Spring 2017
Physiology & Cell Biology Ranked 17th in U.S. for Research Funding

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Kent Sanders

Kent Sanders, Ph.D., chair of the physiology and cell biology department. Photo by Jean Dixon.

Department strong in smooth muscle biology research

By Dean Schermerhorn, APR

As one of several basic science departments contributing to the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine’s research portfolio, the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology recently earned national recognition ranking 17th overall in the U.S. for research funding within medical school physiology departments in 2015.

The ranking, conducted by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research, tallied up all National Institutes of Health funding and ranked departments accordingly.

“For a small school, 17th is a good ranking,” said Kenton Sanders, Ph.D., department chair.

Sanders himself conducts research in smooth muscle biology, with projects in gastroenterology and urology. Several additional scientists in his department have independent funding and projects on topics related to the gastrointestinal and urogenital tracts.

“We have a Program Project Grant on gastrointestinal motility in its 28th year that funds multiple investigators. That grant will be finished in two years. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) has decided not to accept any more competitive renewals on this program,” said Sanders.

So, Sanders collaborated with Sang Don Koh, M.D., Ph.D. in the department and submitted a new Program Project Grant on the bladder to a different division of the NIDDK.

“We are hoping to utilize many things we learned about visceral smooth muscles of the GI tract for studies of the bladder. NIH has liked this cross-fertilization approach,” said Sanders. He explained that smooth muscle biology is a major focus of his department’s research.

“All of the hollow organs of the body, except your heart, have muscle cells in their walls to make the diameter change, like in blood vessels or the airways. These very small muscle cells produce a force to make the muscles contract,” he said.

He explained that when we eat, the muscles in the gastrointestinal tract become more active, grind up the food in the stomach, and move it along in the small bowel in an orderly way so that it can absorb more nutrients. The colon stores waste products until it become convenient to defecate.

“Another really interesting thing is that, like the heart, the GI tract has pacemaker cells. There is a spontaneous electrical rhythm going on all the time in organs like the stomach, small intestine and colon, and the pacemaker drives electrical activity, which then drives the contractile activity to produce the appropriate kinds of contractions,” said Sanders. The pacemaker cells are called the interstitial cells of Cajal.

This research could contribute to understanding diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, colitis and diabetes.

“Many people face gastrointestinal motility disorders,” Sanders noted. “For example, chronic constipation is a problem, particularly in older people. There is a disorder called gastroparesis that is common in patients who have had long-standing diabetes. In the bladder, overactive bladder is a common disease in older adults and in younger women as well. We are trying to find out what causes these abnormalities.”

Sanders leads a department that is a worldwide leader in this research.

Among the research leaders in the department, Sanders named Wei Yan, M.D., Ph.D., who leads a laboratory with focus on reproductive biology.

“He works on sperm development and has an effort to develop an effective male contraceptive. He has been honored for his many contributions to research and service to journals and NIH study sections.”

There is also an emphasis in the department on neuroscience and two young investigators have been hired recently to develop this area. Tom Gould, Ph.D., works on glial cells that support motor neurons and have a role in regulating neuromuscular transmission. Robert Renden, Ph.D. is studying neurotransmitter release to better understand how neurons release substances to communicate with other neurons and cells.

In addition to its strong research rankings, the department provides a broad education in basic science to medical students. “We have produced a lot of good students who have gone on to terrific faculty positions on four continents. That is a source of pride,” said Sanders.

Instructors teach topics such as physiology and anatomy, which include all of the organ systems, and a full dissection course. The department also offers courses in histology and neuroscience.

The quality of instruction in anatomy has been singled out by medical students year after year, and they have awarded the department the Outstanding Basic Science Department award for the past 10 years.