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Internationally acclaimed researcher joins UH faculty thanks to $5.5 million grant

HOUSTON, Feb. 5, 2009 Gov. Rick Perry today announced the awarding of a $5.5 million grant to the University of Houston through the Texas Emerging Technology Fund (ETF).

As a result of the ETF grant, UH has recruited a top hormones researcher and his team to carry out laboratory research and to create next-generation pharmaceuticals and medical technologies at a world-class center to be established by UH and The Methodist Hospital Research Institute (TMHRI).

"The biomedical industry is one of the largest in our state, and has the potential to greatly improve many Texans' quality of life with continued research and expansion," Gov. Perry said. "This world-class research team will lead the charge in developing treatments for diseases that plague our citizens and enhance the University of Houston's presence as a biomedical research institution."

Jan-ke Gustafsson, a renowned figure in the study of hormones and a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Assembly, accepted an appointment this summer to expand his revolutionary research efforts at the University of Houston. He arrived on campus in late January.

"We are delighted to have Dr. Gustafsson join our faculty as a key leader in our biomedical initiative," said Renu Khator, president of UH and chancellor of the UH System. "He was courted by Ivy League institutions and determined the University of Houston offered the best opportunity to advance his research. He will play an important role in our quest for flagship university status."

Gustafsson's hiring represents a key element in fulfilling Khator's vision for the university, which includes a UH Health Initiative that will expand the university's presence and its partnerships with Texas Medical Center institutions, filling gaps that currently exist and advancing strengths already in place.

Gustafsson, who holds both a Ph.D. and M.D., will teach as a distinguished professor at both the department of biology and biochemistry and the department of chemistry at UH's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Gustafsson also will be a distinguished member of TMHRI and will head the proposed Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, a collaborative effort between UH and TMHRI.

"The recruitment of Dr. Gustafsson and establishment of the center represents a substantial collaboration between UH and Methodist," said Michael Lieberman, M.D., Ph.D., director of TMHRI. "Dr. Gustafsson will join two of the world's top nuclear receptor researchers, TMHRI's Drs. Willa Hsueh and John Baxter, in establishing the world's largest center for nuclear receptor research."

Gustafsson said he looks forward to building a state-of-the-art research center, focusing on "the medically very important field of nuclear receptors and cell signaling."

"The concentration of outstanding scientists at UH, TMHRI and in the Houston area in general, including the medical center, provides unique possibilities for cutting-edge translational research with great clinical and commercial potential," he said.

Gustafsson is revered worldwide for his translational research on nuclear receptors, a class of proteins found in cell nuclei that capture hormone molecules and interact with and control the expression of genes. Research in this field is vital in developing treatments for such diseases as cancer and diabetes.

"The recruitment of an outstanding scientist such as Dr. Gustafsson to the University of Houston represents a landmark achievement in biologic development at that campus. He will bring an internationally recognized team to study estrogen action in normal and diseased tissues that will have a wide impact across other university departments," said Bert O'Malley, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor College of Medicine and recent recipient of the National Medal of Science.

Here's how nuclear receptors work: Each receptor in the cell's nucleus has a cavity shaped just so that a hormone molecule can fit inside. Once wedded to the hormone, the nuclear receptor's outer surface changes, depending upon the type of hormone housed within. Then, other proteins recognize the receptor's surface structure and join in a chain reaction. This hormone-controlled process influences expression of genetic information and the development and metabolism of an organism.

"Nuclear receptors provide the lock that the key of your hormones fit in. They allow your DNA to be read and expressed. Gustafsson discovered a major estrogen receptor protein and has worked in a variety of application areas, including cancer. We are very fortunate to have him and his team relocating to UH," said B. Montgomery Pettitt, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen distinguished professor in chemistry.

Stuart Dryer, John and Rebecca Moores distinguished professor of biology and chair of UH's department of biology and biochemistry, said Gustafsson and his colleagues will "fit in beautifully with the existing strengths of the department and will provide leadership in a number of new interdisciplinary ventures."

"For me, this is the most exciting thing that has happened at the University of Houston since I arrived 11 years ago," Dryer said.

Gustafsson's research group at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1990s discovered the existence of a previously unknown estrogen receptor that plays a pivotal role in the function of the brain, lungs and immune system. Today, drugs are being developed to stimulate that receptor, named ER-beta, to battle a number of diseases, including breast, prostate and lung cancers. (In some instances, the abnormal cell division that creates cancerous tumors can be slowed down or stopped by stimulating the receptor.)

"We envision Jan-ke's research program to not only span our colleges and departments but also the region, by partnering with institutions within the Texas Medical Center and rapidly establishing international prominence," said Don Birx, vice chancellor for research for the UH System and vice president for research at UH.

UH and TMHRI applied this summer for a superiority grant from the state's Emerging Technology Fund to establish the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, a research enterprise aimed at better understanding the relationship between nuclear receptors and disease detection, management and treatment.

Gustafsson has a solid track record for commercializing his discoveries, and he is co-founder of KaroBio AB, a biotechnology company on the Karolinska campus, along with Dr. John D. Baxter, who joined TMHRI this year.

"Jan-ke's team will provide leadership that aligns with UH's shared strategic vision to engage the major issues of our time in ways that significantly impact the lives of those around the world," Birx said. "His scientific and commercialization expertise will capitalize on and serve Texas' desire to lead in medical discovery particularly in cancer diagnostics and therapy."

Gustafsson's work on other nuclear hormone receptors lends itself to new treatments for metabolic syndrome, including atherosclerosis, Type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic hepatic steatosis, also known as fatty liver. He also has found evidence that the roles played by estrogen receptors and nuclear hormone receptors in the brain may be manipulated to treat neurodegeneration, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, depression and other mood disorders.

Margaret Warner, a research scientist who has worked with Gustafsson for more than 20 years at Karolinska, and up to 15 other scientists on his team there are to join him in Houston to work with esteemed members of the UH faculty and TMHRI staff. Warner will join the faculty of UH's department of biology and biochemistry.

Among his many honors, Gustafsson is a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and winner of the Svedberg Prize in Chemistry, the Anders Jahre Prize of Oslo and the Soderberg Prize in Medicine.

He is director of the Center for Biotechnology at Huddinge University Hospital at the Karolinska Institute, and he has been an adjunct full professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston since 1987.

In 2004, he was named the winner of the 2004 Bristol-Myers Squibb Award in nutrition research. He also has more than 1,300 peer-reviewed publications and has been cited approximately 60,000 times.


Contact: Richard Bonnin
University of Houston

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