President’s Council luncheon draws enthusiastic group of community leaders

SAN ANTONIO (March 1, 2012) — The annual President’s Council luncheon Feb. 29 at Pearl Stable featured a large turnout of enthusiastic community leaders, scientists at every table leading dialogues about discoveries, and celebration of the President’s Council’s support of programs at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio.

“Science can be a hard taskmaster with many blind loops,” said William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP, president of the Health Science Center. “The support you provide as members of the President’s Council is essential to a place of excellence such as this. Your support enables our investigators to conduct research that is cutting edge and innovative.”

Making new directions possible

President’s Council awards enabled the Health Science Center to recruit three new outstanding scientists, award eight scholarships in women’s health, and match funds to support the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund Biomedical Research Academy for the next three years. The Voelcker Academy partners sophomore high school students with scientists from the Health Science Center to promote excellence in scholarship and biomedical research training for a three-year period.

The President’s Council support also endowed a visiting professorship in deaf education and hearing sciences, occupied by Robert Novak, M.D., and a new professorship in urology, occupied by Steven Kraus, M.D. Both are in the School of Medicine.

The support provided excellence funds to the Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg campuses of the Health Science Center, scholarships to Ambassador Scholars representing the five schools — School of Medicine, School of Nursing, Dental School, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and School of Health Professions — and critical needs funding for use at the discretion of the deans of the schools, Dr. Henrich said.

Basic science — always essential

David Weiss, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and vice president for research at the Health Science Center, delivered an engaging keynote address on the absolute necessity of basic science research. He recalled that as a youngster he was torn between biology and chemistry — between dissecting frogs and making gunpowder. “Thankfully for my parents, I was better at the former,” Dr. Weiss said.

Biological scientists are drawn into the profession by their fascination with living organisms, and that love is now pulling them through extremely difficult times in funding. Today fewer than 1 in 10 grants submitted to the National Institutes of Health is funded; that figure was once 1 in 4.

Scientists forge on, nevertheless. “As astronomers point their instruments to the skies to try to answer questions, we as biological scientists point our instruments inward to try to answer questions,” Dr. Weiss said.

An accident and a new understanding

Bizarre events sometimes inform science. Dr. Weiss told the story of Phineas Gage (1823-1860), an American railroad construction foreman who in 1848 was part of a work gang blasting rock. After a hole was bored in the rock, he inserted gunpowder, a fuse and possibly sand, and hit it with a 13-pound tamping rod. It exploded, perhaps because of a lack of sand, shooting the rod through his face.

Amazingly, Gage spoke within minutes and sat upright on a cart. But the profound injury to his brain changed him for the rest of his life. Prior to the injury he was known as a smart businessman; afterward he exhibited a fitful, irreverent personality, often indulging in profanity.

“His experience showed how the frontal lobe can control our personalities,” Dr. Weiss said.

Application not always obvious, at first

Strange life events aside, basic research is the foundation of clinical discoveries, Dr. Weiss said. A biochemist who studied light-sensing proteins in algae contributed seemingly esoteric knowledge to the literature, but today this information may lead to a cure for retinitis pigmentosa. In this disease the photo-receptor cells in the eye degenerate, causing blindness.

Scientists developed mice with a genetic mutation that causes the disease. Using genetic transplant techniques, the scientists inserted the light-sensing proteins from the algae into the mice, resulting in the rodents being able to navigate a maze. It could very well be a way to restore sight to sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa.

“Science may not be so esoteric after all; you never know,” Dr. Weiss concluded.

He invited the President’s Council leaders to visit the Health Science Center, where research holds the promise of tomorrow’s cures.

“It is so true that if we are going to have progress in curing disease, we must have science,” Dr. Henrich said. “It is a privilege to know our scientists and be inspired by them.”

During the luncheon Dr. Henrich recognized Luis de la Garza, longtime co-chair of the President’s Council with J. Tullos Wells. De la Garza in turn recognized Ed Kelley, chairman of the Health Science Center Development Board.

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 26,000 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

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