A University of Houston researcher has reported a 98.7-percent rate of accuracy for a method pioneered by his lab to identify cancers at their earliest stages. Photo via Getty Images

Could detecting cancer one day be as easy as taking a blood test? Wei-Chuan Shih, a University of Houston researcher and Cullen College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering, has reported a 98.7-percent rate of accuracy for a method pioneered by his lab to identify cancers at their earliest stages.

The technology combines Shih’s own PANORAMA (PlAsmonic NanO-apeRture lAbel-free iMAging) with fluorescent imaging to view nanometer-sized membrane sacs, called extracellular vesicles or EVs. EVs carry different types of cargo, including proteins, nucleic acids and metabolites, throughout the bloodstream.

“We observed differences in small EV numbers and cargo in samples taken from healthy people versus people with cancer and are able to differentiate these two populations based on our analysis of the small EVs,” reports Shih, in Nature Communications Medicine. “The findings came from combining two imaging methods – our previously developed method PANORAMA and imaging of fluorescence emitted by small EVs—to visualize and count small EVs, determine their size and analyze their cargo.”

Shih introduced PANORAMA in 2020. The technology uses a glass side covered with gold nano discs that allows users to monitor changes in the transmission of light as well as determine the characteristics of nanoparticles as small as 25 nanometers in diameter. For the new publication, Shih and his team just had to count the number of small EVs in order to detect cancer.

“Using a cutoff of 70 normalized small EV counts, all cancer samples from 205 patients were above this threshold except for one sample, and for healthy samples, from 106 healthy individuals, all but three were above this cutoff, giving a cancer detection sensitivity of 99.5% and specificity of 97.3%,” says Shih.

The team was able to report 100-percent accuracy with further testing that analyzed two independent sets of samples from stage I-IV or recurrent leiomyosarcoma/gastrointestinal stromal tumors and early-and-late-stage cholangiocarcinoma combined with healthy samples.

Shih and collaborator Steven H. Lin have founded Seek Diagnostics with the goal of commercializing the technology that they’ve innovated. In 2022, the duo joined the Texas Medical Center Innovation's cancer-focused accelerator.


Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

In all, the Welch Foundation on June 4 announced more than $40.5 million in academic research grants, equipment grants, and fellowships. Photo via Getty Images

Texas organization grants over $40M to cancer-fighting research in Houston and beyond

fresh funding

Two local professors are among the newly announced recipients of funding from the Houston-based Welch Foundation, which finances chemical research projects.

The two professors are:

  • Jacinta Conrad, the Frank M. Tiller Professor in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of Houston. Conrad will use her grant to investigate glass transition, a temperature change that affects polymers. She describes glass transition as one of the “most intriguing open problems in physical chemistry.”
  • James Shee, assistant professor in the Chemistry Department at Rice University. Shee will put his grant toward advancing theoretical chemistry.

Every year, the foundation provides annual grants totaling at least $100,000 to support chemistry research being carried out by full-time faculty members at colleges, universities, and other educational institutions in Texas.

In all, the Welch Foundation on June 4 announced more than $40.5 million in academic research grants, equipment grants, and fellowships.

Part of the announced funding will go toward the foundation’s new Postdoctoral Fellows Grant Program. The program provides three-year fellowships to recent PhD graduates to support clinical research careers in Texas. A total of $900,000 in postdoctoral fellowships were funded at Rice University, Texas A&M University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Since 1954, the Welch Foundation has contributed over $1.1 billion for Texas-nurtured advancements in chemistry through research grants, endowed chairs, and other chemistry-related ventures.

“Ongoing basic chemical research is critically important for helping to solve current and future problems,” said Adam Kuspa, President of the Welch Foundation. “We strongly believe the foundation’s continued support of the research grant program, combined with … new programs, will yield even more exciting developments as we work to advance chemistry and improve our lives.”

The University of Houston — along with a couple of other Houston-area schools — made the cut of the top 100 schools for U.S. patents granted. Photo courtesy of UH.edu

Houston-area schools score spots on of annual list of top universities for patents issued

new report

The University of Houston System reigns as the patent king among colleges and universities in the Houston area.

A new list from the National Academy of Inventors puts UH in a 63rd-place tie — with 27 utility patents issued in 2023 — among 100 recognized schools. As the university explains, utility patents are among the world’s most valuable assets because they give inventors exclusive commercial rights to produce and use their technology.

Other schools in the Houston area that show up on the list are the Texas A&M University System, tied for 30th place with 66 patents, and Rice University, tied for 93rd place with 14 patents.

The University of Rochester in New York shares the No. 63 spot with UH.

“This ranking highlights the commitment of our faculty researchers, who explore frontiers of knowledge to enhance the well-being of our society,” Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at UH, says in a news release. “At UH, we are committed to creating new technologies that drive innovation, to boost Houston’s economy and tackle some of the most perplexing problems facing us.”

Among the UH discoveries that received utility patents last year are:

  • Methods of targeting cancer stem cells
  • Materials, systems, and methods for carbon capture and conversion.
  • A medical device that positions and tracks the muscular activity of legs.

Elsewhere in Texas:

  • University of Texas System, holding the No. 3 spot with 235 patents
  • Texas Tech University System, tied for 74th place with 20 patents
  • Baylor University, tied for 80th place with 17 patents
  • University of North Texas, tied for 90th place with 15 patents

Ahead of the UT System on the list are the University of California (546 patents) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (365 patents).

“As we look at the current and future state of innovation in our nation, we need to ensure that the U.S. is remaining competitive in the international innovation ecosystem,” Paul Sanberg, president of the National Academy of Inventors, says in a news release. “Protecting intellectual property is a key component to this, and the … list allows us to recognize and celebrate universities and their faculty, staff, and students who are not only innovating at high levels but taking the additional step of protecting their IP through patenting.”

This uniquely Houston technology is an AI program that allows scientists to understand the functions of cells by evaluating cell activation, killing, and movement. Photo via Getty Images

University of Houston lab reports breakthrough in cancer-detecting technology

making moves

T-cell immunotherapy is all the rage in the world of fighting cancer. A Houston company’s researchers have discovered a new subset of T cells that could be a game changer for patients.

CellChorus is a spinoff of Navin Varadarajan’s Single Cell Lab, part of the University of Houston’s Technology Bridge. The lab is the creator of TIMING, or Time-lapse Imaging Microscopy In Nanowell Grids. It’s a visual AI program that allows scientists to understand the functions of cells by evaluating cell activation, killing, and movement.

Last month, Nature Cancer published a paper co-authored by Varadarajan entitled, “Identification of a clinically efficacious CAR T cell subset in diffuse large B cell lymphoma by dynamic multidimensional single-cell profiling.”

“Our results showed that a subset of T cells, labeled as CD8-fit T cells, are capable of high motility and serial killing, found uniquely in patients with clinical response,” says first author and recent UH graduate Ali Rezvan in Nature Cancer.

Besides him and Varadarajan, contributors hail from Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Kite Pharma, and CellChorus itself.

The team identified the CD80-fit T cells using TIMING to examine interactions between T cells and tumor cells across thousands of individual cells. They were able to integrate the results using single-cell RNA sequencing data.

T-cell therapy activates a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer cells, but not every patient responds favorably to it. Identifying CD8-fit cells could be the key to manufacturing clinical response even in those for whom immunotherapy hasn’t been effective.

“This work illustrates the excellence of graduate students Ali Rezvan and Melisa Montalvo; and post-doctoral researchers Melisa Martinez-Paniagua and Irfan Bandey among others,” says Varadarajan in a statement.

Earlier last month, CellChorus recently received a $2.5 million SBIR grant. The money allows the company to share TIMING more widely, facilitating even more landmark discoveries like CD8-fit cells.

Houston could have ranked higher on a global report of top cities in the world if it had a bit more business diversification. Photo via Getty Images

Report ranks Houston as a top global city — with one thing holding it back

take note

A new analysis positions the Energy Capital of the World as an economic dynamo, albeit a flawed one.

The recently released Oxford Economics Global Cities Index, which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s 1,000 largest cities, puts Houston at No. 25.

Houston ranks well for economics (No. 15) and human capital (No. 18), but ranks poorly for governance (No. 184), environment (No. 271), and quality of life (No. 298).

New York City appears at No. 1 on the index, followed by London; San Jose, California; Tokyo; and Paris. Dallas lands at No. 18 and Austin at No. 39.

In its Global Cities Index report, Oxford Economics says Houston’s status as “an international and vertically integrated hub for the oil and gas sector makes it an economic powerhouse. Most aspects of the industry — downstream, midstream, and upstream — are managed from here, including the major fuel refining and petrochemicals sectors.”

“And although the city has notable aerospace and logistics sectors and has diversified into other areas such as biomedical research and tech, its fortunes remain very much tied to oil and gas,” the report adds. “As such, its economic stability and growth lag other leading cities in the index.”

The report points out that Houston ranks highly in the human capital category thanks to the large number of corporate headquarters in the region. The Houston area is home to the headquarters of 26 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sysco.

Another contributor to Houston’s human capital ranking, the report says, is the presence of Rice University, the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“Despite this,” says the report, “it lacks the number of world-leading universities that other cities have, and only performs moderately in terms of the educational attainment of its residents.”

Slower-than-expected population growth and an aging population weaken Houston’s human capital score, the report says.

Meanwhile, Houston’s score for quality is life is hurt by a high level of income inequality, along with a low life expectancy compared with nearly half the 1,000 cities on the list, says the report.

Also in the quality-of-life bucket, the report underscores the region’s variety of arts, cultural, and recreational activities. But that’s offset by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, an underdeveloped public transportation system, decreased air quality, and high carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the report downgrades Houston’s environmental stature due to the risks of hurricanes and flooding.

“Undoubtedly, Houston is a leading business [center] that plays a key role in supporting the U.S. economy,” says the report, “but given its shortcomings in other categories, it will need to follow the path of some of its more well-rounded peers in order to move up in the rankings.”

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Meet the Houston innovator setting student startups up for success

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 240

Rice University can barely keep up with the interest of students in entrepreneurial classes and programming — even in the summer.

The university's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship offers around 30 classes a year and over a dozen co-curricular programs — all focused on supporting student entrepreneurs.

"There is a huge desire for this across the campus," Taylor Anne Adams, head of venture acceleration at Lilie, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our class enrollment has just continued to skyrocket, and we've had to add on more classes and programs and that still seems to not be enough."

One of the newest additions to the scope of Rice's offerings is the Summer Venture Studio, which launched last year and returned for 2024 with huge interest in the program that was revamped by Adams, who received her MBA at Rice. She says one of her goals was to attract a wide range of technologies and innovations, which she did with the newly announced cohort.

"In the Summer Venture Studio, we have students from undergrad and from the MBA program — we've got PhDs, we've got master's of data science, and it just creates such a vibrant cohort community here," Adams says. "It's about making sure that we're tailoring our programs across the school year as well to make sure we're touching all parts of the campus."

Adams, who's worked with various Houston organizations, including The Cannon, DivInc, and Mercury, is not only passionate about supporting the Rice startup community, but also the greater Houston network of innovators. She's currently on the founding team of The Collectiv, a Houston-based venture firm that's currently raising its first fund to invest in sports tech.

"The people here are entrepreneurial by nature. Houston was founded by entrepreneurs. Yes, we have a lot of traditional industry here, but that wasn't always the case. People had to build those industries from the ground up," Adams says. "It's in the DNA of the city."

Houston suburb clocks in among best job markets in America

by the numbers

In a surprising turn of events, it's not Houston proper that's earning recognition for its job market, but The Woodlands. The north Houston suburb boasts the No. 24 best job market in the nation, according to a new report by SmartAsset.

The study examined 343 U.S. cities across six main data points from 2021 and 2022, for which the most recent data is available: A city's unemployment rates; median income to housing payment ratio, commute times, the percentage of remote workers, the percentage of employed residents with health insurance, and income growth between 2019-2022.

The report discovered that The Woodlands has a 4.8 percent unemployment rate, and its residents' median earnings landed at $73,079 annually. The average housing costs in The Woodlands make up 28.7 percent of an individual's yearly income, which can be estimated at about $1,750 per month.

Remote-work flexibility was another major consideration in the study. Working from home means no real commute time, as long as you don't count the time it takes to get out of bed and walk into the home office. Unfortunately for The Woodlands, a majority of workers are commuting to their jobs, and only 24.5 percent of employees work remotely.

For those who do need to drive to-and-from work, a separate SmartAsset study on remote workforces discovered the average commute time in The Woodlands is about 27 minutes long.

Houston fell far behind in the report, landing at No. 272 out of 343 total U.S. cities. The city's unemployment rate is only 5.9 percent, but its residents' median earnings barely tip over $38,000 a year. Only 11.5 percent of Houstonians work from home, and their housing costs account for 39.4 percent of their total income.

Houston ranked outside the top 20 best cities for tech workers earlier in 2024, further highlighting a significant downward shift in the employment atmosphere for the region.

"With costs of living skyrocketing in recent years and the demand for different skill sets changing, job seekers must be resourceful to find opportunities that best suit them," the report said. "This could mean relocating for higher income, an improved work-life balance, growth potential or benefits."

Other Houston-area cities that made it in the top 200 in the report are:

  • No. 99 – Sugar Land
  • No. 113 – Pearland
  • No. 172 – League City
The full report and its methodology can be found on smartasset.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Rice expert: Why tech companies should sponsor hackathons

houston voices

Companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Apple depend on third-party developers to create applications that improve the user experience on their platforms. However, given the many options available, developers face a daunting task in deciding which platform to focus their efforts on.

“Developers are faced with imperfect information,” says Rice Business assistant professor Tommy Pan Fang. “They don’t have an overview of the entire technology landscape.”

A team of researchers, consisting of Fang, Andy Wu (Harvard University) and David Clough (University of British Columbia), set out to investigate how temporary gatherings like “hackathons” — in-person software development competitions — might influence a developer’s choice of software platform.

Hackathons like Rice University’s annual HackRice draw developers looking to pick up new skills and create applications with teammates. Many of these events are sponsored by software platform companies.

The research team conjectured that hackathon attendees are more likely to adopt a particular platform if any of the following conditions are true:

  • A high number of fellow attendees have already embraced it.
  • A fellow attendee has built an award-winning hackathon project on it.
  • The platform that sponsors the hackathon is already popular.

To test their theories, the researchers followed 1,302 software developers participating in 167 hackathons from January 2014 to May 2017. Twenty-nine different platforms sponsored the hackathons. Fang and his colleagues tracked developers’ platform choices before and after the in-person events.

The researchers found that temporary gatherings — like hackathons, conferences and trade fairs — make a difference.

Developers with greater technical expertise were more likely to use a platform widely embraced by fellow hackathon attendees. And with every 10% increase in the number of hackathon attendees already using a given platform, other attendees were 1.2% more likely to try out that platform themselves the following year.

They also found that platforms benefit from sponsoring temporary gatherings, like hackathons.

Developers who attended a hackathon sponsored by a particular platform were 20.4% more likely to adopt that platform in the following year, compared to developers who either did not attend any hackathon or attended one without a sponsor.

Part of the reason for the findings is that developers at hackathons exert social influence on each other, both during organized hackathon events like competitions and workshops, as well as informal ones including ping pong tournaments or nights playing video games.

“The social interaction and seeing their peers be successful with the tools and what’s fashionable impacts the tools they decide to adopt,” says Fang. “For developers trying to figure out what technology to adopt in a world with imperfect information and uncertainty, having a gathering can be a beacon.”

Interviews with hackathon organizers, sponsors and developers in the U.S. and Canada backed up the researchers’ findings. Interviewees shared how they learned from their interactions with fellow developers during hackathons.

“When I’m walking around, it becomes noticeable what technologies people are using,” said a veteran of 15 hackathons. Another noted that if more people use a certain application programming interface, “it’s lower risk because it will be usable.” They added, “Most people just follow others.”

The study has implications for both developers and software platform companies alike. Results suggest hackathons can be a valuable venue for developers, not only to pick up new skills, but also to help them identify which platforms to use in the first place. For software companies, the lesson is simple: Sponsoring hackathons can be good for business.

Future research could look at how other types of events like conferences, tournaments and world’s fairs might impact how people end up adopting technologies, especially emerging ones, Fang says. For example, a company like OpenAI could use these types of in-person events to garner support and build momentum for its products.

“Companies that may have taken a step back during Covid should reevaluate in-person events to get people excited and regain momentum for their platforms,” Fang says. “The take-home message is, go out there and sponsor these events.”

This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. For more, see Fang, et al. “Platform diffusion at temporary gatherings: Social coordination and ecosystem emergence.” Strategic Management Journal 42.2 (2021): 233-272. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.3230.