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.

InformAI can use its data technology to help doctors with preventative care and diagnoses. Courtesy of InformAI

A Houston-based startup has a new technology that allows hospitals and medical establishments better access to its own data – which translates into more effective diagnoses and preventative care.

InformAI — founded by Jim Havelka, CEO, in 2017 — is introducing the technology to the Texas Medical Center. Havelka saw a need within the medical industry for this type of service.

"There were several things missing," says Havelka. "One was access to very large data sets, because it wasn't really until the last five or 10 years that digitalization of data, especially in the healthcare vertical became more widespread and available in a format that's usable. The second convergence was the technology, the ability to process very large data sets."

InformAI currently offers four unique solutions using artificial intelligence and deep learning algorithms: Paranasal Sinus Classifier; Brain Cancer Classifier; Patient Outcome Predictors; and Surgical Risk Predictors.

According to the website, both medical image classifiers assist physicians in detecting the presence of medical conditions. The Paranasal Sinus Classifier detects and distinguishes medical conditions prevalent in the paranasal sinuses. The classifier assists physicians by evaluating sinus medical conditions at the point of care, speeding up radiologist workflow by flagging medical conditions for further review, and providing a triage of pending sinus patient study reviews. The Brain Cancer Classifier focuses on several tumor types and has the potential to provide radiologists and surgeons with additional insights to inform their diagnoses and treatment plans.

In addition to the classifier solutions, the predictors are also key to patient care, as InformAI patient outcome predictors evaluate the risk of adverse outcomes from a surgical procedure.

"Our data set has 275,000 surgical procedures that we can use to look for patterns, and then use that to understand how a patient may react to going through that surgical procedure and that's a very valuable input to surgeons," Havelka tells InnovationMap. Patient outcome risks include mortality, stroke, prolonged ventilation, infection, re-operation, and prolonged hospitalization.

"The innovation is the ability to use artificial intelligence to augment the capabilities of the physician and flag diagnostics for them to consider," says Havelka. "For example, one of our image classifiers that reads three-dimensional CT scans has the equivalent of thirty lifetimes of an expert EMT built into it. It would take thirty lifetimes of an EMT to see that same number of scans, or number of patients, in their lifetime, so these tools are quite valuable to learn patterns that these expert physicians just wouldn't have seen in their lifetime."

InformAI currently has 10 full-time employees and works with radiologists-in-residence in building solutions and conducting research. The startup partners with the Texas Medical Center, Nvidia, Amazon, and Microsoft.

"They're quite interested in what we've built because it's really cutting edge technology that we're doing," Havelka tells InnovationMap.

Havelka and his team also work with some of the largest physician groups and imaging companies in the country to build products. "At the end of the day our core competency is the ability to take data, medical images or patient data, and put it into a usable format to assist physicians in making better treatment decisions for patients," says Havelka. "We can flag and detect patterns, disease states, and risk profiles that can improve the decision making of the physicians for the patient.

InformAI has plans to fundraise this year, with a goal of raising $5 million to $6 million in a round.