Specialists in biomedical ethics and cancer research join UTHCT

Monday, April 24, 2006

Two new research faculty members who have joined The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler have expertise in biomedical ethics and cancer research.

T. Howard Stone, JD, LLM, specializes in examining the ethics of including vulnerable populations such as prisoners in human subject research or treatments. Sharmila Shankar, Ph.D., an instructor in biochemistry, is conducting basic research that could lead to new ways to prevent and treat cancer.

Before joining UTHSCT, Dr. Stone was an associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy, and Law at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky. Dr. Stone was also an associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Clinical Investigation Sciences at the University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences. Dr. Stone has served as an adjunct professor of law at the Health Law and Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center.

Dr. Stone is a lawyer by training. His recent work has focused on the ethical, legal, and social implications of recruiting vulnerable populations as research subjects. Vulnerable populations include prisoners, homeless people, people who are mentally incapacitated, and populations who are educationally disadvantaged.

His most recent project is training clinical researchers in the ethics of fields relevant to their research. Dr. Stone has been involved in three projects funded by the National Institutes of Health. In one, he developed a course for researchers who recruited prisoners for their clinical studies. In two ongoing NIH-funded projects, Dr. Stone is training genetic investigators in the ethics of human genetic research and developing an ethics course for cardiovascular investigators.

“The scientific community and the public need to be better informed about the ethical issues in biomedical research, including research involving human subjects. Somewhere we’ve lost sight of the fact that the major link between the subject and the investigator is trust. We need to transform the relationship to be more like that between a clinician and a patient. Patient safety and health comes first; research goals are secondary,” Dr. Stone said.

Before coming to the Health Center, Dr. Shankar was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, part of the NIH, where she studied cancer biology in the immunology department. She previously was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmaceutical Services at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Dr. Shankar is investigating HDAC inhibitors, specialized drugs that are involved in regulating the cell cycle and the increase in the number of cells. HDAC inhibitors interfere with a particular protein and stop the spread of cells by inducing apoptosis – a type of cell death – in cancer cells, she said.

She also is studying resveratrol, a natural, nontoxic chemical found in plants such as grapes, peanuts, and red wine. Because it acts as an antioxidant, antimutagen, and anti-inflammatory, resveratrol may protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease, Dr. Shankar said.

“Resveratrol is a chemo-preventive agent. It promotes the cell death of bad cells. In high-risk populations, resveratrol delays the onset of cancer, the progression toward cancer,” she said.

“We are trying to discover the intracellular mechanisms involved in this process,” she said. Once these mechanisms are understood, the hope is to develop new drugs for the prevention and treatment of cancer.

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