The Michael E. DeBakey Excellence in Research Award recognizes scientists whose recent research demonstrates the breadth and depth of basic science at Baylor College of Medicine. The awards are given on an annual basis in recognition of Baylor faculty who have made the most significant published scientific contribution to clinical or basic biomedical research during the past three years. Awardees receive a commemorative medallion and fund to support their research. The awards are funded by the DeBakey Medical Foundation.
Dr. Ben Deneen, Dr. Fasiha Kanwal, Dr. Mary Dickinson, Dr. Paul Klotman, Dr. Nuo Li, Dr. Zheng Sun, Dr. Hana El Sahly
Benjamin Deneen, Ph.D.
Professor, Dr. Russell J. and Marian K. Blattner Chair Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, Department of Neurosurgery
Dr. Ben Deneen’s lab focuses on developmental gliogenesis, glial control of brain circuit function, and the application of these processes to glial-based diseases of the central nervous system, including malignant glioma and white matter disorders. His work is helping to explain the distinct functions of glial cells in different brain regions, and the myriad roles of these critical cells in normal and aberrant brain function.
Most recently his research has focused on the function of glial cells in the context of cancer, brain function, and in injury. He has shown how brain tumors rewire neural circuits leading to brain hyperactivity, which in turn promotes malignant progression. This work uncovered previously unknown crosstalk between brain tumors and normal neural tissue, suggesting new therapeutic approaches.
Additional work showed that a type of glial cell called an astrocyte has selective functions in different brain regions, and that a specialized subset of these astrocytes affects learning and memory. His lab also showed that astrocytes in different brain regions have distinct responses to injury.
Over the past three years, his research efforts in these areas have produced twelve senior author research articles in high-impact journals including Nature, Neuron, Journal of Clinical Investigation, Cancer Discovery and Nature Neuroscience, among others.
Hana M. El Sahly, M.D.
Professor, Molecular Virology, Microbiology and Medicine
Since 2016, Dr. Hana El Sahly has served as principal investigator at Baylor’s National Institutes of Health-funded Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, where she and her team conduct translational research of vaccine candidates, including vaccines for influenza, neglected tropical diseases and agents that could be used as bioweapons. She is an international leader in translational research of vaccines and her leadership and scientific rigor have been recognized with appointments to World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Wellcome Trust scientific advisory panels and boards.
As the leader of Baylor’s Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, El Sahly played a critical role in the response to the SARS CoV-2 pandemic, serving as the co-principal investigator and co-first author of the study that established the clinical efficacy of the Moderna mRNA vaccine in preventing COVID-19. El Sahly was selected as one of three national co-principal investigators of the phase 2 study of the Moderna vaccine and, in this role, made significant contributions to the study design and development of standardized outcomes. In addition, she and colleagues at Baylor initiated the Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial, which proved the clinical efficacy of remdesivir in treating SARS CoV-2. Remdesivir remains the only antiviral medication approved for treating SARS CoV-2. El Sahly and colleagues also found that the use of remdesivir plus baricitinib, a targeted anti-inflammatory, improved outcomes in COVID-19 patients, especially those requiring oxygen.
In addition to her work during the pandemic, El Sahly has led clinical trials on influenza pandemic preparedness, the universal influenza vaccine, Zika virus infection, chikungunya and schistosomiasis.
Fasiha Kanwal, M.D.,
Professor of Medicine; Chief, Section of Gastroenterology and Hepatology
The next DeBakey Research Award recipient is Dr. Fasiha Kanwal, professor of medicine and section chief of gastroenterology and hepatology and member of IQUEST and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Dr. Kanwal’s research focuses on clinical management and outcomes of patients with liver diseases, including hepatitis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma. Her work has provided critical insight into the magnitude of quality problems in liver disease healthcare delivery.
For example, her clinical studies led to changes in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid pay for performance programs and set the stage for the first large-scale quality improvement collaborative in cirrhosis.
Her work also examines the risk of hepatocellular cancer in patients with liver disease, and the American Gastroenterological Association has incorporated her findings into clinical practice guidelines for screening and surveillance for hepatocellular carcinoma. Her studies support the development of risk-prediction models that combine clinical, electronic medical record and survey data to improve clinical risk stratification of patients with liver disease, including risk of progression to liver cancer.
Nuo Li, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Neuroscience
Dr. Nuo Li’s research aim is in understanding fundamental principles of how brain-wide circuits encode and maintain information, and how interactions across multiple brain regions allow the brain to prepare and initiate voluntary movements.
To probe the brain regions involved in behavior more effectively, Li has developed a novel high-throughput approach to studying and manipulating brain function during behaviors. This approach allows mice to engage in voluntary decision-making tasks in their home cages for months at a time without human intervention, allowing dozens of mice to be studied and tested at a single time.
This high-throughput approach is opening the ability to connect specific behaviors to the molecular properties and activities of identified neurons and neural circuits.
In addition to studying how a set of neural circuits interact to give rise to normal motor behavior, Nuo is also expanding his studies to examine the principles by which these same neural circuits also help process information to support cognitive functions.
Zheng Sun, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism, Department of Medicine, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Dr. Sun’s research focuses on epigenomic regulatory mechanisms in the context of diabetes, autism and Alzheimer's disease. He studies how energy metabolism and neurocognition are regulated by diet, exercise, hormones and the circadian clock.
He has made seminal discoveries on how the central circadian clock regulates glucose metabolism. His team found a connection between the central clock dysfunction and the early-morning high blood sugar in type 2 diabetes patients, a prevalent condition known as the dawn phenomenon.
In addition, he and his team identified genetic variants in pediatric patients with autism, offering novel insight into how endocrine factors and metabolism regulate neurocognition through epigenomic mechanisms. This research has implications in understanding the pathogenesis of autism and neurodegenerative diseases associated with metabolic disorders.