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2024 Texas Biomed philanthropic research grants announced

Nine Texas Biomed scientists have received more than $628,000 in philanthropic funding to study a range of infectious diseases – including Ebola virus, Chikungunya virus and tuberculosis – and develop new tools and solutions to combat them.

The Douglass Foundation, the Cowles family and the Texas Biomedical Forum provide support for scientists across the career spectrum: a graduate student pursing a PhD, postdoctoral researchers, staff scientists and faculty. This funding is especially critical to enable researchers to gather preliminary data that can then help with larger grant applications.

“The ongoing support from the Douglass Foundation, the Cowles family and the Texas Biomedical Forum provides our investigators invaluable resources to pursue scientific questions that will help us find solutions to address devastating infectious diseases and improve global health,” says Joanne Turner, PhD, Texas Biomed’s Executive Vice President for Research.

Here is the full list of awards:

2024 Texas Biomed Graduate Fellowship, supported by the Douglass Foundation

Armando Mendez (PI: Dr. Ebrahimi) holds a masters in epidemiology and is pursuing a PhD at UTSA, with plans to become a data scientist/bioinformatician. This fellowship enables him to train in Texas Biomed Professor Diako Ebrahimi’s lab, where he will develop his bioinformatic skills. Specifically, he will sequence nonhuman primates to further understand the molecular differences in immune genes among these models. Subsequently, he will develop a user-friendly bioinformatic tool to facilitate the analysis and visualization of these data. The ultimate goal is to leverage these insights to shape future research endeavors focused on refining models that more accurately replicate human biology.

2024 Cowles Postdoctoral Fellowship, supported by the Cowles family

Jenna Hulke (PI: Dr. Anderson) will study schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease that affects about 170 million people a year. Specifically, she will breed a Schistosome species that primarily infects humans with a Schistosome species that primarily infects cattle – both from East Africa – to determine the genetic characteristics of the hybrid offspring. While several natural populations of these parasites in West Africa show evidence of past interbreeding, there is currently no evidence of this happening in East Africa. The project aims to understand why this is and identify genes responsible for enabling the parasites to infect specific hosts, which could potentially be used as drug targets to help prevent human infection.

Ajai D’Silva, PhD, (PI: Dr. S. Kulkarni) will study Pemphigus disease, a life-threatening autoimmune disease that causes blisters on the skin. Specifically, he will analyze two genes FCAR and LENG8-AS1 to understand the functional role they play in this disease. He will investigate two mutations linked to the disease as well as long noncoding RNAs – which are RNA that do not code for proteins directly, but influence gene expression of protein-coding RNAs – to discern how they impact disease progression and outcomes.

Niloofar Haghjoo, PhD, (PI: Dr. Ebrahimi) will study a versatile family of editing enzymes known as APOBEC3. These enzymes can have both beneficial and deleterious effects, such as fighting invading viruses and introducing mutations that can lead to tumor development and evolution. Dr. Haghjoo will use advanced computational and evolutionary biology techniques to create a comprehensive map of amino acid interactions within these enzymes to understand which specific interactions are responsible for different functional features of these multifunctional proteins. These insights can help with the future development of new antivirals and cancer interventions, as well as advancing novel gene editing technologies.

2024 Forum Staff Scientist Award, supported by the Texas Biomed Forum

Anna Allué Guardia, PhD, will work on a new type of vaccine for tuberculosis (TB), a disease that is one of the leading killers worldwide. The current TB vaccine helps protect children, but has varied efficacy in adults. Dr. Allué Guardia will work on developing codon-deoptimized, or weakened versions, of the bacteria that could be potentially used in live-attenuated vaccines.

Israel Guerrero-Arguero, PhD, will study Chikungunya virus (CHIKV), a mosquito-borne pathogen that causes rash, high fever, neurological symptoms and incapacitating joint pain that can persist for years. Specifically, Dr. Guerrero-Arguero will generate a version of CHIKV that expresses a cherry red fluorescent protein, which will enable him and others to visually track and observe the virus in cells and in new humanized mouse models. He is particularly interested in learning more about how the virus evades the immune system and affects the brain, as well as about other host-pathogen interactions that could guide development of drugs or therapies aimed at mitigating CHIKV’s effects.

2024 Forum Faculty Award, supported by the Texas Biomed Forum

Olena Shtanko, PhD, will study the interplay between Ebola virus infection and mitochondria, the energy-producing organelle of cells. Specifically, she will investigate if Ebola virus replicates inside mitochondria and how the virus alters mitochondria function. These insights could help with future development of interventions against the virus.

Smita Kulkarni, PhD, in collaboration with Dr. Shtanko,will study the role of long, noncoding RNAs in Ebola virus infection. Long, noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) are large RNAs that do not directly translate into proteins but regulate expression of protein-coding genes. The Kulkarni and Shtanko labs have observed changes in lncRNA expression in cells infected with Ebola virus and has dubbed these changes “Ebola virus induced long, noncoding RNAs,” or EVILs, for short. In this project, they will use advanced gene editing techniques, including CRISPR/Cas9, to analyze how EVILs impact Ebola replication and host immune response.  

Luis Martinez-Sobrido, PhD, will work on developing a live attenuated vaccine for a group of deadly arenaviruses that cause hemorrhagic fever in humans, such as Lassa virus. Specifically, he will work on developing a vaccine approach that incorporates a genetic sequence in the virus that will target the virus for degradation and, therefore, will result in attenuation when delivered as a vaccine to humans. Importantly, this approach could also be used for the development of live attenuated vaccines for other hemorrhagic fever causing viruses.