In 2017, Houston hosted Super Bowl LI, suffered the wrath of Hurricane Harvey, and celebrated—for days—when the Astros won the World Series.
As the city looks to 2018, Pulse asked local leaders about their goals and expectations for the new year.
Mayor of Houston
“I would love to eradicate homelessness. We have made great strides, and have recently placed 500 people in shelters, but we have a long way to go. The issue is complex and requires experts in mental health, drug addiction and affordable housing to continue working on this important challenge which faces so many cities.”
STACEY BERG, M.D.
Director of the palliative care and developmental therapeutics programs at Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers
“I see a great need for effective new treatments for children with difficult-to-treat cancers. Every new anti-cancer agent we test looks promising in the laboratory, but many don’t work in humans. Therefore, if I could solve one major problem, it would be to find a “fail early” way to identify ineffective treatments before we try them in peo-ple. This would increase the likelihood that the new drugs we offer patients would work. Meanwhile, I expect some exciting advances in this area in the next year. Our new NCI-Children’s Oncology Group Pediatric MATCH study will help us understand whether testing tumors for molecular targets and using drugs that “match” those targets will increase the chance that a child’s tumor will have a good response. This study is open now and will be in full swing in 2018.”
BRENDAN LEE, M.D., PH.D.
Robert and Janice McNair Endowed Chair and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine
“In terms of genetic treatment, I think 2018 is going to be a very exciting year based on some developments at the end of this year.
The FDA had its advisory committee meeting on a recommendation for the first ever in vivo gene therapy drug in the U.S.— meaning injected directly into the patient. In fact, I was on the FDA advisory committee that recommended with a vote of 16-0 to move forward and approve the drug.
That’s going to be a big deal because next year is going to be the first in vivo gene therapy drug approved in the U.S. That will, more importantly, open the gates to many other such applications.
I’m also hopeful that the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which increased funding for medical research and encouraged the development of experimental treatments, will galvanize disease therapeutic application and discovery. I’m expecting that 2018 will see many, many new therapeutics for rare diseases, especially, impacting in aggregate many American lives because there are a lot of rare diseases. I do think that’s one of the ways the 21st Century Cures Act will accelerate, so I’m very hopeful for that in 2018.”
Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston
“I wish that Hurricane Harvey and the flood had not occurred. And I think all of us are in reparation mode. … The performing arts venues downtown were severely impacted. All of us are doing everything we can to assist our colleagues, provide interim facilities, to lend expertise and resources to help people rebuild their programming. Many of the cultural venues are showing a decline in attendance and I’m hoping that as time progresses and people resume their normal lives, that they will take the time to refresh and inspire themselves through cultural activities.
The new Glassell School of Art building is set to open in mid-May and it will be a much more distinctive and dramatic building—we have considerably more space and many more classrooms. Although we are increasing the physical space somewhat, we are dramatically increasing the capacity for instruction because of the way the facility is designed. When the school opens it will not just be the school, but a brand new public plaza, an outdoor amphitheater, and a roof garden. Those three new facilities will dramatically enhance our campus and the experience of visitors to the museum.
We currently have three buildings under construction—the Glassell School of Art, the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation and the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building for modern and contemporary art. Those are three independent buildings that will be connected by tunnels.
We’ve come to think of Houston as the best kept cultural secret of the world. It is phenomenal what goes on in the arts here—from the performing arts to the visual arts. Houston, because of our geographic location and the distance to other metropolitan locations, is not yet a major tourist destination, although our cultural facilities rival those of all the great capitals of the world.”
ERIK HALVORSEN, PH.D.
Director of the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx)
“Our program is in a really good place to help existing health care startup companies move their product closer to patient use, whether they have medical devices, digital health or diagnostics. We have put together a great team and our curriculum and advisor/mentor net-work is second to none in the country.
However, we are always working to improve. One of those improvements is that we are not yet adequately capturing and supporting all of the amazing innovations, intellectual property
and research arising across the Texas Medical Center. Right now, if you have a company, we can help you, but we want to build new companies around TMC innovations.
We are continuing to grow our expertise, and eventually our goal is to build out an entrepreneur-in-residence program that will increase the number of home-grown health care companies. We will work to build closer relation-ships and collaborate with the technol-ogy transfer offices across the Texas Medical Center.
With those goals in mind, we recognize the challenges. There are two big gaps in Houston: People and capital. The people part is the pool of entrepreneurs who see that role as a career and are willing to do the job of building multiple companies. We don’t have as many here as, say, Boston or Silicon Valley.
On the capital piece, fortunately, we will see lots of changes in 2018. The $25 million TMC Venture Fund was recently announced, along with our first few investments. In addition, we continue to see an increased interest from venture funds across the country in what is going on here in Houston. They are spending more time here and considering opening up offices. The city, through Houston Exponential, also has recently announced a ‘fund of funds’ strategy that will further increase venture fund presence and investment here in Houston.
With new venture funds emerging and growing our pool of health care entrepreneurs, I believe we will see fundamental and long-lasting changes to the Houston innovation ecosystem.”
ROLA EL-SERAG, M.D.
Women Veterans Health Program Medical Director at Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center Houston
“I have had the privilege of serving female veterans whose courage and resiliency are both humbling and inspirational. For 14 rewarding years, my female veteran patients have entrusted me with their very personal and, often, painful stories regarding their military experiences.
Twenty-three percent of female veterans surveyed will admit to a history of sexual harassment in the military, likely a gross underestimate due to the difficult nature of answering such a question. In our Women’s Health Center, the number is closer to one out of every two female veterans. The profound impact that military sexual trauma has on our female veterans is beyond fathomable.
Young women proudly join the armed forces eager to serve our nation and defend our freedom, but leave devoid of all dignity, betrayed and humiliated often not just by their perpetrator but by an entire system and culture. One of my patient’s once said to me regarding her service in Iraq: ‘I never imagined that the real enemy was within. I locked my door every night out of immense fear, not of the gunfire and bombs I could hear surrounding our base, but of my fellow soldiers.’
The effects of military sexual trauma last a lifetime and encroach upon every aspect of a female veteran’s health and overall wellness, including family and intimate relations, employ-ment, ability to cope with stressors, chronic pain and chronic disease. This leads to avoidance behaviors, substance abuse, and self-neglect.
It is very timely that both the enter-tainment industry as well as our political infrastructure are currently under scrutiny for perpetuating a culture of sexual harassment and degradation of women.
Accordingly, I wish that 2018 brings our female veterans the validation they deserve—the recognition of this gross mistreatment and abuse in the military.”
ARTHUR “TIM” GARSON JR., M.D., MPH
Director of the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute
“In 2018, I hope our policymakers give health care providers, insurers, and—most importantly—consumers, more confidence and more stability in their health care. One way they can do that is by passing bipartisan legislation, introduced by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Their bill would restore subsidies that help lower deductibles for people with low incomes. The legislation was pro-posed after the Trump administration announced it would end those subsidies, called “cost sharing reductions,” in October.
If Alexander-Murray passes, states would also have the option to get waivers that allow them to experiment with their insurance markets. The good news: States could experiment with “catastrophic” plans that have low deductibles and cover accidents, serious illness and pregnancy. Such plans would be attractive to many people. The bad news: If states overdo it, they may permit skimpy plans that cheat people. Consumer Reports said that these plans (often called ‘association’ health plans) were ‘so riddled with loopholes, limits, exclusions and gotchas that [patients] won’t come close to covering their expenses if they fall seriously ill.’
Alexander-Murray—or any other proposal that realistically has a chance of becoming law in 2018—will only be able to address health care at the edges. Lawmakers don’t like making dramatic policy changes in election years. Maybe that’s not a bad thing at the moment. Congress’s last attempt at health care reform would have robbed more than 20 million people of health insurance. We need reasoned debate on how all Americans can have affordable health care; the only way to get there is to reduce the cost of health care. That is not a quick, back-room event.
In 2018, let’s get the subsidies back for now, provide some stability to the insurance markets, and get through the mid-term elections. Then we can spend time and energy fixing our broken health care system.”
CHARLENE FLASH, M.D.
Assistant medical director of HIV services for Harris Health System and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine
“I would improve access in our most vulnerable communities to life-saving tools for the treatment and prevention of HIV and other diseases.”
BILL GILMER, PH.D.
Director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at Bauer College of Business, University of Houston
“American oil production bottomed out at 5 million barrels per day in 2010, only to surge past 9 million by late 2014. This dramatic turnaround was the product of $100 per barrel oil and the advent of a new U.S. fracking industry. But in late 2014, OPEC decided that enough was enough, and withdrew its efforts to support global oil prices, letting oil prices plummet to crush the high-cost American upstart.
Damage to American oil this time has, by many measures, been worse than the 1980s, with a faster decline in oil prices, the lowest level of drilling activity ever recorded, and a record fall in capital spending on oil exploration. Some 77,000 oil-related jobs were lost in Houston. Unlike the 1980s, however, Houston’s economy did not collapse in 2015-16, but simply shifted from boom times to two years of no growth. Offsetting oil losses, the local economy was supported by moderate growth in the U.S., sustained boom-time momentum, and a major petrochemical expansion on the Ship Channel.
Houston began 2017 on a high note, as analysts declared that oil markets were entering recovery, and OPEC returning to action with a promise to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support oil prices. But euphoria in oil markets and the Houston economy was short-lived, as oil prices remained mired at $45 for much of 2017. Local oil-related hiring briefly surged and then fell back, and now we find the rig count once more in moderate decline.
Oil prices moved up again late in 2017. However, if this oil-market optimism fades in 2018, as it did in 2017, and oil jobs don’t return in large numbers, only the U.S. economy is left to support Houston’s growth. The Ship Channel construction boom has ended, and any boom-time momentum is gone. Relying on the U.S. economy alone, Houston could create 40,000 new jobs in Houston in both 2017 and 2018—a return to positive growth, but well below long-term averages. If oil prices surprise us in 2018 with a quick return to $55–65 per barrel, we could hit that long-term average of adding 60,000 jobs. At this point, however, with little help from oil, 40,000 jobs seems the most likely outcome.”
President and CEO, Houston Food Bank
“Charitable giving in the U.S. amounts to about 2 percent of the gross domestic product, but there are about 1.5 million nonprofits and a bewildering landscape for donors to know how to best invest their funds, given the issues about which they are passionate. My wish for 2018 would be for an efficient way for donors of all sizes to know the charities they support better and how they can invest with impact.”
Executive Chef, Third Coast
“Looking ahead to 2018, Third Coast is continuing with its farm-to-table concept, keeping things as fresh and local as possible. We will also do a new take on old classics. One of those is a play on shrimp and grits. I was in New Orleans and sampled some barbecue shrimp, so I want to make that at Third Coast, but I want to do it with a twist: making our own Worcestershire for the barbecue sauce, and pairing it with risotto or toasted bread.
I’m also working with a farm in Louisiana to supply fresh produce and meat. They have an ever-revolving garden, so they are always showing up with things I have not worked with or had limited hands-on experience with. As things come in, they are going to find their way onto the menu.
Sometimes it takes forever to come up with a dish that everyone enjoys, and sometimes it happens instantly. Some of the things I’m most proud of have been the least well-received and some of the things I thought people might not like, they love. It’s all about knowing your audience and trying to do something that appeals to everyone.”
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