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South Texas Research Facility artist's rendering

South Texas Research Facility continues tradition. Translational science in action.

August 2011

by Will Sansom

Cancer, healthy aging, neurosciences and regenerative medicine are among the core areas of research to be housed within the South Texas Research Facility. Here are a few examples of translational science that will thrive in labs at the STRF.


    Cancer
    Several research groups using translational approaches for cancer prevention and treatment will be located in the new Greehey Cancer Laboratories of the STRF.

    Sunil Sudarshan, M.D., urologic oncologist in the Department of Urology, is profiling metabolites of kidney cancer cells. Metabolites are the byproducts of our cells’ energy consumption. Metabolites produced by kidney cancer cells may be evacuated in the urine. The hope is an effective urine-based biomarker that can assist with diagnosis, prognosis and therapy for this cancer.

    Tyler Curiel, M.D., M.P.H., and Bin Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Medicine, are making strides in immunotherapy. They use novel means of attacking cancers by enhancing the patients’ immune systems to kill cancers selectively.

    Zhi-Min Yuan, M.D., Ph.D., Greehey Distinguished Chair in the Department of Radiation Oncology, is using tumor-suppressor genes to signal cancer cells that it is time to die. This cell death is called apoptosis. The Yuan lab, in collaboration with Chul Ha, M.D., chairman of radiation oncology, also seeks to study how to keep a tumor-suppressor protein called p53 from getting activated in normal cells when a patient undergoes radiation therapy.

    The laboratory of A. Pratap Kumar, Ph.D., is studying molecular signaling associated with development of prostate and pancreatic cancers. Results will allow the formation of nutrition-based preventive strategies, translation of laboratory observations to the bedside, and identification of useful markers for early diagnosis and to predict progression.

    The goal of the cancer prevention work of Rita Ghosh, Ph.D., is to target stress-related molecules that bladder, prostate and melanoma cancers use for their own propagation.

    Healthy aging
    The Center for Healthy Aging, which conducts translational and clinical research focused on aging, will be a major part of the STRF. This center in the School of Medicine works with clinical partners, the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, as well as the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies.

    Center for Healthy Aging Director Nicolas Musi, M.D., said the STRF space allows the center to set up a lab to study muscle dysfunction. Muscular problems occur with aging, in diabetes and in neurodegenerative diseases. Dr. Musi is the Sam and Ann Barshop Endowed Chair in Clinical and Translational Research in Geriatrics and a diabetes researcher in the Department of Medicine.

    Studies will focus on the ability of aging muscles to contract, exercise, burn energy and retain or lose mass. Sarcopenia, loss of muscle mass, is almost universal in aging. Holly Van Remmen, Ph.D., of the Department of Cellular and Structural Biology, focuses effort in this area of study and is the center’s associate director for basic research. Brian Herman, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology, will also establish a lab in the STRF to continue studies of Parkinson’s disease.

    Formally organized in 2010, the Center for Healthy Aging also coordinates medical education in geriatrics and clinical services for older adults. Startup funds came from The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Barshop family, the Health Science Center, the School of Medicine, the Department of Medicine and the Department of Family and Community Medicine.
    Nicolas Musi, M.D.
    Nicolas Musi, M.D., will direct research in the Center for Healthy Aging at the STRF.

    Neurosciences
    An amazing microscope will enable all scientists at the STRF to probe much more than cells in Petri dishes and frozen tissue samples. This speedy research instrument captures blink-of-the-eye events in living animals using a pulsed infrared laser.

    James Lechleiter, Ph.D., of the Department of Cellular and Structural Biology and director of the Core Optical Imaging Facility, obtained the microscope with university funding and custom modified it to enable multiphoton imaging at very high scanning speeds. It will be used in myriad projects, such as comparing activity in the brains of mice that have Alzheimer’s-like cognitive deficits against activity in normal mouse brains.

    Murat Digicaylioglu, M.D., Ph.D., of the Department of Neurosurgery, is part of the STRF neuroscience contingent. The group will study brain injury such as stroke, looking at short-term events in live tissue with the goal of increasing protection for the brain. The aim is to find treatment options for brain trauma patients.

    The STRF will also feature the N-STORM, an ultra-high-resolution microscope. At the time it was acquired earlier this year, the N-STORM was the first in Texas and the second nationwide. It allows scientists to see details at the molecular level. "This is a microscope with 10 to 20 times higher resolution than conventional systems," Dr. Lechleiter said. "This increased resolution enables researchers to visualize the 3-D molecular structures of a cell in ways that have never been accessible by light microscopy." Health Science Center researchers are lining up to apply that new capability to answer a range of biomedical questions.

    "One project will look at three-dimensional entry of viruses into cells. These are viruses that infect and initiate many types of cancer," Lechleiter said.

    Another project will analyze the interaction between human cells and the bacterium that causes the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia. This bacterium invades and lives inside of the cell. The idea is to identify the specific position of a molecule that is secreted by the bacterium to better understand how it exerts its effects inside the host cell.

    The resolution of a conventional optical microscope is limited by the wavelength of visible light, said Michael Wilson, Ph.D., director of institutional research core facilities at the Health Science Center. The accuracy of locating a single point is typically no better than approximately 250 nanometers. Using special chemistry and advanced computational techniques, the N-STORM repeatedly maps blinking lights that are emitted from single molecules to a precise position, so that their location is established to within approximately 20 nanometers. "It is a very data-intensive technique that captures up to 50,000 image frames and processes them into a single, super-resolution image," Dr. Wilson added.

    The university and the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) provided matching funds to acquire the N-STORM. Both instruments will be housed in the STRF imaging core facility.


Science of seeking talent

The STRF is a truly monumental achievement and yet, it is the scientists in its labs who will ensure the STRF’s ultimate contribution: making lives better.

Solar panels on the roof of the STRF
The STRF includes a solar project funded by an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant through the State Energy Conservation Office and City Public Service. Crews installed 416 panels on the roof of the building and 342 panels over parking spaces at no cost to the Health Science Center. Each panel is made from monocrystalline silicon. Projected savings is 210,000 kilowatt hours per year or almost $15,000 a year.

The STRF’s occupants reflect months of collaborative efforts by the School of Medicine and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Leaders from these schools identified more than 75 current faculty who are relocating to the STRF this fall. The building will provide 125,000 square feet in usable lab space for these and other STRF pioneers, partially relieving the Health Science Center’s research space deficit of 250,000 square feet pre-STRF.

Sixty percent of the STRF will be occupied by current faculty stars while 40 percent will be devoted to recruiting new luminaries. "It appears we are going to be amazingly close to the targeted 60 percent occupancy when the STRF opens its doors," said David Weiss, Ph.D., vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. "Meanwhile the four thematic research groups, funded by both the Graduate School and the School of Medicine, have already started recruiting new world-class scientists from around the country to occupy the remaining 40 percent."

Attracting new funding

Paula Shireman, M.D., associate dean for research in the School of Medicine, said the joint recruitments by the two schools reflect the desired translational nature of STRF science. "We are excited about the possibilities of expanding interdisciplinary research and believe that STRF faculty will play a major role in providing the transformational science that will improve quality of health and life span," Dr. Shireman said.

The deans, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Francisco González-Scarano of the School of Medicine, have been actively involved in hiring faculty with the department chairs.

The STRF is steps away from the Research Imaging Institute, the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute, the Cancer Therapy & Research Center and the Medical Arts & Research Center (MARC). The MARC is the clinical home for UT Medicine San Antonio, the clinical practice of the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center, where primary care doctors and specialists see patients in private practice. Together, these form a major research campus with a broad array of infrastructure needed to do almost any kind of research.

Counting all disciplines, there will be 750 people working on science on this great campus.

San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, with full support of the City Council, this Fall announced a $3.3 million grant to the Health Science Center to finish construction of the STRF.

"The city is proud to support both the improvements that will be made in human health and the economic vitality that will emanate from this great research building," Mayor Castro said.

"Forty laboratory groups, each with seven to eight people, will be located in the STRF," Dr. Herman said. "The open working environment of the new facility will significantly enhance the proximity of complementary research teams, resulting in the development of multidisciplinary research programs that will be more competitive in attracting new and larger research grants to the UT Health Science Center."

Faculty physicians featured in this article, including Hinan Ahmed, M.D., Steven Bailey, M.D., Tyler Curiel, M.D., M.P.H., Francisco González-Scarano, M.D., Nicolas Musi, M.D., Kristen Plastino, M.D., Paula Shireman, M.D., and Sunil Sudarshan, M.D., practice with UT Medicine San Antonio, the clinical practice of the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Some also serve at University Hospital and other health care partner institutions. University Hospital is a teaching hospital of the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center. For more information about UT Medicine San Antonio, visit UTMedicine.org.


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