Seven UTHSCT scientists awarded biomedical research grants totaling $4.4 million

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Seven scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler have been awarded a total of $4.4 million in competitive biomedical research grants. They are Dong-Ming Su, Ph.D.; Zhenhua Dai, MD, Ph.D.; Buka Samten, MD; Murty Madiraju, Ph.D.; Hong-Long “James” Ji, Ph.D.; Hua Tang, Ph.D.; and Pierre Neuenschwander, Ph.D.

Investigating the aging process
Dr. Su, assistant professor of biochemistry, currently has three grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling more than $2.3 million to fund his research into the aging process.

He is the first UTHSCT biomedical researcher to be principal investigator of three NIH grants at the same time.

The largest is a five-year, $1.6 million grant to investigate molecular changes in the thymus, a gland located in the front of the neck that is involved in the immune system.

The thymus plays a role in the aging of T cells, white blood cells that attack cells infected by bacteria, viruses or other disease-causing organisms.

Dr. Su received a two-year, $317,955 grant to study changes in thymus cells with the goal of understanding how to combat the aging-related decline of T cells.

He was also awarded a two-year, $387,750 grant to examine defects in thymus development that cause deficiencies in the immune system.

Research by Dr. Su and his team could lead to development of therapies that improve the immune system of older adults and protect them from disease.

Deciphering transplant rejection
Dr. Dai, associate professor of immunology, received three grants totaling $960,000 from private foundations to explore how to modify the immune system and prevent it from rejecting transplanted organs.

A three-year, $495,000 grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation supports Dr. Dai’s investigation into how to alter the immune system so that insulin-producing cells – called islet cells – can be successfully transplanted into children with type 1 diabetes.

Insulin is a hormone that helps convert food into the energy needed for daily life.

When islet cells from a donor are successfully transplanted into someone with type 1 diabetes, these new cells produce insulin, thus eliminating the need for daily injections of the hormone.

Dr. Dai’s research could lead to better ways to prevent the body from rejecting the transplanted cells and increase the length of time that they produce insulin.

He is also examining the role of T cells in rejecting transplanted heart tissue with funding from a two-year, $140,000 grant from the American Heart Association.

In addition, Dr. Dai has a three-year, $325,500 grant from the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute to analyze how second-hand smoke affects the immune system and the rejection of transplanted organs.

Thwarting tuberculosis infection
Research by Dr. Samten, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, also involves T cells.

He recently received a two-year, $377,500 grant from the NIH to study how a specific protein – ESAT-6 – produced by tuberculosis bacteria obstructs the human immune system.

Tuberculosis is a major cause of illness and death worldwide, especially in Asia and Africa, according to the World Health Organization. It infects one-third of the world’s population and causes almost 2 million deaths per year.

With this new NIH grant, Dr. Samten will probe the molecular mechanisms behind ESAT-6’s interference with the immune system.

This research will help shed more light on the TB disease process, which could lead to the development of improved vaccines and treatments for this deadly disease.

Interfering with the DNA of TB bacteria
Dr. Madiraju, professor of biochemistry, received a one-year, $347,990 bridge grant from the NIH to continue his investigation of how tuberculosis bacteria duplicate their DNA.

TB bacteria cannot multiply without accurately duplicating their DNA. Any defect in this process prevents the bacteria from increasing and the disease from progressing.

Understanding this process is critical for developing new drugs to control TB infection.

Keeping lungs free of too much fluid
Dr. Ji, associate professor of biochemistry, received a two-year, $204,647 supplement from the NIH to continue researching how our lungs are kept free from too much fluid.

The original five-year, $1,375,000 NIH grant was awarded to Dr. Ji in 2007.

He and his team are exploring how water is transported into and out of the lungs’ alveoli, air sacs that enable oxygen to move from the lungs into the blood and carbon dioxide to move from the blood into the lungs.

Dr. Ji and his team hope to lay the groundwork for new treatments for pulmonary edema, in which fluid accumulates in the lungs.

He received a one-year, $70,500 grant from the NIH to investigate the role of this process in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is the fourth highest cause of death in the United States, affecting 16 million people.

Dr. Ji’s efforts could result in therapies that improve lung function in people with COPD.

Studying the regeneration of insulin-producing cells
Dr. Tang, associate professor of biochemistry, received a one-year, $110,000 grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to examine how a particular enzyme affects the regeneration of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Enzymes are proteins that change the rate of chemical reactions without needing an external energy source, such as heat.

Understanding how these cells in the pancreas regenerate could lead to better treatments for type 1 diabetes.

Dr. Tang also received a one-year, $70,500 grant from the NIH for his research into the relationship between certain enzymes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic scarring of the lungs that has no known cause.

Examing the blood-clotting process
Dr. Neuenschwander, associate professor of biochemistry, received two supplemental grants totaling $46,671 to continue analyzing one step in the blood-clotting process that involves another enzyme.

Without this enzyme, you have excessive bleeding, but too much can cause unwanted blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks.

Dr. Neuenschwander’s research could lead to development of treatments to stop the bleeding associated with hemophilia.

Currently, his research is funded by a five-year, $1.375 million NIH grant that ends in 2010.

While the original NIH grant was for just four years, in 2006, the NIH thought enough of Dr. Neuenschwander’s research to award him another year of funding.

For 60 years, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler has provided excellent patient care and cutting-edge treatments, specializing in pulmonary disease, cancer, heart disease, primary care, and the disciplines that support them. With an operating budget of more than $125 million and biomedical research funding that exceeds $10 million annually, UTHSCT has a major economic impact on East Texas. Its two medical residency programs – in family medicine and occupational medicine – provide doctors for many communities in East Texas and beyond.

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