Stem cell researcher generates neurons

Doug Frantz

Assistant Professor Doug E. Frantz of the College of Sciences’ Department of Chemistry has received the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund’s 2010 “Young Investigator Award.” The award will distribute $450,000 over the next three years. Frantz is the first UTSA researcher to receive the award.

Frantz, along with Drs. Jay Schneider and Jenny Hsieh of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, will synthesize drug-like molecules that target stem cells and could help treat heart disease and brain cancer. The drug-like molecules are referred to as isoxazoles and pyrazoles.

Frantz’ research shows promise. Using synthesized isoxazoles, Frantz’ team was able to induce both cardiogenesis and neurogenesis in various stem cell lines (both embryonic and adult stem cells). Cardiogenesis is the development of the heart in the embryo, and neurogenesis is the process by which neurons are generated in the brain.

“We are also studying pyrazoles since they are structurally similar to isoxazoles, but may have improved drug-like characteristics,” Frantz said.

“We have generated some preliminary data on using our small molecules to go after cancer stem cells as well as a potential new treatment paradigm for brain cancer,” Frantz said.

Many people have the misconception that stem cells are blank cells that have the ability to become any other type of cell. Actually, there are several different types drugs per se, but to use them as of stems cells. “Pluripotent stem cells can differentiate into nearly all cell types. However, multipotent stem cells can only differentiate into closely related cell types based on their lineage,” Frantz said.

The team is investigating exactly how the molecules induce stem cells to differentiate into various cell types.

“If we can figure out the biological mechanisms that control stem cell differentiation using our small molecules, it would be a huge breakthrough in stem cell biology,” Frantz said.

Isoxazoles is already in use in other medicine, such as Valdecoxib, which was taken off the market for the potential to increase heart attack and stroke.

Frantz said that we are a long way from studying our small molecules in humans and trying to predict potential side-effects would be premature.

“There is no scientific basis to guess at potential side-effects by simply comparing the structures of two drugs, it is much more complicated than that,” Frantz said.

Before testing the medicinal qualites of the small molecules on humans, Frantz said that it is best if they understand stem cell biology.

“Our goal is not really to develop our current molecules into molecular probes to shed light on the current black box of stem cell biology. If we can eventually develop our molecules into threapies for regenerative medicine, that would just be icing on the cake,” Frantz said.

Frantz explains that their research could assist in other areas as well.

“The potential to extend this to a number of neurogodegenerative disease including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is high on our list,” Frantz said.

He also explained that the work in cardiogenesis could have huge implications for treating patients with heart disease or those who have suffered from a heart attack.< o:p>

UTSA President Ricardo Romo credits the growth of UTSA into a premier research university to partners like the Voelchker Fund.

“By supporting research in its own backyard, the Voelchker Fund is providing a great opportunity to San Antonio medical researchers and particularly UTSA,” Romo said.

In 2009, the Voelchker Fund awarded its “Young Investigator Award” to researchers making significant research contributions that advance clinical treatments in the areas of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, muscular dystrophy and maculative degeneration of the retina.