UTHealth alumnus to be honored for pioneering brain cancer research

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Brain surgeon E. Antonio

Brain surgeon E. Antonio "Nino" Chiocca, M.D., Ph.D., has been named the 2011 Distinguished Alumnus of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston. (Photo credit: Ohio State University Medical Center)

HOUSTON - (Oct. 11, 2011) - Viruses have a bad reputation. But, the 2011 Distinguished Alumnus for The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston says viruses have a good side, too.

In fact, E. Antonio “Nino” Chiocca, M.D., Ph.D., believes genetically-altered viruses may one day help doctors treat brain tumors. Following extensive tests in animal models, these tumor-killing viruses are now being evaluated in patient trials.

“We are trying to make viruses that kill tumors in the brain but leave the working part of the brain alone,” said Chiocca (pronounced kee-OH-ka), who is the first chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.

The UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences will honor Chiocca as its 2011 Distinguished Alumnus at a dinner on Friday, Oct. 21 in the Texas Medical Center. The school is a major training center for scientists and is overseen by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Equally at home in a laboratory or operating room, Chiocca was among the first to enroll in the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences M.D./Ph.D.  Program, which allows students to earn a medical degree from the UTHealth Medical School and a doctoral degree from the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in about seven years.

“I had a hard time choosing between science and health care. I liked science. On the other hand I wanted to be a physician because I wanted to help patients. I got to do both,” said Chiocca, who operates on approximately 200 people with brain cancer a year.

“Dr. Chiocca has in many ways epitomized the goal of our M.D./Ph.D. Program, which is to educate talented young people and to equip them as physician-scientists to make important contributions to the diagnosis and treatment of disease,” said Peter Davies, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the UTHealth Medical School and a member of the faculty at the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

“Dr. Chiocca has been a national leader in the development of novel therapies for the treatment of brain cancer. He has made major contributions to neuro-oncology through his work on the development of genetically-engineered viruses that can serve as the equivalent of guided missiles, targeting brain cancer cells and delivering genetic information that can rapidly and efficiently lead to their destruction,” Davies said.

After receiving his dual graduate degrees in 1988, Chiocca moved to Massachusetts, where he served as an associate professor of neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. In 2004, he accepted a position at Ohio State, where he also is the holder of the Dardinger Family Professorship of Oncologic Neurosurgery.

Born in Padua, Italy, Chiocca moved to the United States when his father, who served in the Italian military, received a NATO assignment at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas. Chiocca enrolled in the University of Texas at El Paso and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1982.

A summer internship program at MD Anderson during his sophomore year sparked his interest in science.  During graduate school, impressed by his neuroscience course work, he gravitated toward a career in neurosurgery.

Chiocca’s medical career has focused on the treatment of a particularly lethal form of brain cancer - glioma. Chiocca’s research is centered on better understanding how brain tumors develop and enhancing treatments.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 22,340 malignant tumors of the brain or spinal cord will be diagnosed this year and about 13,110 people will die from these tumors.

Chiocca, whose research laboratory has received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Cancer Institute for more than 15 years, is an elected member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation and a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a recipient of the 2007 Grass Prize in Neurosurgery and the 2008 Farber Award, two prestigious awards from the national neurosurgery and neuro-oncology societies, respectively. He also is a member of the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee and a co-leader of the Viral Oncology Program at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. He has authored or coauthored more than 200 articles and book chapters and holds multiple patents.

Chiocca is one of 2,148 graduates of the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. “The UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences is known for educating students to think –and that process invariably helps them discover the answers necessary in the biological sciences to solve the complexities of disease,” said George Stancel, Ph.D., dean and holder of the John P. McGovern GSBS Endowed Professorship at the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and executive vice president for Academic and Research Affairs at UTHealth. 

Chiocca and his wife Charlotte live in Columbus along with their four children.

For information on the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, call 713-500-9850.

Rob Cahill
Media Hotline: 713-500-3030