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Jan 15, 2011 (Vol. 31, No. 2)

Houston Biostartups Strong in Innovation

Companies Ride Robust Economic Wave That's Been Washing Over the State of Texas

  • The recession slowed the economy in many parts of the United States, but Houston, Texas, boasts a job growth rate of 11.7%, compared to an average 1.2% nationally, according to Newsweek (November 15, 2010). The city’s 160 life science companies account for some of that growth.

    Innovations from local medical centers and universities spawn biotechnology startups. The Texas Medical Center, considered one of the world’s largest medical complexes, includes the University of Texas Health Science Center, Baylor College of Medicine, University of Houston, Texas Heart Institute, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Nearby Rice University pioneered nanotechnology, and two of its researchers received the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering buckminsterfullerenes, the building blocks of nanotechnology.

    Fledgling life science companies are aided by the state’s $200 million Texas Emerging Technology Fund, set up to speed innovation and commercialize research. “The funds help companies cross the valley of death,” says Deborah Mansfield, director of the life sciences program at the Houston Technology Center, a nonprofit business accelerator. The “valley of death” refers to the years after basic research identifies a promising technology, but the discovery needs validation to attract venture capital. Numerous examples exist that demonstrate that Houston’s strong scientific and business climate is helping to advance numerous startups.

  • Better Therapies

    NanoSpectra Biosciences was formed in 2002 to advance the discovery of gold nanoparticles that absorb near-infrared light and destroy solid tumors. The gold nanoparticles are sized so that they naturally accumulate in the leaky vasculature of tumors, but not healthy tissues. The AuroLase® Therapy is infused into the bloodstream of patients with solid tumors then 12 to 36 hours later, the tumor is zapped with a near-infrared laser. The gold nanoparticles convert the light to heat, killing 90% of tumor cells.

    AuroLase Therapy “is ideal for tumors that have irregular borders or are near critical structures,” says Don Payne, president and CEO. AuroLase is in clinical testing for head-and-neck tumors, and a trial in prostate cancer will start this year. By targeting only tumor cells in the prostate, the treatment should eliminate common side effects of incontinence and erectile dysfunction. Brain and lung cancer also are prime candidates for AuroLase Therapy, which is reportedly synergistic with radiation and chemotherapy.

    Lone Star Heart  uses proteins and small molecule drugs to stimulate the repair of damaged heart tissue. Co-founder Robert Schwartz, director of stem cell engineering at the Texas Heart Institute, discovered that two proteins act in tandem to convert normal human fibroblasts into myocytes. “They do it reproducibly over and over by activating cardiac progenitor cells,” he says.

    The proteins are being made recombinantly in bacteria; then they will be tested for their ability to regenerate damaged heart tissue in pigs. If successful, the company will file an IND application. Other co-founders, Eric Olson and Jay Schneider at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, discovered that the drug isoxasole activates different genes in pericardial cells to promote tissue growth. The company’s goal is to find new combination therapies to regenerate human heart cells damaged by heart attacks and other diseases.

    NSAIDs are in the pipeline at PLx Pharma. Rather than discover new NSAIDs, the company combines the phospholipid lecithin, derived from soybeans, with over-the-counter aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal toxicity. Lenard Lichtenberger, Ph.D., professor of integrative biology and pharmacology at the University of Texas Health Science Center and the company’s CSO, created the process.

    He discovered that phospholipids naturally protect stomach lining from acid damage, but NSAIDs perturb the natural phospholipid barrier and allow stomach acid to cause injury.

    “Our approach was to find something similar to native phospholipids that allows aspirin to move through cell membranes easily, yet preserves the protective barrier,” says Ron Zimmerman, president and CEO.

    A study in the November 16, 2010 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology showed that in healthy middle-age people taking 325 milligrams of aspirin daily, PLx’ formulation reduced ulcerative damage to the gastrointestinal tract by threefold compared to regular aspirin.

    Finding ways to complex lecithin to NSAIDs proved surprisingly challenging, especially for aspirin, which rapidly degrades in the presence of moisture. Each NSAID requires a unique formulation. The methods at PLx are more complex than enteric coatings now on the market, which only push NSAIDs farther down the gastrointestinal tract. The company plans to carry their NSAID products through the development stage, then seek commercialization partners.

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