Kleberg Foundation funds cancer research and Premedical Honors College at UTPA
By Gail Fagan, Public Affairs Representative
(956) 665-7995
Posted: 07/29/2011
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The search for new drugs to combat cancer and the dreams of young students to become successful doctors both got a boost recently when The University of Texas-Pan American received two funding awards totaling $850,000 from the Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation.

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Some of the recent funding provided to UTPA from the Kleberg Foundation will support research on anti-cancer drugs conducted by Dr. Bimal Banik, President's Endowed Professor and professor of chemistry, who provides hands-on laboratory research opportunities to students including Juliana Velazquez (pictured), a junior majoring in chemistry.

The larger award of $750,000 over three years will support cancer research on the synthesis and preclinical development of new anti-cancer beta-lactams (penicillin-types of antibiotics) that could serve to fight many types of cancer growths, particularly ovarian, colon, liver, and breast cancer as well as leukemia and melanoma. The proposal was submitted by Dr. Bimal K. Banik, President's Endowed Professor and professor of chemistry, who will serve as its principal investigator (PI). The grant will provide for salaries, supplies, testing (cell culture and animal) and travel.

Banik, a 2009 recipient of The University of Texas System's Teaching Excellence Award, also serves as a PI of two other competitive and prestigious grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, both also focused on anti-cancer agents. During his seven years at UTPA, he has supervised more than 100 students - from high school to post doctoral fellows - who have participated in hands-on laboratory research and the publication of their findings with him in top academic journals.

The foundation also provided $100,000 in support of the UTPA/Baylor College of Medicine Premedical Honors College (PHC), which is directed at UTPA by Dr. Cindy Wedig, lecturer of biology. Now in its 17th year at the University, the PHC is an eight-year, high school-through-medical school pathway for talented students from a 13-county area of South Texas. It was created as a partnership between UTPA and the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to increase access to medical education for the predominantly minority student population in the area and to address the critical shortage of primary care physicians in the region.

Since the program's inception, the PHC has proven highly successful. In the last three years 98 percent of its graduates have been admitted to a medical school compared to a 35 percent acceptance rate for all medical school applicants in the state. To date 85 medical doctors have graduated from the joint program with 33 already in practice and 52 in residency and fellowship programs.

The funding for the PHC will go toward student scholarships; a summer Bridge program to ease the transition to college coursework and performance on the MCAT, the medical college entrance exam; student development and travel required by the program; and paid preceptorship opportunities for financially disadvantaged students.

UT Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen said he is grateful to the Kleberg Foundation for its generous support of Pan Am, particularly in this time of extreme budgetary constraints.

"The funds they have provided for Dr. Banik's project will not only advance the world's knowledge on effective cancer-fighting drugs but also provide the pathway for students participating in his lab to become the nation's future scientists, researchers, and professors. Their support of our Premedical Honors College with Baylor ensures the continuation of a program that has brought increased access to a medical education for South Texas students, who will go on to serve the urgent health care needs of our community and our state," he said.

The Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation is a not-for-profit foundation based in San Antonio, Texas with over $190 million assets under management. The foundation primarily focuses on medical research, community services, education, health services, and arts.