Symposium spotlights Valley’s growing research capabilities

HARLINGEN (Jan. 21, 2009) — The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is laying the groundwork for a thriving research community in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and its efforts will be on display at a gathering this weekend.

The Regional Academic Health Center Clinical Research Symposium, to be held Friday and Saturday at Valley Baptist Medical Center’s Woodward Conference Center, will bring together faculty from Harlingen and San Antonio to discuss how clinical research can be used to improve the health of Valley residents.

“Our research efforts are focused on diseases that afflict the population here,” said Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H., regional dean of the RAHC, who will speak at the symposium.

Clinical research, which addresses problems at the patient and population levels, is distinct from the basic science research under way at the RAHC’s Medical Research Division in Edinburg, which seeks answers at the chemical and molecular levels.

The symposium comes as the 7-year-old Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) makes a push to expand its clinical research capabilities. Evidence of that will be visible this spring.

A clinical research unit is about to open in the recently completed second building of the RAHC’s Harlingen campus. A state-of-the-art 3-Tesla magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system being installed there by the South Texas Veterans Health Care System will be available for research as well as diagnostic testing.

The clinical research unit receives support from the Health Science Center’s Institute for Integration of Medicine and Science (IIMS), which offers instruction in clinical and translational research. Translational research bridges basic science and clinical research, taking findings from the laboratory and incorporating them into the care of individuals and the community.

“We hope to encourage and facilitate more clinical research, especially studies related to health problems that are prevalent in the region,” said IIMS Director Robert A. Clark, M.D., M.A.C.P., who will speak at the symposium on Saturday.

Another opportunity for clinical research comes in the form of the National Children’s Study, which will follow 100,000 children nationwide from before birth until age 21. The Health Science Center was awarded $33 million to manage three of 105 study sites, including one in Hidalgo County. The RAHC will assist there.

Daniel E. Hale, M.D., principal investigator for the Health Science Center’s three sites, also will speak at the symposium on Saturday.

So will Brad H. Pollock, M.P.H., Ph.D., who chairs the Health Science Center’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. In addition to conducting its own research, Dr. Pollock’s department helps other researchers design studies. The department already has faculty at the RAHC and is looking to expand its presence with a soon-to-be-hired senior faculty coordinator.

“I think the idea is to engage community physicians in trying to address the problems of their population through development of research,” Dr. Pollock said.

Others scheduled to speak at the symposium include Thomas Slaga, Ph.D., interim director for research at the RAHC’s Medical Research Division in Edinburg, and Amelie G. Ramirez, Dr.P.H., director of the Health Science Center’s Institute for Health Promotion Research.

While the RAHC is looking to expand clinical research in the Valley, it has long offered its medical residents the opportunity to conduct clinical studies through the Kleberg Medical Scholars Program, which was established with a $1.5 million gift from The Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation. Residents receive a $10,000 stipend to support their research.

“We were using our extra time to do research that was relevant to our community and the clinical questions we were seeing,” said James W. Castillo, M.D., one of the earliest Kleberg Scholars and the first RAHC resident to present at a national meeting. “There’s not a whole lot of research being done on the patient populations we see in the border regions.”




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 $668 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $16.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $36 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 24,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and other 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, orthopedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit

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