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Dr. Huard - Complementary Labs in Houston and Vail

Dr. Johnny Huard recently celebrated his second anniversary as the Chief Scientific Officer at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute.  And it’s been a busy and productive two years for the French-Canadian scientist who splits his time between laboratories at the University of Texas Health System campus in Houston and the SPRI headquarters in Vail.

In those two years, Dr. Huard has played host to seminars and symposiums in both Houston and Vail and has opened the doors at SPRI to expanded and extensive stem cell research in the translational medicine clinic.

Dr. Huard recently played host to the 2nd Annual Symposium on Aging Research: Aging Better and Healthier in Houston in June and is fervently preparing for the Third Annual Vail Scientific Summit hosted by The Steadman Clinic and SPRI in August (23-26). The two events helped Dr. Huard illustrate the significance, differences and compatibility of his two separate laboratories.

The conferences bring together some of the world’s top researches and scientists and help to further illustrate the groundbreaking work accomplished by Dr. Huard and his research teams in both Houston and Vail.  It is a unique setup and one that pleases Dr. Huard.

“The key for me to have success in my roles with both SPRI and UT Health is the collaboration we have between the two organizations,” said Dr. Huard. “They are quite different in structure but in the end, we work well together and help us use the scientific research to help people heal faster and age better in today’s world.”

The differences are pretty apparent.

“UT Health is part of one of the biggest – if not the very biggest – medical centers in the world at the Medical Center in Houston. There are many large universities and medical schools there and some of the finest hospitals in specialized areas, like the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Texas Heart Institute, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University and the Texas Children’s Hospital.

“While UT Health is publicly-funded and massive in scope,” added Dr. Huard, “SPRI is a private research institute that partners with one of the country’s top orthopaedic surgical clinics in the Steadman Clinic. SPRI specializes in translational medicine and its laboratories are very useful to the variety of studies that my team does in our stem cell research.”

Dr. Huard was recruited by both SPRI and UT Health from his long-standing position at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. It was the collaborative effort between SPRI and UT Health that made his transition to his new roles possible.

“Moving to Houston and having the basic science lab there to go along with the clinical translation lab in Vail is an ideal setup,” said Dr. Huard. “When I moved, this is exactly how I envisioned setting it up. At the end of the day, it’s nothing new from what I had in Pittsburgh. It’s just that we’re in two different locations and have a multitude of unique attributes associated with each lab.

“My labs in Vail and in Houston are very much the same,” said Dr. Huard. “The lab in Houston – like the resources there – is bigger and we have roughly 25 to 30 people working on a daily basis.  In Vail, we have maybe 10-12 people on staff.  In Houston, we are more focused on the basic science and research while in Vail we add the component of translational medicine.  My guess is that the ratio in Houston is about 75 percent science and 25 percent translational, with the percentages likely reversed in Vail.

“The two labs are complementary and do work together,” added Dr. Huard. “In fact, we had a few lab researchers from Vail attend the recent symposium in Houston and will have some people from UT Health participating in our Scientific Summit in August in Vail.”

One of the top subjects in Dr. Huard’s labs involves the study of aging and that was the featured point of discussion at the recent event in Houston.  Dr. Huard and his team focus on three theories common in today’s study of aging.

“Why do we age?” asks Dr. Huard. “One reason is that stem cells and blood vessels die out and decrease as we get older. Every cell has an internal clock and we are researching ways to manipulate that clock and make it run longer so that the cell and the people who are made up of those cells can live longer.”

The second theory centers around exercise. “Exercise helps to promote blood vessels,” added Dr. Huard. “So, with each and every day that you exercise you are basically delaying aging by building and creating new blood vessels that contain stem cells.”

The third key factor is inflammation. “Virtually all the diseases associated with aging – Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, all the forms of arthritis – are due in part to inflammation,” said Dr. Huard. “So a lot of people believe that that best way to delay aging is to block inflammation.”

While much research is done on those three theories in the labs at UT Health in Houston, the results are most often tested and diagnosed in the labs at the translational clinic at SPRI.

“Both labs are state-of-the-art,” said Dr. Huard, “and they give us the opportunity to study our findings in two distinctive settings. One benefit we have in Vail is that we are only two-and-a-half hours away from a surgical center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins where we can document some of our findings on large animals.  The horses and other larger animals are being treated and cared for at a facility large enough to handle their needs. We don’t have this capability yet at the Texas Medical Center in the middle of Houston but we do at CSU.”

The feature that helps to set the lab at SPRI apart is its focus on stem cell research and the banking of stem cells.

“Take for instance, the advancements we can make in our study of aging at the clinic at SPRI,” said Dr. Huard. “We can take healthy and younger stem cells from people, freeze them and then bank them for future use.  One day after we freeze those cells, they are one day younger and it multiplies from there.”

Translational medicine applications are not just limited to the labs and clinic at SPRI, though.

“Cancer is an aging disease,” said Dr. Huard. “Sure, there are many young people afflicted by various forms of cancer but the vast majority of cancer patients are older people. Much of our research leads to results that can be applied to treating cancer patients. We have one of the finest cancer facilities in the world right down the street from our Houston lab in the MD Anderson Cancer Clinic at the Texas Medical Center. That is another benefit of having our labs in two different locations with various resources.”

While Dr. Huard’s labs are similar in most ways, there is one distinct difference – funding.

“Much of the funding for our lab in Houston comes from segments of the federal government,” said Dr. Huard. “We get grants from the NIH (National Institutes of Health), NIA (National Institute on Aging), the Department of Defense – all major departments in Washington, D.C.

“Our primary source of funding at SPRI in Vail, though, is from private donors,” continued Huard. “Philanthropy is the critical source of our existence.  SPRI is not a public institution like the University of Texas Health System. In Vail, we have to present our studies and our mission to potential donors in the private sector and make professional appeals for financial support.

“While we have to go about our funding in distinctly different ways,” said Dr. Huard, “the end result and goal is the same as we search for new ways to help people age better and healthier and recover from surgery and illness more quickly.”

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