Baylor recognizes research excellence with DeBakey Awards
Baylor College of Medicine faculty are honored annually through the Michael E. DeBakey M.D. Award for Excellence in Research for their outstanding published scientific contributions to clinical and basic science research over a three-year period.
The 2020 recipients of the DeBakey Research Awards are Dr. Christine Eng, professor of molecular and human genetics; Dr. Dennis Villareal, professor of medicine – endocrinology diabetes and metabolism; Dr. Grzegorz Ira, professor of molecular and human genetics; Dr. Jeannie Chin, associate professor of neuroscience; and Dr. Yong Xu, associate professor of pediatrics and of molecular and cellular biology.
“Their work truly represents the breadth and depth of research at Baylor College of Medicine – from the diagnosis and treatment of genetic diseases through the Undiagnosed Disease Network to the study of how neurons in the hypothalamus regulate appetite in mammals and impact obesity and diabetes. We are thrilled to be able to honor these outstanding scientists and physicians and are very proud of their work,” said Dr. Paul Klotman, Baylor president, CEO and executive dean.
The awards, named in honor of pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, the first president of Baylor College of Medicine, and sponsored by the DeBakey Medical Foundation, include a commemorative medallion and funds to support further research.
This year, the awards are presented virtually and include a video research presentation by each recipient, along with an introduction by Dr. Mary Dickinson, vice president and dean of research and the Kyle and Josephine morrow Endowed chair in molecular physiology and biophysics at Baylor.
View award videos and information about the winners.
Christine Eng, M.D.
Professor of molecular and human genetics
Chief quality officer, vice president and chief medical officer of Baylor Genetics
Eng’s main research interests are the development and application of molecular genetics with a goal to find diagnostics and treatments for genetic diseases. Her work has rapidly translated into benefits for patients and introduced positive changes into the practice of medicine.
An example of this is the Undiagnosed Disease Network sequencing core of which she serves as principle investigator. Fifty eight percent of patients working with the UDN have received a diagnosis that led to a positive change in their medical care.
Her work has contributed to the development and clinical implementation of several innovative genetic diagnostic tests that are now considered part of routine clinical care, such as prenatal chromosome microarray analysis and whole exome sequencing. One such test is a novel non-invasive prenatal assay that can detect new variants in 30 severe autosomal dominant disorders. This is the only such clinical test available in the U.S. and represents a landmark in genomic medicine.
Dennis Villareal, M.D.
Professor of medicine in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism
Villareal’s work focuses on geriatrics and endocrinology. He has made major contributions to the fields of aging and obesity and has significantly influenced the care of older adults. His work highlights the value of lifestyle interventions including weight loss and exercise to improve the medical complications of obesity in older adults, an increasing population that is particularly vulnerable to adverse outcomes because of frailty.
For example, Villareal showed that weight loss plus combined aerobic and resistance training provided greater improvement in physical function and reduction of frailty in older obese adults. These types of exercises are associated with preserving muscle and bone mass, suggesting that this combination of physical activities can be recommended to protect against bone loss during weight loss therapy.
Villareal’s work has shown that functional problems associated with obesity can be addressed safely through weight loss plus combined aerobic and resistance exercise, so that older individuals with obesity may be considered for such interventions.
Grzegorz Ira, Ph.D.
Professor of molecular and human genetics
Member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center
Ira has earned recognition in the fields of DNA repair and recombination for his novel insights into basic molecular mechanisms linked to development and homeostasis and their implications for cancer and its treatment.
In the field of cancer biology, Ira’s work suggests novel strategies to optimize cancer therapy. For example, the specific nuclease inhibitor his lab identified is successfully being used by many other laboratories and working towards applications for cancer therapy.
His research has also revealed a novel mechanism that increases our understanding of basic DNA biology. He showed that pieces of DNA from one chromosome, when not properly degraded, often end up being inserted into another chromosome. Similar DNA insertions are common in cancer genomes, in processes essential to generate diverse antibodies and likely contribute to the evolution of genes and chromosomes.
Further, Ira’s findings also reveal how cells regulate the degradation of 5’ end DNA strands to maintain genome stability.
Jeannie Chin, Ph.D.
Associate professor of neuroscience
Chin’s research uses a multidisciplinary approach to better understand cellular and network mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease and seizures, as well as to identify potential therapeutic strategies for the treatment of these devastating diseases.
Chin’s lab recently published a series of papers that identify two major cellular and network mechanisms by which even infrequent seizures drive long-lasting changes in the brain. This work included identification of certain markers in the hippocampus region that could potentially help assess clinical therapies for Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases that also present with seizures.
Other recent findings from Chin and her team reveals a novel network mechanism by which recurrent seizures affective cognitive function in Alzheimer’s disease and suggests that seizures are deeply connected to the alterations in neurogenesis and cognitive functions both in Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.
Yong Xu, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate professor of pediatrics and of molecular and cellular biology
Xu’s lab investigates how neurons in the hypothalamus regulate appetite and satiety in mammals, both are issues associated with current public health concerns, such as obesity, diabetes and eating disorders.
An important piece of his recent work investigated a rare human disease, neonatal progeroid syndrome (NPS), which is characterized by loss of appetite and extreme leanness. NPS patients carry mutations that result in the loss of a hunger hormone called asprosin. The researchers identified asprosin’s mechanism of action, showing that it activates appetite-stimulating AgRP neurons and deactivates appetite-suppressing POMC neurons in the hypothalamus, which results in increased appetite. This work also provided a potential treatment strategy and highlighted the possibility that these approaches might help manage obesity.
Additional work studied the mechanism of how neurons function in male vs. female mice, revealing a new perspective on gender differences in body weight control. And another piece of the complex puzzle of body weight control examined the role of steroid receptor coactivator-1 and showed that it plays a role in the hypothalamus in the context of body weight control.