Newswise — A partnership between The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and Texas Tech Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso) designed to expand health research in the Paso del Norte region has identified studies which could have significant impact on the well-being of the community. On Wednesday, the two institutions announced the first set of projects to receive funding from their Joint Seed Grant Program.

“Each project we recognized today has the potential to be transformative for public health in our region,” said UTEP President Heather Wilson. “They demonstrate not only the caliber of the research conducted at UTEP and TTUHSC El Paso, but also the commitment of our institutions to partner for the greater benefit of the El Paso-Juárez community.”

Eight teams, each comprised of one researcher from UTEP and one from TTUHSC El Paso, received funding from the Joint Seed Grant Program. As part of the collaboration, each institution will contribute up to $100,000 over two years to incubate research projects that can lead to external funding.

“Biomedical research is the backbone of medicine, and funding from seed grants is incredibly important, as it allows our researchers to begin their studies on conditions prevalent in our region and life-altering medical treatments,” said TTUHSC El Paso President Richard Lange, M.D., M.B.A. “Together with UTEP, we will continue creating pathways for our researchers to advance health care in the Borderland.” 

The projects receiving funding exhibited the considerable breadth and scope of health-related research taking place at the partner institutions. They include a study to identify healthcare-significant cultural factors specific to El Paso to train health care students, a search for new early-stage biomarkers to detect ovarian cancer, a collaboration to test a new COVID-19 related antibody-based treatment using blood samples collected in the El Paso community, and several other studies.

Here is a complete list of the projects that received funding from the Joint Seed Grant Program:

Dr. William Roberts - UTEP

Dr. Irene Alexandraki - TTUHSC El Paso


The study, titled “Preparing Health Professions Students for Culturally Sensitive Practice” is a collaborative research effort between the UTEP College of Health Sciences and the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine (PLFSOM) at TTUHSC El Paso. This study seeks to identify the local cultural factors that health care educators at UTEP and PLFSOM must address to prepare students for health care practice in the El Paso area. The study will identify the approaches educators use to ensure that students are able to serve the unique health needs of people in the Paso del Norte region. Researchers will use the concept of structural competency to acknowledge the social, political, economic, and other factors that impact health in our community.


Dr. Hugues Ouellet - UTEP

Dr. Mingtao Zeng - TTUHSC El Paso


The goal of this project is to generate and test novel therapeutic neutralization antibodies targeting undefined regions (epitopes) of the Spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. The undefined regions will be identified from blood samples collected in the El Paso community, which is about 83% Hispanic. This is very important as this ethnic group is often underrepresented in similar studies.


Dr. Rodrigo Romero - UTEP

Dr. Scott Crawford - TTUHSC El Paso


This research aims to ultimately develop a haptics-enabled skin biopsy training system to teach proficient excision of skin lesions. It will merge the specialties of procedural and simulation medicine (TTUHSC El Paso) with electrical and computer engineering (UTEP) to create new surgical simulation devices. Virtual reality simulators are effective and commonly used to develop surgical skills in medical training programs, particularly in the area of laparoscopic surgery. 


Dr. Roger Gonzalez - UTEP

Dr. Shawn Diamond - TTUHSC El Paso


This research seeks to develop a “smart” myoelectric prosthetic knee system that detects stumbles and falls in above-knee amputees. The team will build upon electromyography (EMG) and Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) to reduce falls all within a Machine Learning (ML) model. Dr Gonzalez’s UTEP lab has previously developed a microprocessor knee with machine learning and developed the stumble model. Dr. Diamond at TTUHSC El Paso routinely performs amputations in the clinical practice of plastic and reconstructive surgery incorporating nerve transfer and TMR. This novel research bridges the UTEP and TTUHSC campuses that incorporates EMG surface arrays and TMR surgery.


Dr. Sudip Bajpeyi - UTEP

Dr. Anna Eiring - TTUHSC El Paso


Recent evidence suggests that Hispanic patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) from El Paso have a poor prognosis. The inadequacy of many leukemia therapies results from persistence of leukemic stem cells in the bone marrow. Drs. Eiring and Bajpeyi will combine their expertise in leukemia biology and mitochondrial functions to understand mechanisms of stem cell survival in AML, with the goal of identifying novel targets for improved cancer therapy.


Dr. Binata Joddar - UTEP

Dr. Munmun Chattopadhyay - TTUHSC El Paso


Gastroparesis (GP), which affects up to 10 million individuals in the United States, is also a debilitating complication in diabetic patients. GP exhibits upper gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms including nausea and vomiting. GP is associated with the depletion of interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) and other changes. The team proposes to design, fabricate, and test a bioprinted mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) and growth factor infused hydrogel­based gastric patch for grafting onto the serosal side of mice stomach, to restore the levels of ICC, leading to overall physiological improvements of stomach in GP animals.


Dr. Taslim Al-Hilal - UTEP

Dr. Sireesha Reddy - TTUHSC El Paso


Ovarian cancer is identified in over 80% of women at late stage after spread into the peritoneal cavity. Thus, it is necessary to find new biomarkers with high specificity and sensitivity to detect ovarian cancer in the early stages of disease. The goal of this proposal is to evaluate a prion-like protein doppel as an early-stage, ovarian cancer-specific serum biomarker.


Dr. Doug Watts - UTEP

Dr. Wendy Walker - TTUHSC El Paso


The overall goal of Drs. Doug Watts’ and Wendy Walker’s research project is to investigate the hypothesis that severe and fatal COVID-19 human cases can be reproduced in a model of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The model will be used to determine the mechanism of the innate immune pathways that leads to severe and fatal disease outcome that will provide the information needed to select and evaluate therapeutic antiviral compounds to ameliorate the disease. The data will be published and used as preliminary information to support larger external grant applications to more fully explore the role of the innate immune response as a determinant of the outcome of SARS-CoV-2 infection.