Edinburg, Texas (March 13, 2007) – Leaders from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio this week announced three years of funding — at a total cost of $1.2 million — for Health Science Center professors to mentor younger faculty from The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA).
The research, which focuses on the genetics of complex diseases such as diabetes and schizophrenia, is under way at the Health Science Center’s Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) Medical Research Division adjacent to UTPA in Edinburg.
Michael A. Escamilla, M.D., the Mary Weir Professor in the Health Science Center’s department of psychiatry, leads the program.
“I have worked on genetics of depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and have collaborated with other Health Science Center scientists in work on diabetes and obesity. Those are the areas this grant will address,” Dr. Escamilla said.
Those diseases are “multifactorial,” he said; they are caused by the interaction of genes and environment. The new research puts the lens on how these interactions occur and how they lead to the development of these diseases in Hispanics, the largest population of people in South Texas.
Health Science Center faculty Michael P. Stern, M.D., professor of medicine, an authority on epidemiology of diabetes in Hispanic populations, and Robin J. Leach, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology, who directs sophisticated genetics studies, are helping to develop the program.
City, state contributions
Dr. Escamilla is spending 20 percent of his time working with three UTPA faculty members in the state-of-the-art, $20 million RAHC Medical Research Division. Dedicated in April 2006, it is the first biomedical research facility of its type along the Texas-Mexico border.
Sen. Eddio Lucio Jr. authored the bill that established the RAHC, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, during his tenure as a state representative, sponsored the legislation in the House.
The $1.2 million grant announced March 9 is derived partly from the RAHC budget in the Health Science Center School of Medicine and partly from $1 million previously donated to the RAHC by the city of Edinburg under Mayor Joe Ochoa.
Spirit of partnership
At the announcement, Health Science Center President Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., and UTPA President Blandina Cárdenas, Ph.D., celebrated the partnership of a health-related institution with a general academic institution, both in The University of Texas System.
“This is a day to celebrate science and collaboration,” President Cigarroa said. “The grant that Dr. Escamilla has received will focus attention on complex diseases that are prevalent in South Texas.”
William L. Henrich, M.D., M.A.C.P., dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs at the Health Science Center, said: “We are delighted to be able to make available these funds to stimulate basic research activities at the RAHC, and we are very happy to partner with The University of Texas-Pan American, as collaboration with other UT schools is a high priority for us.”
Stimulating research careers
Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H., regional dean of the RAHC, said the Edinburg research facility is an integral part of the Regional Academic Health Center, which has a Medical Education Division located in Harlingen. The Health Science Center also operates that division, where 24 School of Medicine students are assigned each year to complete their third and fourth years of the medical curriculum, including rotations at the RAHC’s clinical partners.
The RAHC Medical Research Division provides a place for these students to pursue quality research close to their clinical education and training in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Vela said.
The RAHC Medical Research Division is equipped with 12 state-of-the-art laboratories including a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab. “The Edinburg facility is a fantastic facility, and we have great support enabling us to bring the research here to the Valley,” Dr. Escamilla said. “I also see this as a way that students at UTPA can be stimulated to enter careers in the health professions and biomedical research, with more than a few conducting studies right here in their home region.”
The new RAHC research program will profile individuals’ and families’ genetic makeup and the environmental risk factors in their lives. This information will be matched with actual disease diagnoses and courses in these individuals and families.
“In diabetes, the environmental factors of most interest to us are diet and exercise. In schizophrenia, we are incorporating stressors such as exposure to violence and exposure to substance abuse,” Dr. Escamilla said.
“We want to become the leading U.S. research center for the study of genetic disorders in the Latino population,” he added.
The first mentored faculty members are from UTPA’s College of Science and Engineering. They are Andres Figueroa, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of computer science, who specializes in bioinformatics and genetics; Anita Davelos Baines, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of biology, whose interest is the gene-environment interaction; and Jonathan Lieman, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, who specializes in molecular biology. “Each brings a special set of knowledge and skills to the table,” Dr. Escamilla said.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $536 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $14.3 billion biosciences and health care industry, the leading sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $35 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 22,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and allied health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, allied health, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, click onwww.uthscsa.edu.