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.

TMCx's 2020 cohort has been selected, and the program will begin virtually. Courtesy of TMCx

Now, more than ever, is time to think about the future of health care. Lucky for the Texas Medical Center, they've been doing that for years with their accelerator program, TMCx, which has just announced its latest cohort of health tech startups.

After redesigning the program, TMCx has been reimagined to better connect the startups and technology to TMC's member institutions. New this year was a bootcamp, in which 19 companies were invited to the TMC Innovation Institute in February to engage in programming with the TMCx team and TMC members.

"Bootcamp went off without a hitch," says Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the companies all got something meaningful out of it and we were actually very surprised with the reaction and response we got from our member institutions."

The goal of the bootcamp was to connect the 19 potential cohort members to the TMC community to see which companies the health care institutions gravitated toward for potential relationships, such as a pilot program, clinical trial, or a joint development opportunity, for instance, Black says on the episode.

Black says his team took into consideration all of the feedback and selected nine startups to be a part of the cohort. At this point, with the COVID-19-caused travel issues and closures, face-to-face interaction in the program has been postponed, but the accelerator will start of virtually.

"Out of respect for our hospitals and member institutions, we want to delay the physical presence of the companies in Houston," Black says in the episode. "But that doesn't mean we're not able to call or virtually meet with the companies. There's a lot of pre-work we can do in order to prep the companies appropriately so that when they do have meetings face to face, they can put their best foot forward."

Here are the nine startups selected to be a part of the TMCx 2020 cohort:

  • San Francisco-based Atlas Health — connecting patients with payment resources
  • San Francisco-based DeepScribe — autonomous medical scribe
  • Los Angeles-based Elly Health — live healthier through positivity
  • San Francisco-based Ferrum Health — reduce preventable medical errors
  • Toronto-based HelpWear — clinical grade wearable heart monitor
  • London-based Lantum — total workforce solution for healthcare
  • Denver-based Manatee — connected, everyday therapy for kids
  • Copenhagen-based Radiobotics — automate analysis of routine medical X-rays
  • Evanston, Illinois-based Rhaeos — wearable shunt monitor (Rhaeos previously won fourth place in the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition.)