research roundup

University of Houston researchers studying COVID-19 prevention and treatment

The University of Houston, a Tier One research institution, has a few ongoing projects focusing on treating or preventing COVID-19. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Researchers across the country are focusing on all things COVID-19 — from biotherapies and treatment to vaccines and prevention. A handful of researchers based out of the University of Houston are doing their best to move the needle on a cure or reliable vaccine.

Here are three research projects currently ongoing at UH.

UH pharmacy professors take it back to basics

UH College of Pharmacy professors Gomika Udugamasooriya (left) and Bin Guo are studying how the virus enters the human body. Photo via uh.edu

When thinking about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, two UH pharmacy professors are looking at how the virus enters the body. Then, this information can help develop protection of that entry point.

"The human entry of coronaviruses depends on first binding of the viral spike proteins to human cellular receptors that basically offer a cellular doorknob," says Gomika Udugamasooriya, associate professor of pharmacological and pharmaceutical sciences, in a press release. "The virus latches onto the specific human cellular receptor, ACE2, and sneaks inside to replicate itself within the cell to spread throughout the body."

Now, the goal of new drugs and vaccines is to protect that ACE2. Udugamasooriya is working with Bin Guo, associate professor of pharmaceutics, on this research, which is in the initial screening levels and identified drug-lead validations. They are working to apply their unique cell-screening technology to identify specific synthetic chemical drug leads called peptoids that can bind to ACE2 receptor, according to the release.

"Peptoids are easier to make, compatible with biological systems and economical to produce," says Udugamasooriya.

Duo aims to create inhalation vaccine for COVID-19

Navin Varadarajan, UH engineering professor (left), and pharmaceutics professor Xinli Liu, pharmaceutics professor, are collaborating on development and testing of a COVID-19 inhalation vaccine. Photo via uh.edu

If the disease itself is airborne, can't the vaccine be too? That's what M.D. Anderson Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Navin Varadarajan looking into.

"For airborne pathogens, the nasal mucosa is the first point of defense that needs to be breached," says Varadarajan in a news release. "Mucosal immunity and vaccines are fundamentally important for a wide range of pathogens including influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the current SARS-CoV-2."

Varadarajan is focusing on the spike protein to protect at virus entry. These proteins are known for building strong immune responses, flexibility and scalability, and absence of infectious particles. He is working with Xinli Liu, associate professor of pharmaceutics.

"As with any vaccine, a variety of factors determine their efficacy including the antigen used for electing a response, the adjuvants and immunomodulators, the efficient delivery of the antigen to appropriate target cells, and the route of vaccination," Varadarajan says.

The man with three different vaccine options

UH Professor Shaun Zhang is in the process of developing three COVID-19 vaccine candidates for injection. Photo via uh.edu

Shaun Zhang, director for the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, usually works on developing treatment or vaccines for cancer and viral infection. Now, he's switched gears to work on three different vaccine candidates for COVID-19.

"The data collected from our studies show that our vaccine candidates can generate neutralizing antibodies, which can protect cells from infection by SARS-CoV-2 when tested in vitro," says Zhang in a press release. "We are now working on further improvement for the vaccine design."

Zhang's approach is neutralizing antibody production, and he's tapped into using "subunit vaccine containing either the entire spike protein or the receptor binding portion, which helps the virus enter the target cell, and delivered either by DNA formulation or by a herpes simplex virus-based vector," according to the release. Low cost and simplicity are two priorities for Zhang's work.

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Building Houston

 
 

Several Houston startups won kudos and more at recent competitions — plus more Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

What's the latest in news for the Houston innovation ecosystem? So glad you asked. Here's some local startup and tech news you might have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, an energy transition startup snagged $100,000 in a recent competition, four space health researchers were named to a Houston program, a Houston tech startup was tapped by Google for its recent cohort, and more.

Cemvita Factory wins $100,000 in clean energy competition

Cemvita Factory has secured wins in two recent startup competitions. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

A Houston company has been named the the $100,000 cash winner of an inaugural competition.

The GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge from Cleantech.org named Cemvita Factory as the big winner — out of six finalists. Another Houston company, Amperon Inc. , came in second place, followed by Skycool Systems in third place. The third Houston startup named to the finals, Veloce Energy, was named the crowd's favorite. The three Houston finalists were announced in June.

"Our top three startups face many challenges on the path to accelerating the energy transition, and we are honored to be a part of their journey. Startuplandia is a rough and tumble world, and it was a very close competition. Congrats to Moji Karimi and the Cemvita Factory team. Can't wait to see what you do next," says Neal Dikeman, chairman of Cleantech.org and a partner at one of the prize sponsors, Energy Transition Ventures, in a news release. "And a huge thanks to our accelerator and incubator partners. We look forward to working with everyone again in the future."

Cemvita Factory was also named the winner of The Ion's Houston Startup Showcase a few weeks ago.

Google taps Houston startup for latest cohort

Google has named DOSS to its Black Founders Accelerator. Photo via Pexels

A Houston startup has made it into the Google for Startups Accelerator: Black Founders cohort. DOSS, a digital, voice-activated real estate tool, was selected for the second cohort of the accelerator.

Bobby Bryant leads the company as founder and CEO. DOSS is joined by 10 other startups — including two other Texas companies, Dallas-based Zirtue and Fêtefully.

"Being a digital real estate search and transactional marketplace, this is a perfect opportunity for DOSS to have direct access to Google Engineers and Developers. This is a startup founder's dream to work with Google," Bryant writes in a LinkedIn post.

The program concludes with a showcase on Thursday, October 21 from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm.

Space health organization selects four fellows

These four fellows will continue their space health research with the support of TRISH. Photo via Pexels

Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has named four scientists to receive postdoctoral fellowship awards to further their career in space health. Each fellow will work on a two-year project that "addresses challenges to astronaut health during deep space exploration missions," according to a news release. The fellows also become part of the TRISH Academy of Bioastronautics, a forum for postdoctoral researchers working on TRISH research projects.

"The space industry needs a strong pool of highly-trained scientists focused on human health to return us to the moon," says Zélia Worman, TRISH scientific program manager and lead for postdoctoral career development, in the release. "TRISH has selected four postdoctoral fellows who are ready for the challenge. We are proud to welcome these outstanding scientists to our Academy of Bioastronautics and work with them to launch their career in space health and reach for the Moon and Mars safely."

The postdoctoral fellows are:

  • Kaylin Didier of the University of Wisconsin, Madison — focused on ionizing radiation and immune responses: exploring sex differences
  • James Jahng of Stanford University, California — focused on countermeasure development against myocardial mitochondrial stress by space radiation exposure
  • Heather McGregor of the University of Florida, Gainesville — focused on investigating planta somatosensory noise as a countermeasure for balance and locomotion impairments in simulated lunar and Martian gravity
  • Mallika Sarma of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland — focused on stress response and neurovestibular compensation and the potential ameliorative effects of team support

Houston energy consortium names winners in startup competition

Energy tech founders pitched at the Society of Petroleum Engineers' summit. Photo via Getty Images

The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summit from the Society of Petroleum Engineers-Gulf Coast Section concluded with a startup pitch event earlier this month. Three startups were recognized at the Shark Tank-style competition.

  • The judges selected Houston-based SaaS startup InerG as the winner.
  • The People's Choice winner was New Jersey-based Anax Power.
  • North Carolina-based Revolution Turbine was the runner-up, according to the judges, as well as received honorable mention from the People's Choice portion of the competition.
The judges of the event — or the "sharks" — included Plug and Play Director Payal Patel, Montrose Lane Managing Partner Ryan Gurney, CSL Ventures Vice President Abhinav Jain, and SCF Ventures Managing Director Hossam Eldadawy.

Capital Factory is calling for all female founders

Attention female founders — Capital Factory has a competition you need to know about. Photo via Getty Images

Austin-based Capital Factory's Texas Fund, in partnership with Beam Angel Network, Seven Seven Six Fund, and Golden Seeds (Houston), has announced a $100,000 Investment Challenge for its 4th Annual Women In Tech Summit on October 4. Capital Factory is looking for five technology startup finalists to pitch to a panel of advisors and judges made up of successful investors, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. The prize on the line? A $100,000 investment and membership into Capital Factory.

Any software, hardware, or CPG startup in Texas with a female founder or co-founder can apply to participate. The finalists will all be fast tracked into the Capital Factory portfolio, access to the Capital Factory Mentor network and coworking space, and up to $250,000 in potential total hosting credits from AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure and other major hosting providers. Capital Factory will receive: 1 percent common stock grant as advisor equity (separate from the investment) and the right to invest up to $250,000 in the next round of funding.

One winner will receive a $100,000 cash investment on a SAFE or Convertible Note using Capital Factory's term sheet and your most recent funding valuation, or a qualified term sheet provided by the company. The deadline is September 12. Submit your application

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