funds for the future

Houston-based research grant program doles out $23M to Texas scientists

The Welch Foundation has announced millions in Texas research funding. Photo via Getty Images

One of the nation's largest private funders for health care research has announced $23 million in fresh funds — and about a third of that is going into the hands of Houstonians.

The Welch Foundation, based in Houston, announced its 2021 research grant funding last week. Over the next three years, the funds will be be distributed in $7,520,000 payouts annually across the state of Texas. Since its founding in 1954, the foundation has doled out almost $1.1 billion to the advancement of chemistry.

"Ongoing basic chemical research is critical and provides the building blocks to help solve current and future problems," says Adam Kuspa, president of The Welch Foundation, in a news release. "Funding from The Welch Foundation is a valuable resource to Texas institutions. It helps set our state's researchers apart from others and we look forward to seeing what invaluable scientific contributions come from this year's grant recipients."

The universities in the Houston area that received a cut of this chunk of funding include Rice University, Texas A&M University, University of Houston, and Baylor College of Medicine for a total of $8,400,000 across 35 grants.

One of the Houston-area researchers who received funding is Leila Romero, assistant professor and CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research at Baylor University's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Romero and her team is exploring modes of asymmetric catalysis and to study how these new processes work. According to the release, the funding will also support the training of young graduate students at the institution who are on track to become future innovators in chemical synthesis.

Other Texas institutions in other major cities also received funding:

  • The Dallas/Fort Worth area received funding for 42 grants, totaling $10,080,000. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, The University of Texas at Dallas, University of North Texas, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, and Texas Christian University were the recipient institutions.
  • In Austin, the University of Texas Received funding for 11 grants, totaling $2,640,000.
  • The University of Texas at San Antonio and Trinity University received the three grants — totaling $720,000 — that went to the San Antonio area.
  • In West Texas, The University of Texas at El Paso received funding for 1 grant, totaling $240,000.
  • Texas Tech University received funding for two grants, totaling $480,000

Last year, the Welch Foundation announced a $100 million gift to Rice University to establish The Welch Institute. The institute will foster the study of matter, the design and discovery of new materials, and nanotechnology, and it will be led by an independent board of directors and scientific advisory board.

Kuspa, who's led the foundation since September 2019, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last December to discuss the new institute and the importance of supporting researchers in Texas.


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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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