Planned Parenthood has made several of its services — including gender-affirming hormone therapy — available virtually. Getty Images

Naomi West has been homebound since COVID-19 became a threat in February. Sitting in front of her computer screen, much of her time is spent pursuing her graduate degree in physics from Rice University and teaching courses through Zoom. Most of her virtual meetings are the same except for one recurring appointment. Every 90 days, West logs on her computer to sit with a Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast (PPGC) nurse practitioner and check-in on her gender-affirming hormone therapy.

West, a Houston trans woman, made her first appointment to receive hormone therapy in October, prior to the pandemic. As she embarked on her transition, she saw an immediate change within herself.

"There was absolutely no going back...it was a night and day difference within 24 hours," she explains.

West has been receiving treatment for ten months at Planned Parenthood. After being hospitalized for depression and drowning in hundred-hour work weeks, West was feeling hopeless. Inspired by her best friend's journey with hormone therapy at Planned Parenthood, West felt motivated to change her life.

"The difference [trans care] makes is immeasurable to say the least," she says, "I couldn't imagine having it any other way. I couldn't imagine being without it."

Trans care is offered at two Houston-area Planned Parenthood locations—Prevention Park and Northville. Since the coronavirus, Planned Parenthood's services have gone virtual, allowing Texans outside of Houston to experience the service.

"COVID-19 has really changed the way we approach patient care," says Dr. Bhavik Kumar, medical director of Primary and Trans Care at PPGC.

The centers first rolled out virtual appointments on April 1, allowing them to safely serve 5,539 patients in four months.

"We've moved a lot of our care towards telehealth, which has allowed people to access care in a way that is safer for them and also protects our frontline workers," explains Dr. Kumar.

The healthcare provider has six centers in the Houston area, as well as two in Louisiana, that are providing virtual appointments with experts as well as access to curbside birth control. Trans care first became available at Planned Parenthood in 2019, and includes gender-affirming hormone therapy for patients over 18.

"We went into providing trans care knowing that a lot of folks have bad experiences accessing healthcare and perhaps bad experiences with providers," says Dr. Kumar. "There's a lot of fear and anxiety in accessing care for trans communities, whether it's being misgendered, having their dead name used, or having a number of different things that can lead to traumatic experiences," he explains.

To a transgender person, access to health isn't just a hot button political issue but a lifeline. Like West, many transgender Americans struggle with depression and feelings of hopelessness.

In a 2019 survey from The Trevor Project, 29 percent of trans and non-binary youth reported that they'd attempted suicide while 54 percent considered it. The striking statistics are a glimpse into the struggles trans and nonbinary people face daily as they experience discrimination, violence, and cohersion due to their gender identity.

West, like many in the trans community, shared the same fears prior to her first appointment.

"I've always come down with what I say is white coat syndrome, but within 10 minutes I realized it was all completely unfounded," she explains.

PPGC follows an informed consent treatment model, meaning patients are not required to receive an approval letter from a therapist to begin treatment. After speaking with a patient to explain the risks and benefits of hormone therapy, patients can make the decision to move forward.

"It was just a conversation," explained West, "I felt no judgement. It was just support for my decision to begin hormone therapy and suggestions for how to go about it, when to go about it—they were nothing if not accommodating.

Telehealth lends itself as a suitable substitution for in person care, according to West. Many of the appointments are spent discussing her psychological state and feelings regarding the treatment, and she goes for a blood test every 90 days. West, who has been very careful to prevent exposure to COVID-19, has felt at ease meeting virtually with her nurse practitioner.

Thanks to the ability telehealth has to connect us with people regardless of distance, transgender Texans have access to care at any distance. One of the core benefits of trans telehealth is that "folks who are further away from our health centers, perhaps in rural communities, don't have to make the several hour drive to the health center and then back," says Dr. Kumar.

The convenience has allowed PPGC to accommodate 240 gender-affirming hormone therapy appointments and serve 176 transgender patients.

More than cut travel time, the emergence of telemedicine also welcomes comfort. "They get to be in the safety and the comfort of their home or wherever they do feel safe," explains Dr. Kumar, "They can have other folks around them if they want, whether it's family or friends."

"We are constantly analyzing the way we provide care, but even more so in a different way during the pandemic," shares Dr. Kumar. Telehealth services include birth control consultation, emergency contraception, long-acting birth control implant consultations, PrEP follow-ups, primary care, STI treatment, and other healful visits to address problems like pelvic pain or bleeding.

Of the many services that are now remote, Depo birth control shots and oral contraceptives, are available curbside.

"Patients don't have to get out of the car; they don't have to worry about touching the door handle or anything else they have anxiety around," explains Dr. Kumar, "They're able to access the care they need without having to deal with potential exposure."

Will telehealth at PPGC become a permanent staple? Only time will tell, but Dr. Kumar has found that patients have found the service to be helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We always strive to provide as many options for our patients so that they can get the healthcare that's best for them," shares Dr. Kumar.

With some help from there humans, Houston pets can get virtual care through a Texas startup. Image courtesy of TeleVet

This Texas startup is helping Houston pets get virtual care during coronavirus

fur-tual care

A Texas-based, digitally optimized company focused on veterinary care is helping pet owners connect with medical professionals from the comfort of their homes, offsetting the impact of the social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

TeleVet Inc., which is based in Austin but is used by local veterinarians, recently announced that they will be providing their animal telemedicine platform free for one month to provide essential animal healthcare, connecting animal patients to veterinarians all over the country. TeleVet is used across 1,000 clinics and is accessible on phone, tablet, or computer.

The free month will be provided to cities that have been hard-hit by the virus such as New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, Las Vegas, and Chicago.

"In some cases, clinics in impacted cities are having to suddenly shut down or doing drop off visits," Steven Carter, co-founder, and CEO of TeleVet, tells InnovationMap. "We see that telemedicine is a huge component to keeping their staff and their client base during a time when social distancing is critical to flattening the curve of coronavirus cases."

Houston-area vet Amy Garrou and the other vets in her practice have been using TeleVet for several months before the outbreak of the virus. Before the platform, animal patients and their owners had to come into the office for post-surgery check-ups or other outpatient procedures. Garrou says her practice has been increasing the number of patients who use the platform since before the social distancing measures, making it a part of their daily workflow.

"We can check for infections such as ear infections or drainage from either a still picture or a video, or even a live video conference with the owner," says Garrou. "The platform has been useful because we can do any of those consultations and get the information we need to manage the case without the pet owner having to come into the clinic."

In January, TeleVet closed a $2 million seed round with investments from Houston-based Mercury Fund and Nebraska-based Dundee Venture Capital. (Amy Garrou is the wife of Mercury Fund Managing Director Blair Garrou.) According to the company's LinkedIn page, TeleVet is hiring.

Since being founded in 2015, the company has become a U.S. market leader in animal telemedicine. Over the last few years, telemedicine has been quickly expanding, and during the coronavirus outbreak, there has been a greater rush to move towards providing telemedicine for humans as well as pets.

"We realized that a lot of stuff can be solved remotely, keeping the client and the pet at home so that the staff does not have to physically interact with the client which offers convenience to both the client and the vet," says Carter.

Vets like Garrou say TeleVet helps them streamline the process by syncing with their medical records software seamlessly. This cuts costs and saves time from administrative duties. This also allows pet-owners to have access to medical notes regarding the health of their pet.

Her office is thinking of offering a curbside pick up service where they use TeleVet to communicate with pet owners to provide a contactless vet visit. A medical professional with personal protection equipment meets them in the parking lot and escorts the pet inside the vet's office where they use live video feed during the consultation so the owner can continue to be part of the process.

"It's proved to be really vital, especially in those cities where there's a complete shutdown," says Garrou. "The number of people that are realizing they've got to do something in this environment to keep their businesses afloat is rising."

As reliance on telemedicine increases due to the crisis, Garrou says it will eventually become part of the options available for pet owners, and especially vets who work long hours and tend to suffer from high levels of stress and burnout.

"We're really focused on helping, not only just to keep vets' businesses afloat right now," says Carter. "We can't stress enough that we care about the individuals in those practices. We want to help vets with work-life balance and reduce the burnout rate."

Lance Black says the COVID-19 outbreak has led to some interesting opportunities for Houston startups and health tech as a whole. Photo courtesy of TMCx

COVID-19 provides huge opportunity for telehealth, says Houston health tech leader

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 24

The Texas Medical Center's accelerator program has one foot in the health care system of today — operating in collaboration with the TMC's wide network of member institutions — as well as representing the future of health care as it cultivates new technologies those medical institutions need.

This unique setting makes Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, an interesting perspective on the COVID-19 outbreak, and something he says he's excited to see rise to the occasion — and, in this case, crisis — is telehealth.

"One of the things we focus on at TMCx is the ability to remotely monitor and care for patients outside the four walls," Black says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and this particular crisis really lends to that."

For better or for worse, the outbreak has forced a turning point in health care, and it's also put telehealth and other health tech companies to the test.

"This is going to force the health care system to take a hard look at what these platforms are capable of doing," Black says. "And it's going to stress the capabilities of these companies. To be honest, if there's a silver lining, that is one of them in my mind, that this will prove out the technology [in telehealth.]"

In the episode, Black provides some tips for startups going through the crisis, as well as praises the collaborative effort within the tech community in Houston. And in a way, something felt familiar to Black, a medical doctor who previously served in the United States Air Force.

"In the military, we joked about how there's a 'hurry up and wait' attitude. You hurry up to get things ready, and then you're just sitting there waiting for the right time to respond," Black says. "I feel like that's what our startups are doing now."

Black says he has seen startups taking inventory of their resources, accommodating their products for different uses, assessing their personnel, and waiting to see where they fit in to help.

Meanwhile, there's plenty Black can do to help serve TMCx's startups. This year marked the first cohort of TMCx's revamped program, and last month the TMC Innovation Institute welcomed in 19 startups for a bootcamp. While that went off without a hitch, Black says, the next phase — due to start in May — could be pushed back.

"Out of respect for our hospitals and member institutions, we want to delay the physical presence of the companies in Houston," Black says. "But that doesn't mean we're not able to call or virtually meet with the companies. There's a lot of pre-work we can do in order to prep the companies appropriately so that when they do have meetings face to face, they can put their best foot forward."

Black discusses the coronavirus' effects and offers his advice to startups on the podcast. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


EverlyWell's online results will be available within 48 hours. EverlyWell/Facebook

Texas company first to launch at-home test for COVID-19

COVID-19 WATCH

As reports keep indicating a shortage of supply for COVID-19 tests around the country, a Texas startup has rolled out a new at-home test for consumers beginning today, March 23.

Everywell, which already offers an array of at-home lab tests, says 30,000 COVID-19 tests will be available in the initial batch. Free telehealth consultations will be provided for people who test positive for COVID-19, or the coronavirus.

As TIME first reported, this is the first U.S. company to offer at-home COVID-19 test kits directly to consumers.

"The extreme shortage of tests for COVID-19 puts millions of Americans at risk," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, said in a March 18 release. "Everlywell is committed to helping stop the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. by making this test widely available. As the national leader in at-home lab testing, we want to use our resources and expertise to help as many people as we can. We are committed to this fight, and we're here to help."

Working with a number of diagnostic labs, Everlywell plans to create testing and diagnosis capacity for 250,000 people per week.

Everlywell recently launched a $1 million program aimed at encouraging labs to fast-track development of an at-home COVID-19 diagnostic test. Many labs stepped up to the task, enabling Everlywell to create a COVID-19 testing and diagnosis infrastructure in a matter of days.

"Our team has been working around the clock with top scientists and laboratories in the nation to develop a test that we will make available at the lowest price possible while covering our costs, at no profit to the company," Cheek says. "We have also reached out to government and public health officials to explore possibilities to provide it for free."

Each test costs $135, and is covered by participating providers of health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts.

The test can be requested online by consumers experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Samples can be collected at home, preventing further exposure for consumers and the public. All of Everlywell's lab partners conducting COVID-19 tests comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's emergency rules for COVID-19 testing.

"Given the high demand for testing, the company will work rapidly to make more tests available as the global supply shortage for COVID-19 diagnostic kits is addressed," the company says.

Like Everlywell's other tests, the COVID-19 test will be shipped to customers with everything needed to collect a test sample at home and safely send that sample to a certified lab. Samples will be shipped to labs overnight, secure online results will be available within 48 hours of the lab receiving a sample, and a free telehealth consultation with an independent board-certified physician will provided to anyone who tests positive.

Anyone seeking a test will be asked to fill out an online screening questionnaire.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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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.