Beaker to bedside

University of Houston researchers on why bridging the gap between academia and clinicians is key

There's a growing need for physician-scientists who can see from both sides of the table. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Physician-scientists are a group of specialized researchers at the intersection of medicine and technology. Earning both medical degrees and Ph.D.s, they offer a perspective beyond the scope of clinical practice.

Three such researchers discussed how they make the connections between discovery and patient care.

Why a dual education matters

Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston and M.D. Anderson professor of biology and biochemistry, knows exactly what the clinical demands are.

"I can see from the M.D. perspective, but at the same time I have a Ph.D. — I know how to design research properly," he says. "In the clinic, you're faced with reality that a patient is struggling but you don't have the tools to treat those patients. If you engage in research you can create a tool."

Zhang says clinicians know the need but may struggle to design a solution. A Ph.D., on the other hand, may only know basic research.

Renowned hormone researcher Jan-Åke Gustafsson, Robert A. Welch professor of biology and biochemistry and founding director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, agrees.

"The dual education makes it possible for you to see which diseases are in need of more research, drugs and so on," he says.

Physician-scientists are the driving force behind many advances of modern medicine.

"The way I look at it is, practicing medicine is relatively easy but coming up with the next diagnostic device or the next treatment for a disease is way more difficult, way more challenging," says Chandra Mohan, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Endowed professor of biomedical engineering at UH.

"You see patients with certain diseases, and you know there's a dire need for better diagnostics, earlier treatment, earlier diagnosis with fewer side effects," he says.

While researchers spend time primarily in the laboratory and clinical practitioners interact with patients, they both want to make an impact.

"We have made some discoveries which have led to the development of new drugs and better understanding of certain diseases," says Gustafsson. "There's a great satisfaction that it may help people to get healthy."

Traditional research brings value to a university

The synergy of this dual education makes these investigators valuable not only to academia, but also to medical science.

"I can't imagine doing translational research without medical training," Zhang says. "If you have this part without the other, you don't know where to go. With medical training, you know exactly which direction to go."

Mohan echos that assessment.

"When you start doing research there are so many questions you can answer," he says. "Sometimes there are questions which are just too basic. They're too far removed from how it will impact a patient's life. So what are the most important questions? I think questions that really make a difference in the patient's life are the most important."

Zhang notes that the National Institutes of Health has switched its funding philosophy — once focused on basic science, it now is more interested in translational research, with a direct relationship to patient health.

As physician-scientists, these "translators" of medical research are able to bridge the chasm.

Amr Elnashai, vice president/vice chancellor of research and technology transfer at UH, says physician-scientists play an important role.

"The increasing importance of deploying technology in medicine renders it essential for a progressive research university to hire medical Ph.D. holders who are in an ideal position to bridge the gap between engineering and science on the one hand, and the broad field of medicine on the other," he says.

Research groups that bring both fields together not only have a much higher probability of impacting lives by adopting the latest technology in medical applications, he adds, but they also give interdisciplinary teams greater access to specific funding pursue such solutions.

In that sense, says Elnashai, medical Ph.D. researchers play an important part of the future research university.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Nitiya Spearman is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston biotech startup focused on developing therapeutics for neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases has closed its IPO. Photo via Getty Images

A clinical-stage biotech company based in Houston has announced the closing of its $15.25 million IPO.

Coya Therapeutics, now trading under the ticker COYA, announced this week that its IPO — previously disclosed in December — has closed its initial public offering of 3,050,000 shares of its common stock and accompanying warrants to purchase up to 1,525,000 shares of common stock, per a news release.

The company is developing proprietary therapies to enhance the function of regulatory T cells to target systemic inflammation and neuroinflammation.

According to the company, the net proceeds from the offering — which was estimated to be at around $13.2 million, per a release — will go toward advancing its programs in preclinical studies into clinical trials — as well as to advance its discovery and candidate selection stage programs and other scaling purposes.

A year ago, Coya Therapeutics announced that it had merged with Nicoya Health Inc. and raised $10 million in its series A. The round was led by Florida-based Allele Capital Partners LLC. Howard Berman, founder and board of directors for imaware, was named the CEO of Coya, as well as a member of the company's board of directors, alongside the merger and series A announcement.

Coya's therapeutics uses innovative work from Dr. Stanley H. Appel, co-director of Houston Methodist Neurological Institute and Chair of the Stanley H. Appel Department of Neurology at Houston Methodist Hospital. The researcher has created a way to "isolate dysfunctional Tregs from a patient, convert them to a highly functional and neuroprotective condition, and expand these cells into the billions for intravenous reinfusion back to the patient," says Berman in a 2022 news release. This revolutionary work overcomes previous limitations in the field.

"Patients with neurodegenerative diseases are in desperate need of transformative therapeutic options; harnessing the neuroprotective effects of Treg cell therapy shows great potential in unlocking a new treatment paradigm and may enable us to revolutionize care for patients with devastating neurodegenerative diseases," Appel said last February. "We have successfully demonstrated, in a phase 1 trial, the safety and tolerability of autologous infusions of expanded Tregs in ALS patients, with the potential of slowing or halting disease progression. Ongoing studies provide a transformative framework for advanced clinical trials in ALS and other neurodegenerative disorders."

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