OTC News Archive

UT, hospital study birth defects

Hannah Jones, The Daily Texan
March 24, 2010

UT students and an associate professor are collaborating with the chief pediatric neurosurgeon of Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas to research birth defects, specifically neural tube defects.

John Wallingford, an associate professor of molecular cell and developmental biology; Tim George, a neurosurgeon and an adjunct professor of molecular cell and developmental biology; and students hope to develop advanced treatment and therapy for the defects, which are hollow cavities in the spinal cord or in the brain, said Eric Brooks, a graduate molecular biology research assistant.

Neural tube defects are among the most common birth defects in the United States, second only to heart defects. About one in 1,000 births have the defects, Brooks said.

George said neural birth defects are devastating to children and are taxing on their families.

“It is imperative that we find new solutions for prevention or treatment,” he said. “Research is the only route to a cure. The path to a cure truly starts in the lab.”

The group will study the behavior of cells and the movements that lead to the defects, as well as the genes involved in the process, Brooks said.

“By collaborating with Dr. George, we will be able to understand [birth defects] on a more clinical level,” he said.

People with particular open neural tubes can end up with other defects such as mental retardation.

Wallingford said the group’s focus is uncommon, especially because it connects science research to patient care, a method known as translational research.

“If Tim is seeing patients with neural tube defects and they can identify mutations in them, we can look at how they impact the neural tube at the basic science level,” Wallingford said.

Wallingford said he and George are hoping to bridge a gap between clinical and basic science because their fields are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The collaborative research will not begin until additional scientists are hired.

“Right now we’re trying to build the infrastructure, which requires several scientists along the spectrum,” Wallingford said. “We are lacking human geneticists. The new Dell Pediatric Research Institute will open in less than a month, and the hope is if we can hire geneticists from there, we will have the whole pipeline together.”

Wallingford said he and George expect that UT students researching in the basic science field will have an opportunity to learn about the clinical relevance at Dell Children’s Medical Center and that those from the center will have easy access to biology labs at UT to understand the clinical problem they are addressing.

“I have learned much from John and much about the fundamental mechanisms of development,” George said. “But more importantly, I have been inspired by his passion to get to the same end result as I: [to] cure birth defects.”

[ The Daily Texan ]