Pandemic innovation

University of Houston spinout's smartphone COVID-19 test to head to market

Luminostics, which was founded out of a lab at UH, received NIH grant to produce its COVID-19 rapid antigen test. Photo courtesy of Luminostics

A Silicon Valley startup with Houston roots is helping tackle the COVID-19 pandemic with its smartphone-based coronavirus test.

Milpitas, California-based Luminostics, a University of Houston spinout, is producing millions of its Clip COVID Rapid Antigen Test for U.S. consumers after receiving emergency authorization for the product in December. The emergency approval closely followed the National Institutes of Health awarding a $26.1 million contract to Luminostics to speed up development of the coronavirus test. According to a news release from UH, Luminostics is working on an affordable next generation hardware system to reach the mass over-the-counter market at scale.

Chemical engineers and UH alumni Bala Raja, the CEO, and Andrew Paterson, the chief technology officer, began forming their company in the UH lab of Richard Willson, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and professor of biochemical and biophysical sciences.

The technology developed in the UH lab aims to equip consumers with rapid self-diagnostic tests for the flu, HIV, herpes, and other conditions by detecting the presence of bacteria, viruses, small molecules, hormones, and proteins. But Raja and Paterson put that strategy on hold last year and pivoted to re-engineering their technology for COVID-19 testing. The result: the Clip COVID Rapid Antigen Test.

"When we realized that COVID wasn't just a bad flu and that it was actually gonna go crazy and affect as many people as it has, we decided that everything we've done could be very quickly repurposed to make two different tests," Raja told Inc. magazine in April.

UH alumni Andrew Paterson and Bala Raja are co-founders of Luminostics. Photo via UH.edu

As UH explains, the Clip COVID test relies on a nasal swab, a smartphone clip, and glow-in-the-dark nanoparticles to detect a coronavirus infection within 30 minutes. In the phone, an image processor measures the intensity of the luminescence signal. If the signal is strong enough, the result is positive. If it's weak, the result is negative.

"We live in a world where you can have all your basic necessities delivered to your home through an app, and yet this pandemic has exposed how far behind the diagnostics industry lags compared to consumer technology and the convenience economy," Paterson tells UH.

Funding from the National Institutes of Health, venture capital firm Khosla Ventures, investment firm Lynette Capital, and startup accelerator Y Combinator has helped support the Clip COVID Rapid Antigen Test. The startup entered the Y Combinator program in 2016, a year after Raja and Paterson established Luminostics.

In April 2020, French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi said it was exploring a collaboration with Luminostics on the COVID-19 test.

"The diagnostics industry is saturated with products that cater to big, centralized labs or testing in the doctor's office," Paterson says. "There are many applications where it does make sense to do testing in a centralized lab, but there are dozens of other applications where there should be home-tests and there are not, because few companies have tried to take on the technical and regulatory challenges with developing home-testing."

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Building Houston

 
 

From a low-cost vaccine to an app that can help reduce exposure, here are the latest COVID-focused and Houston-based research projects. Photo via Getty Images

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

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