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UTSA puts stake in the ground in battle against brain disease with formation of world-class research cluster

UTSA puts stake in the ground in battle against brain disease with formation of world-class research cluster

(Sept. 20, 2017) -- Making a bold commitment to develop groundbreaking approaches for treating brain diseases and injuries, The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) has assembled a world-class research enterprise, comprised of 40 of the nation’s leading brain health researchers, dedicated to conquering the greatest mysteries of the brain.

The researchers will leverage their expertise in neurodegenerative disease, brain circuits and electrical signaling, traumatic brain injury, regenerative medicine, stem cell therapies, medicinal chemistry, neuroinflammation, drug design and psychology to collaborate on complex, large-scale research projects that will produce a greater understanding of the brain’s complexity and the factors that cause its decline.

This knowledge will be used to develop new and more effective methods for treating debilitating conditions including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, addiction and traumatic brain injury.

“It will take the nation’s leading researchers, working together, to develop the innovative approaches needed to conquer neurodegenerative disease and reverse life-threatening brain injuries,” said UTSA President Taylor Eighmy. “Each researcher in this brilliant group has been hand-picked to contribute their expertise to these most challenging health issues of our time and to advance collaborative and interdisciplinary solutions.”

Jenny Hsieh, a nationally recognized researcher, will join the UTSA faculty this spring to lead the UTSA Brain Health Initiative as the Semmes Foundation Chair in Cell Biology.

Hsieh’s research focuses on how to make neurons replicate themselves so a brain affected by disease or injury can replace its own damaged cells and heal. She tackles the challenge using molecular and genetic tools and is focused on understanding the factors that control the brain’s stem cells so she can manipulate and stimulate new growth.

She has a doctorate in biology from John Hopkins University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, which has supported medical and science research since 1950, will provide a $2.7 million gift to support Hsieh’s research.

“The Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation is glad to be working with UTSA toward finding causes and cures of human brain malfunctions,” said Helen K. Groves, president of the Kleberg Foundation.

Hsieh’s work will also be supported by a $1 million gift from the Semmes Foundation.

UTSA’s bold vision to become a national leader in brain health attracted Hsieh to the university. She plans to expand UTSA’s work in pluripotent stem cell research and personalized medicine to develop new and innovative approaches to neurodegenerative disease. Hsieh will use CRISPR, a cutting-edge gene-editing technology, to conduct some of her research into personalized, precision medicine.

To encourage collaboration, Hsieh will also establish a new core facility at UTSA allowing researchers from around the country to study human-induced pluripotent stem cells.

Pluripotent stem cells are taken from any tissue in the human body and genetically modified to behave like embryonic stem cells that are able to develop into any adult cell type. The cells are especially beneficial in brain health treatments, since damaged neurons are unable to replicate themselves.

“Now that we can create a specific cell from any patient, every patient can have his or her own personalized stem cell line,” Hsieh said. “We can differentiate a person’s unique stem cells to any type of tissue we want and use that to treat their disease in a way that is personalized.”

Four additional researchers, recently recruited from some of the nation’s top research institutions, include Hyoung-gon Lee, the John H. Doran, M.D., F.A.C.P. Distinguished Professor in Peripheral Neuropathy, Asif Maroof, assistant professor of biology, Lindsey Macpherson, assistant professor of biology, and Edward Golob, professor of psychology.

Lee’s research is focused on understanding the mechanisms of the neurodegeneration related to Alzheimer’s disease. In particular, he is taking a closer look at why neurons appear to be attempting to divide but then die when afflicted with Alzheimer’s. He joined UTSA from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

Maroof is researching how brain cells are impacted by aging, injury or disease. Using human pluripotent stem cells, he is modeling neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease, to determine when the brain’s cells are most susceptible or resistant to illness, and how molecular interactions in those cells affect the progression of disease. He joined UTSA from Harvard University.

Macpherson’s research centers on wiring and the functional connections between cells within peripheral sensory circuits. Specifically, she is interested in understanding the sense of taste and how the molecules, cells and circuits of the chemosensory system convey information from the tongue and gut to the brain. She joined UTSA from Columbia University, where she completed her post-doctoral fellowship, and The Scripps Research Institute, where she completed her doctoral studies.

Golob’s expertise is cognitive neuroscience, specifically perception, attention and memory perception in the auditory system. He studies aspects of hearing that are important to humans, such as determining where a sound is coming from, recognizing speech and music, and relating our actions to perception. Through this work, he is striving to understand the cognitive and neurobiological differences that accompany normal aging as well as neurodegenerative disease. He joined UTSA after serving on the Tulane University faculty, and completing his doctorate degree and post-doctorate fellowship at Dartmouth College and UC Irvine, respectively.

“We have amazing neuroscientists here at UTSA and we’ve been able to round out their great work by recruiting other well-respected researchers, people with very specific expertise,” said George Perry, Semmes Foundation Distinguished University Chair in Neurobiology and dean of the UTSA College of Sciences. “The work that they’re conducting holds such great promise for society. It’s an exciting time to be a neuroscientist at UTSA.”

UTSA is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) of learning and discovery advancing to recognition as a world-class research enterprise.

Joanna Carver

Learn more about Brain Health Research at UTSA.

Learn more about the UTSA Department of Biology.

Learn more about the UTSA Department of Psychology.

Learn more about the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation.

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University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

UTSA’s Mission

The University of Texas at San Antonio is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge through research and discovery, teaching and learning, community engagement and public service. As an institution of access and excellence, UTSA embraces multicultural traditions and serves as a center for intellectual and creative resources as well as a catalyst for socioeconomic development and the commercialization of intellectual property - for Texas, the nation and the world.

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We encourage an environment of dialogue and discovery, where integrity, excellence, inclusiveness, respect, collaboration and innovation are fostered.

UTSA’S Destinations

UTSA is a proud Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) as designated by the U.S. Department of Education .

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The University of Texas at San Antonio, a Hispanic Serving Institution situated in a global city that has been a crossroads of peoples and cultures for centuries, values diversity and inclusion in all aspects of university life. As an institution expressly founded to advance the education of Mexican Americans and other underserved communities, our university is committed to promoting access for all. UTSA, a premier public research university, fosters academic excellence through a community of dialogue, discovery and innovation that embraces the uniqueness of each voice.