Surgical Research

Current Activities

Building 21Research is an integral and vitally important activity in the Department of Surgery. There is a full spectrum of research activities in the department that include an array of both clinical and basic science studies. Although research time is not mandatory, the majority of our residents choose to spend one to two years in the laboratory to further hone their investigative skills in preparation for academic careers or highly competitive fellowships. In addition to our own house staff, surgeons-in-training from the United States and abroad have taken advantage of the unique research activities in the department. The residents in the laboratory are highly productive and, in fact, routinely present their work at prestigious national meetings such as the Society of University Surgeons, the American Surgical Association and the Surgical Forum. An important component to the success of this program is the focus placed on translational research, with surgical faculty providing valuable mentorship to the surgical house staff. Unique opportunities exist to investigate various aspects of gut physiology and endocrinology, surgical oncology, burns and trauma, and transplantation. Examples of the ground-breaking work conducted by Department of Surgery researchers and the cutting-edge equipment available to follows.

Burns and Trauma

Starting as early as the 1947 Texas City industrial disaster, clinicians and scientists at UTMB have been dedicated to developing optimal treatment approaches for patients suffering from massive burns. Discoveries made by the Department of Surgery faculty have led to the instigation of treatments that dramatically improve the survival chances from massive burns, reduce scar formation, and accelerate patient recovery. Many of the novel treatments identified by UTMB researchers have been adopted by specialists burn centers around the world, improving the lives of countless patients.

Given the dramatic improvements seen in mortality rates to massive burns, current research is primarily focused on accelerating patient convalescence and enhancing their quality of life. Researchers in the Burns and Trauma group are focused on devising novel nutritional, pharmacological, and exercise-based strategies to mitigate against burn-induced muscle catabolism. Likewise, research by the group is refining the utilization of emerging regenerative medicine approaches to improve wound healing and reduce scare formation following burns.

The Burn, Trauma and Critical Care research laboratory is well equipped with an array of cutting-edge equipment and technologies to support their research activities, including a dedicated cell culture suite, confocal microscope, flow cytometer, Comprehensive Lab Animal Monitoring System (CLAMS), and bioprinter for 3D cell culture.

Cancer Biology

Department of Surgery has a longstanding history (< 35 years) of studying malignancies in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract such as the colon, pancreas, liver, and esophagus. This Department has the longest NIH-funded training grant (T32 fellowship) in the nation that facilitates mentoring surgical residents interested in alimentary diseases. 

The ongoing research areas include studying the gastrointestinal mucosal homeostasis and repair mechanisms, analyzing microbiome composition in the esophagus and GI tract, exploring inflammatory responses in pancreatitis, chronic liver injury, and colorectal cancer, determining various GI hormones' interactions, and identifying novel molecular mechanisms related to tumor growth and metastasis.

Our laboratories utilize the most up-to-date technologies and experimental approaches. Fully equipped and recently renovated molecular biology laboratories provide the necessary facilities and equipment to perform clinically relevant studies at the molecular level. A state-of-the-art animal facility is available to achieve small animal surgery using immunocompetent and immunocompromised mouse strains. Colon, pancreatic, gastric, and endocrine tumors are regularly established from fresh operative specimens in athymic nude mice. The imaging system for the small animals involves the whole body bioluminescent and fluorescence imaging system (IVIS Spectra), and the state-of-the-art micro-CT-PET-SPECT (Inveon), high-resolution ultrasound imaging (VisualSonics Vevo 770). Some of the techniques commonly utilized include DNA sequencing, transcriptome analysis, sophisticated protein expression systems, flow cytometry, fluorescent microscopy, growth factors and cytokines detection, and mitochondrial function analysis, as well as cell respiration measurements.

Metabolic Physiology

The Department of Surgery has a longstanding and successful history of studying metabolic substrate utilization in humans and animals, providing fundamental insight into the metabolic dysfunction that occurs in response to disease, trauma, inactivity, or as a consequence of aging.

Researchers in the Metabolic Physiology group are actively engaged in a diverse range of projects, cross-cutting many of the Department’s research themes. Projects include investigating the impact of diet as we age on muscle and overall metabolic health, establishing the role of ectopic lipid deposition in the etiology of burn-induced metabolic dysfunction, and the influence of mitochondrial-derived reactive oxygen species on muscle proteostasis.

Metabolism researchers in the Department of Surgery have extensive experience in the application of stable isotopes for the dynamic study of metabolism in humans and animals. Their laboratory is equipped with an array of gas chromatography mass spectrometers, high performance liquid chromatography machines, and high-resolution respirometers, allowing a detailed study of metabolism in tissues and cells.

Outcomes Research

The UTMB Surgical Outcomes Research Program was formally established in 2016 to address the increasing priority of integrating health services research into the advancement of surgical care. The program provides support, resources, and a collaborative environment to facilitate surgical health services research at UTMB. Building collaborations within and outside UTMB is the hallmark of our success as published in several high-impact journals such as JAMA Surgery and JNCI. The program is also committed to career development and training for the next generation of researchers pursuing health services research in the field of surgery.

Pediatric Surgery

The research focus of the Division of Pediatric Surgery is the study of cardiovascular physiology after burn injury, including utilizing heart rate variability and machine learning techniques for the early detection of sepsis. Specifically, the group examines the effect of burn injury on cardiac function, mitochondrial dynamics, cardiac fibrogenesis, and intestinal smooth muscle function. Furthermore, the group collaborates extensively with the UTMB Biochemistry Department to identify novel derivatives of natural compounds that can positively modulate fibrogenesis.

The Pediatric Surgical lab has capabilities to perform advanced cardiovascular monitoring on patients as well as small and large animals. The group possess extensive experience in machine learning and data mining techniques to identify patterns in large datasets and its labs are outfitted with modern cell culture, fluorescence microscopy, RT-PCR, and immunohistochemistry facilities.

Transplant Research

The Transplant Division performs cutting-edge research in basic science, translational/pre-clinical, as well as clinical research with a goal to find alternatives to organ transplantation and improve regenerative medicine outcomes. They approach this goal through various projects, including dissection of the molecular mechanisms of stem cell self-renewal vs. cell fate commitment, using stem/progenitor cells for transplantation, and producing novel cell-free reagents for regenerative medicine.

Specific ongoing projects within the Transplant Research group are using stem cell therapies and transplantation to treat life-threating liver-based genetic metabolic liver diseases and pursuing how mechanisms of stem cell engraftment in the liver can both model and define unique progenitor cell kinetics in vivo. Other work in the Division is focused on how post-transcriptional regulation such as splicing/alternative splicing, RNA localization/decay, and microRNA biogenesis affect early cell fate decisions, with the goal of identifying and dissecting the molecular mechanisms that regulate cell fate.

The Transplant Research group currently shares lab space with Dr. Mariano Garcia-Blanco (Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Dept.) that is outfitted with extensive cell culture facilities, an Opera Phenix High Content Imaging system, RT-qPCR machine, infrared western blot imager, flow cytometer, as well as other modern systems for cellular, molecular, and biochemical analyses.