in need of PPE

Houston tech community answers the call for medical equipment amid coronavirus-caused shortages

A startup and a nonprofit makerspace have rallied to create PPE, or personal protective equipment, for local hospitals. Getty Images

In the span of one day, the founders of Houston-based Lazarus 3D received calls from emergency room directors and physicians and vice presidents of hospitals explaining a dire need for personal protective equipment — like surgical masks and face shields — for medical professionals in the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.

"We stopped everything we were doing," says Jacques Zaneveld, co-founder of Lazarus, which makes 3D-printed human organs for surgeons to practice on. "We've moved 100 percent of our focus on developing PPE."

Now, Zaneveld with his co-founder, Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld, have manufacturing orders in for 700,000 surgical masks weekly and have designed a non-FDA approved face shield, which they have ordered a few million of. The duo has taken out a short-term loan to front the cost of the medical equipment and are now looking for the right customers to buy these new PPE products. All hospitals and medical professionals in need of supplies can head to Lazarus' website to request more info.

"Our personal feeling has been to do whatever we can do to build as many as possible," Jacques tells InnovationMap. "It's very stressful because I'm borrowing money that we don't have in order to set up these production lines."

On the other side of town, 3D printing nonprofit TXRX has reprogramed 30 of its 3D printers to make PPE. The nonprofit is working Memorial Hermann to quickly prototype and test items made with materials they can get their hands on.

The Center for Disease Control has relaxed some of the requirements for PPE in light of the crisis and shortage, and Roland von Kurnatowski, president at TX/RX Labs, says that has helped speed up their efforts. But, the biggest challenge, he says, has been to quickly get together a design and prototype for Memorial Hermann to give them feedback so that they can then produce the products.

"I think there are a lot of people out there producing devices, but I think the problem is there's not a lot of clarity around materials, quality, and acceptance. People are doing what they can with what they've got," says von Kurnatowski. "Our hope working with Memorial Hermann was to make sure we are devising and testing devices that are functional and appropriate.

TXRX is also relying on Memorial Hermann and others in the medical community to indicate which PPE devices are most needed. Currently, the nonprofit is printing 10,000 face shields for Memorial Hermann, but also has designs for N95 respirators, surgical masks, a positive air pressure respirator (or PAPR), Tyvek suit, and even a portable shield for the intubation process.

Von Kurnatowski says the Houston community can get involved by donating to TXRX's GoFundMe campaign. The 3D printing process is quick and local, but expensive and out of budget for hospitals, so TXRX is taking a loss on its products it is creating. The organization is also looking for people who might have 3D printing materials or experience to volunteer — TXRX has about 20 people working on this but hopes that number ramps up to 60 to 80 people helping out.

Crisis also brings the community together in their time of need — that's what Zaneveld says he sees happening.

"Everyone who is at all involved in the medical space in engineering in Houston is trying to put stuff out," Zaneveld says. "We're sharing information and trying to work together to support each other."

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Building Houston

 
 

Allterum Therapeutics Inc., a portfolio company of Fannin Innovation Studio, is using the funds to prepare for clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

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