At the heart of our graduate program experience is student immersion in cutting-edge research. Our faculty, students, and postdoctoral researchers have diverse research interests, and engage in highly collaborative research programs grouped into five emphasis areas:
- Biophysics and Bioengineering
- Cardiovascular Sciences
- Neural and Muscle Physiology
- Physiology of Cancer
Biophysics and Bioengineering
Biophysicists apply physics and mathematics to solve important biological problems. A core group of Biophysics faculty and trainees is devoted to the study of ion channels - essential pore forming proteins that control the flux of ions across cellular membranes. These faculty members study all aspects of ion channel biochemistry, function, and regulation in electrically excitable cells such as skeletal and cardiac muscle as well as non-electrically excitable cells such as endothelial and immune cells. We apply cutting-edge techniques to study ion channels under physiological and pathological conditions in single cells, whole organs, and the whole organism. Faculty and trainees in our program have identified ion channels in various cells and tissues, defined their roles in regulating cell function, validated them as novel targets for therapy, generated novel modulators of these channels, and determined the mode of action of modulators at the single-residue level using electrophysiology,ex vivo functional assays, molecular modelling, pharmacology, molecular biology, and animal models.
Bioengineering involves the application of engineering principles to solve biological problems. Several faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and students in the department are involved in bioengineering research, many with close collaborations with faculty at Rice University. Bioengineering projects include the development and application of novel imaging techniques, 3D cell constructs for tissue engineering, stem cell technologies aimed at regenerative medicine and the design of nanoparticles for drug development, drug delivery, and imaging applications. Viral gene therapy vectors directed at liver, heart, and skeletal muscle are also being developed. Novel imaging modalities include optical coherence tomography, light-sheet or selective plane illumination microscopy, advanced confocal and two-photon microscopy, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and functional MRI.
Research is aimed at mechanistic studies underlying disease as well as drug development and delivery and supported by state-of-the-art core facilities at Baylor College of Medicine. Many of our biophysics and bioengineering faculty are members of the Gulf Coast Consortia for Quantitative Biomedical Sciences which serves to bring together scientists with similar interests from multiple institutes in the Houston and Galveston area. The consortia organizes weekly seminars, workshops, symposia, and offers fellowships to Graduate Students.
Cardiovascular Sciences includes the study of the development and function of the heart and vasculature (blood vessels) and of diseases that affect cardiovascular function. Faculty and trainees in our program study a broad range of important questions covering heart and vascular development, endothelial specification and function, cardiac contractility, arrhythmias, lipid metabolism, inflammation, atherosclerosis, stroke, heart failure, and cardiac regeneration.
A combination of in vitro model systems, sophisticated genetic animal models, and gene and drug delivery systems allow researchers to investigate both the physiological and pathological function of the cardiovascular system. Research questions include understanding fundamental processes by which the heart and vasculature form and how to leverage this information to understand congenital disease as well as promote heart regeneration/repair after injury. Rare and common causes of arrhythmias, heart defects, and atherosclerosis are studied using advanced animal models generated by either classical gene targeting, CRISPR-mediated genome editing, or virus-mediated genetic manipulation.
State of the art animal imaging and phenotyping core facilities (directed by faculty within the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics) support studies of cardiac function, metabolism, energy expenditure and imaging. Many of our faculty are also members of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Baylor, which serves as a forum for the initiation of collaborative studies, and this environment also supports the education of our students focused on studying cardiovascular-related topics. Our program has been funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for over 20 years through a T32 training grant that provides stipends for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers involved in cardiovascular research.
Metabolism defines the basic fundamental processes by which cells and organisms consume energy to survive and produce the basic building blocks of life. Metabolic processes are carefully regulated in a cell-type and tissue-specific manner, and are integrated at the whole organism level to respond appropriately to dietary and environmental cues. The importance of metabolism research to public health has never been more apparent. Excessive food intake and a lack of physical activity are driving the obesity epidemic in the United States, and understanding how perturbed energy balance promotes obesity and diabetes are central questions. Genetic defects in metabolic pathways also form the basis of severe metabolic disorders in humans, and new therapeutic strategies to address these are desperately needed. There has been a Renaissance in metabolism research as new technologies to investigate the “metabolome” have increased our appreciation for the importance of these pathways in cell survival, proliferation, differentiation, and proper cellular function. Cancer cells depend heavily on mitochondria for survival and invasiveness, and efforts are also underway to target these pathways in cancer. Metabolism research is supported by excellent core facilities for fluorescence imaging and sorting, high throughput screening, functional MRI (FMRI), exercise physiology, and whole body metabolic phenotyping.
Neural and Muscle Physiology
Our multidisciplinary mentoring teams, individualized curricula combined coursework and laboratory training prepare our students for successful long-term careers in Neural and Muscle Physiology. Loss of normal function of the nervous or muscular systems leads to pain, disability, and eventually death.
Neural Physiology research in the program spans the gamut from developmental abnormalities to autoimmune diseases and aging-related diseases. Faculty and students use molecular, biochemical, electrophysiological, and behavioral approaches in addition to state of the art microscopy and small animal imaging to define not only disease mechanisms but to also test novel therapeutic approaches. Research aims at understanding pathological processes and at developing diagnostic tools and therapeutics and includes applications in nanotechnology, imaging, post-translational modifications, mitochondrial dysfunction, cerebrovasculature, and learning and memory.
Muscle Physiology focuses on cardiac, vascular smooth, and skeletal muscle biology. Faculty and students in our program use cutting-edge molecular, genetic, biochemical, pharmacological, and electrophysiological approaches to understand and characterize the molecular mechanisms of muscle adaptation to disease. Research focuses on protein trafficking, intracellular signaling cascades, regulation of receptor function, ion channels, and muscle excitation-contraction coupling.
Physiology of Cancer
Cancer is a devastating disease that affects individuals without discrimination at all stages of life. Our faculty study the Physiology of Cancer, and take an integrative approach to understand how essential cellular processes are dysregulated to cause disease. This includes examining the molecular mechanisms of cell growth, division, differentiation, migration, and programmed death (apoptosis). A major thrust within the department is to understand how cancer cells operate within the context of a living organism. A combination of cell based and sophisticated animal models allow students to investigate the pathophysiological processes of tumorigenesis, angiogenesis, metastases and evasion of the immune system. Genetically engineered and xenograft models, live cell and tumor imaging, and primary tumor histology are just a few of the technologies available to students in the program.
Many faculty are also members of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor, which has been awarded “Comprehensive” status by the National Cancer Institute. This the highest and most prestigious designation a cancer institute can receive, and ours is one of only 45 such centers in the country as of 2015. The Duncan Cancer Center organizes research symposia, provides a forum to collaborate with other cancer researchers, and supports excellent shared resources including flow cytometry, live animal imaging, microscopy, and tissue acquisition of human tumors and cancer cell lines.