Supporting a new generation of scientists

Kexin Xu, Ph.D.

Kexin Xu, Ph.D., seeks to understand the link between cancer and metabolic disease. She was one of three junior faculty members in the School of Medicine awarded $450,000 by the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund.

Vaccines work because they teach the body to remember—and attack—a particular disease. So Elizabeth Leadbetter, Ph.D., is studying how to enhance the immune system’s memory to identify and attack a disease such as cancer.

Lipid-containing nanoparticles activate B cells and natural killer T (NKT) cells to work together to amplify the body’s memory of the invading disease. If she can harness this process, the body’s memory of the invading disease could be enhanced, which could lead to the detection of precancerous changes in the body and prevent the spreading of the disease, Dr. Leadbetter believes.

“This funding will allow me to apply an approach I had been using to develop a vaccine for an infectious pathogen and apply the same idea to developing an anti-cancer treatment,” said Dr. Leadbetter, associate professor of microbiology and immunology. “If this is as successful as I hope, it should lead to a completely new direction for my lab and will eventually help to make us competitive for other funding opportunities in the cancer arena. I am eager to see if our approach can make a lasting impact in the area of cancer immunotherapy.”

Dr. Leadbetter was one of three junior faculty members in the School of Medicine selected to receive $450,000 over the next three years from the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund. The money will be used to develop innovative lines of research to make preliminary discoveries that may result in attracting National Institutes of Health-funded research to the city. Xiao-Dong Li, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology, and Kexin Xu, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular medicine, were also recipients of $450,000 to advance their work.

“Voelcker Fund awards help junior scientists to establish a track record of success,” said William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP, university president. “The focus of our awards in 2016 is cancer, a disease that is, in its complexity, a thousand diseases.”

Dr. Li’s research focuses on the DNA of tumors. He has discovered a molecular pathway the immune system uses to recognize and attack abnormal DNA. A vaccine to boost this pathway could be very effective in fighting cancerous tumors, in addition to fending off viral threats, he said.

Dr. Xu seeks to understand the link between cancer and metabolic disease such as obesity and diabetes. She focuses on epigenetics, the study of biological processes that switch genes on and off without altering the genetic code itself. Epigenetic changes may be prompted by the environment, diet, stress, aging and other factors.

“The Voelcker Fund is impressed with the quality of the investigators and their research,” said Banks M. Smith, a Voelcker trustee. “We know strides will be made to help find cures for cancer.”

Since 2007, the Voelcker Fund has given more than $18 million to the university. In addition to the Young Investigator Awards, the fund also supports other university initiatives, such as the Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy, which provides an immersive biomedical research education and college preparatory program for San Antonio-area high school students.

Dr. Leadbetter pointed out that in a time of declining government support for scientific research, funding by philanthropies such as the Voelcker Fund is vital.

“Without it,” she said, “we could lose an entire generation of scientists.”

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