Health Institutes

Institutes Blog

Posted Date: March 29, 2017

Take a look at several great summer research programs offered this year for students.

The Pediatric Research Program is a one-month research program open to TCOM students during the summer between the first and second year. Run in conjunction with Cook Children’s Health Care System and Child Study Center, students have the opportunity to conduct a research project under the direction of a research mentor from HSC or Cook Children’s.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Health Institutes and TCOM sponsor a hands-on four week research program for rising first-year TCOM students during the summer between the first and second year. Students are placed with a faculty research mentor from one of the following institutes: the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases, Institute for Healthy Aging, North Texas Eye Institute or Institute for Molecular Medicine.

The Medical Student Training in Aging Research (MSTAR) is administered by the Institute for Healthy Aging. The MSTAR-IHA program encourages medical students to develop interest in geriatrics and opt for a geriatrics career by participating in this six-week summer program for rising first-year TCOM students.  The program contains a strong research component and clinical shadowing counted towards TCOM year II preceptor requirements.

Posted Date: March 29, 2017

A team of scientists is collaborating to form a “big tent” for cutting-edge research in the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease.

That tent also provides valuable educational opportunities for students, several of whom have received honors and recognition recently for their own contributions.

Grace Pham

In 2012, Grace Pham graduated from the University of Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in English and the intention of becoming an English literature professor.

Oh, how life can change.


A sluggish job market led her to apply at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine where she became introduced to physiology. Today, she is a fourth-year DO and PhD student researching hypertension in a lab with Keisa Mathis, PhD, and was recently selected as a Graduate Student Ambassador by the American Physiology Society.

The society will train Pham to spread awareness of physiology careers among undergraduate students and instructors.

“I know that undergraduates may not be fully aware of physiology research because I didn’t know anything about it as an undergrad,” Pham said. “I’ll be reaching out to students and professors in the health sciences to let them know about potential careers and what they can do to prepare to study it in graduate school.”

As an ambassador, Pham will undergo training with students who were also selected from UT Health Science Center-San Antonio, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Iowa and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Pham plans to do outreach at the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Dallas in Irving.

Spencer Cushen

Second-year medical student Spencer Cushen wanted a research project that combined health disparities with basic science. He found it in the lab of Stella Goulopoulou, PhD.

That’s where Cushen is studying gestational hypertension, a project that led to his earning an American Physiology Society Excellence in Professional Student Research Travel Award.


The award will take him to the APS Experimental Biology 2017 conference April 22-26 in Chicago.

       “This will be the first time that I have had a chance to present at a national conference,” Cushen said. “It will be a great opportunity to discuss my work with people more senior in the field.”

       Cushen’s research examines whether L-sulforaphane, a compound found in broccoli sprouts, can impact blood pressure in an experimental model of gestational hypertension. He hopes the findings could one day translate into a better way to treat pregnant women with preeclampsia, which affects 5 percent to 7 percent of pregnancies.

Cushen said his experience in the Goulopoulou lab motivated him to also purse a PhD in physiology at the Health Science Center. He’ll start that program in August.

Justin Sprick

Justin Sprick’s research into whether blood flow restriction exercise could help protect vital organs following a stroke or heart attack has been rewarded with grants from HSC and the Texas Chapter of the American College of Sport Medicine.

That list of rewards grew recently with his receiving the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine’s Young Investigator Award.

Sprick, a PhD candidate in the Cerebral & Cardiovascular Physiology Laboratory, earned the award based off an abstract for work he will present at the Experimental Biology conference in April.

“I am honored to receive this award, and I look forward to sharing our findings at the upcoming meeting,” Sprick said.


The research by Sprick and Caroline Rickards, PhD, focuses on blood flow restriction exercise. This type of exercise is traditionally used for building muscle mass, but related studies suggest it may also release factors into the blood that could protect the heart and brain during a subsequent heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Rickards and Sprick want to know if combining cycles of blood flow restriction to the limbs with rehabilitation exercises commonly performed by stroke or heart attack survivors could enhance the benefits of both treatments.

Posted Date: March 29, 2017

A developmental psychologist and an eye researcher may seem like an unlikely pair to team up on a research project but not amid the collaborative spirit of the North Texas Eye Research Institute.

Haylie Miller, PhD, Abe Clark, PhD, NTERI Executive Director, and others work together to conduct quick, convenient vision screenings on children and adults. The screenings, held both in the Human Movement Performance Laboratory and in the community, discover why people on the autism spectrum have trouble navigating and responding in their environments.


Collaboration between Dr. Miller, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, and NTERI eye researchers is a vital piece of the puzzle.

“Dr. Clark eagerly offered training and access to equipment that made our vision screenings much faster and easier for people with autism,” Dr. Miller said. “It has helped us answer questions about whether our participants have fundamental vision problems, difficulty with how the brain interprets what they see, trouble controlling their bodies, or a combination of factors.


“Dr. Clark and the North Texas Eye Research Institute team have also joined us in outreach at community events to offer free vision screenings,” she said.

The eye institute’s emphasis on collaboration is pervasive, including in its research, education, grant funding, open concept laboratories, and the hiring, training and retaining of team members. Post docs and graduate students also benefit from the collaborative environment.

“I have always believed that you get more done and get a better product when you collaborate,” Dr. Clark said. “One person does not always have all the ideas, solutions or techniques.”

Among the many other examples of collaboration are vision screenings for:

  • Elderly Latinos with Sid O’Bryant, PhD, Institute of Healthy Aging, Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurological Disease Research and HABLE
  • Children through the Pediatric Mobile Clinic.
  • Fort Worth Independent School District athletes with ophthalmologist Dr. Ann Ranelle.
  • Children and adults through the Lions Club, the Essilor Foundation and African-American and Hispanic health fairs.

Institute members’ pursuit of novel therapies for eye disease makes the North Texas Eye Research Institute a desirable partner to potential collaborators. The Cure Glaucoma Foundation founded by ophthalmologists at Glaucoma Associate of Texas, for example, has funded two institute research projects.

The foundation is impressed by the institute’s caliber of collaboration, said Mike Kettles, foundation president.

“We’re always looking for tools to help patients and improve glaucoma care,” he said.

Posted Date: March 28, 2017


We have come a long way since the Health Science Center began transitioning to an Institutes model in 2015. The impact of all that hard work can be found inside the UNTHSC Health Institutes and Centers Inaugural Year in Review.

This publication, available in print version and on our Health Institutes website, is the Health Institutes 2015/2016 annual report, as well as a look into our future.      Glenn-Dillon-web

Inside you’ll find many of our institute members’ achievements to celebrate, including:

  • Publishing in more than 175 peer-reviewed journals and books
  • Generating about $19.6 million in funding
  • Awarded more than $330,000 in seed grants
  • Having five patents issued

Our institutes also have established strong research mentoring for students, continued impactful community outreach, and formed countless successful partnerships and collaborations, and much more.

None of these successes were possible without the dedication and collaboration of all team members working to transform the university into a high-performing Health Science Center. I hope you will take a moment to look at the annual report and celebrate all we have accomplished together.


Glenn Dillon

Vice Provost for Health Institutes

Posted Date: January 11, 2017

Strokes. Maternal mortality. Hypertension.

Those are a few of the most pressing health issues in Texas, and they also are the focus of innovative research projects by junior investigators in the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease.

Between them, these scientists’ ideas could change the way we rehabilitate stroke and heart attack victims, save the lives of expectant mothers and discover novel ways to protect people from high blood pressure.

 Protecting the heart and brain

Could a novel exercise technique traditionally used to increase muscle mass also help protect the vital organs following a stroke or heart attack?

Caroline Rickards, PhD, and Justin Sprick, a PhD candidate in the Cerebral & Cardiovascular Physiology Laboratory, are proposing that it may.

Their research focuses on blood flow restriction exercise, which uses inflatable cuffs to reduce blood from entering and leaving exercising muscles. This type of exercise is traditionally used for building muscle mass, but related studies suggest it may also release factors into the blood that could protect the heart and brain during a subsequent heart attack or stroke.


Dr. Rickards and Sprick want to know if combining cycles of blood flow restriction to the limbs with rehabilitation exercises commonly performed by stroke or heart attack survivors — such as treadmill walking — could enhance the benefits of both treatments.

“Just exercising during rehabilitation promotes protection of the heart and brain, but incorporating blood flow restriction exercise could provide additional benefits,” Dr. Rickards said. “If patients were to suffer another heart attack or stroke, it could reduce the degree of damage to the vital organs.”

The study is funded by a UNTHSC Faculty Research Pilot Grant, as well as a Student Research Development Award that Sprick received from the Texas Chapter of the American College of Sport Medicine. Dr. Rickards and Sprick are first studying the treatment in healthy young adults, who perform weight lifting and treadmill exercise with and without blood flow restriction. Each participant’s blood is analyzed for the protective factors of interest.

Preliminary results are promising. Dr. Rickards and Sprick plan to pursue additional funding this summer to test how the treatment translates to older adults at higher risk of cardiovascular events.

“Ideally, this could lead to development of an exercise regimen that could help protect people at risk of suffering another adverse cardiovascular event while also facilitating their recovery,” Sprick said.

Saving a mother’s life

Stella Goulopoulou, PhD, never forgets the families who have lost mothers or babies to preeclampsia, a condition that is a leading cause of maternal and infant mortality.

Their faces are a driving force behind her research into what causes preeclampsia during pregnancy, and why it leaves mothers and babies at greater risk of cardiovascular problems.


Dr. Goulopoulou’s work has earned her a four-year, $308,000 grant from the American Heart Association, as well as an ICMD seed grant.

“Meeting the families impacted by preeclampsia is not something you forget,” she said.

Preeclampsia affects up to 9 percent of all pregnancies. Worldwide, 76,000 women and 500,000 infants die from it. The condition can damage the woman’s placenta, shut down the kidneys or liver and cause seizures in the mother.

In a healthy pregnancy, cells that make up the placenta die and new cells are created. But during pregnancies with preeclampsia, the rate of cell death increases. Those dying cells release chemical substances that travel in the blood and can damage maternal body organs.

Dr. Goulopoulou and her lab believe those substances increase the mother’s blood pressure and endanger the mother’s and baby’s lives. Through her research, she hopes to identify those substances, determine why they cause pregnancy complications and, ultimately, help discover early detection methods and drugs to treat preeclampsia.

A novel way to study hypertension

Hypertension and lupus impact minorities at a disproportionate rate. Keisa Mathis, PhD, wants to understand the similarities between these two potentially deadly diseases.

Dr. Mathis, a native Louisianan who joined UNTHSC in 2014, believes a malfunction of the immune system plays a role in the development and maintenance of both diseases; and her research is designed to determine why that malfunction occurs.

The American Heart Association awarded Dr. Mathis a $308,000 four-year grant.


“We want to know what causes the immune system to go haywire and develop into lupus — and why inflammation especially in the kidneys often turn into long-term increases in blood pressure,” Dr. Mathis said. “Because there is a high prevalence of hypertension in patients with Lupus , we can use the Lupus model to study the link between chronic kidney inflammation and blood pressure regulation.”

Dr. Mathis began studying the diseases as a post-doctoral fellow in 2009. She and her research team are currently examining the connection in laboratory mice. About 75 million American adults have high blood pressure — or 1 in every 3 adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

About 1.5 million Americans are estimated to have lupus, a chronic autoimmune inflammatory disease that can affect the kidneys, but also the brain, heart, lungs, blood, skin and joints.

“I believe our research could help lead to therapeutic approaches that could benefit both hypertensive patients and people with lupus,” Dr. Mathis said.

Posted Date: January 11, 2017


I hope you enjoy the first edition of the Health Institutes newsletter. The Office of Health Institutes launched this quarterly communication to better highlight our institutes’ many achievements and to share important institute-related updates and announcements.


In this issue you’ll find features about Dr. Sid O’Bryant’s $3.5 million project to study use of anti-inflammatory drugs in treating some patients with Alzheimer’s disease, the Cure Glaucoma Foundation’s support for Dr. Weiming Mao’s innovative research and the early successes of junior investigators in the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases.

You also will find updates on the development of the Institute for Molecular Medicine, as well as information on upcoming seminars, collaboration opportunities, grant deadlines and more.

Initially, we plan to distribute the newsletter every three months internally to staff, faculty and students. Eventually, we will discuss the addition of certain external recipients, such as potential research partners and organizations with interests in our research areas.

If you have ideas or suggestions for the newsletter, feel free to contact myself or Dr. Peggy Smith-Barbaro.


Glenn Dillon

Vice Provost for Health Institutes

Posted Date: January 11, 2017

Collaboration with faculty in other Health Science Center institutes and schools will be a primary focus of the recently formed Institute for Molecular Medicine.

The institute, which was created Sept. 1 and is led by Executive Director Robert Barber, PhD, has finalized its membership and will soon seek secondary appointments from other researchers interested in collaborative, multidisciplinary studies of comorbid diseases and the pursuit of novel therapies.

Instead of studying diseases in an isolated manner, institute researchers will study diseases the way they tend to occur in people — in clusters.

“These clusters of diseases are frequently not coincidental but rather etiologically connected,” Dr. Barber said. “However, that’s not the way we generally study or treat those diseases. Identification of common disease mechanisms among related diseases can facilitate the discovery of novel treatment targets.”

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The idea of studying disease in this manner is not new, but much of the technology necessary to perform large sample data analysis required for such research is relatively new or improved, he said. Public Health researchers, for example, would be natural collaborative partners for institute members.

Institute members also hope to work with clinicians and pharmacists to develop translational treatments that more successfully treat multiple conditions and avoid complications from polypharmacy, the simultaneous use of multiples medications in one patient.

“Meeting these objectives will require extensive collaboration across all Health Science Center institutes and colleges, as well as with area clinicians,” Dr. Barber said. “I think in the end, what we all will be working toward is advancing the development of personalized medicine.”

The Institute for Molecular Medicine will contain three centers focused on the following areas:

  • Medical Genetics, directed by Michael Allen, PhD
  • Cancer Research, directed by Paul Bowman, MD
  • Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases, directed by Johnny He, PhD.

The institute has about 30 members who were drawn primarily from the departments of Molecular and Medical Genetics and Cell Biology, Immunology and Microbiology.

For information about collaborating with the Institute for Molecular Medicine, please contact Dr. Barber at or any of the center directors.