Two collaborative innovation research grants totaling $96,500 awarded to UTHCT scientists

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Two collaborative innovation grants totaling $96,500 have been awarded to researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler by the UTHSCT Research Council.

These locally raised funds will enable four UTHSCT scientists to take their research to the next step in their pursuit of cures for serious diseases, said Steven Idell, MD, Ph.D., UTHSCT’s vice president for research.

Hua Tang, Ph.D., and Dong-Ming Su, Ph.D., received $50,000 for their grant to study the role of hydrogen peroxide in the body’s inflammatory processes.

Susan Howard, Ph.D., and Pierre Neuenschwander, Ph.D., received $46,500 to investigate how specific tuberculosis genes work so that new drugs can be developed that interfere with these processes.

The grants will allow the four scientists to gather preliminary data to help them as they apply for larger, multi-year grants from government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

"The innovation grants represent a new and important research initiative designed to stimulate successful collaborative research at UTHSCT," Dr. Idell said.

"Though all the grant applications were well thought out and scientifically sound, the review panel thought these two proposals were the most likely to be competitive in future applications for NIH funding. The awardees are to be congratulated for their outstanding proposals," he said.

Dr. Tang and Dr. Su, both UTHSCT assistant professors of biochemistry, are examining the possibility that low amounts of hydrogen peroxide in cells protect them against inflammation.

Inflammation is the body’s response to infection and injury and is thought to be a key player in the development of atherosclerosis, in which fatty deposits build up on the lining of arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes.

The body’s own cells produce hydrogen peroxide, which is an oxidant. Oxidants release free radicals, which have been shown to damage cells and perhaps accelerate the progression of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and age-related diseases.

But Dr. Tang and Dr. Su don’t believe the conventional wisdom that hydrogen peroxide always harms cells.

“We are investigating if low to moderate doses of hydrogen peroxide can protect against vascular inflammation or lung inflammation. We have some evidence from our research using cell cultures that indicates this,” Dr. Tang said.

The researchers will test their hypothesis using a mouse model to see if low levels of hydrogen peroxide protect the mice against inflammation.

Dr. Su said, “We would not have been able to conduct this research without this Research Council grant. We hope to have some preliminary data by the end of the year.”

Dr. Howard and Dr. Neuenschwander are investigating how specific proteins switch on – or regulate – certain genes in the DNA of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

“When pathogenic bacteria are faced with attack by the human immune system, they turn on specific protective genes. We are studying how regulatory proteins control these genes in the tuberculosis bacterium,” Dr. Howard said, adding that each TB bacterium has about 4,000 genes.

A gene is a section of DNA that tells the cell to produce a specific protein. Nearby each gene is a short piece of DNA that controls the gene, said Dr. Howard, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at UTHSCT. Regulatory proteins attach themselves to these pieces of DNA and then turn the genes on or off.

“In TB, researchers tend to focus on the disease process itself, not the proteins that the bacteria use to defend themselves. As a microbiologist, I’m focused on the bacteria,” Dr. Howard said.

Dr. Neuenschwander added, “It’s not clear exactly how these bacterial genes are turned on and off. The hope is that we will understand this process and design more effective drugs to treat TB.”

Dr. Neuenschwander is an expert in surface plasmon resonance, a novel technology used to study how molecules interact with each other. His expertise will enable the research team to closely examine the way these regulatory proteins interact with the control regions of the DNA.

The research by Dr. Neuenschwander, an associate professor of biochemistry at UTHSCT, and Dr. Howard could potentially lead to understanding how other kinds of bacteria protect themselves.

Both he and Dr. Howard expressed their gratitude for the collaborative innovation grant from UTHSCT’s Research Council. They hope to have the first results of their research in three or four months.

The Research Council was founded in 1995 by a group of community members interested in helping research at UTHSCT, said Mark Atkinson, Ph.D., director of research at UTHSCT.

“The first grants were awarded in 1996. Since then, more than $285,000 has been raised and distributed to UTHSCT faculty in 37 separate grants,” Dr. Atkinson said. Though relatively small, these grants have led to significant achievements in biomedical research.

“This year, we wanted to try a different approach based on the NIH ‘Roadmap.’ This is an initiative from the federal government that focuses on collaborative research involving different biological disciplines," he said.

"The idea is to emphasize innovative science between investigators with different areas of expertise that can be transferred quickly from the bench to the bedside,” Dr. Atkinson said.

“The potential of these collaborative innovation grants to improve the health of people throughout the United States cannot be overemphasized. This is the core vision of UTHSCT. They ultimately have a positive financial impact on the economy of Tyler and Smith County,” Dr. Atkinson said.

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