Local institutions are steadily working to put El Paso at the forefront of biomedical breakthroughs. From mental health to drug addiction to new vaccines for HIV and Chagas disease, area researchers are packing a huge potential impact.

In addition, the Medical Center of the Americas has been promoting the border region as the epicenter of cutting-edge research.

“The goal is to position the El Paso-Juarez-southern New Mexico as the home of all this intensive research in the life sciences,” said Chris Lopez, associate vice president of University Communications at UTEP. “It’s one of the best-kept secrets of the region.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being funneled into a wide variety of projects, just in the El Paso area. Here is a small sampling.

UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT EL PASO

A Chagas vaccine?

A professor of biological sciences at UTEP’s Border Biomedical Research center has developed a fully protective vaccine for Chagas disease, known as Kissing Bug Disease due to its propensity to spread through insects. Igor Almeida, Ph.D., has been researching Chagas disease since 1990 and created the vaccine with the help of postdoctoral researcher Alexandre Marques, Ph.D. A major public health concern in South America, the chronic illness is becoming more common in other parts of the world as immigration increases. The researchers are awaiting funding to continue testing the vaccine and have hopes that a major pharmaceutical company will take interest in pursuing production.

Pollution and kids’ health

The National Institute of Health has granted $1.04 million to Rodrigo X. Armijos, M.D., Sc.D., associate professor of public health sciences at UTEP, to study how air pollution adversely affects the cardiovascular health of children.

“El Paso is the ideal place to conduct this type of study,” Armijos said in a recent UTEP press release. “We have a lot of people who are living in very highly polluted environments because they can’t afford to move to other cleaner areas in the city.”

Fighting HIV

A close to $4 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious disease was awarded to UTEP’s June Kan-Mitchell, Ph.D., to aid in her quest to create an effective vaccine for HIV.

Dr. Kan-Mitchell is pursuing this project with the help of an international team of researchers, including Paul Goepfert, Ph.D., and Steffanie Sabbaj, Ph.D., from The University of Alabama at Birmingham; David Price, Ph.D., and Andrew Sewell, Ph.D., from the Cardiff Institute of Infection and Immunity in Wales, United Kingdom; Miguel Lopez-Botet, Ph.D., from Pompeu Fabra University in Spain; and Donald Hunt, Ph.D., from The University of Virginia.

Cancer, Alzheimer’s and brain injuries

UTEP and Premier Biomedical, Inc. has signed an agreement to conduct joint research to develop treatments for traumatic brain injury, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Premier’s patients will be tested inside UTEP’s state-of-the-art facility, the Border Biomedical Research Center.

Drug Abuse and Addiction

UTEP’s drug abuse and addiction summer research program, SMART MIND, has been awarded a federal grant of $100,000 a year over a four-year period by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Summer Mentoring and Research Training: Methods in Neuroscience of Drug Abuse program will focus on developing new information and methodology toward the prevention, treatment, cause and consequences of drug addiction.

Research participants include undergraduate students from UTEP and across the country, as well as high school student-teacher teams. Research areas include the relationship between substance abuse, addiction and stress, behavior, the dopamine neurotransmitter system and way the central nervous system processes stressful stimuli.

TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY

HEALTH SCIENCES CENTER/PAUL L. FOSTER SCHOOL

OF MEDICINE

Advances in cancer treatment

A $1.5 million award from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to TTUHSC and University Medical Center El Paso (UMC) in 2011 continues to help fund research into state-of-the-art cancer treatments.

Dr. Zeina Nahleh is the principal investigator, as well as associate professor of medicine and chief of hematology-oncology at TTUHSC/Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, and head of oncology at UMC El Paso.

The grant will help staff a cancer research facility offering more treatment options above the standard of care. Any patient may be a candidate for participation in research and clinical trials.

“Cancer patients in El Paso will have better access to clinical trials and new cancer treatments without having to leave home,” Dr. Nahleh said.

Reducing Colorectal Cancer Deaths in El Paso

A $2.7 million project has been funded through The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). Against Colorectal Cancer in our Neighborhoods will receive the award over the next three years in order to aid in reducing the number of deaths caused by the disease.

The project will be spearheaded by Navkiran Shokar, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of family and community medicine and biomedical sciences and associate director of cancer prevention and control in the Center of Excellence in Cancer at TTUHSC/Paul L. Foster School of Medicine; and by Theresa Byrd, R.N. Dr.P.H., professor of medical education and family and community medicine, at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.

“Colorectal cancer remains the second leading cancer killer in Americans, killing men and women of all races and backgrounds, yet it is not on the radar for most people,” Shokar said in a recent press release. “The tragedy is that people should not be dying from this disease because this cancer is one of the few that can actually be prevented by screening, beginning at age 50. That is why this project is so important, it will not only raise awareness of this issue, but it will also make screening available to the most vulnerable members of our community. 

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