Two GSBS students in Medical School named 2007-2008 Presidents’ Research Scholars
Presidents’ Research Scholar Xi Mo (left) with mentor Dr. Renhao Li.
Two Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) students who are part of the Medical School community recently were chosen to be 2007-2008 Presidents’ Research Scholars.
Xi Mo, mentored by Dr. Renhao Li, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Jing Zhao, mentored by Dr. Pramod Dash, professor of neurobiology and anatomy, were among the four students chosen from GSBS for this extremely competitive and prestigious scholarship.
“I was very happy to be chosen for this prestigious award , and I would like to t hank UT Health Science Center at Houston and GSBS for this great honor, ” Jing said. “ I also would like to express my thankfulness and appreciation to Dr. Dash and everybody in Dr. Dash’s laboratory for their critical support and kind help during my years at GSBS. ”
These $5,000 scholarships are bestowed upon a group of post-candidacy GSBS students in recognition of their achievements in research while GSBS students and are generously provided each year by the presidents of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. The competitive application process involves an evaluation by past presidents of the GSBS faculty of the students’ research design and performance as well as their potential as independent biomedical scientists. The past presidents of the GSBS faculty select the top applicants and make a recommendation to the dean of GSBS, who chooses the Presidents’ Research Scholars.
"It is my great honor to be selected as a Presidents’ Research Scholar,” Xi said. “I really appreciate all of the help from my adviser, Dr. Renhao Li, from my colleagues, and from the Center for Membrane Biology and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Medical School. Without all of their efforts and support, I would not have been able to accomplish such progress."
Jing and Xi also expressed gratitude to President James Willerson, UT Health Science Center, and President John Mendelsohn, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, for their continued support of these scholarships and recognition of the GSBS students, and the past presidents of the GSBS and Dr. George Stancel, dean of GSBS, for considering them as scholars.
Researchers challenge current view in cell’s quality control mechanism
Dr. Ambro van Hoof
In a landmark discovery published in the Jan. 18 issue of Molecular Cell, Dr. Ambro van Hoof, assistant professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics; graduate student Stacie Meaux; and collaborator Dr. Kristin Baker, instructor at the Center for RNA Molecular Biology, Case Western Reserve University, challenge current thinking in the mechanism of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) decay and expand developing ideas on ways to exploit this mechanism to benefit those suffering from genetic diseases.
In all cells, mRNA is a reproduction of the information that is carried on genes in DNA and is the precursor to proteins, which control vital functions in organisms. However, sometimes the mRNA has certain defects which make it harmful, and so the cell destroys this mRNA in a process known as nonsense-mediated mRNA decay to prevent potentially disastrous effects in the cell. How the cell recognizes the aberrant mRNA and destroys it has baffled RNA biologists and served as a thriving area of research.
One long standing model of nonsense-mediated decay is the “faux 3’UTR” model, which proposes that the positions of certain elements necessary for recognition of an aberrant mRNA by the cell’s destruction machinery must be in a certain proximity to each other in order for the potentially harmful mRNA to be destroyed. Van Hoof and collaborators in their recent study have directly challenged this model and have shown that the proximity of these proteins is not necessarily critical in targeting the mRNA for nonsense-mediated decay.
“Many scientists favored the faux 3’UTR model because it appeared to make sense, but there were very few experiments done to test it. Now that we have critically examined the model, it doesn’t hold up,” van Hoof said.
By expanding knowledge on this important quality control mechanism in the cell, van Hoof and collaborators hope to contribute to finding ways to treat genetic diseases resulting from mRNA being targeted for this process. Many genetic diseases are the result of mutated mRNA being targeted for nonsense-mediated decay, resulting in no protein being produced. One possible treatment would be to find ways to suppress this decay mechanism and allow the cell to produce partially functional protein, with the idea being that the partially functional protein will be helpful and alleviate some of the consequences of the disease. Current clinical trials are under way using this view, allowing the cell to produce partially functional protein before the mRNA dictating the manufacturing of the protein is destroyed by quality control mechanisms.
The research by van Hoof and collaborators has contributed new information to the regulation of mRNA decay and consequently in developing ways to control this process so that the partially functional protein can be produced.
“By understanding the mechanism of nonsense-mediated decay, we can help other scientists in drug development find ways to treat these types of genetic diseases involving elimination of necessary proteins,” van Hoof said. “By using this approach, a new paradigm for drugs is being developed that will hopefully serve as a new way to treat other kinds of diseases.”
Dr. van Hoof received his Ph.D. degree in genetics from Michigan State University in 1997 and did his postdoctoral training at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Arizona. He has been on the faculty in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics since 2002.
Sacred Vocation Program helps Caregivers Find More Meaning in Work
As the result of his own experience of being hospitalized, Rabbi Samuel Karff, a faculty member in the John P. McGovern, M.D. Center for Health, Humanities, and the Human Spirit, has spearheaded an effort now known as the Sacred Vocation Program (SVP).
“In the hospital, I came face to face with what so many Americans have experienced -- the lack of a personal dimension in health care,” Karff said. “What was needed was a new approach to working in health care, one that recognized that if you want the staff to nurture patients, the staff themselves must first be nurtured.”
A basic premise of the approach he developed focuses on allowing health care workers to approach their work as more than a job but as a “calling,” which ultimately gives meaning to their lives.
“I recognized that changing the awareness of the individual health care worker is not enough,” he said. “Also essential are changes in the work units and organizations, which enable the development of a nurturing environment for patients and staff.”
To integrate these aspects into the program, Karff recruited Dr. Benjamin Amick, a faculty member in the School of Public Health and an expert in occupational health with interests in employee health and organizational change. The two were colleagues in the UT -Houston, Center for Society and Population Health, an initiative of former President Dr. David Low.
Together, Karff and Amick developed the SVP, which has since been received with enthusiasm by clinics and hospitals in Houston and Dallas.
The first step of the SVP is for members of the program team to visit with the organizational leadership, managers, and employees to learn how the organization works.
“This helps us tailor the program to the individual organization,” Karff explained.
A trained facilitator then works with small peer groups of health care employees to help them discover, through discussions and exercises, their own power to be a healing presence.
“Caregivers come to realize that if they consciously seek to heal rather than harm, their work can become a sacred vocation -- part of what gives deep meaning to their lives,” he said.
Following this initial phase, some of the group continues to meet to recommend how the SVP can be sustained.
“In prior experience, management has found it possible to embrace most recommendations,” Karff said. “This results in a more highly motivated, emotionally invested staff and an organization which is better positioned to fulfill its mission. Our ultimate goal is for a client organization to own and institutionalize sacred vocation in its culture so that it may improve the quality of care thereby enhancing its spiritual dimension.”
The SVP was piloted at the Medical School for internal medicine residents in the spring of 2007.
“I learned that small things can make a big difference in my care,” wrote one internal medicine resident participant. “Compassion is very important and to maintain that is the key to being a great doctor. I was pleased to see my colleague's perspective and applied their experience to my care.”
In addition to Karff and Amick, who is currently on leave from UT and is the scientific director of the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto, Dr. Tom Cole, director of the McGovern Center, leads this program. The SVP also benefits from the support of the St. Luke’s Episcopal Health Charities, who are partners in the program. For more information, see www.sacredvocation.org