Baylor College of Medicine celebrates 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 2021 recipients of the DeBakey Research Awards are Dr. Benjamin Deneen, Dr. Hana El Sahly, Dr. Fasiha Kanwal, Dr. Nuo Li, and Dr. Zheng Sun.
“Their work truly represents the breadth and depth of research at Baylor College of Medicine,” said Dr. Paul Klotman, Baylor president, CEO and executive dean. “We are proud to honor the leading research at the College each year through the DeBakey Research Awards, and this year we are pleased to be able to honor them at a small in-person ceremony as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The five researchers were recognized and presented their work at a small in-person ceremony on Tuesday, Oct. 5.
The awards, named in honor of pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Michael E. 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.
“It’s a privilege to celebrate the legacy of innovation in research and medicine set forth by Dr. DeBakey by recognizing the notable achievements made by these talented faculty,” said Dr. Mary Dickinson, senior vice president and dean of research at Baylor.
Dr. Benjamin Deneen
Professor and Dr. Russell J. and Marian K. Blattner Chair in Neurosurgery and part of the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine
Dr. Ben Deneen’s lab focuses on developmental gliogenesis, glial control of brain circuit function, and the application of these processes to glial-based diseases of the central nervous system including malignant glioma and white matter disorders. His work is helping to explain the distinct functions of glial cells in different brain regions, and the myriad roles of these critical cells in normal and aberrant brain function.
Most recently his research has focused on the function of glial cells in the context of cancer, brain function and in injury. He has shown how glial malignancies can rewire neural circuits leading to brain hyperactivity which in turn promotes malignant progression. This work uncovered previously unknown crosstalk between the malignant cells and normal neural tissue, suggesting new therapeutic approaches.
Additional work showed that glial cells have much more regional specificity than previously appreciated, and that these differences affect learning and memory. His lab also showed that astrocytes in different brain regions have distinct responses to injury.
Over the past three years, his research efforts in these areas have produced nine senior author research articles in high-impact journals including Nature, Neuron, Journal of Clinical Investigation, Cancer Discovery and Nature Neuroscience, among others.
Dr. Hana El Sahly
Professor of molecular virology and microbiology and of medicine – infectious diseases
Since 2016, Dr. Hana El Sahly has served as principal investigator at Baylor’s National Institutes of Health-funded Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, where she and her team conduct translational research of vaccine candidates, including vaccines for influenza, neglected tropical diseases and agents that could be used as bioweapons. She is an international leader in translational research of vaccines and her leadership and scientific rigor have been recognized with appointments to World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Wellcome Trust scientific advisory panels and boards.
As the leader of Baylor’s Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, El Sahly played a critical role in the response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, serving as the co-principal investigator and co-first author of the study that established the clinical efficacy of the Moderna mRNA vaccine in preventing COVID-19. El Sahly was selected as one of three national co-principal investigators of the phase 2 study of the Moderna vaccine and, in this role, made significant contributions to the study design and development of standardized outcomes.
In addition, she and colleagues at Baylor initiated the Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial, which proved the clinical efficacy of remdesivir in treating SARS-CoV-2. Remdesivir remains the only antiviral medication approved for treating SARS-CoV-2. El Sahly and colleagues also found that the use of remdesivir plus baricitinib, a targeted anti-inflammatory, improved outcomes in COVID-19 patients, especially those requiring oxygen.
In addition to her work during the pandemic, El Sahly has led clinical trials on influenza pandemic preparedness, the universal influenza vaccine, Zika virus infection, chikungunya and schistosomiasis.
Dr. Fasiha Kanwal
Professor of medicine and section chief of gastroenterology and hepatology and member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center
Dr. Kanwal’s research focuses on clinical management and outcomes for patients with liver diseases, including hepatitis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma. Her work has provided critical insight into the magnitude of quality problems in liver disease healthcare delivery.
For example, her clinical trial implementing a collaborative care model for depression management in liver clinics led to changes in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid pay for performance programs and set the stage for the first large-scale quality improvement collaborative in cirrhosis.
Her work also examines the risk of hepatocellular cancer in patients with liver disease, and the American Gastroenterological Society has incorporated her findings into clinical practice guidelines for screening and surveillance for hepatocellular carcinoma. Her studies support the development of risk-prediction models that combine clinical, electronic medical record and survey data to improve clinical risk stratification of patients with liver disease, including risk of progression to cancer.
Dr. Nuo Li
Assistant professor of neuroscience and a McNair Scholar
Dr. Li’s research aim is in understanding fundamental principles of how brain-wide circuits encode and maintain information, and how interactions across multiple brain regions allow the brain to prepare and initiate voluntary movements.
To probe the brain regions involved in behavior more effectively, Li has developed a novel high-throughput approach to studying and manipulating brain function during behaviors. This approach allows mice to engage in voluntary decision-making tasks in their home cages for months at a time without human intervention, allowing dozens of mice to be studied and tested at a single time.
This high-throughput approach is opening the ability to connect specific behaviors to the molecular properties and activities of identified neurons and neural circuits.
In addition to studying how a set of neural circuits interact to give rise to normal motor behavior, Nuo is also expanding his studies to examine the principles by which these same neural circuits also help process information to support cognitive functions.
Dr. Zheng Sun
Associate professor of molecular and cellular biology and medicine – endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism
Dr. Sun’s research focuses on epigenomic regulatory mechanisms in the context of diabetes, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. He studies how energy metabolism and neurocognition are regulated at the epigenomic level by factors like diet, exercise, hormones and the circadian clock.
He has made seminal discoveries on how the central circadian clock regulates glucose metabolism. His team found a connection between early-morning high blood sugar, a common condition in type 2 diabetes patients known as the extended dawn phenomenon, and central clock dysfunction.
In addition, he and his team identified genetic variants in pediatric patients with autism, offering novel insight into how endocrine factors and metabolism regulate neurocognition through epigenomic mechanisms. This research has implications in understanding the pathogenesis of autism and neurodegenerative diseases associated with metabolic disorders.
By Dana Benson