College of Science

New Center to focus on solutions to chronic illnesses

The seeds for the Center of Excellence for the Study of Health and Chronic Illnesses at UT Arlington were sown nearly a decade ago.

Those seeds have now borne fruit in the Center, which was formally launched on January 1. The Center's purpose is to coordinate and stimulate biopsychosocial and medical research, as well as community-based education and prevention efforts pertaining to the causes and management of chronic illnesses.

The Center also includes the Dr. Andy Baum Memorial Bioassay Clinical Research Laboratory, which was the brainchild of the late Andrew Baum, a giant in the field of health psychology and UT Arlington psychology professor who died in 2010. The lab is named in his honor and can perform a variety of assays.

Robert Gatchel, Distinguished Professor and the Nancy P. & John G. Penson Endowed Professor of Clinical Health Psychology, is the director of the Center and has been working on its formation and implementation since coming to UT Arlington from UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas in 2004.

The Center was established in response to the changing health care landscape in the United States, Gatchel notes. It reflects marked changes in major health threats, from primarily infectious diseases - such as polio and tuberculosis - to chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, which affect millions of people today.

Modern chronic illnesses are caused in part by aging and lifestyle, and they present problems in management, prevention and treatment, the Center's website states. Stress, lack of exercise, diet, drug and tobacco use, and other psychosocial factors appear to contribute to "wear and tear" on the body, and to an acceleration of the aging process. Most of these factors can be modified, and this fact offers important new ways to reduce illness risks, as well as the personal, financial, and medical toll of many chronic illnesses. These changes in the nature of serious chronic illnesses pose a number of very important challenges for systematic study, evaluation, and intervention.

"This has been something I've been working toward since I came here," Gatchel said. "When I got to UT Arlington, one of my areas of expertise was chronic pain, which is associated with a large number of medical conditions. I had a lot of grants in that area, and I started thinking we could have a place here where important collaborative research could be done."

Another impetus for the Center's creation, Gatchel says, is UT Arlington's push towards becoming a Tier I research university. The amount of research expenditures is an important criterion in receiving Tier I status, and the Center's goal is to add significantly to the University's expenditure numbers.
"We're very pleased to have the Center up and running," Dean of Science Pamela Jansma said. "We feel it is well-positioned to have a significant impact in advancing what is known about chronic illness and ways to improve people's health through improved treatment. Dr. Gatchel has decades of experience in health psychology and his knowledge and connections make him the ideal person to be leading this effort. The Andy Baum Bioassay Lab is a wonderful memorial to our friend Dr. Baum, whose hard work helped make this all possible, along with all of Dr. Gatchel's efforts."

Gatchel says UT Arlington's central location in the Metroplex makes it the perfect place to house the Center. He wants to see it facilitate extensive collaboration between UT Arlington researchers and faculty members from UT Southwestern, UT Dallas, and the University of North Texas Health Science Center, located in Fort Worth.

Another goal Gatchel has for the Center is for it to be an interdisciplinary entity, encompassing research from a wide variety of fields such as those in science, nursing and engineering, among others.

"We're in the building stages now; we have some studies going and we have an advisory committee in place," Gatchel said. "We're working on trying to secure more grants and also working with the Development Office to encourage private donations."

The advisory committee is comprised of faculty members from the UT Arlington College of Science, College of Engineering, College of Nursing and College of Business, as well as faculty from UT Southwestern, UT Dallas,

Robert Gatchel, left, with members of the Center's research team and staff, in the Dr. Andy Baum Memorial Bioassay Clinical Research Laboratory.
Gatchel and Celeste Sanders in one of the Center's research rooms in the Life Science Building.

UNT Health Science Center, and Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas. Their expertise in a variety of fields will prove invaluable to the center's success, Gatchel said.
Gatchel recruited Baum, a good friend of his from their days together at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., to come to UT Arlington in 2006. Baum's extensive knowledge in the biobehavioral aspects of cancer causation, control and treatment was just what Gatchel wanted to help build the foundation of the new center he envisioned.

In 2010, the College of Science made an initial commitment to the Center with the allocation of 1,100 square feet of space along with funds to renovate that space. Also, Gatchel secured $300,000 from the very competitive UT System-wide STARS/Emerging Technology Fund program for the development of a comprehensive bioassay/genetics laboratory. Subsequently, the University provided seed money to help jump-start the center's administrative infrastructure in order to make it a highly visible Center of Excellence.

The Center's facilities consist of a large suite of laboratory/clinical research rooms that house personnel involved in research projects, as well as for subject assessment and treatment purposes. The center also conducts data management and quality assurance tasks.

The Center will also give students the opportunity to participate in case studies conducted at the center as research assistants, allowing them to gain valuable experience as they advance in their careers.

"In terms of giving them an environment to be involved in practical clinical research, this is the perfect place for that," Gatchel said.

Ultimately, Gatchel hopes that the Center will help with the development of more effective approaches to reduce the increasing burden of all forms of chronic illnesses in the United States, as the Center's website states.

"We have it all here; we're very well-situated logistically, and we have a lot of resources," Gatchel said. "I expect this to become one of the top centers for the study of health and chronic illness in the country."

Visit the Center's website at http://www.uta.edu/psychology/hci.

Posted March 12, 2013