Voelcker Fund awards $2.3 million for young faculty research, pipeline education


William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP, president of UT Health San Antonio, on June 26 announced that the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund is giving $1.45 million to the university to support three innovative research projects and one pilot research project, all conducted by rising young faculty studying cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Henrich also announced that the Voelcker Fund Board of Trustees has allocated $846,930 to continue the Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy at UT Health San Antonio for four years through 2021. The academy is a two-year immersive summer experience for high school students ages 16 and older to learn about and conduct biomedical research in preparation for college and for careers in science and health care.

“UT Health San Antonio researchers seek cures for cancer, heart disease and myriad other conditions,” said Banks Smith, Voelcker Fund trustee. “We are pleased to support these quality research programs, along with the education of budding research scientists.”

The three new Voelcker Fund Young Investigator Awards will assist:

  • Myron Ignatius, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular medicine and member of the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute, studying pathways and mechanisms by which tumor cells adapt to survive stress or treatments, causing cancer relapse. Dr. Ignatius is focusing on rhabdomyosarcoma, a childhood muscle tumor.
  • April Risinger, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology, studying the anticancer efficacy of microtubule targeting agents, especially the ability of these agents to alter signaling pathways associated with cancer initiation and tumor progression.
  • Carolina Solis-Herrera, M.D., assistant professor of medicine (Division of Diabetes) and member of the UT Health Physicians clinical practice, studying mechanisms to explain cardiovascular benefits observed in high-risk type 2 diabetes patients treated with a class of medication called a SGLT2 inhibitor.

A Voelcker Fund Pilot Research Award will support:

  • David Libich, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and structural biology and member of the Greehey Institute, studying a heat shock protein as a novel target to induce apoptosis (programmed destruction) in tumor cells.

“This vital program of the Voelcker Fund targets young investigators to support their careers,” President Henrich said. “Their initial research is evaluated by peer reviewers who are scientists on the national level. Thus, the selection of our young faculty members for these grant awards is meritorious and highly important for San Antonio.”

“The Voelcker Fund was very impressed with this last pool of applicants, which speaks volumes about the high quality of the young faculty recruited by our department chairs,” said Andrea Giuffrida, Ph.D., vice president for research, UT Health San Antonio.

Dr. Giuffrida said the Voelcker Fund Young Investigator Awards are “a trampoline to launch the researchers into the next phase of their careers as National Institutes of Health-funded researchers studying diseases such as cancer that are specifically targeted by the Voelcker Fund.”

The Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy recruits diverse and academically accomplished high school students from San Antonio school districts for hands-on training in biomedical research at UT Health San Antonio. This is in preparation for their transition to college.

One objective is to develop the academy as a national model of life sciences educational pipeline programming, President Henrich said.

The academy, which began in 2009 and has been continuously supported by the Voelcker Fund from the outset, has expanded its curriculum to include fundamentals in population health, precision medicine, bioinformatics/Big Data and biotechnology commercialization, Dr. Giuffrida said. All high school participants are mentored by UT Health faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, who offer an individualized training plan and assess the students’ scientific progress.

Irene Chapa, Ph.D., is director of research and science outreach at UT Health San Antonio and director of the Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy. Francis Lam, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology; Linda McManus, Ph.D., professor of pathology; and Dr. Giuffrida, professor of pharmacology, are co-principal investigators of the academy.

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