Houston researchers are hard at work in the lab to progress medical advancements at the bedside. Getty Images

Every day, important research is being completed under the roofs of Houston medical institutions. From immunotherapy to complex studies on how a memory is made, Houston researchers are discovering and analyzing important aspects of the future of medicine.

Here are three research projects currently being conducted around town.

University of Houston's potential solution to sickle cell disease

Vassiliy Lubchenko is a University of Houston associate professor of chemistry. Courtesy of UH

For the most part, sickle cells have been a mystery to scientists, but one University of Houston professor has recently reported a new finding on how sickle cells are formed — enlightening the medical community with hopes that better understanding the disease may lead to prevention.

Vassiliy Lubchenko, UH associate professor of chemistry, shared his new finding in Nature Communications. He reports that "droplets of liquid, enriched in hemoglobin, form clusters inside some red blood cells when two hemoglobin molecules form a bond — but only briefly, for one thousandth of a second or so," reads a release from UH.

In sickle cell disease, or anemia, red blood cells are crescent shaped and don't flow as easily through narrow blood vessels. The misshapen cells are caused by abnormal hemoglobin molecules that line up into stiff filaments inside red blood cells. Those filaments grow when the protein forms tiny droplets called mesoscopic.

"Though relatively small in number, the mesoscopic clusters pack a punch," says Lubchenko in the release. "They serve as essential nucleation, or growth, centers for things like sickle cell anemia fibers or protein crystals. The sickle cell fibers are the cause of a debilitating and painful disease, while making protein crystals remains to this day the most important tool for structural biologists."

Lubchenko conclusion is that the key to prevent sickle cell disease is to is to stop the formation of the initial clusters so fibers aren't able to grow out of them.

Baylor College of Medicine's immunotherapy research in breast cancer

science-Digital Composite Image Of Male Scientist Experimenting In Laboratory

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are looking into the complexities of immune cells in breast cancer. Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are leading an initiative to figure out the potential effect of immunotherapy on different types of breast cancers. Their report is featured in Nature Cell Biology.

The scientists zoned in on two types of immune cells — neutrophils and macrophages — and they found frequency differed in a way that indicated potential roles in immunotherapy.

"Focusing on neutrophils and macrophages, we investigated whether different tumors had the same immune cell composition and whether seemingly similar immune components played the same role in tumor growth. Importantly, we wanted to find out whether differences in immune cell composition contributed to the tumors' responses to immunotherapy," says Dr. Xiang 'Shawn' Zhang, professor at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center and member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in a news release.

Further exploring the discrepancies between the immune cells and the role they play in tumor growth will help better understand immunotherapy's potential in certain types of breast cancer.

"These findings are just the beginning. They highlight the need to investigate these two cellular types deeper. Under the name 'macrophages' there are many different cellular subtypes and the same stands for neutrophils," Zhang says. "We need to identify at single cell level which subtypes favor and which ones disrupt tumor growth taking also into consideration tumor heterogeneity as both are relevant to therapy."

Rice University, UTHeath, and UH's memory-making study

Researchers from all corners of Houston are diving into how memories are made. Courtesy of Rice University

When you make a memory, your brain cells structurally change. Through a multi-institutional study with researchers from UH, Rice University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, we now know more about the way memories are made.

When forming memories, three moving parts work together in the human brain — a binding protein, a structural protein and calcium — to allow for electrical signals to enter neural cells and change the molecular structures in cognition. The scientists compared notes on how on that binding protein works.

The team's study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Peter Wolynes, a theoretical physicist at Rice, UH physicist Margaret Cheung, and UTHealth neurobiologist Neal Waxham worked together to understand the complex process memories experience in the process of being made.

"This is one of the most interesting problems in neuroscience: How do short-term chemical changes lead to something long term, like memory?" Waxham says in a release from Rice. "I think one of the most interesting contributions we make is to capture how the system takes changes that happen in milliseconds to seconds and builds something that can outlive the initial signal."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Overheard: Fintech company with Houston ties sees opportunity for growth in new work-from-home age

Eavesdropping in Houston

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

Houston startup teams up with Austin company on medical device amid COVID-19 crisis

texans teaming up

Two Texas companies with NASA roots are joining forces on a technology that can be used to monitor vital signs of seniors or others that are at-risk of contracting COVID-19.

Houston-based Galen Data Inc., which has developed a cloud platform for medical devices, and Austin-based Advanced TeleSensors Inc., the creator of the Cardi/o touchless monitor. Together, the two health tech companies are collaborating to take ATS's device and adding Galen Data's cloud technology.

"We wish we had found Galen Data sooner. We had been building our own cloud for six months, thinking a custom solution would best meet our needs," says Sajol Ghoshal, CEO and president of ATS, in a news release. "Getting up-and-running with them was very easy, and it allowed us to focus on our core competency — which is data-signal processing."

ATS's technology uses radio frequency in its remote, touchless monitoring. The company's founders developed the core technology at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Initially, the technology was intended for assisted living facilities. Now, amid the COVID-19 crisis, monitoring isolated seniors or at-risk patients is even more relevant.

Galen Data, which launched in 2016, also has NASA roots as the founders met as software contractors working on NASA's safety systems. The company has developed and marketed its cloud-based platform for connecting medical devices to the internet, including pacemakers and glucose monitors.

Chris DuPont, co-founder and CEO, has led the company to meet compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

"We knew that our platform would be a great fit for Cardi/o," Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data, says. "Speed was critical, accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis. We were well positioned to address ATS' needs, and help those at-risk in the process."

Sajol Ghoshal (left), CEO and president of ATS, and Chris Dupont, (CEO of Galen Data), are bringing together their technologies. Photos courtesy

These are the risks and rewards of prototyping, according to Houston expert

Guest column

We live in a digital world. Music, movies, and even family photos have become primarily digital. Computer software offers us a range of comfort and efficiency and has become part of our daily routine. So, why would anyone want to build a career around physical product development?

Simple, almost every software product or next big thing relies on a well-executed physical product development project. Apps need a place to run, games need a console to be played, and pictures need a camera to be taken.

Physical product development means dreaming of something that does not yet exist and solves an existing problem. It means taking an intangible idea and making it into a physical item that people can see, touch, and use.

The journey from ideation to creation, and then manufacturing can be difficult, but rewarding. By understanding the process, you'll find that not only is your inspiration worth pursuing, but it may be one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do.

From inspiration to perspiration

Every product development project begins with a vision, the identification of a problem and a solution for that problem. That initial spark of inspiration is what drives the entire project.

Look for a problem that hasn't been solved and solve that problem, or try the reverse. Think of a product idea, and then work backwards to find the need. Regardless, one cannot be successful without the other.

Projects require this problem, or need, because it embodies the product's target market. A product idea without a well-defined need has no reason to exist, and if it did, it would be downright perplexing.

Once you identify your need and idea, start your research.

Test the validity of your idea. How much of a market exists for your problem-solving miracle? Send out surveys, look at various markets, conduct data analyses, and generally, do everything in your power to ensure that your product should be made.

Then, start making something.

From concept to reality

The design, prototype and manufacturing stages are what bring your inspiration closer to reality. Turning it into a concrete product means letting go, and that can be scary.

Initial concept designs can be done in a variety of different ways. Detailed sketches and blueprints could be drawn up, or CAD drawings can be created. This concept design can help you explain your idea to others, including partners and investors. What works even better, though, are prototypes.

A prototype is a preliminary model of your product that can help you determine the feasibility of different aspects of your design. You can make a functional prototype, which acts as a proof-of-concept for your idea, or you may create aesthetic prototypes that will test the look and feel of your product.

Once you nail down the ideal appearance and physicality of your product, you will need to combine the two disciplines as seamlessly as possible. This performance prototype will effectively demo your final product.

Finally, you can prepare your product for production. Designing for manufacturability (DFM) means ensuring that your product can be made efficiently and cost-effectively. DFM allows you to mistake-proof your product by choosing the best manufacturing materials and methods, while keeping in mind the appropriate regulations for your desired market.

From nothing into something

The product development process often changes. Trends like crowdsourcing and innovative fast-to-market solutions constantly upend the process and make it new again. Some automakers, for example, want to innovate the design process using existing customer data — similar to how companies like Microsoft and Apple create iterative versions of their software product development projects.

Getting your product to market can be tough, but certain approaches can ease the burden. Create a simpler product. Fail fast and fail cheap with lean development, meaning limit your risk to maximize your return. Also, never underestimate the importance of customer feedback and intellectual property protection throughout the process.

With that said, invest in yourself and your inspiration, and you will avoid that nagging what if-mentality that drives regret. Great reward always requires risk, but there are also ways to invest smarter. Use available resources and give your dream the best chance for success.

------

Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.