Muscle Man

This Houston biotech company hopes to one day fix your aging muscles

Houston-based Ridgeline Therapeutics isn't going to allow you beat aging, but someday it may well help you to live without muscle loss or diabetes. Getty Images

Stan Watowich's conversation flits with ease from restaurants to solving the homeless crisis. His active mind has made him a serial inventor. But the founder and current CEO of Ridgeline Therapeutics, a spin-off company of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston where he is an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, also has a razor-sharp focus when it comes to discussing his research. He wants to make it clear that he is not going to cure aging.

"You and I are still going to get old," he says. "But we have our hopes that as we get old our muscles will stay healthy."

He's talking about the drug candidate, RLT-72484. It has been shown to reactivate muscle stem cells and regenerate skeletal muscle in aged laboratory mice. We've all seen it in elderly humans: Your grandparents are shrunken from their younger selves because their muscles no longer regenerate at the rate that they once did.

"When you go to the gym, you feel that burn which indicates that you have muscle damage. Your stem cells are responsible for repairing this damage and building your muscles," Watowich explains. Stem cells simply don't repair at the same rate in older individuals.

That's why, for example, elderly people who break a hip often fare poorly in the aftermath. It's not uncommon to face a difficult period of physical therapy following hip fracture surgery. Many patients do not return to independent living. And, the mortality rate one year after a hip fracture can be as high as 30 percent. If RLT-72484 proves to work as well in humans as it does in animal models, it could make it easier for patients to gain muscle after a fall.

But even for healthy older adults, muscle decline can cause problems. Travel is difficult if you don't have the muscle strength for long walks. Playing with grandchildren is a challenge if your mobility is compromised. Watowich's vision is to prevent muscle decline or at least slow it down.

The drug could also potentially help muscular dystrophy patients. The genetic diseases identified under that umbrella diagnosis all cause muscle loss before old age, sometimes even in infancy. If RLT-72484 fulfills its promise, it could allow MD patients to live more normal lives.

In the University of Texas Medical Branch study, the mice's muscle fiber doubled in size while muscle strength increased by 70 percent. The team published a study last month describing its results. The next year will be spent on studies necessary to win FDA approval to begin testing on humans.

Muscle loss isn't the only big problem Ridgeline Therapeutics is seeking to address. Obesity-linked diabetes is also in Watowich's sights. His team has come up with a small molecule that shrinks fat tissue in obese animals. In studies published last year, mice lost seven percent of their body weight in 10 days of treatment without changing their diets. The animals remained obese, but their fat deposits had decreased in size by 30 percent. The drug on its own cannot make obese people thin, but it may help diabetics to return to a non-diabetic state.

Ridgeline Therapeutics is based in the Texas Medical Center. Watowich explains that 98 percent of biotech companies fail, so it's his goal to "stay lean" and use the $4.2 million award the company received from the Department of Defense to get their technologies into human trials. The company will likely move to the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Labs collaboration space in the next few months.

But of course, what Ridgeline Technologies has to offer is most exciting of all. Remember, it's not going to allow you beat aging. But someday it may well help you to live without muscle loss or diabetes.

Tom Luby will run the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

Tom Luby is in his first week as TMC Innovation Institute director, but it's safe to say he's hit the ground running. The former head of JLABS @ TMC is ready to continue the growth of the institute as well as open up new doors to funding and the rest of the world.

"My hope is that I can be helpful to all the parties here to continue to recruit and grow great startups here," Luby says. "Critically important, too, is additional funding and bringing that here. And all of us are working together toward the successful launch of TMC3."

Luby spoke with InnovationMap about what all he has on his plate and how he plans on making Houston known for its life sciences.

InnovationMap: After working for Johnson & Johnson in Boston, when did you relocate Houston?

Tom Luby: In 2017, when the opportunity came up that I can join the team in Houston and grow our JLABS at TMC, I jumped at the chance, moved my family down to Houston, and have loved it ever since. I've loved the life science startup community here — it's small, but growing quickly — and what it has to offer to our family in terms of the diversity, the friendliness of people, the ease of getting to know people, and, obviously, the weather. When you come from the northeast, the Houston weather is nice.

IM: Boston has this major life science innovation reputation. How do we get Houston to have that same reputation?

TL: It's not very fair to compare Boston and Houston. The Boston life science community is around 40 years in the making. There's been a focus on that for a very long time, and as a result of all the startup activity through the '80s, '90s and into the 2000s, Boston has seen an influx of almost all the major pharmaceutical and biotech companies. All of them have footprints there because they want to be close to the startups. So, that mix of startup activity being embedded with lots of corporates has created a bit of a yin and yang situation — corporates are looking to pull the products from the startups into their pipelines and the startups have pulled talent from the corporates.

Houston's in a different place than that. If you roll the Boston tape back lets say 20 years where Boston was focused on generating a place where life science startups could have a chance to develop and be successful, that's where Houston is. We've gotten to a point where we're starting to see a really good density. Over the past four years, over 250 companies have touched down here at some point. That type of density is needed then to do that second part and recruit some of the larger health care corporations.

IM: Coming from J&J, what expertise do you feel like you are bringing to the table?

TL: What I hope to be helpful with is providing an overall strategic vision around TMC Innovation that allows us to scale from what's already been done here. Like I just mentioned, there have been 250 companies that have been here at some point in the past four years. That doesn't happen without the great efforts of those that came before me — the TMCx team in particular, but the JLABS team, the Biodesign team down the hall have created a really interesting and rapidly growing place for health care startups.

IM: What are some of your goals for the TMC Innovation Institute?

TL: In the short term, what we're going to focus on making sure that when people show up to the TMC Innovation Institute, they have a great experience, whether they are engaged with TMCx, biodesign, JLABS, etc. So, it's important for us to be well coordinated, working cooperatively together, and everyone focused on being service first when it comes to the startups here. What we hope to create is an environment where startups come and have an experience that leaves them knowing that that experience gives them the best chance at being successful. In addition, as we begin to engage with partners who can provide venture capital and angel funds, it's the same thing, that they come here and have an efficient, coordinated experience.

So short term, it's pulling it all together so that when you think of TMC Innovation, you know what it is, how it's organized and what our mission is. We'll also be making additional efforts to engage with the member institutions in TMC, and that they understand that we're a resource to them.

IM: The current TMCx cohort is the most international to date. Between that and the new focus on TMC's biobridges, why is a global presence so important to TMC Innovation?

TL: Biobridges are about making sure that important geographies outside the US understand that the TMC is a place where their startups can come and be successful.

It's important for TMC to use the bridge to gain insight and access into specific areas that we feel that those countries have core strengths in. Australia and its clinical trials networks is a great example of that. Our companies having access to tap into that is incredibly important. We know that those bio bridges will benefit our startups and give the startups there a chance to have access to us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.