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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Houston university teams up with angel group to reach, upskill future investors

Through a new partnership with the Houston Angel Network and Houston Exponential, the University of Houston will help cultivate startup investors among UH alumni.

The partnership will bolster accredited early-stage investors and accelerate opportunities for aspiring startup investors, the university says in a news release.

“Investors play a vital role in the startup ecosystem and this initiative gives our alumni a rapid path to becoming angels. Our vision is to activate more investors with deep connections to UH who support world-class innovation in our community and beyond,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the university’s vice president for energy and innovation.

The partnership is based at UH’s Technology Bridge. Tech Bridge promotes tech commercialization, industrial partnerships, and startup development.

“Our founders are launching many exciting new companies, but they need better access to capital,” says Tanu Chatterji, associate director of startup development at UH. “This partnership will help us mobilize angel investors who want to support these innovators with knowledge and financial resources.”

UH alumni interested in participating in the new partnership should contact Chatterji at tchatte@uh.edu.

The angel network will lend its investing expertise to early-stage businesses in tech, energy, life sciences, consumer, and aerospace sectors. Meanwhile, tech startup incubator Houston Exponential will provide support for entrepreneurs and the startup ecosystem.

“This relationship is a testament to the collaborative spirit of Greater Houston’s business and academic communities,” says Mitra Miller, vice president of the Houston Angel Network, an organization for early-stage investors. “By leveraging the combined expertise and resources of our three organizations, we can increase the flow of early-stage capital in our region in support of great innovators and high-growth enterprises.”

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential, says the new initiative “promises to be a roadmap for investment education, and support for aspiring investors and entrepreneurs alike.”

“An active and educated investor base is an essential component of a thriving startup ecosystem,” says Branch.

Houston lab sees progress with breakthrough light-harvesting processes

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A groundbreaking Rice University lab has made further strides in its work to make harvesting light energy more efficient and stable.

Presented on the cover of a June issue of Science, a study from Rice engineer Aditya Mohite's lab uncovered a method to synthesize a high-efficiency perovskite solar cell, known as formamidinium lead iodide (FAPbI3), converting them into ultrastable high-quality photovoltaic films, according to a statement from Rice. Photovoltaic films convert sunlight into electricity.

The new process makes solar cells that are about 10 times more durable than traditional methods.

“Right now, we think that this is state of the art in terms of stability,” Mohite said in a statement. “Perovskite solar cells have the potential to revolutionize energy production, but achieving long-duration stability has been a significant challenge.”

The change come from "seasoning" the FAPbI3 with 2D halide perovskites crystals, which the Mohite lab also developed a breakthrough synthesis process for last year

The 2D perovskites helped make the FAPbI3 films more stable. The study showed that films with 2D perovskites deteriorated after two days of generating electricity, while those with 2D perovskites had not started to degrade after 20 days.

“FAPbI3 films templated with 2D crystals were higher quality, showing less internal disorder and exhibiting a stronger response to illumination, which translated as higher efficiency," Isaac Metcalf, a Rice materials science and nanoengineering graduate student and a lead author on the study, said in the statement.

Additionally, researchers say their findings could make developing light-harvesting technologies cheaper, and can also allow light-harvesting panels to be lighter weight and more flexible.

"Perovskites are soluble in solution, so you can take an ink of a perovskite precursor and spread it across a piece of glass, then heat it up and you have the absorber layer for a solar cell,” Metcalf said. “Since you don’t need very high temperatures ⎯ perovskite films can be processed at temperatures below 150 Celsius (302 Fahrenheit) ⎯ in theory that also means perovskite solar panels can be made on plastic or even flexible substrates, which could further reduce costs.”

Mohite adds this has major implications for the energy transition at large.

“If solar electricity doesn’t happen, none of the other processes that rely on green electrons from the grid, such as thermochemical or electrochemical processes for chemical manufacturing, will happen,” Mohite said. “Photovoltaics are absolutely critical.”

The Mohite lab's process for creating 2D perovskites of the ideal thickness and purity was published in Nature Synthesis last fall. At the time, Mohite said the crystals "hold the key to achieving commercially relevant stability for solar cells."

About a year ago, the lab also published its work on developing a scalable photoelectrochemical cell. The research broke records for its solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency rate.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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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 a health tech data scientist, a CEO celebrating an international expansion, and a founder who won a big DOE prize.

Angela Wilkins, chief data scientist at Starling Medical

Angela Wilkins joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the intersection of data and health care. Photo courtesy

When most people hear about Houston startup Starling Medical, they might think about how much potential the medical device company has in the field of urinalysis diagnostics. But that's not quite where Angela Wilkins's head went.

Wilkins explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that when she met the company's co-founders, Hannah McKenney and Drew Hendricks, she recognized them as very promising startup leaders taking action on a real health care problem. Starling's device can collect urine and run diagnostics right from a patient's toilet.

"It was one of those things where I just thought, 'They're going to get a bunch of data soon,'" Wilkins says. "The opportunity is just there, and I was really excited to come on and build their AI platform and the way they are going to look at data."

For about a year, Wilkins supported the startup as an adviser. Now, she's working more hands on as chief data officer as the company grows. Read more.

Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon

Amperon officially expanded in Europe. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based, AI-powered electricity forecasting and analytics services company Amperon Holdings is live in Europe. The expansion, which Co-Founder and CEO Sean Kelly previously told InnovationMap about, is official, the company announced this month. In addition to the expansion, Amperon announced Jon Ecker as general manager, Europe, and Kelsey Hultberg as executive vice president, communications, and chief of staff.

Now, European companies that buy and sell energy in the renewable energy producers, financial institutions, and utilities markets can leverage Amperon's platform of AI and machine learning technologies to access short- and long-term forecasts for their individual meters and generation assets.

“As a warmer-than-expected June ushers in a hot summer, and increasing uncertainty looms for the calmer fall months due to the influx of wind and solar generation, we are eager to assist our European customers in navigating the power market volatility caused by heat waves, extreme weather events, and shifts in power usage across the region,” Kelly says in a news release. Read more.

Laureen Meroueh, founder of Hertha Metals

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. Photo via LinkedIn

Four startups from across the country won over $160,000 in cash prizes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions earlier this month, and a Houston-area company claimed the top prize.

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. The program honors and supports clean energy innovators nominated by clean technology business incubators.

Hertha Metals was founded by Laureen Meroueh, a mechanical engineer and materials scientist, in 2022. Read more.