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Texas Medical Center researchers win collaborative grants

HOUSTON (Jan. 21, 2009) Finding cures for hearing loss, breast cancer and childhood cancer and a way to identify people at risk for tuberculosis are goals of the first recipients of grants from the Virginia and L.E. Simmons Family Foundation Collaborative Research Fund. The fund, a $3 million initiative to discover new ways to diagnose and treat diseases, supports collaboration among researchers at Rice University, Texas Children's Hospital and The Methodist Hospital Research Institute.

Four projects chosen from 35 proposals have been awarded one-year seed grants. Ideally, organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will fund continuing research. The awards were announced today in a ceremony at The Methodist Hospital.

The Simmons family's intention is to promote novel solutions to difficult medical problems through the combined expertise of Texas Medical Center scientists, engineers and doctors who might not otherwise collaborate.

The foundation requested proposals for original, innovative work suited to a multidisciplinary approach that would involve researchers from at least two of the three institutions.

"Our family is very pleased with, first and foremost, the collaborations that are taking place among the three institutions," said L.E. Simmons of the first round of recipients.

"Second, we are really pleased with how terrific the proposals were. We are impressed with the quality and depth of the proposals. A large number of them would qualify for NIH funding in normal times.

"We are only sorry there isn't enough money there to fund more projects."

Unraveling mysteries of tuberculosis

Why does the tuberculosis germ make some people gravely ill and leave others untouched? That's what intrigues Margaret Goodell, Katherine King and Catherine Bollard of Texas Children's Hospital and Edward Graviss of The Methodist Hospital Research Institute, who received a grant of $197,500.

They say the answer lies in their differing immune response. Studies of mice provide a clue that a signaling molecule, interferon-gamma, triggers the immune system to respond to mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes the disease. When the system goes awry, immune cells cannot effectively digest bacteria nor will bone marrow make blood or more immune cells, and the mice become anemic and die of infection.

The researchers suspect similar processes take place in humans and plan to assess the roles of interferon-gamma and immunity-related GTPase M, a protein similar to one found in mice that engulfs and digests bacteria, in protecting against TB.

"Ultimately," they wrote in their winning proposal, "we hope to use this knowledge to identify and treat patients at high risk for developing tuberculosis disease and its complications, including bone-marrow suppression."

Clues to breast cancer

A protein called separase is the target of a proposed therapy to attack breast cancer, according to Debananda Pati of the Texas Children's Hospital Cancer Center and Yizhi Jane Tao, an assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice. Their project received $191,657 from the foundation.

Separase is an enzyme that initiates the process of cell division. When over-expressed in mouse mammary cells, it has been found to cause the formation of tumors. Having discovered in a previous study that separase is significantly over-expressed in more than 60 percent of human breast tumors, the researchers plan to study the three-dimensional structure of separase and then design or identify small molecule inhibitors to stop tumors while leaving normal cells alone.

"We are confident by the end of this project we will have sufficient preliminary data to apply to major granting agencies," they wrote.

Lasers light way for the deaf

Helping the deaf hear again by using lasers to stimulate auditory neurons is the focus of research by Robert Raphael, an associate professor in bioengineering at Rice, and John Oghalai, clinic chief and director of The Hearing Center at Texas Children's Hospital. Oghalai is also an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine and an adjunct assistant bioengineering professor at Rice. They received a grant of $156,499 to pursue their work.

Claiming the electrical stimulation of nerves in current medical devices is too diffuse to be effective in the ear, they hope to prove that tightly focused lasers can stimulate small clusters or even single neurons, first in the lab and then in the mammalian ear.

They hope to develop an auditory prosthetic that would be superior to currently available cochlear implants and may eventually perform clinical trials with deaf patients at Texas Children's Hospital and The Methodist Hospital.

Citing the "transformative nature" of the research, the duo wrote, "The ability to selectively stimulate neurons of interest noninvasively within an organ could be used as the basis for neural prosthetic development in many other organ systems, such as the brain, spinal cord, eye and peripheral nerves."

Tumors in children targeted

Attacking cancerous tumors in children will be the focus of a study by Jianhua Yang, an assistant professor in Baylor College of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics, which is affiliated with Texas Children's Hospital, and Andrew Barron, the Charles W. Duncan Jr.-Welch Professor of Chemistry and professor of materials science at Rice. They were awarded $100,000.

They will combine their knowledge of nanotechnology and the physiology of extracranial neuroblastoma tumors in children to come up with a delivery system for peptide-based drugs, muting what they call the "significant acute and chronic drug toxicities" of current treatments.

Yang and Barron explained that peptides small strings of amino acids are unable to penetrate neuroblastoma cells. But when shaped into fullerenes, they can pass through the cell's walls and inhibit tumors at a very low concentration. The next step in their research will be to see if such fullerene peptides can block the growth of cancer cells in mice.

"Hopefully, we can establish the fullerene peptides as a type of therapeutic agent to cure neuroblastoma," they wrote.


Contact: Mike Williams
Rice University

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