RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas (ValleyCentral) — The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was recently awarded a grant to study human genotype by environment interaction.

The study’s focus highlights how the environment affects people’s genes in different ways.

“Two people can differ just on the basis of their underlying genetics,” said Statistical Geneticist and UTRGV professor John Blangero.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, provided $8 million to UTRGV.

The genetics research happening here is taking a different approach to this project. The research team is engineering new human cells.

“For this project, we’re making both brain cells, and we’re making lung cells. And we’re making those both from blood cells,” Blangero said.

He said all of the blood cells came from a very large study of Mexican-American families and because they are from families, researchers had a better chance of understanding the genetic basis for how the cells would respond.

Blangero said they introduced Benzo[a]pyrene, a common air pollutant, to the lung cells in order to see how the cells would metabolize and respond to it.

“That pollutant is in all air pollution. All humans come in contact with Benzo[a]pyrene. It is a known genotoxic compound. By that, I mean it literally damages DNA,” he said.

Blangero said this was one of the largest grants ever awarded for biomedical research at UTRGV. He said they had to rely on funding from the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation to purchase equipment and prove it would work, before receiving money from the NIH.

Blangero added that, for a variety of reasons, minority populations have been excluded from biomedical research, which he finds unfortunate because some of the things they are studying were population-specific.

“The statistical data telling us what sort of issues and health problems and things that we see with the Hispanic community, that drives our research. Because that’s our community,” said Can Saygin, the Senior Vice President for Research.

UTRGV is currently rated as an R-2 research university. Saygin said the university’s goal is to reach R-1 status in the next six years.

“If you think about it, 8-year-old UTRGV is targeting to become R-1,” Saygin said. “That’s a big challenge, but at the same time, it’s very exciting.”

Saygin said being on the cutting edge of research helped attract new students to campus.

“Students would like to be part of something exciting,” he said. “So, when I recruit students, we need to get our name out there and this is one of the best ways to get our name out there.”