The University of Houston Magazine

From Bench to Bedside

UH Health Opens Door to Hidden Treasures on Campus.

by Lisa K. Merkl (’92, M.A. ’97)

Picture this – capturing an image of an embryonic heart as it begins to beat, tracking cancer tissue as you move, using your skin cells to repair heart attack damage. These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to life-altering research at the University of Houston.

It’s no secret that there is a buzz surrounding UH in its quest for Tier One, yet some buried gems are beginning to emerge as the university launches its UH Health initiative.

You wouldn’t necessarily count mathematicians, mechanical engineers and computer scientists among the usual suspects in medical breakthroughs, but they are contributing right alongside biologists, optometrists and pharmacists at UH to advance biomedical discoveries in Houston and across the globe.

In addition to the cadre of longtime UH researchers garnering increasingly more attention for their groundbreaking strides in health research, the university has strategically hired additional renowned professionals to join the UH Health team.


Biomed Engineering Student“It requires a global vision to achieve our goals. We must co-invent, co-produce and co-mentor with leading health care institutions, providers and industry to generate leaders in the field of health care science, engineering and technology,” says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Chair in Biomedical Imaging Sciences and founding chair of UH’s new department of biomedical engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering. “Tier One is a mindset, where every level — students, faculty, staff and administration — focus on excellence, quality and scholarship. We are fortunate to have the right leadership, with Dean Joseph Tedesco and Provost John Antel in place, with a visionary chancellor.”

Biomedical engineering is just one of the cornerstones of UH Health. An emerging field, it involves both engineering as well as applied and physical science, to understand the mechanisms of biological systems and the causes of disease. This, in turn, helps researchers develop tools and therapies for treatment.

Akay lists three main “thrust areas” in biomedical engineering at UH: 1) Neural, cognitive and rehabilitation engineering includes such things as neural implants, neurochips, brain-computer interfaces, cognitive engineering and science, and neurogenesis with implications for treating epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases. 2) Biomedical imaging focuses on molecular, cellular and clinical imaging toward therapeutics in cardiac and neurological imaging. 3) Genomics and proteomics involve gene regulatory networks, systems and synthetic biology, and intelligent drug design and delivery, with the treatment of cancer as its main focus.

“Our department is going to be very health care oriented, and the focus will be to discover, develop and deliver. Every dissertation coming out of this department will have these themes,” Akay says. “The idea is to produce solutions to reduce health care costs, as well as focus on return on investment. That’s the difference between our department and the more than 90 others in the United States.”

Arriving at UH in January of this year, Akay is embracing the challenge of converting the college’s longstanding biomedical program into a department. In addition to increasing the department’s visibility, he anticipates adding as many as 12 faculty in the next five years, creating a distinguished lecture series, offering a Ph.D. option on top of the existing bachelor’s and master’s degree tracks, and stimulating research collaborations with the Texas Medical Center (TMC).


Akay was selected and inducted this year into the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an honor he shares with Stuart Dryer, John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Biology and Biochemistry and biology department chair. Each year, AAAS honors those who have made distinguished contributions to the advancement of science and is the world’s largest general scientific society, as well as publisher of the prominent journal Science.

Being named an AAAS fellow is one of the top honors a scientist can achieve and demonstrates the growing recognition within the scientific community that UH is a world-class center for research and education. “This recognition helps put the Tier-One aspirations of UH into focus for the community. I think we have several faculty deserving of this honor. By my estimation, UH is Tier One, we just need to demonstrate it,” says B. Montgomery “Monte” Pettitt, (’75, Ph.D. ’80), Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair of Chemistry and professor of physics, computer science, biology and chemistry. Pettitt also is an AAAS fellow. Dryer adds, “UH’s growing cadre of AAAS fellows is an indicator that the university is headed rapidly toward Tier-One status. UH provides an environment where scientists can be successful at the highest level, and I think we’ll have more AAAS fellows in the coming years.”


Biomed StudentAnother sign of such strides is the increasing number of collaborative centers. Playing a prominent role in the Institute for Biomedical Imaging Science — a research partnership formed by UH, The Methodist Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College, Akay also has his eye on creating another institute. He plans to build the Institute of Global Health Care, which he says will partner with several international institutes, including the Chinese Academy of Science, several respected European research institutions and leading biomedical and science industry partners.

“Developments in science, engineering and technology have stimulated interdisciplinary research and collaborations among engineers, physicians, computer scientists and biologists,” he says. “We are in the midst of these scientific and technological advancements, and it is an exciting time to be in the biomedical field.”

Echoing that sentiment, Dr. Jan-Åke Gustafsson, who leads the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling (CNRCS) in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, agrees that bridges are already actively being built between UH and the Texas Medical Center.

“It is extremely good that UH is now formally part of the medical center, so it’s easier for us to come in as insiders when we talk about collaboration and shared core facilities. I have given many seminars in the medical center, and people seem to be interested in what we are doing, helping us build up key contacts and create new collaborations. We have fantastic opportunities with the excellent clinical possibilities and research there,” Gustafsson says. Gustafsson cites three major collaborative TMC opportunities already in progress with The Methodist Hospital Research Institute, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine. Holding joint appointments with all three, Gustafsson, who has both a Ph.D. and an M.D., says the activity with Methodist is especially active and focuses on both basic science and the buildup of spin-off companies based on their collaborative activities.

“All these affiliations open doors, and we are successively building up more and more collaborations,” he says. “There are also fantastic opportunities within UH where we, as biologists, have the opportunity to interact with and draw upon the possibilities with other scientists in chemistry, computational science, psychology and pharmaceutical sciences.”


Dr. Jan-Ake Gustafsson and research teamWorking toward achieving these goals, both externally and internally, Gustafsson’s UH center offers weekly meetings (every Friday at 1 p.m.) where speakers are invited from within and outside the university — making sure to bring in UH researchers from other departments and disciplines across campus.

Gustafsson also operates under the philosophy that “everyone has a voice.” He says, “We really put this into action, building up the self-confidence of students, postdocs and faculty by listening. To make a good, publishable, competitive study, you must work with other disciplines, with other people, with other ideas. In a sense, the center is the ultimate consequence of this principle, and everything goes toward team science.”

Researchers in Gustafsson’s group can attest that he pays homage to these words. With five faculty already in place, performing active research, and more in various stages of the interviewing and hiring process, the center only has four slots left of their 12 openings in just over a year’s time, since his arrival at UH. His team is on the cutting edge of diagnoses and treatment of lung, brain, prostate and breast cancer and metabolic conditions like diabetes and obesity, as well as neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“It is extremely good that UH is now formally part of the medical center, so it’s now easier for us to come in as insiders ...”

— Jan-Åke Gustafsson
Director, Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling
College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Maria Bondesson, research assistant professor, and Weihua John Zhang, assistant professor, are two of the researchers working with Gustafsson. Bondesson, whose aim is to link pollutants to common diseases, says they have “already been given the opportunity to accomplish so much and can only imagine what [they] will be able to do once more of the team is in place.” John Zhang, whose work includes controlling cancer cells’ “appetites” to stop tumor metastasis, adds, “Each group is working very actively, from postdocs to faculty to researchers, and there are scientists working around the clock and every weekend in the lab. The pulse in the lab never stops.”

Two other key scientists at the CNRCS are Cecilia Williams, assistant professor, and Xiaoliu Shaun Zhang, professor. Williams’ research involves analyzing stem cells, comparing cancer cells to healthy cells, to identify new treatment possibilities. As a virologist, Shaun Zhang develops novel cancer therapeutics to “turn killer to cure” by modifying a benign human virus to destroy tumor cells without harming normal ones.


As if this weren’t groundbreaking enough, construction has been approved on a 167,000-square-foot, six-story Health and Biomedical Sciences Center (HBSC) on the other side of campus from the interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Research Complex where Gustafsson and Akay do their work. In addition to expanding what the College of Optometry has to offer, coming together in this facility also will be two other of UH’s esteemed research units — the Texas Institute for Measurement Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES) and the Texas Learning and Computation Center (TLC2).

“The Health and Biomedical Sciences Center will be a truly integrated cross-disciplinary research facility that will incorporate researchers from the colleges of Optometry, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Engineering, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Pharmacy,” says David Francis (M.A. ’84, Ph.D ’85), Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair of Psychology and TIMES director. “The vision involves creating a space where researchers from psychology, neuroscience, statistics, computer science, engineering, health law and human health and performance, who have related interests in complex systems, will be able to collaborate more easily and readily on projects that are interdisciplinary. It goes beyond traditional colleges working together.”

Francis is spearheading the effort to bring together the people from these diverse groups. Disciplines set for relocation to this building upon its completion include faculty from computer science, neuroscience, biology and biochemistry, psychology, biomedical engineering, pharmacy, neurocomputing and neuropsychology. By bringing together researchers across these various areas of expertise in the same physical location, Francis says they “can create something that’s more than just the sum of its parts, more of a synergy to create new things.” With many of these researchers working on related problems, bringing them together creates opportunities for them to better interact.

He also stresses the importance of training students and future researchers both at the undergraduate and graduate level in these laboratories. The interactive facilities HBSC will offer are the kinds of work environments students will find themselves in when they graduate. By training students in such a manner, they will be better equipped to go into the workforce and be successful.

Francis’ group, TIMES, is essential to this group of complex systems professionals with its measurement, evaluation and statistical work. By moving to HBSC, they hope to offer more biostatistical support to their colleagues related to medicine, health and clinical intervention, including clinical trials. This, for instance, could assist computer scientists in their complex imaging studies in terms of processing data one way or another, with certain approaches leading to better results and less errors. Their processes in TIMES can help design treatments and test them for their effectiveness by examining large-scale databases and looking for information about connections between disease pathways and genes that might relate.

“Just imagine the possibilities when you can put together psychologists who study human behavior when it gets disordered, computational scientists and engineers who design image systems for looking inside the heart and neuroscientists who study how cells talk to each other in the brain,” Francis says. “These integrated collaborations ultimately will lead to more and better opportunities for center grants and program project grants coming out of UH.”


Dr. ZouridakisAnother aspect of the HBSC is the expanded capabilities for the College of Optometry, which will include an ambulatory surgery center on the first floor. Its two components will include a place for outpatient ophthalmic procedures like cataract surgery and another for laser-refractive surgery, better known as LASIK. The second floor will be devoted to labs for patient-based research, classrooms, and faculty and graduate student offices.

“We see health and biomedical research as an area of tremendous opportunity, given both our own campus talent pools, as well as the resources from the Texas Medical Center,” says Earl Smith (’72, M.S. ’75, Ph.D. ’78), College of Optometry dean and Greeman-Petty Professor. “With the new facility, we will offer expanded services to our patients, create enhanced educational experiences for our students and establish important research collaborations with other scientists that will ultimately impact vision and its care for future generations. We expect groundbreaking in the fall of 2010, followed by about two years of construction.”

“Tier One is a mindset, where every level — students, faculty, staff, and administration — focus on excellence, quality and scholarship.”

—Metin Akay Chair, Department of Biomedical Engineering
Cullen College of Engineering

Also included in HBSC will be improved core facilities that are crucial to the neurosciences, 60 percent of which is vision related. According to Smith, most of what they do in optometry is neuroscience, an area which is actually “the heart and soul of campus collaborations” by his estimation. These new facilities also will put neuroscience labs, both in and out of optometry, closer to where they need to be. The desire to create these singular facilities, with common equipment that can be shared, will provide more cost-effective solutions and permanent, better design to accommodate research needs. Scientists will be closer to the resources they need rather than being spread out across campus in individual labs, sometimes duplicating efforts and equipment that would be better served by teamwork, collaboration and sharing. Smith says it will improve efficient use of space and resources.

One researcher who will benefit from these improved neuroscience facilities is George Zouridakis (M.S. ’90, Ph.D. ’94), Biomedical Imaging Lab director at TLC2 and professor of technology. Among other projects, Zouridakis and his colleagues are developing noninvasive brain-mapping technology that promises to deliver more comprehensive and accurate insights into the mind at a fraction of the cost of current technologies.

“The typical approach currently used for brain mapping is functional magnetic resonance imaging (or MRI), which is expensive, confined in one place and requires a shielded room due to strong magnetic fields, as well as requiring specialized personnel to maintain and operate,” Zouridakis says. “Our technology aims to eliminate such obstacles — allowing us to study both electrical and metabolic activities at the same time and improve patient benefits.”

He hopes that the combination of electroencephalography and near infrared spectroscopy in a very portable device one day will help more accurately diagnose brain damage in hospitals and on the battlefield, leading to rapid assessment of traumatic brain injury. The two tests he combines are usually done on patients separately, so using the technologies together requires special headgear to house the disparate sensors. This special device, however, will allow researchers to measure all aspects from the different tests in a simultaneous, complementary manner.

Before coming to UH, Zouridakis was a faculty member at The University of Texas Medical School and performed with neurophysiological procedures in operating rooms. He enjoys working in an interdisciplinary environment. With his translational research in computational biomedicine and biomedical imaging, his hope is to see the current invasive and expensive gold-standard procedures used in clinical neurophysiology for brain mapping replaced by completely noninvasive ones. This will improve the quality of life of patients and, at the same time, reduce the cost of health care delivery.


Metin AkayTwo major milestones that are helping drive this grand UH Health initiative are UH’s induction into the Texas Medical Center as an official member institution and the appointment of Kathryn Peek (M.S. ’70) to spearhead the ambitious health strategies at UH. The decision resulting in UH’s inclusion into the medical center was a culmination of several years of discussion between the two organizations and is a critical step in developing strong educational and research collaborations to benefit the Houston community. With the College of Pharmacy having been a member for 30 years, the opportunity for UH in its entirety to be recognized in this manner has been a long time in coming. Not only will it formalize existing collaborations between TMC and UH, but it also will open the floodgates to new partnerships, resources and training that fall in line with UH’s growing interdisciplinary research efforts as it gains on Tier-One status.

Peek, a biomedical educator and administrator with 25 years of experience in the Texas Medical Center, serves as assistant vice president of University Health Initiatives. Charged with coordinating UH System health initiatives in the areas of research, as well as educational and clinical programs, she works with internal and external stakeholders. In this quest, she is identifying and creating new cross-disciplinary academic and health-related research opportunities for faculty and students.

“You can sense a buzz across the university about health-related programs and projects, and a number of people want to get involved. That translates directly into new health-related programs, new degrees that are under development and new opportunities across the entire university system,” Peek says. “The next generation of health programs for UH will not be limited by boundaries of colleges and departments, but will be truly interdepartmental and interdisciplinary. UH Health will not just build bridges within UH, but across to other universities in our system, to the Texas Medical Center and beyond.”