Hundreds hail RAHC biomedical research facility

Confetti filled the air and covered the floor after the official dedication announcement was declared.

More than 300 state, regional and community leaders and members of the public gathered in Edinburg, Texas yesterday to dedicate the Medical Research Division of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC). A roar of applause and an explosion of colorful confetti helped celebrate the official dedication

The sparkling $20 million building, equipped with 12 state-of-the-art laboratories including a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab, is the first and only biomedical research gem of its type along the Texas-Mexico border. Speakers said its presence will open doors for a new generation of aspiring scientists in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and provide insights into diseases such as diabetes and tuberculosis that disproportionately affect the Valley.

“Nowhere on the Texas-Mexico border is there a research institute that can compare to this one,” said Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D. president of the Health Science Center. “This will be a place of unprecedented opportunities for students throughout the Rio Grande Valley, and an economic stimulus for the entire region.”

The city of Edinburg presented $1 million to the Health Science Center in November 2002 in support of the RAHC Medical Research Division. The University of Texas System Board of Regents, which allocated $20 million in Permanent University Fund proceeds for the Edinburg construction, did so with the stipulation of a local contribution of operating funds.

The dedication ceremony began with a welcome from Dr. Cigarroa, followed by the presentation of the colors by members of The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) ROTC. Students from Freddy Gonzalez Elementary School sang the National Anthem, and Father Roy Snipes of Mission gave the invocation. Invited speakers bringing greetings, in order on the program, were Richard Garcia, mayor of Edinburg; The Honorable Juan Hinojosa, state senator; The Honorable Eddie Lucio Jr., state senator; Kenneth Shine, M.D., executive vice chancellor for health affairs, The University of Texas System; 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; Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H., regional dean of the RAHC in the School of Medicine; and Roberto Villarreal, M.D., interim assistant dean for research, RAHC Medical Research Division.

The ceremony also included a celebration of the UTPA-UT Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program that enables UTPA students to study for a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. UTPA President Blandina Cárdenas, Ph.D., thanked the Health Science Center for allocating space in the RAHC Medical Research Division for the Pharm.D. program. Steven Leslie, Ph.D., dean of the UT Austin College of Pharmacy, also spoke about the program.

(L-R) Health Science Center President Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., UTPA President Blandina Cárdenas, Ph.D., and Juliet V. Garcia, Ph.D., president of The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, sign the Borderplex Health Council agreement.

Presidents Cigarroa and Cárdenas joined Juliet V. Garcia, Ph.D., president of The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, in signing a memorandum of understanding establishing a Borderplex Health Council. The Council will promote multi-institutional collaboration in education and research to address the border region’s health challenges. The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston also is part of the Council.

James R. Huffines, chairman, UT System Board of Regents, brought congratulations from the UT System, and turned the program over to fellow Regent Colleen McHugh, who formally accepted the RAHC Medical Research Division building on behalf of the Board.

The Medical Research Division is part of a cohesive RAHC master plan that includes the Medical Education Division, opened in Harlingen in June 2002, and the RAHC Clinical Research Division now under construction in Harlingen next to the Medical Education Division. “Although the Edinburg and Harlingen campuses are 40 miles apart, they will function in an integrated structure to make sure we have research that goes from bench to bedside,” Dr. Vela said.

Forty-eight Health Science Center students year-round are completing their third and fourth years of medical school at the RAHC and its affiliated hospitals and clinics. As many as 15 internal medicine resident physicians also are based at the RAHC. “Residents and medical students of the RAHC are hard at work conducting an array of clinical medicine research projects addressing diabetes, heart disease, tuberculosis and other diseases that significantly challenge South Texas,” Dr. Henrich said. “The RAHC educational programs have indeed gotten off to a great start, but one missing ingredient has been an opportunity for basic research because we have not had the infrastructure for it within the RAHC. The Edinburg RAHC will allow students to have that experience.”

Dr. Vela added: “We’ve seen students entering medicine because the RAHC is here. The RAHC will help them reach their goals because they can study excellent medicine in the Valley. The same will be true with research. Students pursuing biology, chemistry and other undergraduate degrees in the Valley will see the RAHC Medical Research Division as the opportunity for them to pursue careers in biomedical research, right here in their back yard.” He said the new facility offers exciting possibilities for interaction with students from UTPA, which is adjacent to the RAHC Medical Research Division; UT Brownsville/Texas Southmost College; and high schools.

The RAHC Medical Research Division is nearly 50,000 square feet in size, including 27,500 square feet of world-class lab space. The labs incorporate complex engineering and design features, and the BSL-3 lab has 12-inch-thick walls where specially protected researchers will study biological agents that can cause serious illness. “A facility like this doesn’t exist around every corner,” Dr. Villarreal said.

Until now, one hasn’t existed on Texas’ southern border. “This research campus is close to populations affected by the diseases we are interested in studying,” Dr. Vela said. “We literally have infectious diseases here, such as dengue fever, that we see nowhere else in this country.”

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