By Christi Fish, Executive Director of University Communications, UTSA

From The University of Texas at San Antonio

Rena Bizios with Nicholas Peppas

Bizios with fellow National Academy of Medicine member Nicholas Peppas, professor of biomedical engineering at UT-Austin, at a ceremony celebrating new members in Washington, D.C.

UTSA faculty member, educator and researcher Rena Bizios, a pioneer in biomedical engineering, has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest honors for medical sciences, health care and public health professionals. Bizios’ election to the National Academies moves UTSA one step closer to Tier One, a designation that includes, among other things, the number of faculty at a university with memberships in the National Academies.

Bizios is the first tenure-track UTSA faculty member to be elected to the National Academies and the third overall.

The research interests of Bizios, a Peter T. Flawn Professor in the UTSA Department of Biomedical Engineering, include cellular and tissue engineering, tissue regeneration, biomaterials (including nanostructured biomaterials) and biocompatibility. She is recognized for making seminal contributions to the understanding of cell-material interactions, protein/cell interactions with nanostructured biomaterials, and for identifying the effects of pressure and electric current on cell functions during new tissue formation. Her research has applications in the tissue engineering and tissue regeneration fields.

“When I started in this field, biomedical engineering was not well-known or well-understood,” said Bizios. “I didn’t know if it would be successful or not. I took a risk.”

While Bizios takes great pride in the achievements of the undergraduate and graduate students she has mentored, her work extends well beyond her own classroom and laboratory. She has taught fundamental undergraduate and graduate engineering courses and developed new biomedical engineering courses. Moreover, she has co-authored a landmark undergraduate textbook, An Introduction to Tissue-Biomaterial Interactions. The textbook is a standard in the biomaterials field and has been adopted for upper-class undergraduate and beginning graduate courses by several biomedical engineering programs in the United States and abroad.

“Rena Bizios is a wonderful example of the tremendous faculty that top-tier universities are known for,” said UTSA President Ricardo Romo. “Through her teaching, research and mentoring at UTSA, Dr. Bizios has made significant contributions that have shaped, and will continue to shape, biomedical engineering. I am so pleased to see her work recognized by her peers in the National Academies.”

Bizios’ career includes long-standing service to engineering at the departmental, university, regional, national and international levels. She has served on numerous committees and held elected officer positions in several societies including the Biomedical Engineering Society, Society for Biomaterials, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. She frequently speaks at universities around the world, and at national and international conferences.

Professor Bizios’ peers also have recognized her research accomplishments and contributions to education. She has received several awards including the Rensselaer Alumni Association Teaching Award (1997); Clemson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Literature, from the Society for Biomaterials (1998); Distinguished Scientist Award, from the Houston Society for Engineering in Medicine and Biology (2009); 2010 Women’s Initiatives Mentorship Excellence Award, from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; Founders Award, from the Society for Biomaterials (2014); Theo C. Pilkington Outstanding Educator Award, from the Biomedical Engineering Division of the American Society for Engineering Education (2014); and Amber Award, from the UTSA Ambassadors (2014). She was also elected a charter member of the UTSA Academy of Distinguished Researchers earlier this year.

Moreover, Bizios is a fellow of five professional societies: the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, International Union of the Societies for Biomaterials Sciences and Engineering, Society of Biomedical Engineering, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Our newly elected members represent the brightest, most influential, and passionate people in health, science, and medicine in our nation and internationally,” said National Academy of Medicine President Victor Dzau. “They are at the top of their fields and are committed to service. The expertise they bring to the organization will help us respond to today’s most pressing health-related challenges and inform the future of health, science, and medicine.”

UTSA College of Engineering Dean JoAnn Browning added, “We are proud to have such an outstanding professional like Dr. Rena Bizios teaching and conducting research here at UTSA. Not only has Dr. Bizios made many significant contributions to her field, she is also an outstanding mentor to our students in the biomedical engineering program and is so deserving of this honor.”

“I am delighted and I feel humbled by this honored inclusion by my peers,” said Bizios. “I share it with all of my students, past and present, and with my colleagues who have collaborated with me.”

The National Academy of Medicine is an independent organization of eminent professionals from the fields of health and medicine as well as the natural, social and behavioral sciences. Founded in the 1970, the NAM administers fellowships, scholarships and awards in addition to hosting workshops, expert meetings, symposia and other initiatives to respond to current and emerging needs in health and medicine.

This year, the National Academy of Medicine will induct 70 new members and 10 international members, raising its total active membership to 1,826 and its number of international members to 137.


Learn more about the Rena Bizios.

Learn more about the UTSA Department of Biomedical Engineering.


By Peter Hotez, M.D. Ph.D.

Last December I was selected as one of four U.S. Science Envoys for the year 2015, along with Drs. Jane Lubchenco, University Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University and former administrator of NOAA (2009-2013); Arun Majumdar, Jay Precourt Professor, senior fellow, Precourt Institute for Energy, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University, and former founding director of ARPA-E (2009-2012) and Acting Under Secretary of Energy (2011-2012); and Geraldine Richmond, Presidential Chair and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon and founder of the COACh for women scientists and engineers [1].

The U.S. Science Envoy Program was first proposed in April 2009 by Sen. Dick Lugar who praised American supremacy in the sciences and technology, correctly observing how our country is widely admired for its scientific achievements even by nations unsupportive of our foreign policies [2]. Subsequently in June President Obama made a historic speech in Cairo, Egypt in order “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" [3], later followed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement in November 2009 in Marrakesh, Morocco that she will send prominent scientists to travel to Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries for “scientific and technical collaboration” [2]. The first three U.S. Science Envoys selected were Drs. Elias Zerhouni (born in Algeria), former NIH Director; Bruce Alberts, former director of the National Academy of Sciences; and Ahmed Zewail (born in Egypt), a Caltech professor and Nobel Laureate [2]. The envoys are chosen jointly by the U.S. State Department and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development team

The Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development team at National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine.

Over the last six years a total of 13 U.S. Science Envoys have been named, including four in this current class. Each of us has a unique expertise and role, including two envoys in 2015 focused on climate change. My interest and passion is in the area of vaccine development for neglected diseases. I head the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine where we are developing a portfolio of six vaccines, including new vaccines for hookworm infection and schistosomiasis now in clinical trials. Our vaccines are developed in the non-profit sector and typically are of less interest to major pharmaceutical companies because they primarily target diseases of the extreme poor living in low- and middle-income countries. A component of our external outreach activities include capacity building in so-called “innovative developing countries” where there is a sound biotechnology infrastructure, despite severe poverty and endemic neglected infections [4].

Peter Hotez with Omar Assobhei

Peter Hotez with Omar Assobhei, President of University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellahh.

In a March 2015 letter in SCIENCE magazine, I wrote how the Middle East and North African (MENA) region is now highly vulnerable to neglected and emerging infectious diseases arising out of the conflicts in ISIS-occupied Syria, Iraq, and Libya, as well as Yemen [5]. Some of these include MERS coronavirus infection, leishmaniasis, and schistosomiasis. I’ve pointed out previously how Ebola emerged in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone out of a post-conflict setting associated with breakdowns in health systems and infrastructure, urbanization, human migrations, and deforestation, with similar conditions now in play in conflict-ridden MENA zones [5]. Simultaneously the MENA region has a dearth of regional vaccine development capabilities and is highly vulnerable to diseases that the major pharmaceutical companies will not likely target for vaccines, such as those I highlighted above. Accordingly, we are proposing to develop vaccines jointly between research institutions in selected MENA countries and our vaccine institute in Houston. Since the beginning of the year, I have visited Morocco and Saudi Arabia, countries that were chosen on the basis of their potential to develop vaccine infrastructure together with alignment of U.S. strategic interests.

Hotez's lecture at University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellahh

Approximately 250 medical students and faculty attend Hotez's lecture at University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellahh. He received a 'rock star' welcome with applause and cheers as he entered the lecture.

It’s an exciting opportunity for me to work with the State Department, White House OSTP, and the U.S. Embassies in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. I have been deeply impressed with the expertise and depth of knowledge of my colleagues in the U.S. Government, as well as some amazing scientists in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. I am hopeful there could be some important deliverables in terms of developing new and life-saving vaccines, together with joint capacity building for science and technology in the MENA region. Simultaneously I feel privileged to be asked to provide service to our country!

Peter Hotez

Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., is a member of TAMEST. He is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine (officially National Academy of Medicine on July 1, 2015) and is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital Endowed Chair of Tropical Pediatrics, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, University Professor of Biology at Baylor University, and Baker Institute Fellow in Disease and Poverty at Rice University. The views herein are those of Professor Hotez and not necessarily those of the U.S. State Department or White House.






The following post is part of a special blog series highlighting the importance of our O’Donnell Awards program and its impact on the program’s past recipients in medicine, engineering, science, and technology innovation, as well as the importance of scientific research to Texas. The 2014 O’Donnell Awards recipients have each agreed to contribute to the blog series.

The fourth post in this series was written by Dr. Richard Bruick, recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Medicine. Dr. Bruick’s studies on cellular responses to maintain oxygen and iron homeostasis have helped lay the foundation for the development of small molecule therapeutics to replace erythropoietin as a treatment for anemia, to treat renal cell carcinoma, and to address iron overload disorders.

View Dr. Bruick’s presentation at the TAMEST 2014 Annual Conference.
View Dr. Bruick’s portion of the 2014 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards tribute video.

The 2015 O’Donnell Awards recipients were announced in December through a press release and a video trailer on the TAMEST website.

Dr. Richard Bruick, Recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Medicine

By Richard Bruick, Ph.D.

Perhaps the earliest and most frequent advice I’ve received over the years from the chair of our Biochemistry Department, Dr. Steve McKnight, is “make a discovery!” This should not be confused with “publish lots of papers!” as is often intended when well-meaning colleagues coach young faculty preoccupied with launching their careers. Rather, it’s a call to constantly tackle new and challenging problems that may pay off with life-changing advances. There is a great deal of risk associated with this approach. Progress may be slow and hard to measure with no guarantee of success—not exactly ideal selling points when trying to get grant funding.

Drs. Kevin Gardner and Richard Bruick

Drs. Bruick (right) and Gardner (left) have collaborated on the development of small molecules with the potential to treat kidney cancer.

Over a decade ago, my collaborator Kevin Gardner and I embarked on one such project. I had begun my independent career investigating mechanisms that our cells use to sense changes in oxygen availability. This work was highlighted by the identification of key regulatory enzymes that have subsequently been studied by countless groups, and are now the targets of candidate drugs to treat anemia. However, we were intrigued by a potential vulnerability we spied within a different player in the pathway that we hoped could be useful in the context of cancer treatments. This particular target was largely ignored by others in our field, in part because it did not fit into a known class of “druggable” protein targets.

Combining the expertise of UT Southwestern biochemists, structural biologists, and chemists, we sought to develop inhibitors that could exploit our hypothesized liability. Though we gained many insights along the way, the challenges were substantial and progress was often arduous. It wasn’t until 2011—after almost ten years of work—that we achieved the key milestone we aimed for at the outset: a chemical inhibitor that targeted this “undruggable” factor. This technology was licensed to a biotechnology start-up company here in Texas, Peloton Therapeutics, which successfully advanced these early lead molecules into clinical drug candidates for the treatment of kidney cancer. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the start of a clinical trial, and the first patients are receiving the candidate drug as I write this today. It is an exciting time for all involved and we can’t wait to see whether this off-the-wall idea in which we’ve invested so much time will finally pay off with improved treatments for cancer patients.

Structure of a small molecule inhibitor bound to a protein implicated as a key driver of tumor progression in kidney cancer

Shown is the structure of a small molecule inhibitor bound to a protein implicated as a key driver of tumor progression in kidney cancer.

I was very gratified to receive the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Medicine from The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST). This award recognizes the efforts of dozens of talented individuals over the years as well as Dr. McKnight’s vision and the willingness of UT Southwestern to encourage bold research programs. I firmly believe the Department of Biochemistry at UT Southwestern was central to my success. Our work required significant investments in infrastructure, including shared facilities for small molecule screening, medicinal chemistry, biophysical analysis, and pharmacodynamics characterization. We relied on the excellent labs neighboring ours that span many scientific disciplines and the collegial environment fostered at our institution. As our work matures, new avenues of research continue to open up, allowing us to engage even more investigators to address ongoing opportunities in both clinical and basic research.

The O’Donnell Award validates the patience and trade-offs required to pursue high-risk, long-term objectives and acknowledges the outstanding mentorship I’ve received as well as the terrific colleagues, collaborators and trainees I’ve worked with over the years. The O’Donnell Award provides the freedom to think as creatively as possible, and helps researchers like me all across this state to boldly recruit the next generation of students and fellows to explore new opportunities. I’m thrilled to be in the company of so many outstanding Texas scientists who have been selected for O’Donnell Awards since the program began. Texas is fortunate to have an organization like TAMEST fostering innovation in our state through this unique, life-changing awards program, which will continue to drive innovation in Texas for years to come.

Dr. Richard BruickDr. Richard Bruick is associate professor of biochemistry and a Michael L. Rosenberg Scholar in Medical Research at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

by Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D.

Houston Methodist Hospital is one of the biggest hospitals in Texas. Our Research Institute turns 10 this year and has made great strides in advancing medicine that focuses on getting effective treatments to our patients.

We have grown to 280 members and 1,400 credentialed researchers in our first 10 years. While this may seem small in comparison to the larger teaching hospitals, we are small by design. There are many excellent universities and institutions that excel at basic research, of course—it is the foundation of all science and technology. Our goal is to take the next step in helping our patients—building bridges from labs to the clinic. All our research is geared toward rapid application and begins with identifying our clinical needs. We perform some basic research in the spaces between scientific and clinical areas. Most of our work focuses on platforms like nanomedicine, information systems, and outcomes research that benefit multiple disciplines of medicine. And we partner these with what some have called a nirvana of applied research- expertise and strong support systems for clinical trials, small-scale clinical-grade manufacturing, and regulatory guidance for FDA approval.

Houston Methodist made the early choice to focus on a handful of emerging, exciting areas of applied medicine that, we believe, hold the most promise to transform the lives of our patients, and patients around the world.

One such area is nanomedicine, the development of safe and potent nanotechnologies for use in diagnosis and medical therapies. I began my own career in nanomedicine at Ohio State University, then transferred my laboratory first to UT Health Science Center at Houston and then to Houston Methodist in 2010. I served as special expert on nanotechnology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 2003-2005, providing leadership into the formulation, refinement, and approval of the NCI’s Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, currently the world’s largest program in medical nanotechnology

I’ve been fortunate to work with principal investigators doing transformational work in nanomedicine at Houston Methodist, including Ennio Tasciotti, Ph.D., Tony Hu, Ph.D., Paolo Decuzzi, Ph.D., and Haifa Shen, Ph.D., and other excellent scientists. Their work is being applied to areas of medicine as diverse as rapid-diagnostic devices, drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and imaging. This work has attracted millions of dollars to Texas in public research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, and the progress our researchers make is published every month in major, high-impact journals such as Nature, Nature Nanotechnology, American Chemical Society Nano, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Why such interest in nanomedicine? Because it has already transformed other areas of our lives, including electronics, computing, and manufacturing, and because we have figured out how to make nanotechnology safe for people. The silicon-based nanoparticles being developed in our laboratories have a low toxicity profile in the body and are usually removed from the bloodstream in 24 to 48 hours. The nanoparticles find their targets and act precisely, allowing them to efficiently accomplish their intended functions, such as delivering life-saving drugs, killing cancer cells, or improving the resolution of diagnostic imaging.

The next step—now underway—is to show how nanomedicine-based therapies can improve upon traditional ones, and for this, collaboration is key. In Houston we have the Alliance for NanoHealth, established with the support of U.S. Rep. John Culberson, Gov. Rick Perry, and TAMEST co-founder and retired U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The Alliance unites Houston’s top academic institutions working in the field of nanomedicine. I have had the privilege of leading the Alliance since 2005, succeeding Bob Bast, Jr., M.D., of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the late Samuel Ward “Trip” Casscells III, M.D., of UT Health, a great man of exceptional vision, to whom all of Texas owes gratitude for his inspired work and leadership. Dozens of collaborative projects in nanomedicine have been spurred forward by the Alliance, and for that and other reasons, we believe it has been a huge success.

Nanomedicine’s secrets harbor great opportunities for Texas. Having participated in the creation, Texans are world leaders. Our state stands to benefit greatly from its application to health care, science, and education, and because of the economic opportunities it presents to entrepreneurs. Not everything must be big in Texas. Indeed, some of the things we’re famous for should be very, very small.

Mauro FerrariMauro Ferrari, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Houston Methodist Research Institute and director of the Institute for Academic Medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital, is a regular speaker at TAMEST events, and is generally considered to be one of the founders of nanomedicine.

Posted by on in Medicine

by Henry Markram, Ph.D.

Reconstruction of brain cells

This image shows the reconstruction of a handful of brain cells. About half way up is the spherical somata, containing the cell nuclei. The network of branches allows extensive interconnection between even a few cells, which gives the human brain highly efficient, massively parallel processing power. Indeed, a simulation of a few thousand cells appears like a very dense jungle, in which individual cells are virtually indistinguishable. In this image, the short branches you can see clustered around the somata are dendrites and the long ones running up to the top of the image are axons. The vertical nature of the network of branches allows connections between brain cells located in different layers of the cerebral cortex.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is working to unify our understanding of the human brain. We’re harnessing the power of supercomputers for problems we cannot solve with experiments alone—mapping the human brain and its diseases and using our map to develop even more powerful computers.

The potential of this work is highlighted by the fact that the HBP is funded by one of the largest scientific grants ever awarded by the European Commission. We bring together leading researchers in neuroscience, medicine and computing from 80 partner universities in the US, Canada, Europe and Asia.

Our main challenge is that the human brain is so extraordinarily complex that it’s very difficult to understand exactly how it’s put together and how it works. Each of our roughly 87 billion neurons is intricately connected to thousands of other neurons. Yet it is the precise arrangement of these connections, coupled with the sheer number of them, that gives us our unmatched mental abilities.

At the same time, it has never been more urgent for us to address the many health challenges related to problems of the brain. We are living longer lives than ever before, and that makes us more vulnerable to brain-related old age diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s.

Modern neuroscience is gathering more and more experimental data, but it still covers only a small fraction of the brain’s overall structure and functionality. The task is further complicated by the need to understand brains from males and females, different species, and healthy as well as sick individuals. In short, knowledge derived from experimental data still contains massive gaps, and we can’t accumulate new data quickly enough to transform this situation anytime soon, without some extra help.

This is where supercomputers come in. They allow us to construct and refine mathematical rules, derived from the limited experimental evidence we have, to predict with increasing accuracy the structure and functioning of sections of the brain.

As the power of supercomputers increases, we can predict and simulate larger parts of the brain, more accurately. By 2020, we should have supercomputers powerful enough to attempt an initial reconstruction of the structural and functional organization of the whole human brain. Ultimately, we hope to apply disease-specific rules to build models of brain diseases, allowing us to understand them better and to speed up the development of new medicines. At the same time, our vastly expanded insight into brain function will help transform information technology, paving the way for more efficient and flexible computers.

By using supercomputing power to leverage neuroscience data, we can turn mapping the human brain into a tractable problem, laying the foundations for a unified theory of brain function, as well as revolutionary applications in healthcare and computer technology.

Henry Markram, Ph.D.Henry Markram (Director of the Blue Brain Project, Coordinator of the Human Brain Project and Professor of Neuroscience at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) will be a keynote speaker at The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas’ (TAMEST’s) Annual Conference, January 16-17, 2014. The conference will address the computational revolution in medicine, engineering, and science.