Research roundup

These are 4 medical innovations coming out of Houston institutions

These four medical research projects are ones to watch in Houston. Getty Images

Houston — home to one of the largest medical centers in the world — isn't a stranger when it comes to medical innovations and breakthrough research discoveries.

In the latest roundup of research innovations, four Houston institutions are working on innovative and — in some cases — life-saving research projects.

Houston Methodist study observes that strep throat germ is becoming resistant to antibiotics 

If the germ, group A streptococcus, continues to grow resistant to antibiotics, it can have a profoundly negative affect on the millions who get the illness annually. Photo via houstonmethodist.org

Researchers at Houston Methodist have discovered some troubling information about the strains of group A streptococcus that cause strep throat and a flesh-eating disease are becoming more resistant to beta-lactams antibiotics like penicillin.

James M. Musser is the lead author of the study and chair of Methodist's Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine. The study — which received funding from grants from the Fondren Foundation, Houston Methodist Hospital and Houston Methodist Research Institute, and the National Institutes of Health — appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, according to a news release.

"If this germ becomes truly resistant to these antibiotics, it would have a very serious impact on millions of children around the world," Musser says in the release. "That is a very concerning but plausible notion based on our findings. Development of resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics would have a major public health impact globally."

Musser and his team found 7,025 group A streptococcus strains that have been recorded around the world over the past several decades. Of those strains, 2 percent had gene mutations that raised the alarm for the researchers and, upon investigation, Musser's team came to the conclusion that antibiotic treatments can eventually be less effective — or even completely ineffective. This, Musser says, calls for an urgent need to develop a vaccine.

"We could be looking at a worldwide public health infectious disease problem," says Musser in the release. "When strep throat doesn't respond to frontline antibiotics such as penicillin, physicians must start prescribing second-line therapies, which may not be as effective against this organism."

University of Houston professor is searching for a way to stop persistent cells that cause chronic infections

University of Houston Professor Mehmet Orman is looking into cells that are able to persist and cause chronic illnesses. Photo via uh.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston, is looking into a specific type of persister cells that have been found to be stubborn and drug-resistant.

The research, which is backed by a $1.9 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, could answer questions about chronic health issues like airway infections in cystic fibrosis patients, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis, according to a news release.

"If we know how persister cells are formed, we can target their formation mechanisms to eliminate these dangerous cell types," says Orman in a news release.

Orman is looking into cells' self-digestion, or autophagy, process that is found to stimulate persister formation. Per the release, cells can survive periods of starvation by eating their own elements. Specifically, Orman will analyze self-digestion in E. coli.

"By integrating our expertise in bacterial cell biology with advanced current technologies, we aim to decipher the key components of this pathway to provide a clear and much-needed picture of bacterial self-digestion mechanisms," says Orman in the release.

Baylor College of Medicine is working to understand and prevent post-op kidney failure

operation

Some patients are predisposed to kidney injury following surgery, this study found. Photo via bcm.edu

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine are looking into the lead cause of kidney failure in patients who undergo surgery. Individuals who have heightened levels of suPAR protein — soluble urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor — have a greater risk of this post-op complication, according to a news release.

"suPAR is a circulating protein that is released by inflammatory cells in the bone marrow and produced by a number of cell/organs in the body," says Dr. David Sheikh-Hamad, professor of medicine – nephrology at Baylor College of Medicine and collaborating author of the study, in the release.

The study, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, conducted research on mice that were engineered to hive high suPAR levels in their blood. Compared to the control mice, the suPAR mice had more risk of kidney industry. These mice were given suPAR-blocking antibodies, which then helped reduce kidney injury.

"This protective strategy may be used in humans expressing high suPAR levels prior to contrast exposure, or surgery to decrease the likelihood of developing kidney failure," Sheikh-Hamad says in the release.

Rice University research finds expressing emotions during mourning is healthier

Christopher Fagundes of Rice University analyzed the emotions of 99 widows and widowers. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A new study done by researchers at Rice University finds that spouses that lose their husband or wife and try to suppress their grief are not doing themselves any favors. The study monitored 99 people who had recently lost a spouse, according to a news release.

"There has been work focused on the link between emotion regulation and health after romantic breakups, which shows that distracting oneself from thoughts of the loss may be helpful," says Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator, in a news release. "However, the death of a spouse is a very different experience because neither person initiated the separation or can attempt to repair the relationship."

The study included asking participants to respond to how they felt about certain coping strategies, as well as blood tests to measure cytokines levels‚ an inflammatory marker.

"Bodily inflammation is linked to a host of negative health conditions, including serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack," Fagundes says in the release.

The research, which was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, found that the participants who avoided their emotions suffered more of this bodily inflammation.

"The research also suggests that not all coping strategies are created equal, and that some strategies can backfire and have harmful effects, especially in populations experiencing particularly intense emotions in the face of significant life stressors, such as losing a loved one," adss Richard Lopez, an assistant professor of psychology at Bard College and lead author of the study, in the release.

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Building Houston

 
 

Impact Hub Houston has signed a new lease for the Downtown Houston Launch Pad, Rice students re-think dorm design, and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and not all make the news. For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Houston startup incubator has a new home, a local school creates AI-focused program, Astros manager taps into sports tech, and more.

Impact Hub Houston makes downtown partnership

Impact Hub Houston has a new headquarters in downtown. Photo courtesy of Central Houston

Impact Hub Houston, a nonprofit organization that promotes and accelerates sustainability-focused startups, is resident partner at Downtown Launchpad, according to Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The organization now has a 10-year lease and a new headquarters for its team and events. Impact Hub joins two accelerator programs — MassChallenge Texas and gener8tor — which both have a global presence and launched in Houston in the past two years.

"We celebrate Central Houston's vision in launching this 'vertical village' and appreciate their ongoing support in including Impact Hub Houston as a part of it," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur, and now we have that village with the infrastructure and community to raise generations of diverse innovators. It's another exciting step towards our goal to build an authentically inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem that looks like Houston and works for all in our region."

HCC introduces artificial intelligence program

Data science startup based in Houston focus on neuroscience software nabs $3.78M grant

A local college system is training the future AI workforce. Getty Images

Houston Community College is the first community college in the state to introduce a new program focused on artificial intelligence. The new Associate of Applied Science degree program has been approved by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, according to a press release from HCC, and is available for the fall 2020 semester at HCC Southwest, HCC Northeast and HCC Southeast.

"It is the latest of HCC's ongoing efforts to embrace new technologies and keep a pulse on the ever-changing needs of the industry," HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado says in the release. "Offering an innovative program like AI will allow our students to take advantage of all the accelerated job openings in Houston, in Texas and beyond."

The new program exists to fill the rising need for AI professionals. Last year, the job site indeed.com identified machine learning engineers at the top of its annual list of the 25 best jobs, citing a 344 percent increase in job postings from 2015 to 2018 with an annual base salary of $146,000.

"Because of a dire shortage of AI specialists, many companies are offering big salaries," says G. Brown, Ph.D., program coordinator of Networking and Telecommunications at HCC Southwest, in the release. "AI specialists are in high demand by companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, as well as NASA and SpaceX."

Rice project re-envisions dorm layouts

The dorm design created socially-distant spaces that can be used in times of a pandemic. Photo via rice.edu

Two Rice University students received top marks in the 2020 American Institute of Architects Houston (AIAH) Gulf Coast Green Student Competition for their pandemic-proof dorm design. Carrie Li and Mai Okimoto, both 2022 Rice master's of architecture students, won first place in the competition that challenged students to design a dorm for the University of Houston-Downtown that would adhere to the Centers for Disease Control's social distancing guidelines.

"Carrie and Mai's timely and innovative proposal is beautifully conceived, highly resolved and elegantly presented," says interim dean, John J. Casbarian, in a news release. "I am particularly struck by how seamlessly it addresses the pressing issues of flooding, natural ventilation and social distancing, and how well sited it is in relation to UHD while mitigating the adversity of the freeway expansion.The competition consisted of eight teams from Texas and Louisiana which presented to judges from Kirksey, PDR Corporation, Gensler, Walter P Moore and UH-D. Li and Okimoto's project features 432 units across three villages and even factored in the area's flooding challenges.

"[Our design] aims to: allow social interaction to happen on different scales, from the one-on-one connection to larger scale gatherings; provide the users with safe but varied circulation paths, through which natural ventilation also occurs; treat dining as a key socializing program; and address the site's flooding risks and impacts of the I-45 corridor expansion," Li says in the release.

City of Houston passes small business-focused economic relief initiative

A new program from the city of Houston is helping to provide funds for businesses affected by COVID-19. Getty Images

Last week, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston City Council passed the city's Small Business Economic Relief Program, funded with $15 million of the City's allocated CARES Act 2020 funds. Small businesses can apply for up to $50,000 and the grant can be used for payroll, accounts payable, rent, mortgage, PPE for employees, marketing strategies, including creating an online presence and other sales alternatives.

"We know small businesses throughout Houston have suffered greatly due to the global pandemic, and it could take months or years before the business climate returns to normal," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "I thank Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex Tatum and other council members for bringing this program forward. We are working on other relief packages that will keep us Houston Strong as we navigate the public health crisis."

The program will be administered by Houston's Office of Business Opportunity and the Houston Business Development Inc.

To qualify for the SBERP, businesses must be located in Houston, have been in business for at least one year, provide evidence for revenue decrease due to COVID-19-caused closures, have less than $2 million in gross annual revenue pre-COVID-19, be in good standing with the city, and commit to complete technical assistance.

"The SBERP will help all sizes of small businesses move one step closer toward financial recovery. This program is intended to maximize the long-term, positive impact of these small businesses on our local economy through their contribution to job retention and the continued availability of their services," says Marsha Murray, director for the Office of Business Opportunity, in the release. "If our local small businesses did not qualify for other federal or local programs, or did not receive enough funds to mitigate the impact of the crisis, we encourage them to apply for this program."

Astros manager joins venture capital firm

Not only is Dusty Baker at the helm of the 2017 World Series-winning Astros, but he's also a founding partner of a sports-focused venture capital firm. Getty Images

The Houston Astros manager, Dusty Baker, is a founding partner of a new venture capital firm focused on sports tech and innovation. New York-based Turn2 Equity Partners is a new fund is beginning with a focus on amateur and professional baseball markets.

"For decades, baseball players, managers and executives have lended their credibility to brands as endorsers," Baker says in a press release. "With the establishment of Turn2 Equity, for the first time, faces of the game have the opportunity to own and influence people at all levels."

Co-founded by sports venture capitalists Jarett Sims and Peter Stein, the firm's team also includes Jim Duquette, New York Mets general manager; Bobby Evans, who was formerly with the San Francisco Giants as general manager; and John Haegele, the former CEO of Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment.

GotSpot Inc. wins veterans competition

A Houston startup that's using technology to optimize short-term real estate space took home a prize in a virtual pitch competition. Image via LinkedIn

Houston-based GotSpot Inc. has claimed another pitching competition prize for veteran-owned businesses. Reda Hicks, founder of the Houston startup, received third place and $10,000 at the Ford Fund Virtual Pitch Competition last month. Memphis-based Pure Light Clean Air Services took first place and $15,000 and Raleigh, North Carolina-based Blue Recruit won second place and $10,000.

"The experiences, teamwork and skills learned in service of our country can serve as a solid foundation for these men and women as they build sustainable businesses," says Yisel Cabrera, manager of the Ford Motor Company Fund, in a news release. "We're proud to work with Bunker Labs to assist these inspiring entrepreneurs as they pursue new roads to success."

Calling all energy startups

Upstream startups can submit to a new virtual pitch competition. Photo via atce.org

The Society of Petroleum Engineers is calling for applications from energy startups to compete in a virtual pitch competition. Applications for the ATCE Startup Village, which is a collaboration between SPE and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, are live online and due by August 14. The competition will take place Tuesday, October 13.

The competition is free to compete and to apply, and open to early stage upstream technology companies. Each company selected to present will have 5 to 8 minutes to provide a "quick pitch" about their company to a group of venture capitalists, angel investors, and industry leaders. Judging will be based on innovative technology, commercial strategy and business plan, market potential, and management team and advisers.

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