2020 O’Donnell Award in Medicine: Susan “Bess” Frost, Ph.D.

Dec 4, 2019

Susan “Bess” Frost, Ph.D. of UT Health San Antonio Recognized for Changing Approach to Alzheimer’s Research

Susan “Bess” Frost, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies at UT Health San Antonio, is the recipient of the TAMEST 2020 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Medicine for her work changing the way we look at Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Frost is also a faculty investigator with the university’s Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative diseases.

Instead of focusing on how to cure the disease, as is the focus of most Alzheimer research, Dr. Frost’s team looked at what causes the disease—a buildup of tau proteins inside of cells and amyloid plaques outside of it, which disrupts and eventually kills brain cell function. In doing so, her team was able to identify targets that can mitigate the spread of toxic proteins in the brain.

“By the time someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, negative tau protein has been building up in their brain for decades. However, Dr. Frost’s novel approach seeks to intervene at the earliest stages of the disease and prevent memory loss and other cognitive functions before they occur,” said William L. Henrich, M.D., president and professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio. “Dr. Frost is an exceptional leader with an endless inquisitive mind. What she has accomplished thus far has enlightened the field and will continue to do so.”

By looking at what pathological forms of tau are doing in the brain—why they are causing brain cells to die and thus creating loss of cognitive skills—Dr. Frost uncovered downstream consequences of tau aggregation. It showed that tau (acting through non-coding piRNA) could reactivate dormant “transposons” or virus-like “jumping genes” that mediate widespread relaxation of heterochromatic DNA leading to neuronal death.

Preventing the activation of these transposons using antiretroviral agents is now being tested in clinical trials.

“We are honored to present Dr. Frost with the 2020 O’Donnell Award in Medicine for changing the way we look at how Alzheimer’s disease effects the brain,” said TAMEST Board President Amelie G. Ramirez, Dr.P.H., of UT Health San Antonio. “The United States has an estimated 5.5 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease, and Dr. Frost’s research hopes to transform medication and therapy for the disease as we know it, to one day prevent the onset of memory loss for Alzheimer’s patients around the world.”

Dr. Frost will be honored during the O’Donnell Awards dinner and reception on Wednesday, January 8, 2020, at the TAMEST 2020 Annual Conference: Innovating Texas–Research to Commercialization. The conference takes place January 7-9, 2020, at the Fairmont Dallas Hotel in downtown Dallas. Media are encouraged to attend the ceremony and the conference.

Interview opportunities with Dr. Frost are available. Please contact:

Will Sansom
Executive Director of Media Communications, UT Health San Antonio
Office: 210-567-2579
Mobile: 210-464-2992
Email: Sansom@uthscsa.edu 

TAMEST 2020 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award Recipients:

  • Medicine: Susan “Bess” Frost, Ph.D., UT Health San Antonio
  • Engineering: Jeffrey Rimer, Ph.D., University of Houston
  • Science: Alessandra Corsi, Ph.D., Texas Tech University
  • Technology Innovation: Kristine Kieswetter, Ph.D. and Deepak Kilpadi, Ph.D., KCI

About the O’Donnell Awards:

The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards annually recognize rising Texas researchers who are addressing the essential role that science and technology play in society, and whose work meets the highest standards of exemplary professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness.

Over $1 million has been awarded to more than 50 recipients in the categories of medicine, engineering, science and technology innovation since the inception of the O’Donnell awards in 2006. 11 O’Donnell Recipients have gone on to be elected to the National Academies. Read more about the 2020 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards recipients.


TAMEST (The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas) is the state’s premier scientific organization, bringing together Texas’ best and brightest scientists and researchers. With more than 300 members, TAMEST is composed of the Texas-based members of the three National Academies (National Academy of Medicine, National Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Sciences), the Royal Society and the state’s 11 Nobel Laureates

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