(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.
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.
In honor of UTSA's 50th Anniversary in 2019, the university is hosting Roadrunner Days Spring Edition - two weeks of semester-launching activities built around our deeply held values of student success, student involvement, community service and fun!Various locations, Main and Downtown Campuses
The UTSA Department of Physics and Astronomy invites everyone to its monthly lecture and stargazing event (weather permitting).Flawn Building (FLN 2.02.02) and Curtis Vaughn Jr. Observatory, 4th floor of Flawn Building, Main Campus
All UTSA students, faculty, staff, alums & families are invited to march as a unified community. Register here: bit.ly/2TYbHbR. Shuttles will be provided from the Main and Downtown Campuses.Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, 3501 MLK Dr., San Antonio
UTSA's John Nix invites the community to sing "Amazing Grace" and “We Shall Overcome” at 11 a.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The intent of this nationwide effort is to honor Dr. King's legacy and to spread a sense of community in the United States.Locations throughout the United States
Opening Reception got exhibit featuring artists Miguel Aragon, Aaron Coleman, Sandra Fernandez, Annalise Gratovich, Marco Hernandez, Kristen Powers Nowlin, & Patricia Villalobos EcheverriaMain Art Gallery, Arts Building (ART 2.03.04), Main Campus
Tracy Cowden, Roland K. Blumberg Endowed Professor in Music and chair of the UTSA Department of Music launches the UTSA 50th Anniversary Scholars Speaker Series with Music as Medicine: The Power and Influence of Music on our Health.Radius Center, 106 Auditorium Cir. #120, San Antonio
UTSA African American Studies Program presents this series featuring Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University.Student Union Retama Auditorium (SU 2.02.02), Main Campus)
The annual event features authentic foods, music, dance, martial arts, shopping, games and entertainment from China, to the Indian Sub-continent, and the island nations of the Pacific. The Festival features two stages, a martial arts demonstration area, children’s hands on crafting area, anime activities, bonsai and ikebana displays, mahjong table and more.UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, Hemisfair Campus
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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