In the City with the World’s Largest Medical Center, There’s Still No Biotech—Yet

REYNOLDS DELGADO DOESN’T REMEMBER EXACTLY when the idea came to him. There was no eureka moment. But after working with thousands of heart-failure patients, watching most of them die, he knew there had to be a better way to treat more patients, earlier, to alleviate their suffering.

When your heart begins to fail, you might start to feel fatigued and weak, with swollen legs, an irregular heartbeat, and a cough that won’t go away—the result of your heart’s inability to pump enough blood and oxygen to your organs. Sometimes, the condition can be treated with medicine. But when it reaches an advanced stage, surgery is required, either for a heart transplant, or the implementation of a left-ventricular assist device, or LVAD.

Both options require open-heart surgery, a complicated procedure that involves cracking the patient’s sternum, opening the chest, placing the body on a heart-lung machine and stopping the heart before either replacing it with a donor’s organ, or—as a stopgap—implanting a device that will help it pump blood until a transplant is available. In many cases, death comes first. “It’s really the devastating part of cardiology, when patients are dying from weakness in the heart,” says Delgado, a cardiologist who manages the heart transplant team and serves as director of mechanical support devices at Texas Heart Institute (THI). Maybe, he thought, he could help patients before the disease advanced.

Heart disease is responsible for one of every nine deaths in the U.S. and affects more than 5 million people, about 500,000 of whom need surgery each year. But because these patients are already very sick, the operation has a long list of potential complications. And that’s to say nothing of the expense—the typical hospital stay for someone getting an LVAD implanted is 41 days, Delgado says, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, because of the difficulty matching patients with organ donors, transplants are quite rare. “We’re looking at a half-million people per year who are heading for death or for a transplant,” says Delgado. “There are only 2,000 donor hearts available per year, and not many more than 2,000 LVADs done a year,” which leaves a huge number of patients who don’t currently have a good treatment option.

After more than a decade of treating those patients, Delgado began to piece together a concept for a much less invasive surgical option. “What spurred me on was seeing the sick patients going through this major surgery and so many of them dying as a result of the complications,” he says. “We needed something gentler that could assist with what the heart needs without major surgery.”

In 2006, he patented an idea for a tiny pump device that would be implanted before a patient reached the stage of heart failure resulting in damage to other organs. The pump, thinner than a pencil and only a few inches tall, would be inserted through an artery in the leg with a catheter, meaning that a patient could get fitted with a small pump within 15 minutes under local anesthesia, and potentially walk out of the hospital shortly afterward—far gentler and cheaper, of course, than open-heart surgery and the attendant hospital stay.

Should Aortix make it all the way to the market, it will be one of the first in a wave of local life sciences startups to go from a good idea to a successful product, with the potential to show the city a new way to diversify its economy. Today the company still stands as an atypical example of the city’s brightest minds in science successfully connecting with others who have the business know-how—and the funding—to get potentially life-saving technology to the people who need it. This is the kind of collaboration that, each year, generates billions for other cities’ economies—but not Houston. Not yet.

Back when Procyrion started working on Aortix, FIS was virtually the only game of its kind in town. But Houston has seen the arrival of some new players who have identified the city’s untapped potential. Procyrion recently set up a shop inside JLABS, the shiny-new lab space Johnson & Johnson just opened inside the Medical Center’s also shiny-new Innovation Institute, the result of a coordinated movement in Houston—one that could turn the city into a biotech hub, where hundreds of Delgados could be working on hundreds of revolutionary devices, in partnership with organizations across the city.

But first, everyone has to learn to work together.

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