From The Labs

2024 Michael E. DeBakey Excellence in Research Awards

Honorees (L-R) Dr. Christine Beeton, Dr. Robert Atmar, Dr. Maksim Mamonkin, Dr. Bing Zhang and Dr. Leonid Metelitsa with Dr. Carolyn Smith, interim SVP and Dean of Research at BCM.

This year’s Michael E. DeBakey Excellence in Research Awards were given to six faculty members at Baylor College of Medicine in recognition of their outstanding published scientific contributions to clinical and basic science research over the past three years.

The recipients are Dr. Bing Zhang, Dr. Leonid Metelitsa, Dr. Maksim Mamonkin, Dr. Robert Atmar, Dr. Jeffrey C. Magee and Dr. Christine Beeton.

The award ceremony included a recorded message from Dr. Paul Klotman, Baylor president, CEO and executive dean, congratulating the group. He added their accomplishments exemplify the outstanding work across all missions of Baylor College of Medicine.

Each awardee, who gave a presentation on their most recent work, was introduced by Dr. Carolyn Smith, professor, dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and interim senior vice president and dean of research at Baylor. She described their significant contributions to their fields of study and how each discovery moves us towards improving human health and patient care.

The awards are named in honor of pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, the first president of Baylor College of Medicine, and sponsored by the DeBakey Medical Foundation. The DeBakey Medical Foundation was first established in 1961. Through his groundbreaking advancements in cardiovascular surgery, DeBakey impacted the lives of countless patients and established this organization to continue that momentum of innovation and advancing healthcare well into the future.

2024 Michael E. DeBakey Excellence in Research Awards

Dr. Robert Atmar
Professor of Medicine in the Section of Infectious Disease and of Molecular Virology and Microbiology

Dr. Robert Atmar is an expert in infectious disease, well known for his work in intestinal and respiratory viruses as well as vaccine evaluation. Most recently, his work has provided lasting data on strategies for boosting COVID-19 research and immunity. He has helped lead the U.S. response to the pandemic as an investigator and scientific leader.

Even prior to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, Atmar recognized that vaccine boosters were critical to immunity. During the height of the pandemic, his research played a pivotal role in providing data on strategic ways to boost COVID-19 immunity with vaccines for the original SARC-CoV-2 strain and other variants that continue today.

Atmar is one of the longest-standing members of Baylor’s Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation Unit (VTEU), which conducts translational research on vaccine candidates, including vaccines for influenza, neglected tropical diseases and agents that could be used as bioweapons. He serves in a national leadership role for that network of VTEUs as the co-director of the Clinical Operations Unit of the Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Consortium. He has published more than 250 peer-reviewed papers and nearly 40 book chapters.

Atmar earned his bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University before attending Baylor College of Medicine for his M.D. He completed a research fellowship, residency and clinical fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine’s affiliated hospitals and currently is the John S. Dunn Research Foundation Chair in Infectious Diseases at Baylor.

Dr. Christine Beeton
Academic Director, Cytometry and Cell Sorting Core; Director, Graduate Program in Immunology & Microbiology; Professor, Integrative Physiology

Dr. Christine Beeton is well known for her groundbreaking work on the identification of therapeutic targets and the design of novels treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. Her research also focuses on using antioxidant nanomaterials for the treatment of other T lymphocyte-mediated autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis.

She developed recombinant analogs of sea anemone and of scorpion venom toxins to block the Kv1.3 channel on effector memory T lymphocytes and showed their efficacy in animal models of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.

Beeton previously identified the KCa1.1 potassium channel as a regulator of fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLS), a cell type found in joints that unregulated can lead to inflammation and pain. She found that if the flow of FLS through the KCa1.1 channel could be inhibited, so would the RA disease severity. Iberiotoxin, a component of scorpion venom, was identified as being able to block the KCa1.1 channel to regulate FLS flow, while allowing otherwise normal cell function. This treatment method saw a stopped progression of RA and even showed signs of the effects of RA being reversed.

Beeton has created non-invasive methods for peptide drug delivery, eliminating the need for repeated injections, which is a major hurdle in the delivery of small peptides as drugs for chronic diseases. Her team bioengineered a probiotic bacterium to secrete one of her Kv1.3-blocking venom peptide analogs for its oral delivery, finding it to be more effective than the injected peptide in stopping disease progression in lab models of RA.

Beeton earned her Ph.D. from Faculté des Sciences de Luminy, Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France, and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Irvine.

Dr. Jeffrey C. Magee
Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor and the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Jeffrey C. Magee, a distinguished neuroscientist, has made significant contributions to our understanding of fundamental hippocampal mechanisms related to learning and memory by answering longstanding questions about how information about the environment is stored and updated in the hippocampus.

His groundbreaking work has reshaped our understanding of synaptic plasticity, the communication between neurons, particularly through a novel mechanism he discovered called Behavioral Timescale Synaptic Plasticity (BTSP).

This new form of plasticity operates differently from previously described mechanisms. Unlike traditional models that rely on precise timing of pre- and post-synaptic events, or many repeated events, BTSP uses a dedicated plasticity signal to regulate synaptic strength. By triggering a substantial calcium channel spike in dendrites, BTSP can induce dramatic changes in synaptic connections, even from a single event. His work directly demonstrates that BTSP is needed for the modification in hippocampal population activity that underlies learning.

Magee’s research career began at Tulane University where he earned his Ph.D. after attending Louisiana State University for his bachelor’s degree. His postdoctoral work was completed at Baylor before starting his own lab at LSU Medical Center. He then moved on to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus as a group leader. He returned to Baylor in 2017 as an HHMI Investigator in the Department of Neuroscience. He also is the Cullen Foundation Distinguished Endowed Chair at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Maksim Mamonkin
Associate Professor in Department of Pathology & Immunology and the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy.

Dr. Maksim Mamonkin is a translational immunologist engineering cellular therapies for hematologic malignancies and other diseases. He has made major advances in translational immunology, including shaping a new direction in cell therapy of T cell malignancies and a new cell therapy concept in T cell mediated auto- and alloimmunity.

His laboratory in the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy utilizes fundamental immunology and synthetic biology to create effective cell therapies against treatment-refractory cancers. His group has led translational development of chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapies of T-lineage leukemia, lymphoma, and acute myeloid leukemia that are being evaluated in three ongoing Phase I clinical trials at Baylor. His research resulted in multiple publications in leading journals and the technologies have been licensed to several biotech companies. Mamonkin’s research is supported by the National Institutes of Health, CPRIT, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the American Society for Hematology and Stand Up To Cancer, among others.

Mamonkin is a member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor and also is the scientific co-founder and chief scientific officer of March Biosciences, a clinical-stage biotech company developing engineered T cells for diseases with high unmet clinical need.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Novosibirsk State University in Novosibirsk, Russia before joining Baylor in 2007 as a graduate student in the Immunology program. He completed his postdoctoral training with Dr. Malcolm K. Brenner at the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor.

Dr. Leonid Metelitsa
Professor of Pediatrics – Hematology and Oncology

Dr. Leonid Metelitsa is an internationally recognized leader in the field of natural killer T cell (NKTs) research, for bringing research bench to bedside, and as a leading expert in pediatric cancer immunotherapy.

His group was among the first to demonstrate that NKTs localize to primary tumors and that their presence at tumor sites is associated with positive clinical outcomes. Metelitsa has demonstrated success in developing NKT cell therapy to target high-risk neuroblastoma, an aggressive pediatric cancer.

The technologies developed in his lab for human NKT cell isolation, genetic modification with chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), and expansion to clinical scale have led to first-in-human clinical trials of CAR-NKT cells and “off-the-shelf” allogeneic NKT cells with licensing to industry. The encouraging results from his research pave the way for the development of next-generation treatments of cancer and other diseases.

Metelitsa is the director of the Center for Advancer Innate Cell Therapy and associate director of Texas Children’s Cancer Center where he leads the research efforts for the development and clinical testing of cancer immunotherapy. He also is a member of Baylor’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center and Center for Cell and Gene Therapy. His research has been continuously supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, Department of Defense, Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and other institutions.

He attended medical school at Tver State Medical University in Tver, Russia, and later earned a Ph.D. from N.N. Blokhin Memorial Cancer Research Center of Russian Federation in Moscow. He completed his postdoctoral work at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles/Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

Dr. Bing Zhang
Professor – Department of Molecular and Human Genetics.

Dr. Bing Zhang has significantly advanced our understanding of cancer biology, improved data analysis methodologies and broadened data accessibility resources for the scientific community.

By conducting a comprehensive proteogenomic characterization of pancreatic cancer, lung squamous cell carcinoma, head and neck cancer and uterine cancer, he has enhanced our understanding of these conditions. His work has uncovered potential therapeutic targets, identified proteins for early detection, highlighted targetable points of immune regulation and illuminated key mechanisms for immune evasion. These studies showcase the power of integrated proteogenomic analysis in providing functional context for interpreting genomic abnormalities.

Zhang also has made notable contributions to computational proteomics, introducing a graph theory-based method designed to enhance the characterization of protein isoforms – different forms of a protein – a long-standing challenge in the field. His team also developed a web portal with 40,000 gene-, protein-, mutation- and phenotype-centric web pages featuring innovative visualization techniques designed to enhance comprehension and reasoning for the advancement of both basic and translational cancer research.

Zhang earned his bachelor’s degree from Nanjing University in Nanjing, China, his Ph.D. from Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, and completed his postdoctoral training at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He is a McNair Scholar and a member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center.


By Graciela Gutierrez

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