Four faculty researchers earn UT System STARs awards

In 2004, The University of Texas System Board of Regents launched the UT System Faculty Science and Technology Acquisition and Retention (STARs) program to attract and retain the best-qualified faculty and to support and enhance The University of Texas System institutions across the state. Four recent recipients of these awards will now have additional resources to advance their research.


Understanding the connection between aging and breast cancer

David Gius, MD, PhD, has received a $1.6 million UT System Faculty STARs award to support his research on aging and breast cancer.

Gius is associate director for translational research at the Mays Cancer Center and an assistant dean for research and professor of radiation oncology at UT Health San Antonio. The award will be used to purchase equipment to conduct more in-depth experiments in his laboratory at the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies.

One vital tool is the newly installed cryogenic electron microscope that can create a 3-D reconstruction of the mitochondria. This advanced equipment will allow him and other researchers to look at the connection between aging, metabolism and the development of high-risk estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.

“Very few institutions have this type of equipment, and this award will help researchers focused on aging to carry out their experiments and will enhance research collaboration between the Barshop Institute and the Mays Cancer Center,” Gius said.

In 2020, Gius was recruited to UT Health San Antonio from the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University with a $6 million Recruitment of Established Investigators Award from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Identifying the molecular mechanisms of diseases

Shaun K. Olsen, PhD, has been awarded a $1 million UT System Faculty STARs award to conduct research to better understand the molecular mechanisms of diseases and advance drug discovery efforts for treatment.

Olsen, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Structural Biology, is an investigator with UT Health San Antonio’s Mays Cancer Center, Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute and the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases. He and his research team study the molecular mechanisms of ubiquitin (Ub) and ubiquitin-like protein (UbI) signaling and their role in cancer and other human disorders.

The award allows Olsen to obtain state-of-the-art equipment for his laboratory. Advanced structural biology instrumentation in cryogenic electron microscopy, X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance will supplement the existing infrastructure at UT Health San Antonio.

Olsen, who works with the Center for Innovative Drug Discovery — a research center offered jointly by UT Health San Antonio and The University of Texas at San Antonio — said these cutting-edge resources will enhance drug discovery efforts focused on the identification of small molecules targeting Ub signaling with the potential for advancement to clinical trials and ultimately the treatment of human diseases.

“This award provides a significant boost to both the basic science and translational components of my research program,” said Olsen. In addition, the award will help Olsen establish a Center of Excellence for the Structural Biology of Human Diseases.

“The center will facilitate collaborative interactions among faculty in diverse areas of science and advance drug discovery efforts targeting cancer, metabolic and neurogenerative disorders,” Olsen said. He previously received several extramural grants, including a $4 million Recruitment of Rising Stars Award from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas in 2020.

Seeking novel immune therapies

Gang Huang, PhD, professor in the Department of Cell Systems and Anatomy and the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UT Health San Antonio, received a UT System Faculty STARs award of $1 million.

Huang’s research focuses on a wide scope of myeloid malignancies, including myelodysplastic syndromes, myeloproliferative neoplasms and acute myeloid leukemia, as they share similar mutations, according to Huang. His research also studies a class of related epigenetic enzymes affecting tumor suppression and works to develop novel immune therapies for cancer.

“This award will allow me to upgrade lab equipment and help me to recruit more pre-doctoral trainees and undergraduate students into my lab, enabling them to gain more perspectives in the fields of blood and leukemia,” said Huang. It will also support education programs that will enhance UT Health San Antonio’s competitiveness in the field of leukemia and cancer, benefiting research and patients in South Texas and beyond, he added.

Huang, who also holds the Kathryn Mays Johnson Distinguished Chair in Oncology at UT Health San Antonio, was recruited by the university in fall 2021.

Developing safer, more effective therapies for cancer

Daohong Zhou, MD, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Structural Biology at UT Health San Antonio, received a $1.4 million UT System Faculty STARs award to support drug discovery research.

In addition, Zhou was appointed director of the Center of Innovative Drug Discovery at UT Health San Antonio, which is funded by the National Cancer Institute and Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. He also is associate director for drug development for the Mays Cancer Center.

Zhou’s research focuses on developing safer and better therapies for cancer and various age-related diseases. He plans to utilize advanced drug discovery technologies to help other investigators at UT Health San Antonio translate their basic discoveries into effective therapeutics for these diseases as well.

Specifically, the award will be used to acquire new instrumentations for drug discovery research and expand capability to carry out interdisciplinary drug discovery research at multiple levels, said Zhou.

“Drug discovery research is collaborative teamwork, requiring expertise from different disciplines, such as strong biomedical research and structural biology, to identify and validate targets,” said Zhou.


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