Five UTHCT scientists presented research papers

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Preventing heart and lung disease, new treatments for infections that attack cystic fibrosis patients, and a potential new vaccine against tuberculosis. Five scientists from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler presented their research on these topics at the Molecular Medicine Symposium held Feb. 21 in Houston. They are among about 50 leading scientists at UT System institutions who spoke at the two-day symposium, said Steven Idell, MD, Ph.D., vice president for research at UTHSCT.

Ali Azghani, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine; Vijay Boggaram, Ph.D., professor of molecular biology; Zissis Chroneos, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry; Usha Pendurthi, Ph.D., professor of molecular biology; and Amir Shams, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, outlined their research the afternoon of Feb. 21. In addition, Peter Barnes, MD, director of UTHSCT’s Center for Pulmonary and Infectious Disease Control and a professor of microbiology and immunology, was one of the symposium’s eight organizers.

Molecular medicine examines how a person’s DNA – the genetic code or blueprint within each cell – determines if a person is more or less susceptible to various illnesses. It also looks at how different chemicals interact within the cell, where they can either cause or prevent disease. Molecular medicine has already led to some genetically based treatments, such as gene therapy. In the future, it could enable physicians to identify who will respond best to specific treatments. In addition, molecular medicine could lead to earlier detection of respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and cancer.

Dr. Azghani is investigating how to strengthen drugs that attack deadly infections in cystic fibrosis patients. His research shows that delivering these antibiotic drugs in microscopic, capsule-like packages increases the drugs’ effectiveness while decreasing side effects. Dr. Boggaram and his collaborators are studying two key proteins that control lung functions. Proteins are fundamental components of all living cells and play a crucial role in the growth and repair of tissues. His team is analyzing how these proteins interact with other chemicals and affect infection and inflammation of the lungs. Dr. Boggaram’s research could lead to new treatments for lung injury caused by infections, asthma, and acute respiratory distress syndrome. His collaborators are Hemakumar Chandru, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at UTHSCT, and Loretta Sparkman, MS, a UTHSCT research associate.

Dr. Chroneos discussed how his research into a specific lung protein and its interaction with macrophages, the scavenger cells of the immune system, helps protect the lung from infection. Dr. Pendurthi described her research into how certain chemicals in red wine help protect wine drinkers from developing blood clots and plaque buildup in the arteries. Grapes used in red wine create these chemicals to fight off fungus infections. Her research could lead to new ways to treat heart disease and stroke. Dr. Shams has identified a chemical that produces strong responses from people infected with the tuberculosis bacteria. He discussed why this chemical is a promising candidate for a new vaccine against tuberculosis. The results of his studies also may be useful in designing vaccines against other infectious diseases that attack the lungs.

“These projects are just a few examples of the world class research taking place at the Health Center. The National Institutes of Health, the major source of government money for biomedical research, recognizes this and funds most of the current biomedical research at UTHSCT. Our scientists are internationally known, and our research projects are approved by outside scientists through a peer-review process. Research is being used to develop new drugs and treatments for diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring; infectious lung diseases such as tuberculosis; and cystic fibrosis,” Dr. Idell said.

The Houston symposium highlighted research at the six UT System medical institutions. In 2004, their combined research funding exceeded $1 billion. Biomedical research at UTHSCT brought in more than $10 million of that funding. This research has allowed UT System institutions such as UTHSCT to make major advances in understanding life-threatening conditions such as lung disease, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

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