Research in Integrative Physiology department attracts top talent

The University of North Texas Health Science Center has big plans for its Department of Integrative Physiology. In fact, the vision to grow the department to world-class status convinced Steve Mifflin, PhD, chair of Integrative Physiology, and Tom Cunningham, PhD, professor of Integrative Physiology, to relocate to Fort Worth from their previous positions at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Both researchers agree that the Health Science Center’s tremendous growth in education and research, coupled with its record for excellence, convinced them to make the move. In addition, the supportive environment that fosters interdisciplinary research was an added benefit.

Mifflin’s lab researches the ways that neurons in the brain adapt to pathophysiological conditions and contribute to the cardiovascular complications observed in these conditions.

"We study these adaptive processes in incidents of high blood pressure and exposure to reduced oxygen as occurs in heart failure and sleep apnea," Mifflin explained. "Our research has garnered a great deal of interest because it mimics many of the problems observed in sleep apnea patients – high blood pressure, insulin resistance, etc. It also is a good example of what is meant by integrative physiology – which is research that integrates information obtained from molecular to cellular to organ to human levels – to achieve a much more complete picture of pathology than one obtains using information obtained from a single level of analysis."

Cunningham leads the Health Science Center’s Cardiovascular Research Institute. "In my lab, we study the role of the brain in controlling the cardiovascular system, and water and electrolyte balance," Cunningham said. "Some research focuses on determining how the brain participates in the normal regulation of blood pressure and fluid balance, a process called homeostasis. Other studies explore how changes in central nervous system function contribute to chronic diseases like hypertension, and water or salt retention that can be associated with heart disease or liver failure."

The researchers share a common vision when it comes to their hopes that their research will lead to identifying new ways to treat these afflictions and improve the quality of people’s lives. They also hope their research will provide a better understanding of the ways that the brain regulates physiological processes that are necessary for a normal, healthy life.

"Relocating to UNTHSC will help us achieve these goals through new collaborative relationships,"

Cunningham continued. "We are working with investigators in the department to determine if any of the changes we have reported in our animal models of disease are present in humans who suffer from high blood pressure or sleep apnea. If so, our work could provide insights into novel therapeutic targets for treatment," Mifflin said. "In terms of opportunities for collaboration, the Cardiovascular Research Institute is a wonderful example. The institute will facilitate interactions and collaborations between investigators studying the cardiovascular complications of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart failure, stress and other conditions prevalent in Texas and the United States."

Mifflin and Cunningham are impressed with the friendly, supportive environment that has welcomed them to Fort Worth and the Health Science Center.

"Resources provided by the institution have allowed us to expand the scope of our work, creating new opportunities to compete for external funding and provide training for students from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine," Cunningham concluded.

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