time.

At-home COVID-19 testing is about to get lit. Photo via Getty Images

UH researcher lights up at-home COVID-19 testing with glow-in-the-dark materials

get lit

A Houston-based research team is tapping glow-in-the-dark materials to upgrade at-home rapid COVID-19 testing.

Researchers at the University of Houston have been rethinking the lateral flow assay (LFA) test used for at-home COVID-19 diagnostics. The traditional method indicates the sample's results with colored lines.

“We are making those lines glow-in-the-dark so that they are more detectable, so the sensitivity of the test is better,” says Richard Willson, a professor at the University of Houston, in a UH news release. He previously created a smartphone-based diagnostics app.

Willson's inspiration came from a familiar and nostalgic method — the glow-in-the-dark stars in a child's bedroom. In Willson's case, it was his daughter's bedroom, and within a few days his team of students and postdocs was designing a test featuring glowing nanoparticles made of phosphors.

The team evolved into a spin-off company called Clip Health, originally founded as Luminostics by two of the researchers. The operation is again evolving with new glowing applications.

“In this new development, there are two tricks. First, we use enzymes, proteins that catalyze reactions, to drive reactions that emit light, like a firefly. Second, we attached those light-emitting enzymes onto harmless virus particles, along with antibodies that bind to COVID proteins,” says Willson in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal Analyst.

The test now also can be read with a smartphone app. The group is also entertaining additional tests for other diseases.

“This technology can be used for detecting all kinds of other things, including flu and HIV, but also Ebola and biodefense agents, and maybe toxins and environmental contaminants and pesticides in food,” says Willson.

In addition to Willson, the original technology was explained in a paper with co-authors:

  • Katerina Kourentzi, University of Houston research associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering
  • Jacinta Conrad, Frank M. Tiller Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,
  • UH researchers Maede Chabi, Binh Vu, Kristen Brosamer, Maxwell Smith, and Dimple Chavan

Researcher Richard Willson says he was inspired by the glow-in-the-dark scars on his daughter's bedroom ceiling. Photo via UH.edu

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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.