Cream of the Crop
by Natalie Gutierrez and Will SansomOf all the researchers who garnered the most National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding during the last quarter-century, eight are working right here at the Health Science Center. An additional six have retired.
Health economists at Columbia University compiled the list of top researchers by examining the funding histories of approximately 50,000 researchers from across the nation who received NIH grants from 1977 to 2003. The following faculty members made the top 5 percent. Their research earned a combined total of more than $335 million in NIH funding for the Health Science Center. Also on our top 10 list of outstanding and highly-funded researchers are Brian Herman, Ph.D., and Oscar Benavente, M.D.
After receiving a second National Institutes of Health MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award - an honor reserved for fewer than one in a thousand NIH-funded researchers - what can Brian Herman, Ph.D., possibly do for an encore?
Dr. Herman, the Health Science Center’s vice president for research and a professor in the department of cellular and structural biology, remains hard at work studying apoptosis - the pathway through which our bodies’ cells are programmed to die.
Ordinarily, apoptosis is a beneficial process important for development and health. But defects in apoptosis can be very damaging and underlie numerous disease processes.
"We’ve provided data to suggest that manipulating cell death can impact aging. By understanding apoptosis, we may be able to develop interventions that either delay the aging process or provide for a better quality of life as we age," Dr. Herman says. "Our most recent findings suggest that altering a specific part of the apoptotic pathway can have a major impact on the size, amount of body fat, skeletal system and hair growth of aging mice."
Arlan G. Richardson, Ph.D., is a man on a mission - to test existing theories of how we age with the goal of helping us to be healthier in our later years.
Dr. Richardson is director of the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies and senior research career scientist with the South Texas Veterans Health Care System. His laboratories focus on mouse models to identify genes that play a role in longevity and in the anti-aging action of dietary restriction.
"Currently, my laboratory is developing models that will allow us to manipulate expression of specific genes at any time in the life span of the mouse," he said.
Susan L. Naylor, Ph.D., professor in the department of cellular and structural biology, is a librarian of a different sort - and the human genetic blueprint is her library. DNA, the blueprint, is the library, genes are the books and amino acids are the words.
Her work with the international Human Genome Project is legendary and because of her presence, the Health Science Center is the world’s repository for information on human chromosome 3. Today Dr. Naylor continues her studies of chromosome 3 with an eye to gene deletions that may to be linked to lung, ovarian, head and neck, and uterine cancer.
"A second project, in the study of prostate cancer, is to discover the role of the Y chromosome in tumor development," she says.
Steven M. Haffner, M.D., professor of medicine (clinical epidemiology), is determined to prevent the threat of diabetes for those who are most susceptible to the debilitating disease. He has been involved in studying risk factors for the development of type 2 diabetes. His research has shown that non-diabetic blacks are more insulin resistant than non-diabetic, non-Hispanic whites, an explanation for why blacks are at higher risk for type 2 diabetes. Dr. Haffner was involved in developing the study protocol for the Diabetes Primary Prevention Project, a six-year, nationwide study co-sponsored by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, the National Institute on Aging and the American Diabetes Association. He was the principal investigator for the San Antonio site. The study, which was completed in 2002, resulted in a 58 percent reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes with only a 5 percent average weight loss.
"This study shows convincingly that even moderate weight loss can be associated with dramatic reductions in the risk of type 2 diabetes," Dr. Haffner said. More recently he has been involved in a study examining whether weight reduction may reduce cardiovascular disease in subjects who already have type 2 diabetes.
James R. Smith, Ph.D., professor of pathology and the Ewing Halsell Foundation Distinguished Chair in Aging Research, is another step closer to understanding the complex aging processes. Along with his research collaborator and wife, Olivia Pereira-Smith, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology, Dr. Smith has discovered one of the genetic processes that slows down cell division in most human cells and the specific gene responsible for prohibiting cell division altogether.
"When the body ages, cell growth slows down, making it more difficult for the body to respond to challenges," Dr. Smith said. "With impaired cell division, the human body has a difficult time healing and renewing itself as it ages." By understanding why these cells stop dividing, Dr. Smith said, researchers may be able to find a way to jump-start cell division in the elderly to combat age-related problems such as osteoporosis and impaired healing of bone fractures.
Michael P. Stern, M.D., is a diabetes detective. As professor of medicine and chief of the division of clinical epidemiology, Dr. Stern has carried out extensive research on the epidemiology of type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and related conditions in Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. More recently, his research interests have extended to include genetic epidemiology.
"We are carrying out a 12- to 20-year follow-up study of more than 5,000 individuals, with approximately 60 percent being Hispanic," Dr. Stern said. "In addition, we are examining susceptibility genes as risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease in two large family studies involving more than 80 families and close to 2,500 family members."
Dr. Stern has published more than 250 scientific articles on the topics and has received many awards and honors including a National Institutes of Health MERIT Award.
You could say Gregory R. Mundy, M.D., works his hands to the bone. For years, Dr. Mundy has worked tirelessly on research involving the regulation of bone formation, effects of tumors on the skeleton and the development of drugs that inhibit the development of osteoporosis. His findings indicate the possibility that compounds that inhibit osteoclasts (cells that break down bone) might also prevent tumor growth in bone. He also has identified substances called bisphosphonates that can slow cancer-related bone destruction characteristic of diseases such as myeloma.
When the National Institutes of Health initiated and awarded MERIT Awards, Dr. Mundy was among the first scientists to earn one of these rare and highly coveted honors.
So make no bones about it - as professor of cellular and structural biology and leader of the San Antonio Cancer Institute’s Cancer-Related Bone Disease Program, Dr. Mundy will leave no skeletons in the closet when it comes to bone research.
Microbial Mystery Solver
The ongoing war in the trenches between our immune system and bacterial invaders is summed up in one word: virulence (i.e., capacity to cause disease). This is the leading subject of interest to Joel B. Baseman, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the department of microbiology and immunology.
"Our laboratory examines the molecular underpinnings of microbial disease with emphasis on the virulence potential of human bacteria and how we counteract infection," he says.
Dr. Baseman is one of America’s leading experts on mycoplasmas - the tiniest of all bacterial invaders - and on the development of vaccines to stave them off. His laboratories utilize a variety of state-of-the-art approaches to explore new factors in this war against disease.
Stroke of Genius
Robert G. Hart, M.D., professor of medicine (neurology), is a pioneer in stroke prevention and treatment, particularly clinical trials and their methodology. His interests include anticoagulants and antiplatelet therapies for stroke prevention, as well as blood clots and prothrombotic states causing stroke.
Most recently Dr. Hart and Oscar R. Benavente, M.D., associate professor of medicine (neurology), were awarded a $37 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) of the NIH for their study titled "Secondary Prevention of Small Subcortical Strokes." This is the largest single research grant in the Health Science Center’s history.
The following retired faculty members also made the top ranking. They are:
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