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.

A new accelerator program will aim to advance cancer therapeutics technology. Photo courtesy of TMC

The Texas Medical Center is taking a step forward in cancer prevention and treatment thanks to a multimillion-dollar grant from a Texas organization.

Last month, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas announced 71 new statewide grants that totaled $136 million. TMC was the recipient of a $5 million grant that is being used to develop a new accelerator geared at designing new cancer therapeutics treatments.

"Texas Medical Center is proud to be among the esteemed organizations chosen by the CPRIT from across the State of Texas that have been targeted to continue to take the fight to the front lines when it comes to cancer and its deleterious effects on patients and their loved ones," says TMC CEO and president, Bill McKeon, in a release.

TMC | ACT, which stands for Accelerating Cancer Therapeutics, will be a nine-month program of biotech entrepreneurship training and drug development.

"This funding will be critical to the success of our newly formed TMC | ACT program, which will unite business, pharmaceutical, and academic leaders from across the country with the world's largest medical city in order to accelerate the translation of cancer breakthroughs into new drugs that will help save the lives of an untold number of cancer patients," McKeon continues in the release.

The program will bring together startups and researchers for training and mentoring for lessons in market research, FDA regulation, intellectual property, licensing, fundraising, and more. According to the release, the program will conclude with at least one grant and a venture capital pitch day.

This is the second new program TMC has launched this year; TMCalpha was announced in June at the TMCx pitch event. This new program is also geared at connecting research and commercialization and hosts regular events for TMC staff members who have early-stage medical technology ideas.