With the support of the Division of Research, the HEALTH Research Institute
(HRI) awarded 2 pilot project grants to expand the HRI’s membership and work in the area of basic biomedical science. These proposals were rigorously reviewed by HRI staff, fellows, and affiliates, and selected as the top meritorious projects with potential to have a significant impact on health challenges faced by our communities. The new FY20 HRI pilot grant awardees are:
Dr. Fatima Merchant, Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Technology at the University of Houston College of Technology. Dr. Merchant’s study, titled Investigating efficacy of epigenetic therapy in ovarian cancer, aims to utilize an innovative biomaterial-based substrate to evaluate the in vitro efficacy of epigenetic treatments for epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC) by providing a 3D microenvironment and critical mechanistic cues that regulate epigenetic modifications. This project has significant potential to benefit women’s health by addressing EOC through improved understanding of the underlying drivers of metastasis; and development of successful epigenetic based therapy for ovarian cancers thereby reducing mortality and providing significant healthcare savings. The study will determine key mechanistic and microenvironmental factors involved in response of EOC cells to epigenetic treatment by investigating the role of biophysical factors in epigenetic treatment, and comparing treated and untreated cells on Dr. Merchant’s substrates versus conventional 3D culture methods. The project team includes co-investigator Dr. Wanda Wosik of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and collaborator Dr. Lewis Francis of Swansea University College of Medicine.
Dr. Michihisa Umetani, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry and Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Dr. Umetani’s study, titled Role of 27-hydroxycholestrol, the endogenous SERM that links cholesterol metabolism and estrogen receptor signaling, in adipose tissue function, will investigate how 27- hydroxycholesterol (27HC), the most abundant cholesterol metabolite in human circulation, modulates adipose (fat) tissue. High level of cholesterol is a well-recognized risk factor for obesity; however, how cholesterol induces obesity is not clearly understood. Dr. Umetani’s group found that 27HC increased body fat content and also induced adipose tissue inflammation by changing the activity of receptors for estrogen. Since levels of 27HC correlate with cholesterol levels, 27HC may be involved, at least in part, in obesity caused by high cholesterol levels. Also, lowering 27HC may lead to a new therapeutic approach to reduce diet-induced obesity by targeting 27HC. Dr. Umetani’s team will perform comprehensive analysis of adipose tissues to test the hypothesis that 27HC directly affects adipose tissues and induces adipose tissue inflammation. The project team includes co-investigator Dr. Yang Zhang of the University of Houston Department of Pharmacological and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and collaborator Dr. Preethi Gunaratne of the University of Houston Department of Biology and Biochemistry.
Since 2016, the HRI has been addressing health challenges faced by our communities by leveraging transdisciplinary team science to provide innovative, empirically-grounded, culturally-informed and community embedded solutions. The awards above represent results from the second round of our basic biomedical science call for pilot research applications. Together with those of the prior awardees, these new projects will strategically advance our Institute’s goals while positioning us to pursue Research Center of Excellence funding opportunities. Visit the HRI website for updates and additional information!