Research grants target infection treatments, new cancer therapies

By Deborah Wormser

Two faculty members have received grants from UT Southwestern Medical Center’s High Risk/High Impact Research Grant Program for projects that might lead to improved cancer therapies and new viral infection treatments.

Dr. John Schoggins (left) and Dr. Thomas Carroll
Dr. John Schoggins (left) and Dr. Thomas Carroll

The grants awarded to Dr. Thomas Carroll and Dr. John Schoggins provide one year of funding for work that carries a substantial risk of failure but has the potential to greatly influence the science or practice of medicine.

Dr. Carroll, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Molecular Biology, came to UT Southwestern in 2005. Soon after his arrival, he published a study in Developmental Cell identifying the secreted glycoprotein Wnt9b as the crucial factor in the development of nephrons, which make up the functional part of the kidney. The kidney works as a filter to remove waste products and excess fluid from the body. It also performs a critical role in blood-pressure control.

With the grant, he will investigate whether a recently identified Darwinian cellular competition mechanism – in which so-called “winner cells” produce signaling chemicals that annihilate nearby “loser cells” – occurs in polycystic kidney disease (PKD).

PKD is an incurable and devastating genetic disorder that causes the kidney to grow so large and so fast that it stops working properly. Some people have described it as being like a cancer that doesn’t spread to other organs, Dr. Carroll said.

“The hypothesis is quite ‘outside the box’ and would never be funded through conventional mechanisms. However, the concept is founded in good science and, if correct, it has enormous potential within both basic and translational research,” Dr. Peter Igarashi, Chief of Nephrology, said in nominating Dr. Carroll for the grant.

“It is thrilling to have been chosen, and I feel fortunate to be at UT Southwestern where risk-taking is verbally and tangibly supported. This is an incredible honor,” said Dr. Carroll, who earned his doctorate at UT Austin and then completed postdoctoral research at Harvard University.

Dr. Schoggins, Assistant Professor of Microbiology, joined UT Southwestern in 2012 following postdoctoral research at The Rockefeller University in New York. He will use his grant to investigate why some mammals can be infected with viruses without showing disease symptoms, allowing the mammals to serve as vectors.

“Lots of wild-type mice and other rodents can harbor viruses that cause disease in humans, yet the animals show no symptoms,” he explained.

Dr. Schoggins plans to use a screening approach to look for differences in antiviral interferon effectors, which are proteins turned on by the antiviral protein interferon during the body’s immune response and are capable of interfering with viral infections. Specifically, he will study differences in the effectors of humans and those of other mammals that can be infected with viruses without showing symptoms.

“I am very pleased that our work was selected for a High Risk/High Impact grant. We now will be able to pursue studies that potentially could lead to new ways to think about treating viral infections,” Dr. Schoggins said.

“John is an expert at doing these kinds of screens as he already has carried out an impressive study on the antiviral activity of more than 380 human interferon effectors, which was published in Nature in 2011,” said Microbiology Chairman Dr. Michael Norgard, who nominated Dr. Schoggins for the grant.

To date, 45 faculty members have received grants through the High Risk/High Impact Program, which was established in 2001.

Dr. Igarashi holds the Robert Tucker Hayes Distinguished Chair in Nephrology, in Honor of Dr. Floyd C. Rector, Jr. 

Dr. Norgard holds the B.B. Owen Distinguished Chair in Molecular Research.

Dr. Schoggins is a Nancy Cain and Jeffrey A. Marcus Scholar in Medical Research, in Honor of Dr. Bill S. Vowell.

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