South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute Awarded First NIH Grant

NIH Grant

Dr. John Blangero (right), Director of the Genomics Computing Center at the STDOI and Interim Director of Neurosciences at the UTRGV School of Medicine, stands with bioinformatician Dr. Marcio Almeida (left) next to part of a 10,000 processor high performance computer cluster named Medusa.

HARLINGEN, TEXAS – MAY 7, 2015 - The South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute (STDOI) at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has received its first major grant award from the National Institutes of Health.

The South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute was established as a major research center to advance research of diabetes and obesity, develop better treatments and ultimately improve the health of residents in South Texas and beyond.

“This exciting and generous grant award from the National Institutes of Health exemplifies the significant funding that UTRGV’s cutting-edge research programs will generate as the university strives for Tier 1 status,” said Dr. Francisco Fernandez, inaugural dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine. “Support of this caliber also catalyzes our mission at the School of Medicine, allowing us to focus our research on addressing the critical health care needs of the Rio Grande Valley.”

Dr. John Blangero, director of the Genomics Computing Center at the STDOI and interim director of neurosciences at the UTRGV School of Medicine, has received an award of $4 million from the National Institute of Mental Health for a four-year project to search for genes influencing psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.

“Psychiatric diseases are major public health burdens with a global economic cost approaching $100 million per day,” Blangero said. “The biological causes of these mental disorders remain poorly understood, which has limited the range of available treatments.”

By identifying genes influencing the risk for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, the study will provide novel insights into the biological determinants of these diseases, improving the potential for intervention and treatment. 

“Diabetes is known to be correlated with risk for depression, so the results of the study will have implications for the future treatment of diabetes and its correlated disorders,” Blangero said.

The project involves sequencing the entire genomes of more than 2,000 individuals in families in which these disorders are present. The families were sampled from around the world and include participants from South Texas, Pennsylvania, Australia, Costa Rica and Scotland. After obtaining the vast sequence data containing information on the more than 3 billion DNA base pairs for each individual, Blangero and colleagues at the STDOI will employ advanced statistical methods that they have developed to exhaustively search the genomes for genes that can explain the variation in disease risk within and between families.

STDOI Director Sarah Williams-Blangero notes, “This important research program will rely on the unique resources that have been developed by the STDOI. The state-of-the-art molecular genetics laboratories and computing facilities built at STDOI’s site on the UT Brownsville/Texas Southmost College campus will be critical for the successful completion of the project.”

These intensive analyses will be performed on the new 10,000-processor, high-performance computer cluster named Medusa. Other STDOI scientists working on the project include molecular geneticist Dr. Joanne Curran, statistical geneticist Dr. Laura Almasy, and Dr. Marcio Almeida, a bioinformatician.

The STDOI was founded in October 2014 to provide a flagship world-class research program for the UTRGV School of Medicine and to study diseases of great public health consequence to the Rio Grande Valley.  Founding Director, Dr. Sarah Williams-Blangero, has rapidly assembled a team of world leaders in the genetics of complex diseases who will bring in approximately $15 million in NIH-funded research dollars to the institute this year. To date, 20 STDOI scientists have been recruited.

The international collaboration supported by STDOI’s first grant award involves two additional NIMH grants separately awarded to researchers at Yale University (led by Dr. David Glahn) and the University of Pennsylvania (led by Dr. Raquel Gur). Investigators at the Universities of Pittsburgh (led by Dr. Vishwajit Nimgaonkar), Costa Rica (led by Dr. Henrietta Raventos), Edinburgh (led by Dr. Andrew McIntosh), and Western Australia (led by Dr. Assen Jablensky), and at the intramural research program of the National Institute for Mental Health (led by Dr. Francis McMahon), also will participate in the project.

Related Article:
UTRGV recruits 22-person research team to establish South Texas Diabetes & Obesity Institute


Marci Caltabiano Ponce
UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications 

Jennifer McGehee-Valdez
UTRGV Director of Public Relations