By Jennifer L. Berghom
RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – David Goldblatt, a second-year medical student at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, is one of 66 students in the nation to receive the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Medical Research Fellows Award for the 2018-2019 academic year.
The HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program provides students financial support for one year of full-time, mentored research training in fundamental biomedical research. Awards are given to medical, dental and veterinary students who are interested in biomedical research and have previous wet-laboratory research experience.
Goldblatt will be conducting research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center on whether a specific immune stimulant could protect against asthma and other allergic disease. His yearlong fellowship begins in June.
“We are working on a model of asthma in mice. However, the underlying concept that I’m studying is a phenomenon called atopy, a phenomenon that binds food allergy, asthma, hay fever, eczema and anaphylaxis,” he said. “Atopy is the predilection to have these other illnesses, so by studying this, we might better understand the disease process.”
He said that, while people who are atopic might have eczema or food allergy when they are younger, most probably will outgrow it. A minority, though, will progress to more severe disease such as asthma. This progression has been referred to as the atopic march.
“They seem to be a runaway train towards more severe disease,” he said. Goldblatt said he plans to build upon research he participated in while working at MD Anderson, before entering medical school, to determine whether the same immune stimulant can be used to protect patients against viruses that can exacerbate asthma.
“This type of asthma research fell into my lap,” he said. “I had always wanted to do cancer research, but I was interested in immunology, too.”
After spending about seven years on immunology research, Goldblatt said, he fell in love with it. “It’s given me reason to think that, maybe instead of oncology, I’ll do immunology, asthma and allergy clinically,” he said.
He hopes his acceptance into the HHMI fellowship will open the door to other medical students at UTRGV who have an interest in conducting research, and spur more research into health issues that affect the Rio Grande Valley.
“Hospital rates for asthma in Rio Grande Valley are really high and it’s unclear why,” he said. “Maybe what I learn during the fellowship can be brought back to understand why this may be happening.” Goldblatt said he is grateful to the HHMI and the UTRGV School of Medicine for this opportunity to advance his career goal of being a physician-scientist.
“This is something that is going to put me on a trajectory to do the career that I want to do,” he said. “That career is extremely competitive and the people who work in it are the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. I’m going to need all the help I can get to get to that level, and this is another way to make it happen.”
Leaders at the School of Medicine expressed their support of and excitement for Goldblatt’s acceptance into the HHMI fellowship.
Dr. John H. Krouse, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine and executive vice president for Health Affairs at UTRGV, said Goldblatt’s acceptance into the HHMI fellowship exemplifies the medical school’s mission to train and expand research opportunities for future physicians and biomedical scientists. “His participation in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s fellowship will not only strengthen his research abilities, but also contribute to asthma-related research, a study topic that is relevant to this community,” Krouse said. “The asthma hospitalization rate for children in the Rio Grande Valley is the highest in the state. His research is novel and will have the potential to decrease the development and expression of respiratory atopic diseases such as allergic rhinitis and asthma.” Dr. Andrew Tsin, associate dean for Research at the UTRGV School of Medicine, said the HHMI fellowship is a wonderful opportunity for Goldblatt. “The HHMI fellowship is a highly prestigious and nationally recognized program,” Tsin said. “For David to compete successfully and be awarded a fellowship promotes his agenda of combining research and practicing medicine. And it also elevates our school’s status in producing somebody of this caliber to be recognized nationally. It’s a win-win for all of us.”