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Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund propels stem cell research at UTSA

Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund propels stem cell research at UTSA

The Voelcker Fund has supported innovative research to several UTSA faculty members, including Stanton McHardy, seen here at the Center for Innovative Drug Discovery.

(Feb. 19, 2018) -- Researchers at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) are working with cutting-edge resources to make impactful discoveries in brain health with support from the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund. With its generosity and belief in the power that science has to improve ordinary lives, the Voelcker Fund is aiding UTSA in bringing stem cell and regenerative medicine research to new heights.

The fund’s support is advancing UTSA research to generate stem cells for use in regenerative medicine. John McCarrey, Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Distinguished University Chair in Cellular and Molecular Biology, uses pluripotent stem cells to address neurodegenerative diseases.

“In the past, researchers used skin or blood cells from a person with a disease like Alzheimer’s to get a closer look at their illness,” McCarrey said. “However, because Alzheimer’s is a disease of the brain, not of the blood or skin, it was questionable whether looking at those cells was particularly useful.”

With collaborators Doug Frantz, Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Distinguished Professor in Chemistry, Chris Navara, associate professor of research, and George Perry, Semmes Foundation Distinguished University Chair in Neurobiology and Dean of the College of Sciences at UTSA, and the support of the Voelcker Fund, McCarrey has created PriStem, a UTSA facility that is solely focused on finding ways to treat neurodegenerative disease and other afflictions with pluripotent stem cells.

“Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disease, results from the loss of a very specific type of cell,” Navara said. “You can study these illnesses non-invasively and perhaps learn more after patients pass away. But the trouble is that you’re studying a brain with a disease that’s been deteriorating for a few decades, it’s like studying a forest fire after the fire’s already been through and done.”

To get to the core of neurodegenerative disease, it’s necessary to look at afflicted brain cells.

To accomplish that, UTSA researchers at PriStem are using pluripotent stem cells, which are cells that can become any kind of cell in a person’s body. That allows PriStem the ability to study neurodegenerative disease using any cell from a patient’s body and change it into an actual brain cell that may as well have come from the person.

“The global picture is that we can take a living person’s skin cells, turn them into brain cells and study those in a dish without ever having to touch their brain,” Frantz said. “We can learn about that specific person’s disease and then screen for drugs that could slow or even reverse the disease. That’s a very big hurdle, but it’s what we want to do.”

This personalized research, called “disease in a dish,” can be used to test drugs designed to treat illnesses of all kinds.

“I’m very excited by UTSA’s interdisciplinary initiatives in brain health research,” said Jenny Hsieh, Semmes Foundation Chair in Cell Biology and Director of the UTSA Brain Health Consortium. “We’re now working to build a consortium leveraging expertise in several different disciplines, to yield innovative research that can have a truly tremendous impact on human lives. The work being accomplished by PriStem is a wonderful example of that effort.”

The Voelcker Fund is also working with Stanton McHardy, medicinal chemistry core director of the UTSA Center for Innovative Drug Discovery (CIDD) and associate professor of chemistry. With a 4-year, $750,000 grant to the CIDD, the Voelcker Fund is making the drug-testing library at UTSA as diverse as possible with the CIDD Screening File Diversity Initiative. The project is already underway and is being led by McHardy and Frantz with Michael Doyle, Rita and John Feik Distinguished University Chair in Medicinal Chemistry, and Oleg Larionov, associate professor of chemistry.

“We want the library to be expansive, because most drug-screening laboratories all have the same compounds. They buy them from the same place,” Frantz said. “By taking an innovative, original approach, we’ll have a much better chance of finding a drug that can battle neurodegenerative disease.”

Additionally, the Voelcker Fund is supporting research opportunities for UTSA undergraduate and graduate students, so they can gain valuable experience working in cutting-edge laboratories.

“The Voelcker Fund has always been so generous in its support of research at UTSA,” Frantz said. “Their dedication to impactful work is truly amazing.”

UTSA is recognized as one of the top five young universities in the nation by Times Higher Education.

Joanna Carver

Learn more about the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund.

Learn more about the UTSA Department of Biology.

Learn more about the UTSA Center for Innovative Drug Discovery.

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