Deepak Kaushal, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, is under federal supervision for research misconduct.
Deepak Kaushal, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, is under federal supervision for research misconduct. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A multi-institution team of researchers in San Antonio was awarded a research grant to study sepsis, which contributes to a third of all hospital deaths in the U.S.

The recently formed San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics (SA PPT), which aims to take personalized medicine a step further by looking at the biology behind an individual diagnosis, awarded its first two-year, $200,000 grant to a seven-person team to identify why some patients are more likely to die from sepsis and to develop a treatment that reduces organ dysfunction and damage.

Sepsis is caused by the body’s response to chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight an infection. When the response is out of balance, it triggers changes that can overwhelm the body and damage multiple organ systems. Each year, 1.7 million U.S. adults develop sepsis, and 270,000 die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are trying to figure out why some patients seem to be able to recover and some patients are not” by looking at how they respond to treatment at the cellular level, said Dr. Madesh Miniswamy, principal investigator and professor in the nephrology division at UT Health San Antonio.

The seven-person research team, which includes researchers from the Southwest Research Institute, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, UT Health San Antonio, and the University of Texas at San Antonio, will closely examine the mitochondrial uniporter (MCU) channel that carries calcium to cells.

In some sepsis patients, an overflow of calcium floods the channel and kills healthy cells, causing organ failure. Dr. Kumar Sharma, researcher and chief of UT Health’s division of nephrology, said the team wants to uncover better treatment options for these patients and preserve organ function.

“One other thing that happens with sepsis patients, even if they do survive, is a period of immune damage that can lead to long-term health defects” including cirrhosis, heart issues, and lung damage, Sharma said. “We want to see how we can best preserve the organ in the face of these stressors.”

The research plan also includes a focus on those at greater risk of sepsis complications, including the Hispanic population.

“This is where precision therapeutics is key,” Miniswamy said. “Each patient is different. Some patients may require antibiotics only. Other may require combination therapies to recover.

Liz Tullis, interim program director for SA PPT, said the project was chosen for the grant because sepsis has become one of the most prevalent killers in U.S. hospitals and the researchers demonstrated a commitment to advancing precision therapeutics.

Lubbock-based pulmonologist and Texas Medical Association board trustee Dr. Cynthia Jumper said that while doctors “have been doing research into sepsis for decades, overall the treatment hasn’t changed.”

“Sepsis is a very broad diagnosis, and patients respond to it at an individual level, which is why it’s very important to look at it at the precision medicine level to figure out what makes someone survive,” Jumper said. One person may die from pneumonia, one may not, “and figuring out the difference in the host response will help further treatment methods.”

Miniswamy said that ultimately the project is about achieving better outcomes for patients.

“We have seven different people looking into this and each will come up with different things, which is good because the more we learn about controlling activity during sepsis, the closer we will be to figuring out therapies that work for some people” where others have failed in the past, Miniswamy said.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.