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Women Pushing the Frontiers of Research The University of Tennessee Medical Center empowers research through the Women in Science Initiative. Meet the first three recipients of the grant, women who are poised to become academic leaders in medicine.

"We want to support junior and mid-level female faculty to become academic leaders in medicine," said Paul J. Hauptman, MD, dean of the UT Graduate School of Medicine.

The Women in Science Initiative supports the work of female researchers at the medical center.

The program awarded three UT Graduate School of Medicine scientists to support their current research studies:

Paul J. Hauptman, MD, dean of the UT Graduate School of Medicine, said he hopes this program fosters the development of a larger initiative. "We want to support junior and mid-level female faculty to become academic leaders in medicine," said Hauptman.

Gene Therapy: Putting Nanoparticles to Work for Patients

Deidra Mountain, PhD, is a director of Vascular Research at UT Graduate School of Medicine. Her team in the Vascular Research Laboratory researches peripheral vascular disease. That's a disease where clogged blood vessels reduce blood flow to the arms, legs and brain. They want to improve the success rate of vascular surgeries.

Deidra Mountain, PhD, director of Vascular Research at UT Graduate School of Medicine

Research Overview

To treat peripheral vascular diseases, physicians traditionally use a method like balloon angioplasty, vascular stenting or vascular bypass graft surgery. But after the procedure, scar tissue can form, clogging the vessels again. This can land patients right back into surgery.

“Our goal,” said Mountain, “is to use the drugs being developed in our lab to improve our treatment and help keep patients from going back for another procedure.”

Mountain’s team researches how gene therapy can help keep this scar tissue from forming. Gene therapy uses DNA or mRNA (the gene therapy used in the COVID-19 vaccine) to deliver medicine to the cells. But current gene therapy can’t get through the vessel walls to deliver the drug.

That’s where Mountain’s team comes in. She recently patented a nanoparticle that can deliver drugs right to the part of the vessel wall affected by the scar tissue.

“Our goal,” said Mountain, “is to use the drugs being developed in our lab to improve our treatment and help keep patients from going back for another procedure.”

This funding puts her team one step closer to making that a reality.

Regenerative Medicine: Helping the Body Heal Itself

Stacy Stephenson, MD, is an assistant professor in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Research Program. Through the Women in Science research grant, Stephenson and her colleagues hope to help patients with bone and nerve tissue trauma heal better and faster.

Stacy Stephenson, MD, is an assistant professor in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Research Program.

Research Overview

As home to the area’s Level I Trauma Center and the Cancer Institute, the medical center cares for a wide variety of patients. This includes trauma and cancer patients who, as a result of their injury or treatment, often experience fat, muscle, bone or skin loss.

Traditional surgery is one way that plastic surgeons repair these losses. But Stephenson and her team also want to help the body repair itself through regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine finds new ways to regrow, repair or replace damaged cells, tissues and organs.

“Our goal,” said Stephenson, “is to help patients’ own bodies heal themselves.”

Stephenson and her team combine therapeutic adult stem cells, made from fat, with a nanoparticle called graphene. Graphene stimulates bone and nerve growth. Imagine grafting a new rose onto an old stem – that’s a little bit like what Stephenson and her team do with these cells. Only they’re growing stem cells on graphene and, instead of roses, they’re getting bone cells.

They’re also using the same system to isolate endothelial cells. Those are the cells that line blood vessels and they can help regrow tissues, like skin and muscle.

If this research succeeds, physicians will be able to substitute a patient’s own fat cells for the stem cells. Then, their own body can repair injuries to their bones, nerves and tissue.

“Our goal,” said Stephenson, “is to help patients’ own bodies heal themselves.”

Amyloidosis: Catching it Earlier to Improve Survival Rates

Emily Martin, PhD is an associate professor in the Amyloidosis and Cancer Theranostics Program. Through the Women in Science research grant, she and her research team are studying small samples of wrist and back tissue collected during corrective surgery. They are screening the tissue for a damaging protein called amyloid.

Emily Martin, PhD, assistant professor in the Amyloidosis and Cancer Theranostics Program

Research Overview

Amyloidosis is a disease that causes the buildup of amyloid protein clumps in various organs. This buildup causes the organs to malfunction. As amyloid grows, patients may have shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, and numbness or tingling in their hands and feet.

These symptoms mimic more common medical problems, making amyloidosis difficult to diagnose. Catching the disease earlier may improve patient survival rates because, without treatment, it will likely be fatal.

Through this study, the team may be able to show how detecting amyloid proteins earlier can potentially improve patients’ quality of life and survival rates.

Through this study, Martin and her team may be able to show how detecting amyloid proteins earlier can potentially improve patients’ quality of life and survival rates.

Carpal tunnel syndrome and lower back pain can be caused by the narrowing of spaces in the wrist and spine. Studies suggest these problems may precede the development of whole-body amyloidosis by several years.

Martin also thinks tendons and ligaments of the wrist and lower back could contain amyloid protein before other organs are affected.

Martin said, “This initial study asks how often amyloid is found in patients treated with corrective surgery for either carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, or lower back pain at the medical center. With this information, we hope to diagnose amyloidosis as early as possible.”

Martin listens to patients tell their amyloidosis stories in patient outreach seminars. She discovered that several patients mentioned wrist or lower back problems as many as eight years before they developed other medical issues.

Those issues usually caused heart problems, which, in many cases, took up to three more years to diagnose as amyloidosis. “These stories supported the need for a more direct path to diagnosis,” said Martin.

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