TTUHSC El Paso scientist receives $2.6 million NIH grant for research on tuberculosis

For over a century, El Paso has long been a sanctuary for individuals suffering from tuberculosis. It will soon be home to groundbreaking research that prevents the debilitating disease. Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso infectious disease researcher Subramanian Dhandayuthapani, Ph.D., has been awarded a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate tuberculosis. The announcement was made ahead of World Tuberculosis Day, which is recognized every year on March 24.

Known as Dr. Pani on campus, the researcher's five-year grant will explore developing new vaccines to prevent tuberculosis, which affects over 10 million people worldwide each year.

We're incredibly proud of Dr. Pani's remarkable achievement in being awarded the NIH R01 grant for his research on tuberculosis. This transformational grant will support Dr. Pani and his team's revolutionary work to improve our understanding of this infectious disease and develop new, preventive vaccines for tuberculosis. The impact of this research will address health disparities in the underserved communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. We look forward to the progress his research will bring to our Borderplex community and beyond."

Richard Lange, M.D., M.B.A., TTUHSC El Paso President

The oldest and most widely sought-after source of funding at the NIH, R01 grant applications are highly competitive. The success rate is as low as 10%, meaning that only a fraction of applicants are successful in obtaining funding. As a testament to their importance, R01 grants often establish a framework for best practices or standards of care within the health care profession.

Tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, primarily affects the lungs. It's a major public health concern, with the World Health Organization ranking it as the 13th leading cause of death worldwide and the leading cause from a single infectious agent, with 10.6 million men, women and children afflicted by the disease. The emergence of drug-resistant tuberculosis strains has made the treatment even more challenging, emphasizing the need for new drugs and therapies.

Tuberculosis is a serious public health issue in El Paso County and in underserved communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the incidence rate of tuberculosis in El Paso County in 2020 was 2.7 cases per 100,000 people, which is higher than the state average of 1.9 cases per 100,000 people and the national average of 2.3 cases per 100,000 people. The incidence rate of tuberculosis in Texas border counties was 2.8 cases per 100,000 people in 2020.

Working in collaboration with Shrikanth Gadad, Ph.D., M.Sc., and Jessica Chacon, Ph.D., from TTUHSC El Paso and Chinnaswamy Jagannath, Ph.D., from Houston Methodist Research Institute, Houston, Dr. Pani's work will leverage the latest advances in genomics, immunology and bioinformatics. Their focus is on the development of improved new-generation BCG (bacille Calmette-Guerin) vaccines. These serums contain a weakened strain of the bacteria Mycobacterium bovis, which is related to the bacteria that cause human tuberculosis. When administered, the vaccine stimulates the immune system to recognize and fight off similar bacteria in the future, thus providing protection against tuberculosis infection.

This is the second grant Dr. Pani has received from the NIH for research in this area. His first, a $492,258 grant from the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was awarded in 2021.

"Our research on tuberculosis vaccine development is not only about finding new treatments but also improving health outcomes for patients around the world," said Dr. Pani. "By identifying new targets and developing new treatments, we can help alleviate the burden of this disease. I'm honored to receive this NIH R01 grant, and excited about the potential impact our research could have on preventing this disease."

Dr. Pani is also a professor with TTUHSC El Paso's Center of Emphasis for Infectious Diseases within the Department of Molecular and Translational Medicine. The Center provides critical resources and expertise to support Dr. Pani's work, including access to patient populations and advanced research technologies. In turn, his research also contributes to the center's broader mission of addressing health disparities and improving health outcomes for Hispanics in the region.

Collaboration among the Centers of Emphasis and with other institutions, community organizations and stakeholders is essential in addressing the complex health issues faced by Hispanics in the region. By working together, researchers develop innovative approaches to health care that make a significant impact on the health of the community. Through shared commitment to improving health equity and outcomes, TTUHSC El Paso's Centers of Emphasis demonstrate the power of collaboration in achieving meaningful progress in addressing health disparities and improving the lives of those we serve.

The new vaccine has the potential to protect against other viral infections – it's designed to work in a nonspecific manner, which means it helps the immune system fight off any viruses it encounters. This is an exciting development because it means the vaccine could have a broader impact on public health beyond just tuberculosis prevention.

Moreover, the vaccine has shown potential in treating bladder cancer. Researchers have discovered the vaccine can stimulate the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells in the bladder. This is significant because bladder cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the U.S., and current treatments can have debilitating side effects. If the vaccine is successful in clinical trials, it could provide a more effective and less invasive treatment option for bladder cancer patients.

The Borderplex region, which spans across West Texas, Southern New Mexico, and Northern Mexico, is home to a large number of individuals who are at risk of developing tuberculosis due to high rates of poverty, migration and other factors. The funding of Dr. Pani's research will not only benefit this community, but also contribute to the global effort to combat tuberculosis and improve the health of populations worldwide.

Students attending TTUHSC El Paso will have the unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience by working on the project alongside Dr. Pani and his team. While the grant is fully dedicated to research, students from the Foster School of Medicine and the Francis Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences will still have the chance to participate. The opportunity to work on such an impactful project is invaluable for students looking to further their education and careers in the medical field.

About Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso

TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It's a designated Title V Hispanic-Serving Institution, preparing the next generation of health care heroes, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic and are often first-generation students.

TTUHSC El Paso was established to focus on the unique health care and educational needs of our Borderplex community. In 2023, TTUHSC El Paso celebrates its 10th anniversary as an independent university within the Texas Tech University System. In a decade, the university has graduated over 2,000 doctors, nurses and researchers, and will soon add dentists to its alumni.

Disclaimer: Research reported in this media release was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01AI175837. The content is solely the responsibility of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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