Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."

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Exclusive: Hardtech-focused program announces Houston expansion, seeks local leader

changing the world

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

Four Houston scientists named rising stars in research

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Four Houston scientists were named among a total of five Texas rising stars in research by the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science & Technology, or TAMEST, last month.

The group will be honored at the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards by TAMEST in May. According to Edith and Peter O’Donnell Committee Chair Ann Beal Salamone, the researchers "epitomize the Texas can-do spirit."

The Houston winners include:

Medicine: Dr. Jennifer Wargo

A physician and professor of surgical oncology and genomic medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Wargo was named a 2023 honoree for her discoveries surrounding the "important connection between treatment outcomes and a patient’s gut microbiome," according to a statement from TAMEST.

Engineering: Jamie Padgett

The Stanley C. Moore Professor of Engineering at Rice University, Padgett was honored for her work that aims to "enhance reliability and improve the sustainability of critical community infrastructure" through developing new methods for multi-hazard resilience modeling.

Physical sciences: Erez Lieberman Aiden

As a world-leading biophysical scientist and an associate professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, is being honored for his work that has "dramatically impacting the understanding of genomic 3D structures." He is working with BCM to apply his findings to clinical settings, with the hope that it will eventually be used to treat disease by targeting dark matter in the body.

Technology innovation: Chengbo Li

As a geophysicist at ConocoPhillips, Li is being recognized for innovations in industry-leading Compressive Seismic Imaging (CSI) technology. "This CSI technology allows the oil and gas industry to produce these seismic surveys in less time, with less shots and receivers, and most importantly, with less of an environmental impact," his nominator Jie Zhang, founder and chief scientist of GeoTomo LLC, said in a statement.


James J. Collins III at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas was also named this year's rising star in the biological sciences category for his research on schistosomiasis, a disease that impacts some of the world’s poorest individuals.

The O'Donnell Awards have granted more than $1.5 million to more than 70 recipients since they were founded in 2006. Each award includes a $25,000 honorarium and an invitation to present at TAMEST’s Annual Conference each year, according to TAMEST's website.

The awards expanded in 2002 to include both a physical and biological sciences award each year, thanks to a $1.15 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation in 2022.

Following a pivot, this Houston founder is ready make her mark on the creator economy

houston innovators podcast episode 171

When Madison Long started her company with her co-founder and friend, Simone May, she knew she wanted to do one thing: Provide a platform for young people to have reliable access to payment for their skills and side hustles. Through starting a business, making a name change, launching a beta, going through a pivot, completing an accelerator, and more — that mission hasn't changed. And now, young people across the country can opt into the platform.

Houston-based creator economy platform Clutch celebrated its nationwide launch earlier this month. The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more.

When the company first launched its beta in Houston, the platform (then called Campus Concierge) rolled out at three Houston-area universities: Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The marketplace connected any students with a side hustle to anyone on campus who needed their services.

Long shares on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that since that initial pilot, they learned they could be doing more for users.

"We recognized a bigger gap in the market," Long says. "Instead of just working with college-age students and finding them side hustles with one another, we pivoted last January to be able to help these young people get part-time, freelance, or remote work in the creator economy for businesses and emerging brands that are looking for these young minds to help with their digital marketing presence."

Once focusing on the gig economy, Clutch changed its focus to the creator economy. The founders launched a new beta after closing $1.2 million in seed funding last year.

"Even though we did have to pivot, we're excited to be at the place now where we do deeply understand how to service both sides of our marketplace — the next-gen creatives and the emerging brands — so that they can really empower each other to meet their goals," Long says on the show.

Clutch, which went through the DivInc Houston accelerator, credits a part of the company's ability to survive the challenges from making pivots on being founded in Houston.

"We attribute a lot of Clutch's success — especially early on — to being located in Houston," Long says, explaining that she moved to Houston from California in 2021 to focus on the company. "It was physically being in the tech ecosystem that was blossoming in the Houston network that allowed us to feel safe making the pivots we were making and get a lot of guidance from mentors we were meeting."

She shares more about what's next for Clutch on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.