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Spring 2009
NSM Recruits Internationally Prominent Medical Researcher

By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics

A world-renowned biomedical researcher just recruited to the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics faculty could propel the University of Houston to the forefront of the battle against breast cancer, obesity, diabetes and many other diseases.

Swedish scientist Jan-Åke Gustafsson was courted by Ivy League institutions and his decision to join NSM's Department of Biology and Biochemistry generated fanfare and headlines. At a January news conference Texas Gov. Rick Perry welcomed him to UH and announced a $5.5 million grant for Gustafsson and his world-class research team.

At the news conference, UH President Renu Khator said Gustafsson would play a key role in the university's quest for flagship status.

Now, with Gustafsson's sprawling, state-of-the-art lab soon complete and his team of more than a dozen scientists almost in place, the real work has begun. His research focuses on tiny proteins inside human cells called nuclear receptors. These proteins in the cell nucleus sense and react to hormones and other small molecules.

How Nuclear Receptors Work

Activated by hormones, these receptors regulate gene expression – the process through which a cell's DNA is translated into proteins that control cell functions. In other words, by understanding the dozens of nuclear receptors in the human body and how to control them, researchers can develop treatments to prevent and fight a wide range of ailments – from cancer to heart disease.

More than 20 percent of new drugs stem from nuclear receptor research and Gustafsson is considered one of the world's leading experts in this field. His work, together with the research funding and scientists he will attract, will be the centerpiece of Khator's new health initiative – an ambitious plan to make UH a leader in biomedical research.

Essential to this initiative is strengthening research collaboration between scientists at UH and those at the Texas Medical Center. Gustafsson will head the new Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, a joint venture between UH and the Methodist Hospital Research Institute that will be the world's largest nuclear receptor research group.

UH is surrounding Gustafsson with a first-rate team and providing cutting-edge lab facilities, including an entire floor of the new Science and Engineering Research Center. By summer the group at UH will have 15 researchers, including four faculty members. Another eight faculty will be hired over the next two years.

Track Record of Breakthroughs

If Gustafsson's track record is any indication, UH is making a smart investment. In 1996 Gustafsson and his team at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden made a landmark discovery. Scientists had believed there was only one nuclear receptor in the human body activated by the estrogen hormone. This alpha receptor is believed to be carcinogenic, and some studies have suggested that the estrogen therapy given to women during menopause can increase cancer risks.

However, Gustafsson's discovery of the beta receptor, which is anti-carcinogenic, opens the door for drugs that activate only this receptor. This would allow women to avoid problems associated with estrogen deficiency (like depression and osteoporosis) without increasing their cancer risks.

Controlling the estrogen receptor can also help treat cancer. Drugs that target only the beta receptor could slow down cancerous growths, Gustafsson said. Drugs based on Gustafsson's estrogen receptor research are now in clinical trials.

Gustafsson also discovered one of two liver X receptors that regulates cholesterol and fatty acids. Drug companies currently are using this work to develop drugs to treat atherosclerosis.

Choosing UH Over Yale

His groundbreaking research has won Gustafsson, who holds both a Ph.D. and an M.D., numerous honors and accolades. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was a member of the Nobel Assembly, the group of scientists that selects the winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Despite these impressive accomplishments, Gustafsson had to look for another research home last year because – like most academics in Europe – he would have faced mandatory retirement at age 67. He was highly sought after and received an offer from Yale University, among others, but Gustafsson opted for UH.

"The opportunities here are so much bigger and there's so many good scientists to work with," Gustafsson said.

Especially attractive was the opportunity to join forces with top scientists in the Medical Center. The new center headed by Gustafsson will include John Baxter, another leading nuclear receptor researcher at Methodist Hospital and a longtime collaborator of Gustafsson's. They co-founded KaraBio, a biotechnology company to commercialize their discoveries and ensure work done in the lab impacts real patients in hospitals and doctors' offices.

This knack for translating lab research into real-world pharmaceutical solutions helped land the $5.5 million grant from the state's Emerging Technology Fund. Gustafsson's nuclear receptor project is the kind of innovative research that will enhance Texas' thriving biomedical industry, Perry said at the news conference welcoming Gustafsson to Houston.
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