Cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes are among the leading causes of death in El Paso County, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.
Researchers at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso are working to change that. Biomedical research at TTUHSC El Paso, provides a glimpse of the future of our nation’s public health issues.
Over 81% of the El Paso community is Mexican-American, and along with others of Latino background, is part of one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the country. A Brookings Institution study projects the U.S. population will be nearly 25% Latino by 2045.
However, research on health conditions affecting this broad demographic has historically lagged, and thus Latinos as a group face a high risk of chronic disease. For this reason, and as part of TTUHSC El Paso’s mission, it is vital to study genetic and environmental factors, and other influences affecting the health of the Paso del Norte’s Latino population.
Centers of Emphasis
As part of the TTUHSC El Paso Department of Molecular and Translational Medicine, the Center of Emphasis in Diabetes and Metabolism continues to grow as a hub of research in diabetes, obesity and related cardiovascular disorders, said David Cistola, M.D., Ph.D., interim vice president for research at TTUHSC El Paso.
In 2014, Dr. Cistola and his research team discovered a blood biomarker that identifies individuals with hidden risk for Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. This discovery is potentially life-saving, as it could give patients an early warning and enough time to make lifestyle changes or initiate treatment to prevent Type 2 diabetes from developing.
In 2018, Dr. Cistola was awarded a two-year grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to expand on his diabetes-screening discovery. “We have developed and patented new screening tools based on portable magnetic resonance technology,” Dr. Cistola said. “The measurements utilize a tiny drop of blood, or in some cases, the intact fingertip. These screening tools are being validated for future use in clinical settings.”
Research in the Centers of Emphasis covers a wide variety of illnesses affecting the local population, and often connections are made from one disease to another.
“As the most common and deadly complication of diabetes is cardiovascular disease, the center’s work includes some elements of that, as well,” Dr. Cistola said.
Munmun Chattopadhyay, Ph.D., a researcher in the Center of Emphasis in Diabetes and Metabolism, is bioengineering cardiac tissue in collaboration with the University of Texas at El Paso.
The three-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the International Space Station’s U.S. National Laboratory, will send “artificial mini-hearts,” as Dr. Chattopadhyay describes them, to the space station to examine how microgravity affects the function of the human heart.
Dr. Chattopadhyay and UTEP biomedical engineer Binata Joddar, Ph.D., are collaborating in their Earth-bound labs to create tiny (less than 1 millimeter thick) heart-tissue structures, known as cardiac organoids, using human stem cells and 3D bioprinting technology.
By exposing the organoids to the near-weightless environment of the orbiting space station, the researchers hope to gain a better understanding of a condition known as cardiac atrophy, which is a reduction and weakening of heart tissue.
“Cardiac atrophy and a related condition, cardiac fibrosis, is a very big problem in our community. People suffering from diseases such as diabetes, muscular dystrophy and cancer, and conditions such as sepsis and congestive heart failure, often experience cardiac dysfunction and tissue damage,” Dr. Chattopadhyay said.
Finding “SuCCCeS” in Cancer Prevention
In addition to being one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., cancer affects hundreds of El Pasoans of Hispanic descent every year. Specifically, colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates are significant in El Paso County, and screening rates are very low, leading TTUHSC El Paso researchers to study data and create programs for early intervention.
In 2017, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas awarded Navkiran Shokar, M.D., M.P.H., a three-year, $3.7 million grant to expand the Southwest Coalition for Colorectal Cancer Screening (SuCCCeS). Dr. Shokar is the interim associate dean for clinical research at the Foster School of Medicine, and director for Cancer Prevention and Control at TTUHSC El Paso.
SuCCCeS brings colorectal cancer screenings and preventive information to churches, health fairs, food pantries, low-income housing complexes, community centers and clinics serving the uninsured. The program has been added to the National Cancer Institute’s database of Research-Tested Intervention Programs, making its instructional and educational materials available to public health practitioners across the world.