UTEP, Local Hospitals Team Up to Improve Region’s Health

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

When a 32-month-old child at El Paso Children’s Hospital was diagnosed with an actively growing, highly vascularized brain tumor, surgery was out of the question. The standard treatment had failed and other options such as radiation were not advised due to the nature of the young developing brain.

That’s when researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso stepped in to see what they could do.Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServicePhoto by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

“We were able to get a small biopsy of the tumor and test it against different drugs in the lab to see which one could slow the growth,” said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science, who has been collaborating with the hospital to help cancer patients for about a year. “Once we identified a drug, neurosurgeons were able to go in and successfully remove parts of the tumor.”

Now that UTEP has signed an agreement to work closely with Sierra Providence Health Network (SPHN) hospitals, Kirken is hopeful that more of the region’s health care is headed in this direction of personalized medicine, where medical decisions and drugs are specifically tailored to patients’ unique genetic profiles with the help of University research collaboration.

Signed on Wednesday, Sept. 11, the agreement will allow UTEP researchers to work directly with medical staff at SPHN – which includes Providence Memorial Hospital, Providence Children’s Hospital, Sierra Medical Center, and Sierra Providence East Medical Center – in El Paso to share patient blood samples and further clinical and scientific medical research.

“The opportunity for UTEP researchers to work with the largest hospital network in El Paso offers huge potential to enhance health care for residents of the Paso del Norte region,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio.

Kirken explained that when a patient’s therapy fails or a disease relapses, the physician is faced with the challenge of deciding what to do next.

“The solution would be to just take a small amount of the patient’s biopsied material for us to do research on,” he said. “We could then provide the physician with feedback that could help him make a more informed decision.”

He added, “Right now there are a huge number of patients in SPHN with many different disease states like cancer, infections disease, neurological disorders, obesity and diabetes – that’s a whole host of patients we could have a positive impact on.”

In addition to better patient care, UTEP graduate and undergraduate students will benefit from the partnership by learning how to use cutting-edge technology that will soon be commonplace in the research and medical world.

The agreement also will allow researchers and medical professionals to organize symposia and conferences together, and participate in institutional exchanges in a variety of teaching and professional development activities. Students from the School of Nursing and College of Health Sciences will continue to have access to clinical rotations at SPHN.

Although the University has worked with SPHN in the past, the formal agreement further strengthens the partnership and drive to improve the region’s health.

“[This partnership] is really going to allow us to improve the well-being of our citizens,” said Eric Evans, CEO of SPHN.