President's Research Council presents three researcher awards

The President's Research Council is presenting its 2004 Distinguished Young Researcher Award to three exceptional scientists at UT Southwestern.

The three recipients - Dr. Michelle Gill, assistant professor of pediatrics; Dr. Leighton James, assistant professor of internal medicine in nephrology; and Dr. Matthew Porteus, assistant professor of pediatrics and biochemistry - each received a $60,000 award at the council's annual dinner June 1. This was the first time three researchers were chosen for the honor.

"We had an unusually large number of excellent applicants this year, and we had additional funds, so we were able to give out three awards," said Dr. Kern Wildenthal, UT Southwestern president.

Dr. Michelle Gill
Dr. Gill is studying how a common childhood respiratory infection affects the immune system. Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is the No. 1 cause of lower respiratory infections in children under 1 year of age. As there is neither a cure nor a vaccine, the infection can arise again through out life. Dr. Gill is interested in how the virus may alter the function of a specific immune cell, thereby affecting the chain of command in the immune response to the virus.

"Since RSV infection occurs repeatedly throughout life and is associated with the development of asthma in some individuals, it appears that the immune response to RSV infection is not completely effective and is sometimes actually deleterious," Dr. Gill said. "We're curious to see how dendritic cells, cells responsible for directing immune responses, are affected by RSV infection.

"We are investigating whether proteins made by dendritic cells are altered by RSV infection and how this may impact subsequent development of an effective immune response."

Dr. Gill completed her M.D. and Ph.D. at Louisiana State University and a pediatrics residency at Arkansas Children's Hospital.

Dr. Leighton James
Dr. James is studying a specific pathway that leads to kidney damage in people with diabetes. In diabetics, high levels of glucose in the blood lead to insulin resistance. Over time, many tissues, including the kidney, are damaged due to nonutilized glucose. Dr. James has discovered that overstimulation of the hexosamine pathway, in which glucose is converted to a different molecule, leads to increased activity of inflammatory and injury pathways in the kidney.

"What we are trying to do is model kidney damage by glucose toxicity as is seen in patients with diabetes," said Dr. James. "Under standing how [the hexosamine] pathway leads to tissue injury will help us delineate the complex events that occur during kidney disease in diabetics."

Dr. James received his M.D. at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine and completed fellowships both in Toronto and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

Dr. Matthew Porteus
Dr. Porteus is developing gene-therapy techniques for diseases such as sickle cell anemia.  Sickle cell is an inherited disease in which blood cells become improperly shaped due to a mutation in the protein hemoglobin.  These misshapen blood cells can clog blood vessels, often causing frequent pain episodes, low blood count, early mortality and lifelong suffering.

Dr. Porteus has established a rapid technique by which a mutation in a gene can be specifically corrected by swapping the mutation, or irregular sequence, with the normal sequence.

"Most gene therapy models involve markers that take a long time to show up," Dr. Porteus said. "Our technique reduces that time from two weeks to two or three days. The long-term goal of the lab is to identify a patient with sickle cell, isolate the blood cell precursors, correct the mutant gene and reinfuse the precursors, which can then form healthy red blood cells."

Dr. Porteus received his M.D. and Ph.D. from Stanford University and completed a fellowship at Children's Hospital in Boston.

The Distinguished Young Researcher Awards are presented annually by the President's Research Council, which is made up of community leaders interested in learning about and advancing medical research at UT Southwestern.

Its membership fees support research by new faculty investigators. Council members are invited to attend four lectures a year by leading researchers at UT Southwestern as well as an annual banquet honoring young researcher awardees. For membership information, contact the Office of Development at 214-648-2344.


Media contact: Megha Satyanarayana