COOGS TACKLE COVID

University of Houston partners with local company to develop cutting-edge COVID vaccine

UH and a local company are developing a new COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Getty Images

A major Houston university has taken a big leap in the race to battle debilitating diseases such as COVID-19. The University of Houston has entered into an exclusive license option agreement with AuraVax Therapeutics Inc., a Houston-based biotech company developing novel vaccines against aggressive respiratory diseases such as coronavirus, according to a press release.

This means AuraVax has the option to exclusively license a new intranasal COVID-19 vaccine technology developed by Navin Varadarajan, an M.D. Anderson professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Varadarajan is a co-founder of AuraVax.

The vaccine is a nasal inhalant, much like FluMist. Based on pre-clinical experimentation, Varadarajan reports his technology not only elicits a mucosal immune response, but also systemic immunity, according to UH.

"We plan to stop COVID-19, a respiratory virus, at its point of entry — the nasal cavity — and we believe our intranasal platform is a differentiated approach that will lead to a vaccine with increased efficacy to create sustained immunity to COVID-19," said Varadarajan in a statement.

So how does it work? Varadarajan is utilizing the spike protein, which helps the virus enter the target cell, and is the major target for neutralizing antibodies as it binds to the ACE 2 cellular receptor, for virus entry. The professor prefers using proteins because of their ability to induce strong immune responses, flexibility and scalability, and the absence of infectious particles, per UH.

Varadarajan's company, AuraVax, has created a next-generation vaccine platform that combines the potential of in-home administration with the ability to deliver complete immunity. The technology has been validated for COVID-19 in initial animal studies and results in immunity measured by both B-cell and T-cell responses.

"We believe AuraVax has a competitive advantage given the immune responses and a supply chain that is well-suited for widespread distribution and self-administration distribution," said Varadarajan. "We are excited to be collaborating with the University of Houston and look forward to future success by advancing the development of this novel intranasal vaccine technology to address a multitude of respiratory viruses, starting with COVID-19."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

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