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2012 “Science Impacting Health and Society”

The 2012 NSM Distinguished Lecture Series, “Science Impacting Health and Society,” included five presentations that addressed breakthroughs in science and technology that are altering the prevention and diagnosis of disease, treatment modalities, and delivery of medical care.

Speakers & Presentation Videos

April 25, 2012

We are experiencing a worldwide epidemic of obesity and type II diabetes. Dr. Spiegelman will discuss his research team’s recent discovery of a novel hormone secreted from muscle cells that triggers some of the key health benefits of exercise. The protein, given the name irisin, is a promising candidate for development as a novel treatment for diabetes, obesity and perhaps other disorders.

Presentation Video

Bruce M. Spiegelman is the Stanley J. Korsmeyer Professor of Cell Biology and Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Dr. Spiegelman received a B.S. with highest honors from the College of William and Mary in 1974, his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Princeton University in 1978, and completed postdoctoral work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 1982.

His research focuses on fat cell biology, diabetes and muscular diseases. Dr. Spiegelman has been honored with many awards including the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Metabolic Research; the Solomon Berson Award from the American Physiological Society; the Rolf Luft Award in Endocrinology from the Karolinska Institute (Sweden); the Trans-Atlantic Medal, British Endocrine Society; the Naomi Berrie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Diabetes Research, Columbia University; and the American Diabetes Association’s 2012 Banting Medal for Scientific Achievement.

In 2002, Dr. Spiegelman was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

May 15, 2012

Heart disease remains the primary cause of morbidity and mortality in the developed world. A major reason for this statistic is that the adult human heart has limited regenerative capacity following injury. Dr. Olson is known for his work identifying major genetic pathways that control the formation of the heart and other muscles. He will discuss recent advances in understanding the mechanisms of cardiac injury and regeneration as well as strategies for promoting cardiac repair.

Presentation Video

Eric N. Olson is professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he also is the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Science, the Annie and Willie Nelson Professor, and the Pogue Distinguished Chair in Research on Cardiac Birth Defects.

Dr. Olson and his colleagues discovered many of the key transcription factors and mechanisms responsible for heart development and disease. He also unveiled the calcium-dependent signaling pathways and epigenetic mechanisms that drive pathological cardiac hypertrophy and heart failure. Most recently, Olson identified a cohort of microRNAs that modulate heart disease, blood vessel formation and obesity. Dr. Olson’s discoveries at the interface of developmental biology and medicine have profoundly influenced our understanding of the development and dysfunction of the cardiovascular system, providing new concepts in the quest for cardiovascular therapeutics.

Dr. Olson attended Wake Forest University, receiving a B.A. in chemistry and biology and a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He later received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater. After postdoctoral training at Washington University School of Medicine, he began his scientific career at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In 1995, he founded the Department of Molecular Biology at UT Southwestern.

Known as a dedicated mentor, Dr. Olson has trained an impressive succession of students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom are emerging as the next generation of leaders in cardiovascular medicine. He has published over 500 scientific articles and is among the most highly cited scientists in biology with over 50,000 citations in the literature.

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and its Institute of Medicine. His awards include the Basic Research Prize, Research Achievement Award, and Inaugural Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Heart Association, the Pasarow Award, the Pollin Prize in Pediatric Research, and the Medal of Merit from the International Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences. In 2009, the French Academy of Science awarded Dr. Olson the Fondation Lefoulon-Delalande Grand Prize. He is the 2012 recipient of the Passano Award and the Steven C. Beering Award.

Dr. Olson is also an entrepreneur and has co-founded multiple biotechnology companies pursuing new therapeutics for heart disease. In his spare time, he plays guitar and harmonica with the Transactivators, a rock band inspired by the Texas icon, Willie Nelson, who established the professorship that Dr. Olson holds.

September 25, 2012

While the hormone, estrogen, is essential for many of the body’s normal processes in both men and women, it also plays a role in diseases such as breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer. In 1995, Dr. Gustafsson’s research group at Karolinska Institutet discovered that there are two estrogen receptors instead of one. The discovery of estrogen receptor beta (ER beta) was a huge step forward in understanding estrogen signaling because the two estrogen receptors (ER alpha and ER beta) elicit different and sometimes opposite actions. Dr. Gustafsson will discuss the impact of these discoveries, including the development of drugs that interact specifically with ER alpha or ER beta, and the potential for medicines – anti-cancer agents – which exert the favorable effects of ER beta.

Presentation Video

As director of the University of Houston's Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, Dr. Jan-Åke Gustafsson leads a research team focused on developing new treatments for an array of significant diseases including cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and degenerative neurologic diseases.

Dr. Gustafsson’s current role builds on the success of his research group at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, where he for many years performed breakthrough research on a family of important regulatory molecules called nuclear receptors. He is credited with the discovery of a previously unknown estrogen receptor that plays a vital role in the function of the brain, mammary glands, colon, prostate and immune system.

He holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. from the Karolinska Institutet and is a member of a number of professional societies and organizations, including the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Dr. Gustafsson has been honored with a large number of awards, including the Gregory Pincus Medal and Award, the European Medal (British Society for Endocrinology), the Bristol-Meyers Squibb/Mead Johnson Award for Nutrition Research, the Fred Conrad Koch Award (Endocrine Society USA), the Geoffrey Harris Prize, the Award of Merit (Princess Takamatsu Cancer Research Fund, Tokyo, Japan), the Grand Nordic Fernström Prize (University of Lund, Sweden), and the Grand Silver Medal of the Karolinska Institutet (Stockholm, Sweden).

October 23, 2012

Despite major advances in understanding atherosclerosis, each year seemingly healthy people experience sudden, adverse events, ranging from acute heart attacks and strokes to sudden cardiac death. In the U.S., close to 610,000 previously asymptomatic individuals will have a sudden heart attack or stroke this year; 125,000 of them will die within one hour. Physicians need new strategies to identify asymptomatic individuals at risk for cardiac events. Through his research in biomedical image computing, Dr. Kakadiaris mines information from cardiovascular imaging data to enhance the ability to detect persons with a high likelihood of having a heart attack in the near future.

Presentation Video

Ioannis A. Kakadiaris is a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor of Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Houston. Dr. Kakadiaris earned his B.Sc. in physics at the University of Athens in Greece, his M.Sc. in computer science from Northeastern University, and his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Kakadiaris is the founder and director of the UH Computational Biomedicine Lab ( His research is motivated by fundamental open problems in the broad area of image analysis, with an emphasis on applications that address some of society's greatest challenges including eradicating heart attacks. Dr. Kakadiaris is one of the organizers of the Pumps & Pipes Initiative, a unique collaboration between Houston's largest industries – medicine and oil and gas – and academia, designed to explore potential crossover ideas and technologies.

Dr. Kakadiaris has been honored with a number of awards, including the National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award, the Schlumberger Technical Foundation Award, UH Computer Science Research Excellence Award, UH Enron Teaching Excellence Award, and the James Muller Vulnerable Plaque Young Investigator Prize. His research has been featured on Discovery Channel, National Public Radio, KPRC NBC News, KTRK ABC News, and KHOU CBS News.

November 27, 2012

In the U.S., chronic heart failure has a 10% annual mortality rate and approximately 50% mortality after 5 years. It affects 5.4 million people, with 690,000 new cases each year. Although current medical care has improved survival, therapies do not treat the underlying cause – which is death or damage of heart muscle cells combined with increased scarring and loss of contractile function. As a result, heart failure progresses. Therapies with the potential to reverse disease progression are needed. Recent studies point to a small number of stem cells capable of regeneration. Dr. Mercola’s research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of regeneration. The lab is developing small molecule and RNA-based pharmacological approaches to promote regeneration and improve the function of the damaged heart.

Presentation Video

Dr. Mark Mercola is professor and director of the Muscle Development and Regeneration Program at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and holds adjunct professorships in the Departments of Pathology and Pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Mercola is known for discovering signaling pathways that control heart formation during embryonic development. These discoveries have provided a mechanistic understanding of how primitive cells in the embryo form heart muscle and are the basis of his current work to regenerate heart muscle cells from human embryonic stem cells and adult cardiac stem cells. He established and directed assay development and screening for the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics at Sanford-Burnham.

Currently, he directs a multidisciplinary team of engineers, chemists, and stem cell biologists to develop automated, high throughput techniques to discover small drug-like molecules that direct stem cells to form heart muscle cells that could lead to new classes of drugs to stimulate regeneration of damaged heart muscle. In addition, his lab uses transgenic and surgical models of heart disease to evaluate candidate drug targets and genes involved in stem cell-based creation of new muscle tissue, as well as preservation of heart muscle and function post-injury.

Dr. Mercola’s research is supported by grants from the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. He also directs the Stem Cell Biology Training Program at Sanford-Burnham, is a co-founder of ChemRegen, Inc., and serves on the advisory boards of Vala Sciences (San Diego), Cardiostem (London), the NIH’s Beta Cell Biology Consortium, and numerous scholarly journals.

He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, receiving a B.A. in microbiology and a Ph.D. in molecular biology.