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UTEP’s BBRC: Regional Research Resource is Catalyst for Change

Last Updated on September 15, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published September 15, 2017

By Lauren Macias-Cervantes

UTEP Communications

From the outside, the Bioscience Research Building on the campus of The University of Texas at El Paso looks like many other campus facilities that house classrooms, offices and labs. But inside, the five-story building houses the Border Biomedical Research Center (BBRC) and its high-tech scientific equipment, first-rate laboratories and some of the world’s top researchers.

College of Science Dean and principal investigator of the BBRC Robert Kirken, Ph.D.
College of Science Dean and principal investigator of the BBRC Robert Kirken, Ph.D.

This year the BBRC is celebrating its 25th anniversary. College of Science Dean and principal investigator of the BBRC Robert Kirken, Ph.D., reflected on the center’s progress.

“The BBRC has really been a catalyst for change at UTEP,” he said. “If you look at UTEP’s storied history, you’ll see a small mining school that evolved over many decades into more of a research active university, and I really think the BBRC was the transition point between academic and research programs. We have grown from a few million dollars in research expenditures to more than $90 million today.”

The addition to the University in 1992 not only transformed the campus, but also changed the face of research. UTEP established the BBRC to lessen the disparity in health status for Hispanics and shed light on issues unique to the border region and its population.

“If you look at most research, it doesn’t involve the Hispanic population,” Kirken explained. “If you look into clinical trials and large study groups, most of the time [Hispanic participants] are non-existent. It is our duty to figure out how we can better their lives through our science.”

Research topics in the BBRC vary, but focus on three main areas: infectious disease and immunology, neuromodulation disorders, and cancer toxicology.

The three clusters are supported by seven core facilities.

The center started with a handful of researchers in the Biology Building on campus and has grown to encompass more than 90 faculty and 18 staff. The growth is credited to the financial support of the Research in Minority Institutions (RCMI) Program funded by the National Institutes of Health and UTEP, and the Bioscience Research Building. The building opened in September 2009 and houses the majority of the BBRC core facilities and the faculty and staff within the research clusters. The new facilities provided for growth and allowed for recruitment of the best and brightest scientists.

Siddhartha Das, Ph.D., is a professor of biological sciences and leads the infectious disease and immunology research cluster. He said it was the dynamic of the border and the existence of the BBRC that lured him away from the University of California, San Diego.

Das was one of the BBRC’s first hires. He has spent more than 20 years working on parasite research. Specifically, his laboratory investigates the cellular and molecular biology of lipids and membrane raft-mediated signaling in parasitic protozoan, Giardia lamblia. Giardiasis caused by Giardia lamblia is transmitted via infective cysts through contaminated water and is prevalent worldwide.

“Nowadays the world is very small, and people are traveling to many places,” Das said. “This kind of research will not only allow us to develop new medications, but will also inform people about this particular parasite and the disease process.”

His findings include the understanding of lipid pathways, genes and enzymes involved in cyst formation and the discovery of a signal process that can interrupt the life cycle of the cyst to be targeted by new medicines. Das and his team also have started studying bacterial flora in the small intestine to understand the nature and type of friendly bacteria we need to protect ourselves from infection by Giardia. Das and his team also are studying the role of dietary lipids in inducing breast and colon cancers. He utilizes molecular, imaging and sequencing facilities supported by the BBRC – support he said is critical to his work and invaluable to UTEP students involved with the work of the center.

“Biomedical research is usually conducted in a medical school, but our students are conducting it here and our facilities are highly competitive,” Das said.

Renato Aguilera, Ph.D., BBRC program director and director of the center’s Cytometry, Screening and Imaging Core Facility, remembers what it was like to be a student at UTEP before the research facility was built.

“The facilities were antiquated and the resources were limited,” he recalled. The El Paso native received his Bachelor of Science in microbiology and his Master of Science at UTEP but then left to get his Ph.D. in immunology from the University of California, Berkeley. He became a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and returned to UTEP in 2002 after recognizing the research potential of UTEP and the BBRC. He has witnessed UTEP’s infrastructure grow around the needs of faculty experts and has experienced the BBRC’s research impact expand beyond the border region.

“We are researching things that are important to society, not just to us scientists,” Aguilera said. His research involves anti-cancer drug discovery. The technology he utilizes in the BBRC allows him to analyze the behavior of his newly discovered drug and their effects on a variety of cancer cell types.

“Science is evolving very rapidly,” he said. “The technology is advancing to where we can do incredibly sophisticated things that we couldn’t do six years ago.”

While the advancements are important to researchers, Aguilera said the experience students are gaining by learning and using the state-of-the-art technology provides them with a competitive edge once they graduate. Kirken agrees and said grooming new scientists is a big part of the plans for the center’s next decade.

“You have this incredible opportunity to really work with and study a population that hasn’t received much attention to allow for discoveries, but at the same time you have the student population here at UTEP that also can benefit through research opportunities that accelerate their career path,” he said.

Kirken said those future scientists have the potential to attract new companies, contributing to economic development and a positive shift in regional healthcare.

Kirken has had a firsthand look at the current state of healthcare on the border, specifically cancer. His research has identified molecular targets to develop new drugs and his interdisciplinary partnerships have helped with the development of OncoMiner. The computer program created by and BBRC faculty member and Mathematical Science Professor Ming-Ying Leung, Ph.D., is used to analyze variants of cancer-related genes.

“I think that’s really been the exciting part is being able to work with cell models, the population and regional hospitals to be able to obtain patient samples from cancer patients that would otherwise be discarded,” Kirken said. “The amount of data we can generate from a very small sample allows us to formulate a new hypothesis to test that can ultimately lead to breakthroughs in human health.”

More about the BBRC

The BBRC has seven core facilities: Administration led by Robert Kirken, Ph.D. and Renato Aguilera, Ph.D.; Biomolecule Analysis led by Igor Almeida, Ph.D.; Community Engagement led by Bibiana Mancera, Ph.D., Kristina Mena, Ph.D.; Cytometry Screening and Imaging led by Renato Aguilera, Ph.D.; Genomics Analysis led by Kyle L. Johnson, Ph.D.; Biostatistics led Xiaogang Su, Ph.D.; and Bioinformatics led by Ming-Ying Leung, Ph.D. 

There are three research clusters representing the three focus areas of research: Infectious Diseases and Immunology led by Siddhartha Das, Ph.D., and Douglas M. Watts, Ph.D.; Neuromodulation Disorders led by Kyung-An Han, Ph.D.; and Toxicology and Cancer led Dr. Elizabeth Walsh, Ph.D.

Anniversary symposium scheduled

The third international symposium Health Disparities: from Molecules to Disease is scheduled for September 17-19, 2017