14th Annual Texas Conference on Health Disparities

We would like to thank all of those who attended the 14th Annual Texas Conference on Health Disparities this past week. It was a huge success with a wonderful turn out and outstanding speakers.

TCHD Group Photo
14th Annual Texas Center for Health Disparities Team

The Texas Center for Health Disparities, at UNT Health Science Center hosted its 14th Annual Texas Conference on Health Disparities June 6-7, 2019. Conference participants & presenters included clinicians, health policy makers, researchers, health educators, public and community health leaders, and students whose work incorporates the use of multidisciplinary partnerships that build collaborations to eliminate health disparities and achieve health equity. The conference featured nationally renowned speakers and will highlight evidence-based clinical, community and policy approaches to improving maternal and child health across the United States.

This year's focus was on Social Epigenomics & Health Disparities; Evidence based approaches that identify mechanisms by which social experiences at various stages in life, both positive and negative, affect gene function and thereby influence health in racial/ethnic minority and health disparity populations.

UNTHSC students, post-docs and faculty showcased their research before a national audience during the UNTHSC 14th Annual Conference on Health Disparities sponsored by the UNTHSC Texas Center for Health Disparities.

Please click on each speaker to review their presentations of their research.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER - Alexandra E. Shields, PhD, Director of the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities

'The contributions of epigenomics: to better understanding and addressing health disparities'


Dr. Shields' principal research interests include issues related to the quality of care provided to underserved populations, health disparities, and challenges associated with clinical integration of new genetic technologies. Dr. Shields is the Director of the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities, which examines the complex intersection of emerging genetic research and the persistent problem of health disparities. This initiative includes analyses of current issues of pharmacogenetic treatment for cancer and developing the capacity to monitor the equitable diffusion of emergent genetic-based treatments across racial/ethnic subpopulations and by insurance status in the U.S.

Alexandra Shields, PhD, is Director of the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities; Associate Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School; Associate in Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital; Associate Faculty in Molecular and Population Genetics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; and Presidential Scholar at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

An elected member of the National Academy of Social Insurance, Dr. Shields' work addresses the impact of health system change on minority and other underserved populations. Her recent work addresses the underlying mechanisms through which psychosocial stress contributes to disease, as well as challenges associated with translating emerging genomics research into clinical practice, with a particular focus on interests of poor and minority patients and the providers who serve them. She has conducted several national studies addressing the preparedness of primary care physicians to incorporate genomic medicine into practice, patients' attitudes and beliefs about genetics, and access to recommended genetic tests for low-income and minority patients. Dr. Shields also studies important ethical aspects of genomics research design, including the use of race constructs in genomics research and the inclusion of socio-environmental measures that capture the lived experience of poor communities in gene-environment studies.

Dr. Shields is the Director of the National Consortium on Psychosocial Stress, Spirituality, and Health, a unique international resource for empirically investigating the intersection of psychosocial stress, racial/ethnic disparities, and positive mediating resources for resiliency such as spirituality and religious coping. She also leads the Harvard-wide Gene-Environment and Disparities Research Initiative, which engages faculty from diverse disciplines in developing research designs that reflect the complex array of social, environmental, and behavioral factors affecting the etiology of health disparities in gene-environment studies.

Dr. Shields has authored over 40 peer-reviewed publications; co-directed the Health Disparities Research Program of the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center; is an Executive Committee member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center's Reduction of Cancer Risk and Disparities Program; and serves on advisory boards of several NIH and university-based research initiatives addressing genomics and health disparities. She holds a PhD in Health Policy from Brandeis University, where she was a Pew Health Policy Scholar, as well as a BA (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) and MA (with distinction) in Systematic Theology from Boston College.

Dr. Steven M. Kogan,PhD; University of Georgia

'Minority Stress and Substance Abuse Disparities among Young African American Men: Does DNA Methylation in the Oxytocin Receptor Gene Play a Role?'

Dr. Steven M. Kogan is a Professor of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Georgia. His research focuses on the prevention of substance use and high-risk sexual behavior among African American adolescents and young adults. This program of research involves identifying personal, biological, and contextual risk and resilience factors that affect African American youths' and young adults' development and involvement in risky behavior. Dr. Kogan collaborates with a team of researchers and prevention specialists who translate developmental research findings into efficacious, ecologically appropriate prevention programs. Building on his interest in adolescent development, Dr. Kogan has recently concentrated on the needs of young adult African American men who experience persistent disparities in economic, social, legal, and health-related domains. He is currently the Principal Investigator on an NIH funded longitudinal study investigating patterns of alcohol use and their health consequences among rural African American young men.

Dr. Kristen Ariel Ketcherside, PhD, The University of Pennsylvania

'Health disparities in addiction: Lessons from imaging and genetics, with implications for treatment'

Ariel is a postdoctoral researcher at The University Pennsylvania, where she works at the Center for Studies of Addiction. In her research, she combines her background in biology with neuroimaging, cognitive, behavioral, and genetic data for a truly multimodal understanding of reward disorders. She began her career by examining susceptibility to cannabis use disorder, including genetic risk factors with translational implications, and comorbid psychiatric disorders. Her current work, primarily in cigarette smokers, includes identifying sex differences in reward response, as well as delineating the effects of steroid hormones on reward-related behavior in women. Her overarching goal is to identify heterogeneity in risk for, and recovery from substance use and reward disorders, for more effective prevention and treatment.

Dr. Brenda Elias, PhD, University of Manitoba

'Translating to the Community (T2C): Setting the foundation for a social epigenetic biobank for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder'

Dr. Elias is an associate professor in Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, and former co-director and founding member of the Manitoba First Nations Centre for Aboriginal Health Research. Her research interests include gender health, mental health, social determinants, health info-structures, Indigenous and inter-trans disciplinary health research, and research ethics. She conducts multilevel quantitative and mixed-method studies into the social, cultural, biological, economic, political and historical determinants of health. Dr. Elias is a strong advocate of team collaborations, and has contributed as a principal, co-principal and co-investigator to more than 38 grants exceeding $18 million. Dr. Elias is a research affiliate with the UM Centre for Human Rights Research (CHRR), and is working with like-minded colleagues to advance health rights of populations. Dr. Elias has initiated and led three noteworthy national CIHR grants to understand through novel data linkage approaches the determinants of health disparities in First Nations communities. Dr. Elias has developed a health disparity research program that involves linking the federal Indian Registry System to the Province of Manitoba health and social administrative databases to make transparent the gap in health status between First Nations and all Other Manitobans and to illustrate where progress has been made. She is a member of the International Indigenous Health Measurement Working Group and is working with academic and government researchers from Canada, United States, New Zealand and Australia to liberate health and social information for indigenous people world-wide in keeping with the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples. Dr. Elias is also the lead investigator of "Translating to the Community: A social epigenetic nutritional study of FASD". This CIHR and MLLC funded study is linked to an international FASD consortium that is developing an early diagnostic biomarker tool for FASD and associated co-morbidities. This study is framed to advance the rights of children and adults living with FASD. In addition, she is a member of the CHRR water rights consortium and has collaborated with University of Manitoba researchers (academic leads) to secure national funding from CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC to advance First Nations water rights in Canada. Dr. Elias teaches health survey research methods and the social organization of health in the Department of Community Health Sciences.

Dr. Juan Celedón, MD, PhD, University of Pittsburgh

'Solving the puzzle of asthma disparities'

Dr. Celedón is the Niels K. Jerne Professor of Pediatrics and Division Chief of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. His research goals are to identify genetic and environmental determinants of airway diseases. He leads NIH-funded projects on the genetics and epidemiology of asthma, and a clinical trial of vitamin D supplementation to prevent asthma attacks in children. To date, Dr. Celedón has authored or co-authored more than 270 publications.

Dr. Celedón obtained his medical degree from the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotâ (Colombia). He served an Internship in Internal Medicine at Lincoln Hospital (New York Medical College, NY), a residency in Internal Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York) and a Fellowship in Pulmonary and Critical Medicine at Brown University Hospitals (Providence, RI). Following his clinical training, Dr. Celedón completed a Research Fellowship in Respiratory Diseases at the Channing Laboratory of Brigham and Women's Hospital, while also obtaining a doctoral degree in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Dr. Celedón's work as a physician-scientist has been recognized by organizations and institutions in the U.S. and abroad. In appreciation of his scientific contributions, he was elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the Association of American Physicians. He has received the "Recognition Award for Scientific Accomplishments", the "Lifetime Achievement Award for Innovations in Health Equality", and the "John M. Peters Award" from the American Thoracic Society (ATS). Dr. Celedón is currently the Vice-President of the ATS and will serve as ATS President in 2020.

Helen Foley, PhD., University of Southern California

'miRNA profiles and psychosocial stress during pregnancy in a cohort of urban Hispanic mothers' 

Dr. Helen Foley is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Health at USC Keck School of Medicine. During her PhD at USC, she was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP) and NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG). Her postdoctoral work at Caltech characterized markers from two oral viruses, and their ubiquity and diversity in human populations. Her current work on the MADRES project profiles exosomal miRNA during pregnancy in a cohort of mothers from an urban Hispanic population in Los Angeles with significant environmental health disparities. miRNA are small (~22nt) non-coding RNA that modulate mRNA expression and are highly responsive to environmental stimuli. Altered miRNA activity in pregnancy has also been associated with conditions including pre-eclampsia, IUGR, and gestational diabetes. Understanding the role of miRNA as a signaling molecule may be key to mechanisms mediating effects on newborn and maternal health, particularly for populations with substantial health disparities.

Debomoy K. Lahiri, PhD, MSC, Indiana University School of Medicine

'Intersection of environment and genetics, specifically with respect to the 'Latent Early-life associated regulation' (LEARn) model for Alzheimer's disease'

Debomoy K. Lahiri, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience, Psychiatry and Medical & Molecular Genetics, and leader of the Research Education Core for the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center (IADC) at Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis. Dr. Lahiri studies the mechanism of aging, origin and biogenesis of the amyloid plaque, and tests potential drug targets for Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other brain disorders. His group has elucidated roles of environmental factors, epigenetics, and specific microRNA on AD. He has made significant contributions to mapping biochemical pathways for neurodegenerative diseases, such as AD and Parkinson's as well as neurodevelopment disorders, such as autism and fragile X syndrome.

Dr. Lahiri has been awarded multiple R01 grants as a Principal Investigator from the National Institute on Aging, NIH; Alzheimer's Association, and IIRG from Baxter Healthcare, Forest Research labs, and Novartis, Inc., USA. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of several biotech companies, e.g., Entia Bioscience, and QR Pharma. Dr. Lahiri is the Executive Committee member of IADC, and Executive member of Stark Neurosciences Research Institute. He is the founding Director and Chief Scientific Advisor, Peptide Therapeutics Provaidya LLC, Greenwood, IN. Dr. Lahiri has been awarded several US patents. He has published over 310 scientific articles in neurobiology, genetics, and AD. He is the Founding Editor-In-Chief of international journals, 'Current Alzheimer Research' and 'Current Aging Science' (Bentham Sciences). He authored books, such as 'Protective Strategies for Neurodegenerative Diseases' published by New York Academy of Sciences. Dr. Lahiri's honors include the listing in Marquis' 'Who's Who in the World', and receiving the 'Zenith Fellow Award'

Dr. Roderick H. Dashwood, B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D., FRSB, Director, Center for Epigenetics & Disease Prevention, John S. Dunn Professor in Disease Prevention

'Anti-Cancer Strategies Targeting Epigenetic Readers, Writers and Erasers'

Dr. Dashwood completed schooling through bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. degrees in the U.K., and then joined Oregon State University in 1986 as a postdoctoral research associate. This began a research career focused on the molecular mechanisms of anticancer agents, including natural products and therapeutic candidates. Academic positions at the University of Hawaii were followed by sabbaticals at the National Cancer Center in Tokyo. Dr. Dashwood returned to Oregon State University in 1997 as Director of the Cancer Chemoprotection Program, and was appointed Helen P. Rumbel Professor for Cancer Prevention. His research initially focused on the genetic aspects of colorectal cancer, including key contributions in the area of Wnt/?-catenin signaling, but moved into the realm of epigenetics with the discovery of the histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitory activity of sulforaphane (Myzak et al. Cancer Res 2004).

In 2013, Dr. Dashwood relocated to the Texas Medical Center, as director of the Center for Epigenetics & Disease Prevention at Texas A&M College of Medicine in Houston. He has affiliated positions in the Dept. Nutrition & Food Science at Texas A&M University, and in the Dept. Clinical Cancer Prevention, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Current research encompasses histone and non-histone modifications, DNA methylation, and non-coding RNAs, in the continuum from computational modeling in silico, to cell-based assays and preclinical models, and into human translational studies. His curriculum vitae lists over 200 peer-reviewed publications, service on NIH study sections and journal editorial boards, and NCI-funded contracts and grants. In 2016, he was appointed to the External Steering Panel of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) PREVENT Program, and in 2017, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology.

Melanie Carless, Ph.D., Associate Professor,Texas Biomedical Research Institute

'Defining DNA methylation signatures associated with metabolic dysfunction in a Mexican American cohort'

Dr. Carless's research focuses on understanding genetic and epigenetic factors driving complex disease development, with an emphasis on metabolic and neuropsychiatric disorders. I also aim to bridge the gap in health disparities, through population-based studies of Hispanics, who are at increased risk for several complex diseases, but are underserved in the research community. Through next-generation sequencing and array-based technologies we are examining genome-wide associations between DNA methylation and phenotypes related to metabolic disease. We are also harvesting the power of the CRISPR/dCas9 system to understand the functional consequences of site-specific alterations to DNA methylation in an in vitro system. By combining population-level biology with epigenetic editing, we aim to understand the molecular mechanisms that contribute to altered cellular phenotypes and ultimately disease risk.