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UTHSCSA allocates $7 million for core studies (7-10-00)

In the wake of the announcement that scientists have deciphered most of the human genetic blueprint, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC) is providing $7 million in grants to its own scientists studying the functions of genes, proteins and molecules with the goal of understanding human diseases.

"The Human Genome Project has forever changed the landscape of research in the biosciences," said John P. Howe, III, M.D., president of the Health Science Center. "In the face of these new amounts of genetic information, we must equip our South Texas scientists with the finest tools for this new age of discovery. These new technologies will help us attract and retain the most outstanding scientists of our region."

"This investment is historic because, with it, we will purchase various types of equipment that have never been available in San Antonio," said Bettie Sue Masters, Ph.D., the Robert A. Welch Foundation Chair in Chemistry at UTHSC and professor in the Department of Biochemistry. "Now that the human genome has been mapped, the quest to help people really begins. We have a genetic map, but it doesnít tell us anything until we also learn about gene-encoded proteins and how they function. This investment in resources, unique to our region, will greatly enhance our research capabilities."

Dr. Masters chaired the Health Science Centerís Ad Hoc Core Research Facilities Committee, which recommended the 14 grant recipients in genetics, optical imaging, genetic mouse model development, DNA technologies, structural biology, macromolecular interaction modalities (studies of protein-to-protein and protein-to-DNA interactions), bioinformatics and other fields.

Several grants support existing centers of research at UTHSC, including the multidisciplinary Optical Imaging Facility and the Center for Advanced DNA Technologies. Another grant supports research facilities that are developing animal models for diseases of genetic origin.

A fourth grant, closely related to the Human Genome Project, will support a bioinformatics center. The Health Science Center, under the leadership of Susan L. Naylor, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology, is the leading worldwide repository of genetic information related to human chromosome 3.

Bioinformatics is a relatively new field of science that combines mathematics, computer science and biology to study and interpret information about genes and proteins. "It involves using the computer to identify biological themes and patterns, with application to massive databases such as the Human Genome Project is generating," Dr. Masters said. "The huge amount of data to sift and utilize will keep scientists busy for the remainder of this century, at least."

Other grants were allocated to Andrew P. Hinck, Ph.D., and Peter John Hart, Ph.D., assistant professors of biochemistry, who conduct research in UTHSCís Center for Biomolecular Structure Analysis. Dr. Hinck is an expert in solution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) and Dr. Hart is an x-ray crystallographer. Both methods for structure analysis are becoming core technologies for contemporary scientists. Prior to establishment of the Center for Biomolecular Structure Analysis in late 1998, neither x-ray crystallography nor high-field NMR spectroscopy was available in San Antonio.

Dr. Masters praised the diligence and dedication of the Core Research Facilities Committee. The project required site visits to St. Judeís Childrenís Hospital in Memphis, the University of Michigan and Stanford University. The committee also hosted two invited site visitors, Mark Lively, Ph.D., of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and David Landsman, Ph.D., of the National Library of Medicine. Drs. Lively and Landsman spent two days on campus as consultants on bioinformatics.

"The development of these state-of-the-art facilities is a milestone in the development of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and for the communities it serves," Dr. Masters said. "Within a few months, researchers will be able to consider themselves at the forefront of technologies required to achieve the next level of knowledge. They will take the steps needed to translate the human genome map into useful, dynamic information for deciphering the causes of human disease and developing ways to prevent, treat and cure these maladies."

Across the country, leaders such as the Health Science Center are tooling up to write the next chapters of the genetics research story. A day after the June 26 Human Genome Project announcement, three New York research institutions announced that an anonymous donor had pledged $80 million to help them translate the raw genetic data into cures for human disease, according to a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Contact: Will Sansom