John VandeBerg Ph.D.

Faculty Profile Picture


South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute

School of Medicine

Office: Brownsville Campus, BROBL, Room 109;
Edinburg Campus, EREBL, Room 1.200.8
1 West University Blvd
Brownsville, TX.  78520
Phone: (956)-882-7491; (956)-665-6423


1975 Ph.D., Genetics, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
1970 B.Sc. Honors, Genetics, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
1969 B.S., Genetics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Research Focus

Genes and environment both have profound effects on the behavioral and physiological characteristics of individuals. The premise of one of the foci of Dr. VandeBerg’s research is that by identifying specific genes and environmental factors that influence physiological characteristics, and understanding the mechanisms by which they exert their individual and collective effects, we can develop new strategies for preventing and treating human diseases. Currently, this research focus is centered on the laboratory opossum model of diet-induced hypercholesterolemia. Some individuals are genetically susceptible and others are genetically resistant to this condition, which causes atherosclerosis as well as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. We have identified a mutant gene (allele 1 of ABCB4), which when present in two copies (homozygous) in an individual, inhibits cholesterol secretion from the liver into the bile, causing hypercholesterolemia. We are now working toward identifying an alternative pathway for eliminating cholesterol from the body, and variant genes that make some ABCB4 1/1 homozygotes but not others able to evade hypercholesterolemia. Dr. VandeBerg maintains has developed and maintains 20 genetic strains and stocks of laboratory opossums for this and other research programs.

Dr. VandeBerg is collaborating with Dr. John Thomas of the UTRGV Department of Biology in developing the laboratory opossum as a model for research on the pathological sequelae of Zika virus infection of juveniles and adults, as well as in embryos and fetuses. Laboratory opossums are born at the developmentally equivalent stage of a 6-week human embryo, so extra-uterine embryos and fetuses can be easily manipulated experimentally. Recent results indicate that opossums that are infected early in life can develop characteristics that resemble microcephalic human newborns whose mothers were infected with Zika virus during pregnancy. Moreover, some female opossums infected as juveniles undergo arrested development of their reproductive systems.

Another focus of Dr. VandeBerg’s research is Chagas disease, a parasitic disease (caused by infection with Trypansoma cruzi) that is common in some parts of Latin America, and is naturally present in Texas and other southern states. There is no vaccine and no highly effective drug for Chagas disease which is manifested as various forms of heart disease and often leads to death. A current project involves testing a novel vaccine in monkeys for efficacy in preventing infection after experimental infection by inoculation of the parasites. Another project involves testing three drug regimens for treating monkeys that became naturally infected while living in outdoor housing in San Antonio and identifying biomarkers that indicate whether an individual has been cleared of all parasites by the drug treatment. This project is expected to lead to improvements in assessing the efficacy of novel drugs in clinical trials with people. 
In collaboration, with Dr. Williams-Blangero, Dr. VandeBerg is also investigating in human subjects the relationship and interactions between Chagas disease and type 2 diabetes. They are determining whether becoming infected early in life with T. cruzi leads to increased risk of diabetes later in life, whether Chagas disease progression is accelerated in infected people who also have diabetes, and whether diabetes progression is accelerated in people who also are infected with T. cruzi.

Intramural Appointments

  • Member, Faculty Senate
  • Member, Graduate Committee
  • Member, Promotion, Tenure, and Appointment Committee, UTRGV School of Medicine
  • Member, Strategic Planning Committee
  • Member, Center for Vector-Borne Disease
  • Chair, STDOI Committee to Develop a Ph.D. Program in Human Genetics
  • Member, Department of Human Genetics Committee to Review Endowed Professorship Positions in Human Genetics

Extramural Appointments

  • Chair, External Advisory Board, Caribbean Primate Research Center
  • Chair, International Advisory Board, National Primate Research Center of Thailand
  • Chief Scientific Director, Better Life Better Research Foundation
  • Professor (cross appointment), Department of Pathology and Department of Cellular and Structural Biology, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio

Publication Highlights

  • Wang, Z., Hubbard, G.B., Clubb, F.J., and VandeBerg, J.L.  The laboratory opossum (Monodelphis domestica) as a natural mammalian model for human cancer research.  Int. J. Clin. Exp. Pathol. 2:286-299, 2009.
  • Chan, J., Kushwaha, R.S., Mahaney, M.C., VandeBerg, J.F., and VandeBerg, J.L.  ABCB4 mediates diet-induced hypercholesterolemia in laboratory opossums.  J. Lipid Res. 51:2922-2928, 2010. doi: 10.1194/jlr.M005553
  • VandeBerg, J.L. and Williams-Blangero, S.  The laboratory opossum.  In: R. Hubrecht and J. Kirkwood eds., The UFAW Handbook on the Care and Management of Laboratory and Other Research Animals, 8th edition.  West Sussex:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Chapter 19, 246-261, 2010.
  • Chan, J., Sharkey, F.E., Kushwaha, R.S., VandeBerg, J.F., and VandeBerg, J.L.  Steatohepatitis in laboratory opossums exhibiting a high lipemic response to dietary cholesterol and fat. Am. J. Physiol. Gastrointest. Liver Physiol. 303:G12-G19, 2012.  Also see accompanying editorial:  Farrell, G.C., and van Rooyen, D.  Liver cholesterol:  Is it playing possum in NASH?  Am. J. Physiol. Gastrointest. Liver Physiol.  303:G9-G11, 2012. doi: 10.1152/ajpgi.00415.2011

Recent Publications

Journal Articles

Collaborating Institutions

  • Drugs for Neglected Diseases, Geneva, Switzerland

  • University of Georgia

  • Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, Campo Grande, Brazil

  • Texas Biomedical Research Institute

  • "Fundação Oswaldo Cruz - FIOCRUZ, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

  • "Fundação Oswaldo Cruz - FIOCRUZ, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Yale University

  • University of Oklahoma

  • University of Western Australia

  • University of Queensland

  • Texas A&M University

  • The University of Texas El Paso

  • Wake Forest University 

  • Buenos Aires Children's Hospital "R. Gutierrez," Buenos Aires

  • INGEBI-CONCICET, Buenes Aires