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Institute of Molecular Medicine Announces Recent Endowment Appointments
Caskey and Wetsel plan to use funds on Alzheimer's and pulmonary disease research
Two recent endowment appointments at The Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM) will allow C. Thomas Caskey, M.D., and Rick A. Wetsel, Ph.D., to further advance their respective research programs on neurodegenerative and lung diseases.
C. Thomas Caskey, M.D.
George and Cynthia Mitchell Distinguished Chair in Neurosciences
Caskey, director and chief executive officer of the IMM, has been named the George and Cynthia Mitchell Distinguished Chair in Neurosciences.
George P. Mitchell, widely known as the visionary who created The Woodlands, established the endowment in 2003 with a $1 million gift to the New Frontiers Campaign, the fundraising effort in support of the IMM that helped build the Fayez S. Sarofim Research Building in which many IMM researchers are housed. The endowment's purpose is to support neurodegenerative research at the IMM, which is part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
Support from the Mitchell chair will help Caskey develop a stronger neuroscience research program at the IMM, with a concentration on studying Alzheimer's disease - a progressive and irreversible neurological disorder.
"The future is to build a very strong neurodegenerative program focusing on Alzheimer's at the IMM," Caskey said, adding that funding will be used for recruitment and establishment of new faculty members.
"We have a plethora of senior and young international investigators who have applied for those positions. By the first quarter of the coming year, our objective is to identify both senior and junior investigators to add to the neuroscience program that already exists at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston under the direction of Dr. John Byrne, Dr. James Grotta and Dr. Jerry Wolinsky," Caskey said. The IMM program will be in addition to the three doctors' medical school activities, and each will participate in the interview and selection of the leaders for the new program.
"The Mitchell chair is very important because George Mitchell has been such a leader in funding medical research in the Houston-Galveston area," Caskey said. "Alzheimer's is an area of particular interest to him. As holder of the endowed Mitchell chair, I will use the funds appropriately toward leading the development of the new phase of neuroscience research at the IMM."
Caskey's appointment to the endowed Mitchell chair is fitting, given his extensive background in the neurosciences. His past discoveries have included cloning and identification of the disease genes for several neurological disorders, including Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, Fragile X, myotonic dystrophy, ataxia, and macular degeneration.
His neurological drug expertise extends to Alzheimer's disease from his earlier senior vice presidency for drug development at Merck Research Laboratories.
"During the time I was at Merck, I had oversight on the development of the assays, compound identification and medicinal chemical evolution for the secretase classes of enzymes, which are now in clinical trials for Alzheimer's therapy," Caskey said. "At EnVivo Pharmaceuticals, I serve on the board charged with developing their learning enhancement drug. Within the Institute of Molecular Medicine, we have our first therapy program for Alzheimer's, which targets removal of beta-amyloid by the use of monoclonal antibodies and explores a vaccine strategy for the same purpose."
Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's, advances in research over the years have improved the quality of life for those suffering from the disease.
Founder and former chair of Mitchell Energy and Development, Mitchell is a generous philanthropist who has donated to other causes in support of Alzheimer's disease research, including The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Baylor College of Medicine.
Rick A. Wetsel, Ph.D.
William S. Kilroy, Sr., Chair in Pulmonary Disease
Wetsel said he was "pleased and honored" when he learned of his new appointment to the William S. Kilroy Sr., Chair in Pulmonary Disease, which was created in 2002 through a $500,000 gift to the New Frontiers Campaign from the William S. and Lora Jean Kilroy Foundation.
Lora Jean "Jeanie" Kilroy, trustee of the Kilroy foundation, named the endowment in honor of her late husband, William S. Kilroy Sr., who passed away in 1999 from emphysema. Mr. Kilroy founded the Kilroy Company of Texas, an oil exploration and production company.
Through this gift, Wetsel hopes to unlock the mysteries of lung disease at the cellular and molecular level.
"Mrs. Kilroy's gift will greatly facilitate our research efforts," said Wetsel, professor in immunology and autoimmune diseases and director of the Laboratory for Developmental Biology, IMM, and professor at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
Wetsel's research focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms of chronic and acute lung diseases that are caused by allergic and infectious pathogens and environmental toxins. A secondary aim is to develop molecular and cellular therapeutics to treat lung diseases, such as emphysema and asthma, and repair damaged lung tissue.
"One of our major accomplishments this past year has been in regenerative therapy where we developed a procedure to generate a pure population of lung alveolar epithelial type II cells from human embryonic stem cells," Wetsel said. "These cells show promise as a source of new lung cells that could be used to repair damaged lung tissue caused by emphysema and other chronic lung pathologies, as well as to treat genetic diseases that affect the lung such as cystic fibrosis and surfactant protein deficiencies."
Wetsel noted that regenerative cell strategy holds promise for treating childhood and adult lung disease.
Funding from the endowment will enhance Wetsel's research to find better ways to treat chronic lung diseases and assist in the training of junior investigators.
Lora Jean Kilroy, a member of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Development Board, is an active community volunteer and philanthropist. She has given her time and talent to many worthy causes, such as The Women's Home, Assistance League of Houston, and the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). In 1999, the South Texas chapter of the CCFA named her Fundraising Volunteer of the Year.
Because of support from donors like Kilroy and Mitchell, research at the IMM will continue to move forward as Caskey and Wetsel search for the root causes of disease and pave the way for better treatments and therapies, according to Giuseppe Colasurdo, M.D., dean of the UT Medical School.
"I applaud these well-deserved honors for Drs. Caskey and Wetsel," said Colasurdo, who recently was named to the H. Wayne Hightower Distinguished Professorship. "The scientific pursuit of these two great researchers will help the health science center bring to fruition more bench-to-bedside innovations."
By Camille Webb, for Institutional Advancement
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