The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia, one of the most common childhood cancers. Photo via Getty Images

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.”

The antibody, called 4A10, was invented by Scott Durum PhD and his team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Licensed exclusively by Allterum, a company launched by Fannin, 4A10 is a novel immunotherapy that utilizes a patient’s own immune system to locate and kill cancer cells.

Varadhachary explained that while about 80 percent of patients afflicted with ALL have the B-cell version, the other 20 percent suffer from T-cell ALL.

“Because the TLL population is so small, there are really no approved, effective drugs for it. The last drug that was approved was 18 or 19 years ago,” the CEO-scientist said. 4A10 addresses this unmet need, but also goes beyond it.

Because 4A10 targets CD127, also known as the interleukin-7 receptor, it could be useful in the treatment of myriad cancers. In fact, the receptor is expressed not just in hematological cancers like ALL, but also solid tumors like breast, lung, and colorectal cancers. There’s also “robust data,” according to Varadhachary for the antibody’s success against B-cell ALL, as well as many other cancers.

“Now what we're doing in parallel with doing the development for ALL is that we're continuing to do additional preclinical work in these other indications, and then at some point, we will raise a series A financing that will allow us to expand markets into things which are much more commercially attractive,” Varadhachary explains.

Why did they go for the less commercially viable application first? As Varadhachary put it, “The Fannin model is to allow us to go after areas which are major unmet medical needs, even if they are not necessarily as attractive on a commercial basis.”

But betting on a less common malady could have a bigger payoff than the Allterum team originally expected.

Before the new CPRIT grant, Allterum’s funding included a previous seed grant from CPRIT of $3 million. Other funds included an SBIR grant from NCI, as well as another NCI program called NExT, which deals specifically with experimental therapies.

“To get an antibody from research into clinical testing takes about $10 million,” Varadhachary says. “It's an expensive proposition.”

With this, and other nontraditional financing, the company was able to take what Varadhachary called “a huge unmet medical need but a really tiny commercial market” and potentially help combat a raft of other childhood cancers.

“That's our vision. It's not economically hugely attractive, but we think it's important,” says Varadhachary.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing director of Fannin Innovation. Photo via LinkedIn

“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 lab cooks up breakthrough 'living pharmacy' research for potential cell therapy treatment

biotech innovation

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 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.

New facility will accelerate investigational treatments in cancer, heart disease, neurological disorders and more. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist opens new cellular therapeutics center

new to hou

Houston Methodist recently opened a new 5,000-square-foot lab that will focus on developing and producing lifesaving treatments through cell therapy, the hospital announced last week.

Named the Ann Kimball & John W. Johnson Center for Cellular Therapeutics after long-time supporters of the hospital, the lab is located in the Houston Methodist Outpatient Center in the Texas Medical Center. The space includes 1710 square feet of cleanroom space, a dedicated quality control laboratory, six production rooms, support spaces and more to help develop new cell therapies and investigational therapeutics.

The combination of the control laboratory and production rooms onsite are anticipated to help the hospital treat patients safely and more efficiently, according to the statement.

Work at the JCCT is slated to benefit medical research throughout Houston Methodist in the fields of cancer, cardiovascular, neurology, organ transplantation, orthopedics and gastroenterology treatment.

The new center is named for Ann Kimball and John W. Johnson, who contributed a gift that will go toward establishing the facility. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

According to a statement from the hospital, cell therapy is "one of the most promising treatment options available," with applications in treatment for cancer, heart disease, and neurological diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The therapy requires that a patient is implanted with live cells provided by a donor or the patient themselves. These cells can help repair or rejuvenate damaged tissue or cells.

“Many diseases have limited or ineffective therapies, so there is a tremendous need and opportunity to bring transformative and restorative new treatments to patients through cell therapy,” distinguished neurologist Dr Stanley Appel, who will lead the center, said the statement. “Having a cellular therapy laboratory on-site at Houston Methodist has always been a part of our vision. The Johnson family’s generosity and support of this vision will give hope to countless patients battling neurodegenerative diseases and more.”

The Johnsons' gift also created a matching fund that supports cell therapy projects in all specialties at Houston Methodist. At press time, the fund had helped attract 51 donors, including 69-year-old Jack McClanahan, who suffers from ALS and was the first to donate to the center.

"I volunteered for this because I want a younger man or woman with children to have a chance – this is a devastating disease,” McClanahan said in the statement. “If there’s any hope to help others, I just want to be part of it.”

Houston Methodist also announced last month that it will break ground on a $650 million Cypress "smart" hospital this spring. The hospital is slated to incorporate artificial intelligence, big data, and Alexa- and Siri-like voice technology into its treatment plans and design.

A Houston biotech company has raised $38.1 million. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston-based cancer and disease bio-venture launches after $38.1M series A

money moves

Sporos Bioventures LLC launched this month after closing a $38.1 million round of series A financing.

The Houston-based biotech company aims to accelerate the development of breakthrough therapies for cancer and immune diseases by sharing resources, capital, access to clinical trial infrastructure, and talent from within its knowledgeable team of biotech executives, entrepreneurs, academic scholars, and investors. The company was launched with four entities: Tvardi Therapeutics, Asylia Therapeutics, Nirogy Therapeutics, and Stellanova Therapeutics.

The most advanced of the four entities, Tvardi, is currently in Phase 1 clinical trial to evaluate it's STAT3 oral inhibitor. It was named a "most promising" life sciences company at the 2020 Texas Life Science Forum, hosted by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance in December. The remaining entities are in the development stages and are focused on cancer, autoimmune disease, fibrosis, and tumor growth, among other conditions.

"Sporos was founded to accelerate the development of new medicines by addressing inefficiencies and risk in the establishment of new biotech companies," Peter Feinberg, Sporos co-founder, said in a statement. "By leveraging our extensive network, including the Texas Medical Center, we first identify transformative scientific opportunities and then deploy our top-tier talent, funding, and operational support to drive these insights into a growing pipeline of first-in-class treatment options."

In conjunction with the launch, Sporos named Michael Wyzga as the company's founding CFO. Wyzga was previously CFO at Genzyme for 12 years and has held various senior-level positions in the industry.

"By strategically deploying valuable resources to young companies that would not typically be supported by top-tier seasoned talent and infrastructure, we believe that we can efficiently bring a diverse set of therapies through clinical development," Wyzga said in a statement. "I am thrilled to join a team with decades of scientific and operational expertise and look forward to guiding our strategic and financial growth."

Wyzga joins a team of seasoned leaders in the biotech and cancer research fields, including Dr. Ronald DePinho, professor of Cancer Biology and past president of MD Anderson, who will serve as the chair of Sporos' Strategic Advisory Council. Jeno Gyuris, a biotech executive in oncology drug discovery and development with more than 25 years of experience, will serve as chief science officer. And Alex Cranberg, an experienced active early-stage biotech investor, serves as director.

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Houston chemist lands $2M NIH grant for cancer treatment research

future of cellular health

A Rice University chemist has landed a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work that aims to reprogram the genetic code and explore the role certain cells play in causing diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator, associate professor of chemistry, from the NIH's Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which supports medically focused laboratories.

Xiao will use the five-year grant to develop noncanonical amino acids (ncAAs) with diverse properties to help build proteins, according to a statement from Rice. He and his team will then use the ncAAs to explore the vivo sensors for enzymes involved in posttranslational modifications (PTMs), which play a role in the development of cancers and neurological disorders. Additionally, the team will look to develop a way to detect these enzymes in living organisms in real-time rather than in a lab.

“This innovative approach could revolutionize how we understand and control cellular functions,” Xiao said in the statement.

According to Rice, these developments could have major implications for the way diseases are treated, specifically for epigenetic inhibitors that are used to treat cancer.

Xiao helped lead the charge to launch Rice's new Synthesis X Center this spring. The center, which was born out of informal meetings between Xio's lab and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, aims to improve cancer outcomes by turning fundamental research into clinical applications.

They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

Houston neighbor ranks as one of America's most livable small cities

mo city

Some Houston suburbs stick out from the rest thanks to their affluent residents, and now Missouri City is getting time in the spotlight, thanks to its new ranking as the No. 77 most livable small city in the country.

The tiny but mighty Houston neighbor, located less than 20 miles southwest of Houston, was among six Texas cities that earned a top-100 ranking in SmartAsset's 2024 " Most Livable Small Cities" report. It compared 281 U.S. cities with populations between 65,000 and 100,000 residents across eight metrics, such as a resident's housing costs as a percentage of household income, the city's average commute times, and the proportions of entertainment, food service, and healthcare establishments.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Missouri City has an estimated population of over 76,000 residents, whose median household income comes out to $97,211. SmartAsset calculated that a Missouri City household's annual housing costs only take up 19.4 percent of that household's income. Additionally, the study found only six percent of the town's population live below the poverty level.

Here's how Missouri City performed in two other metrics in the study:

  • 1.4 percent – The proportion of arts, entertainment, and recreation businesses as a percentage of all businesses
  • 29.9 minutes – Worker's average commute time

But income and housing aren't the only things that make Missouri City one of the most livable small cities in Texas. Residents benefit from its proximity from central Houston, but the town mainly prides itself on its spacious park system, playgrounds, and other recreational activities.

Missouri City, Texas

Missouri City residents have plenty of parkland to enjoy. www.missouricitytx.gov

The Missouri City Parks and Recreation Departmen meticulously maintains 21 parks spanning just over 515 acres of land, an additional 500 acres of undeveloped parkland, and 14.4 miles of trails throughout the town, according to the city's website."Small cities may offer cost benefits for residents looking to stretch their income while enjoying a comfortable – and more spacious – lifestyle," the report's author wrote. "While livability is a subjective concept that may take on different definitions for different people, some elements of a community can come close to being universally beneficial."

Missouri City is also home to Fort Bend Town Square, a massive mixed-use development at the intersection of TX 6 and the Fort Bend Parkway. It offers apartments, shopping, and restaurants, including a rumored location of Trill Burgers.

Other Houston-area cities that earned a spot in the report include

Spring (No. 227) and Baytown (No. 254).The five remaining Texas cities that were among the top 100 most livable small cities in the U.S. include Flower Mound (No. 29), Leander (No. 60), Mansfield (No. 69), Pflugerville (No. 78), and Cedar Park (No. 85).

The top 10 most livable small cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 1 – Troy, Michigan
  • No. 2 – Rochester Hills, Michigan
  • No. 3 – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
  • No. 4 – Franklin, Tennessee
  • No. 5 – Redmond, Washington
  • No. 6 – Appleton, Wisconsin
  • No. 7 – Apex, North Carolina
  • No. 8 – Plymouth, Minnesota
  • No. 9 – Livonia, Michigan
  • No. 10 – Oshkosh, Wisconsin

The report examined data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2022 1-year American Community Survey and the 2021 County Business Patterns Survey to determine its rankings.The report and its methodology can be found on

smartasset.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.