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January 19, 2016

UT Health Northeast scientists awarded research grants totaling more than $2 million

January 19, 2016

Four scientists at UT Health Northeast have been awarded a total of $2.1 million in competitive research grants. They are Vijay Rao, Ph.D; Krishna Vankayalapati, Ph.D.; Sreerama Shetty, Ph.D.; and Hong-Long Ji. Ph.D.

Dr. Rao, professor of biochemistry in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Biology, recently was awarded a $1.43 million, four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The purpose of the grant is to investigate how blood-clotting is activated in diseases such as heart attack and stroke.

“If a person is in good health, blood passes through blood vessels with ease and doesn’t form clots,” Dr. Rao said. “But in atherosclerosis, infections, or cancer, blood cells or cells that line the blood vessel walls begin producing a substance called tissue factor, which starts the clotting process.”

Blood clots develop, clogging arteries that supply blood to the heart and brain and leading to heart attack and stroke. Funding from this NIH research grant will enable Dr. Rao and his team to investigate how diseases transform tissue factor and turn on the clotting process.

This research is important because one out of every four deaths in the United States each year is due to heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, while stroke is the No. 5 cause of death.

Dr. Vankayalapati, chair of the Department of Pulmonary Immunology and professor of icrobiology and mmunology, was awarded a $385,852, two-year NIH grant to study why people with HIV are so vulnerable to tuberculosis infection.

By investigating the mechanisms that affect a person with HIV’s susceptibility to the tuberculosis bacteria, Dr. Vankayalapati and his team hope to aid in the development of therapies that would prevent latent, or inactive, TB from developing into an active TB infection in people with HIV.

According to the CDC, one-third of the world’s population is infected with TB; in 2014, 9.6 million people throughout the world developed active TB, and 1.5 million people died of it. It’s a leading killer of people who are infected with HIV.

Dr. Shetty, a professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Biology, received a $140,000, two-year grant from the American Heart Association to continue his research into how to treat lung fibrosis, or scarring. He and his team are examining how a small chain of amino acids – the same molecules that proteins are built from – called p53 interacts with another substance in lung cells to control scarring.

Lung scarring, also called pulmonary fibrosis, happens when scar tissue and excess connective tissue thicken the lungs’ walls, reducing the oxygen supply to the body. People with pulmonary fibrosis are constantly short of breath, and it kills about 40,000 people in the United States each year.

The AHA also awarded Dr. Ji, an associate professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Biology, a $140,000, two-year grant to investigate how fluid builds up in injured lungs. The medical term for this is pulmonary edema, and it can occur in pneumonia, sepsis, smoke inhalation, aspiration, heart failure, and stroke.

Fluid in the lungs causes shortness of breath and starves the body’s tissues of oxygen. By understanding more about how this fluid can be removed from the lungs, Dr. Ji and his team’s research could help develop new treatments for this life-threatening disorder.

For 65 years, UT Health Northeast has provided excellent patient care and cutting-edge treatment, specializing in pulmonary disease, cancer, heart disease, and primary care. Its annual budget of $150 million represents a major economic impact of over $350 million for Northeast Texas. Since 2004, scientists in the Biomedical Research Center have been awarded more than $122 million research dollars. As the university medical center for Northeast Texas, its graduate medical education programs – with residencies in family medicine and occupational medicine – provide doctors for many communities across the state and beyond. It also sponsors the residency program in internal medicine at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview. For more information, visit www.uthealth.org.

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