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UTRGV recruits 22-person research team to establish South Texas Diabetes & Obesity Institute

BROWNSVILLE – The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and its medical school are poised to become an internationally recognized epicenter for the research and treatment of diabetes and obesity.

UTRGV leaders announced Monday morning that renowned genetics and infectious diseases expert Sarah Williams-Blangero, Ph.D., has been appointed director of the South Texas Diabetes & Obesity Institute, a new research, clinical and education program being established at UTRGV. Williams-Blangero, former chair of the Department of Genetics at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, is bringing 21 additional researchers and support staff with her to the Rio Grande Valley.

“With the recruitment of Dr. Williams-Blangero and her team, UTRGV will achieve instantaneous national and international recognition for our health sciences research capabilities,” said Francisco Fernandez, M.D., dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine. “These researchers have worked with over 15,000 study volunteers from San Antonio to Nepal, and their work spans the spectrum of medicine from diabetes and obesity to heart disease, osteoporosis, psychiatric disease, cancer and infectious diseases.”

The South Texas Diabetes & Obesity Institute is being established to advance research of diabetes and obesity, develop better treatments and ultimately improve the health of residents in South Texas and beyond. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, and roughly 30 percent of South Texans have diabetes, making the region a prime location to examine the genetics of the complex disease.

“As UTRGV and the school of medicine come to fruition, we are focusing on connecting science and research with the South Texas community,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey, Ph.D., said. “We are working to create the best possible outcomes for our patients through research, clinical care and education.”

Williams-Blangero said she and her research group will be able to establish and expand a research program relatively rapidly at a brand new institution, which is why moving to the Rio Grande Valley was so enticing. UTRGV will open in 2015, followed by the medical school in 2016.

“This is the kind of opportunity that comes once in a lifetime,” said Williams-Blangero, who also will serve as director of the Edinburg-Regional Academic Health Center (E-RAHC). “It’s a chance to establish a novel research focus and build an exemplary, world-class research program from the ground up.”

Williams-Blangero received her undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She has spent her entire professional career in San Antonio at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (formerly Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research).

She has published more than 100 articles in scientific literature, and in 2001, she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for contributions to anthropological genetics and health, for dedication to advancing biological anthropology and for developing one of the premier research groups in the field.

Williams-Blangero will officially join the South Texas Diabetes & Obesity Institute Oct. 16. The rest of her team will move to the Rio Grande Valley by the end of the year and will have offices on both the UT Brownsville and UT Pan American campuses.

UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., said the appointment of Williams-Blangero and her team is an indication of the commitment of the UT System and UTRGV to transform the education and health care of South Texas.

“They will bring substantial federally funded research – and expertise – in the genetics of many disorders, not only diabetes, but also heart disease and infectious diseases,” Cigarroa said. “They will do their research across the Valley and interact with many other research, public health and community programs. This will truly be a collaborative effort to combat disease and improve health in this vulnerable region.”

About The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 in a historic move that will combine the resources and assets of UT Brownsville and UT Pan American and, for the first time, make it possible for residents of the Rio Grande Valley to benefit from the Permanent University Fund. The institution will also be home to a School of Medicine and will transform Texas and the nation by becoming a leader in student success, teaching, research and healthcare. UTRGV will enroll its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine will open in 2016.

About The University of Texas System

Educating students, providing care for patients, conducting groundbreaking research and serving the needs of Texans and the nation for more than 130 years, The University of Texas System is one of the largest public university systems in the United States, with nine academic universities, six health institutions and an enrollment of more than 213,000. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees, educates two-thirds of the state’s health care professionals annually and accounts for almost 70 percent of all research funds awarded to public universities in Texas. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $15.6 billion (FY 2015) including $3 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. With about 90,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.

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