M.D./Ph.D. student co-authors paper in Nature

SAN ANTONIO (Nov. 7, 2012) — An M.D./Ph.D. student in the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio accomplished a rare distinction this week — co-authorship on a paper in the international journal Nature.

Jeffrey D. Cooney, who entered the School of Medicine this summer, worked with a Harvard Medical School team that discovered a novel protein involved in the regulation of heme synthesis. Heme is the deep-red, iron-containing component of hemoglobin, which within red blood cells carries oxygen from the lungs to body tissues and carries carbon dioxide from tissues to the lungs.

The protein is made by a gene called Atpif1. “It was a more fundamental finding, learning that the protein regulates heme synthesis,” Cooney said. “The next step is to use this information to develop treatments for congenital forms of anemia, which can be caused by lack of hemoglobin.”

The gene was uncovered from a screen of zebrafish, which share with humans many of the same genes that regulate blood development. The team started with the fish but used multiple systems from yeast all the way to human cells to confirm the finding, Cooney said.

A Massachusetts native, Cooney attended Boston College (BC) as an undergraduate student. During his education, he began working in a lab at Harvard Medical School and gained credit from BC. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he stayed on working in the lab under the mentorship of pediatric hematologist-oncologist Barry Paw, M.D., Ph.D.

Strong vision for M.D./Ph.D. Program

Cooney brings considerable research experience to San Antonio, and several factors attracted him to the Health Science Center’s M.D.-Ph.D. Program, which is a seven- to eight-year academic commitment. “The recently appointed M.D./Ph.D. Program director, Dr. Jose E. Cavazos, has a strong vision for the program,” Cooney said. “The fact that students will write their own training grants, the amount of cancer research done here, and the CTRC (the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio) — all those things drew me here.”

“Jeff is an excellent example of the type of students that we are attracting to our M.D./Ph.D. Program; even at this very early stage in his education, he has demonstrated evidence of productivity at the highest scientific level,” said Dr. Cavazos, who has M.D. and Ph.D. degrees and is a professor of neurology, pharmacology and physiology and assistant dean in the School of Medicine and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. “Jeff is poised to become an outstanding physician-scientist. He has the intellectual curiosity, passion for science and creativity that characterizes successful clinician-scientists.”

A bigger impact

Students who dive into such an undertaking must have a strong motivation, and Cooney is no exception. “Ultimately, I would like to do some sort of oncology research and also see patients, and have that research be translational so I can bring it from the lab to the clinic,” he said. “You can have an impact on an individual level treating patients, but a much bigger impact if you are able to improve an existing treatment or discover a pathway to a new one.”

Currently 34 students at the Health Science Center are pursuing these dual degrees to become clinician-scientists. The M.D./Ph.D. Program receives funding from the President’s Office, the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and several endowments at the Health Science Center, including the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long endowment, the Brackenridge Foundation endowment and the Greehey Family Foundation endowment.

The latest program support to be announced is from the estate of Laura A. Adler in memory of her husband, Harry F. Adler, M.D., Ph.D. Half of the $1 million gift will establish the Harry F. Adler, M.D., Ph.D., Laboratory in the South Texas Research Facility, and the other half will establish the Harry F. Adler, M.D., Ph.D. President’s Endowment in Research and Education.

For more information about the M.D./Ph.D. Program, visit som.uthscsa.edu/mdphd/.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $231 million in fiscal year 2011. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced approximately 28,000 graduates. The $736 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit www.uthscsa.edu.

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