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UTHSCSA to bring biomedical research to Rio Grande Valley

South Texas elected and civic leaders will join Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), on Dec. 11 to break ground on the first biomedical research facility of its kind to be located on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The $20 million Medical Research Division of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC), operated by UTHSCSA, will be devoted to basic and epidemiological study of diseases that disproportionately affect the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which has about 1 million residents. A portion of the new facility also will house a cooperative Doctor of Pharmacy program.

The Medical Research Division will complement the RAHC Medical Education Division, which UTHSCSA opened June 28 in Harlingen, and the RAHC Public Health Division, which the UT Health Science Center at Houston opened in Brownsville.

The new facility will be across the street from The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), enabling research faculty to mentor undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students from UTPA and other area universities in summer and other research experiences. The RAHC students at the Medical Research Division will be master's- and doctoral-level students enrolled in the Health Science Center's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. The Doctor of Pharmacy students will be enrolled in a cooperative program between UTPA and UT Austin.

"We are so grateful to Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., who authored the legislation that established the Regional Academic Health Center, and to Senator-Elect Juan Hinojosa, who sponsored the legislation in the House," Dr. Cigarroa said. "Their vision is resulting in the education of medical students in the Valley and soon the post-graduate work of young scientists in the Valley. We also want to honor all the outstanding members of the Valley legislative delegation, and the city of Edinburg and Mayor Joe Ochoa, who recently presented a $1 million check to show the city's commitment to this great undertaking."

Tuberculosis, diabetes, dengue fever, hepatitis, cholera, leprosy, certain cancers and neural tube defects are seen in high concentrations in the Valley. Cases sometimes occur in clusters. A famous example occurred in the mid-'90s, when an unusually large number of neural tube defect births were reported along the Rio Grande. Dengue fever is rare in Texas, but 20 cases were reported in the Lower Valley during a 1999 outbreak. Texas Department of Health statistics show that Cameron County, which includes Harlingen and Brownsville, had a tuberculosis rate of 17.9 cases per 100,000 residents in 2000, compared to the state rate of 7.2. Hidalgo County, which includes Edinburg and McAllen, had a rate of 14 cases per 100,000.

Hidalgo County, which is 88 percent Hispanic, reported 163 deaths from diabetes in 2000 — a rate of 38.6 per 100,000 residents compared to the state average of 31.1 (death rates have been age adjusted).

"Other academic centers offer education to students in various health fields, but the RAHC affords the opportunity for top-quality biomedical research to occur right here on the border," said Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H., regional dean of the RAHC in the UTHSCSA School of Medicine. "Medical education and research in the Valley, provided through the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen and Edinburg, will help level the playing field for opportunities in this increasingly important part of our state."

The architect is Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc. The general contractor has not been selected. The RAHC Medical Research Division will include a laboratory animal resources facility, a Level 3 biological safety laboratory, offices and other lab space.

Contact: Aileen Salinas or Lucie Portela