Tao wins grant to study acute injuries in elderly

Federal funds aimed at encouraging physician-scientists' research efforts are financing a UT Southwestern doctor's efforts to determine how the aging process puts older burn patients at a higher risk of death than younger burn victims.

The National Institutes of Health presented a $356,400 Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award to Dr. Weike Tao, assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain management, for a three-year study on how underlying physiological changes associated with aging put the elderly at a disproportionately high risk of death after acute injuries.

He is testing the theory that substances associated with the aging process are responsible for the poor outcome of elderly burn victims. Specifically, Dr. Tao is investigating whether the overproduction of interleukin-6, a protein shown to increase with aging and acute stress, predisposes elderly patients to abnormal contraction of the heart after burn and complicating infection.

Previous data from UT Southwestern indicate burn injuries carry a disproportionately high mortality among the elderly. Understanding immunological changes associated with aging and burn injuries may lead to new treatment modalities after advances have been made in fluid resuscitation, wound excision and antibiotics.

Dr. Tao said clinicians interested in laboratory science typically lack the time and support to embark on their studies. Physician-scientists are, therefore, a "disappearing breed." The NIH's Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award gives clinicians the opportunity to establish expertise and necessary support to conduct specific studies.

"The award is a unique mechanism offered by the NIH to help physician-scientists, but it is probably underutilized by clinicians," Dr. Tao said.

Dr. Tao said the NIH selected him based on his track record, UT Southwestern's research environment and the strengths of his mentors, Drs. Jureta W. Horton, professor of surgery, Rhonda Bassel-Duby, associate professor of molecular biology, and William E. Johnston, chairman of anesthesiology and pain management and holder of the Margaret Milam McDermott Distinguished Chair in Anesthesiology and Pain Management.

"This grant is a well-deserved award for Dr. Tao that will provide him with the necessary protected time and financial support to excel in his research studies," Dr. Johnston said. "With an aging population, research in this area is critical."

Dr. Tao said UT Southwestern has world-class frontier scientists who are eager to collaborate and share their knowledge, and clinicians who wish to start a research career should take advantage of such excellent resources.