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Pharmacology & Toxicology

History of the Toxicology Training Program at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center-Science Park Research Division

Reprinted with permission from the Society of Toxicology (SOT).  The original article was commissioned by SOT in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the society.

Submitted by:

John H. Richburg, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Division Head
Director, Center for Molecular and Cellular Toxicology

The University of Texas at Austin
College of Pharmacy
Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology
1 University Station, A1915
Austin, Texas 78712-0125

The College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), where the present day Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology resides, was established in 1893 in Galveston, Texas. Classes began on October 3rd of that year in the recently erected Main Medical building that is now affectionately referred to as "Old Red." During those early years the profession of pharmacy and the training of pharmacists was rapidly evolving. It wasn't until 1920 that the status of the Pharmacy program was elevated to the College of Pharmacy. In 1927, the College of Pharmacy relocated to the UT-Austin campus as the college expanded. The College's graduate programs officially began in 1954 with the University's approval of the Ph.D. in the areas of pharmacy, pharmaceutical chemistry, pharmacognosy, and pharmacology. In 1960-61, increasing the support for the College's research programs became a focus of Dean Burlage, just before his retirement in 1962. As part of the effort to increase research in the college, Dr. John Autian, with assistance from Dr. Wallace Guess, in 1960 established the Drug Plastic Research Laboratory at the Balcones Research Center with a research program focused on the evaluation of the use of plastics in the practice of pharmacy. The research later included the investigation of the toxicity of plastics and their role in carcinogenesis, and the laboratory was renamed the Drug-Plastic and Toxicology laboratories in 1962. This organized research laboratory, with its focus on plastics, was the first of its kind. Autian received competitive grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the amount of $80,000, considered a sizable sum of grant money during that time, to support the research efforts of the college. The laboratory received continuous NIH funding until it was discontinued in 1972. In addition, the laboratory also received financial support from several other public and private sources. The research of the Drug-Plastic and Toxicology laboratories first established the College of Pharmacy's credibility as a research institution on both a national and international level. In retrospect, it is interesting to note that toxicology research in the College of Pharmacy began with the investigation of the toxic effects of agents used in the formulation of plastics, as there is renewed interest in plastics as potential sources of reproductive and endocrine toxicity, and this area of research is currently a priority focus of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of NIH and an active funded research focus of present faculty (John H. Richburg, Andrea C. Gore) in the Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

The origins of the present day toxicology-training program at UT-Austin can be traced back to the early 1980s. At that time, Dr. Daniel Acosta had developed an internationally recognized research program in cellular toxicology and Dr. Alan Combs at UT-Austin had an established research program in deciphering the mechanisms of drug-induced cardiotoxicity. As a result of their successes in toxicological research, the College of Pharmacy hired additional faculty (Jim Kehrer, Serrine Lau, Terrance Monks) with toxicology-related research programs. In addition, a number of toxicology-minded faculty (John DiGiovanni, Sue Fischer, Claudio Conti) were hired in the early 1980s at the nearby University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Department of Carcinogenesis, Science Park Research Division (UTMDACC-SPRD) in nearby Smithville, Texas. Connections between the programs at UT-Austin and UTMDACC-SPRD quickly coalesced as a result of the shared interest in toxicological research and graduate and postdoctoral training.

In 1983, Dr. Acosta was promoted to the rank of Professor, and by 1986 he had established a formal program in Biochemical Toxicology within the Drug Dynamics Institute of the College of Pharmacy. Dr. Acosta was named the Burroughs Wellcome Scholar in Toxicology for the years of 1986-1991 for his pioneering research in the use of primary cultured cell models to investigate mechanisms of xenobiotic-induced cell injury in liver, kidney, heart, and brain. This focus on cellular and biochemical mechanisms of toxicity, and Dr. Acosta's personal desire to provide a well-defined comprehensive toxicology program in the state of Texas, served as the catalyst for the growing interactions between faculty from UT-Austin and UTMDACC-SPRD, and launched the first efforts to formalize a training program in toxicology between the two institutions. The first training grant application, led by Dr. Acosta, was submitted to the NIEHS for support of pre- and postdoctoral fellows at the two institutions. This grant, entitled "Mechanisms of organ-specific toxicity of xenobiotics," was awarded in July of 1990. Dr. Acosta served as the first principal investigator of this training program and, because of his Hispanic ethnic background, provided one of the earliest highly visible national role models for minority students with research aspirations in toxicology and the biomedical sciences.

The toxicology-training program has always been tightly focused on deciphering mechanisms of toxicity. However, the exact theme of the training program has evolved with each of the three directors that have overseen this program. Under Dr. Acosta's leadership, the training program specifically focused on the mechanisms of organ-specific toxicity. In the fall of 1996, after Dr. Acosta left UT-Austin to become the Dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Lau was appointed as the director of the toxicology program. Under her leadership, the program expanded and took on a more interdisciplinary focus. The number of participating training grant faculty expanded to 17 and included new faculty from the Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology (John H. Richburg, Gary Miller) and the Department of Carcinogenesis (Robin Fuchs-Young, David Johnson, Mike McLeod, Dean Tang, Karen Vasquez, Cheryl Walker), as well as faculty from diverse programs on the UT-Austin campus including Medicinal Chemistry (Kevin Dalby, Lawrence Hurley) and Nutrition (Bob Sanders, Kimberly Kline). In September of 2003, Dr. Lau left the University of Texas to lead the NIEHS-supported Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of Arizona and Dr. Richburg was appointed as director. Under Dr. Richburg's leadership, the training program, now titled "Training in molecular toxicology and environmental disease," was refocused to emphasize the mechanistic evaluation of toxicants at the molecular and cellular levels, as well as the contemporary NIEHS-supported areas of endocrine disruption, environmental carcinogenesis, and diet, energy balance and environmental disease risk. These areas were supported by the research of new faculty hires in the Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology (Shawn B. Bratton, Andrea C. Gore, Edward 'Ted' Mills, Carla Van Den Berg) as well as new faculty participants from the Department of Nutrition (Steve Hursting), Marine Science (Peter Thomas), and UTMDACC-SPRD (Mark Bedford). Dr. Richburg also restructured the academic training requirements to ensure that all trainees gain a fundamental understanding of contemporary toxicology principles and methodology, as well as placing emphasis on community engagement and public communication.

Over the last twenty years the UT-Austin and UTMDACC-SPRD toxicology training program has been highly successful in preparing highly qualified and competitive pre- and post-doctoral students for careers in the field of toxicology and environmental health sciences in academia, industry, and government. At present, seven of our past trainees have faculty positions (Rosita Rodriguez, Russell B. Melchert, Evenlyn Li-Stiles, R. Tim Miller, Heather Kleiner, John D. Robertson, and Shawn B. Bratton) and are providing training opportunities in their laboratories for future biomedical scientists.

A unique aspect of the UT-Austin and UTMDACC-SPRD toxicology-training program is that the training faculty and students are located on two different campuses. In fact, since the very first submission of the training grant, and for every renewal, reviewers have questioned this as a possible weakness of the training program. However, this training program has continuously benefitted from UT-Austin's leadership in the development, and early adoption, of state-of-the-art distance learning and communication technology. This has enabled students to take courses on either campus and to easily collaborate with faculty and students on both campuses. The location of research cores at both geographical sites has also facilitated interdisciplinary interactions among faculty, fellows, and students on the two campuses. The effortless integration of cutting-edge communications technologies by our faculty and students has enhanced their competitiveness and success in the increasingly connected global scientific community.

Over the years, the formal NIEHS-supported training program has served to facilitate the interaction of the participating faculty and students and has led to the development of numerous collaborative projects. One project that arose from the collaboration efforts of the toxicology-training faculty and has had an immense impact on our training program was the development of the Center for the Research on Environmental Disease (CRED). Dr. John DiGiovanni of UTMDACC-SPRD spearheaded the development of the CRED and served as the Director and Principal Investigator of this NIEHS funded P30 Center from its initial award in 1996 to the present. The CRED involves members from the UTMDACC (Houston and Smithville) and UT-Austin. All toxicology training faculty are active P30 Center members. The Center grant strengthens research collaborations among the members by supporting facility cores that provide technical expertise and advanced instrumentation to scientists on participating campuses. In addition, the CRED also provides resources to promote collaborative pilot projects in areas that support the mission of the NIEHS. The formation of the CRED has played a significant role in the success of faculty and student research over the last 14 years. One of the greatest benefits is that the CRED continually supports the inclusion of new technologies and ideas to provide its member scientists the ability to maintain a state-of-the art research program. An example of this has been the recent NIH/NIEHS focus on translation science. In response to this focus, the CRED developed a new integrative health sciences core to provide infrastructure and an interactive environment to promote and facilitate productive collaborations among environmental health, population, basic, and clinical scientists to test cutting-edge hypotheses in integrative translational research on environmental disease. The faculty and staff of the integrative health sciences core come from both UTMDACC and new CRED faculty participants from the University of Texas School of Public Health (UTSPH) who have extensive experience in conducting population-based research. All center members now have access to populations, biospecimen repositories, and data banks from population-based and clinical studies. The access afforded to our trainees and training faculty to these expert environmental and health sciences faculty and highly trained technical personnel, as well as to state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure encourages and supports our training faculty to incorporate translational integrative approaches into their research and training of students.

Another example of a project that arose from the collaboration of the training faculty is the Summer Undergraduate Training Program (SURP), established 1996 with a focus on the training of minority students and actively supported by a T35 grant from the NIH/NIEHS for ten years. Regrettably, NIH ended this funding mechanism for minority undergraduate research experiences. However, in 2007, Dr. Richburg and Dr. Fuchs-Young collaborated as co-investigators to successfully garner support for the SURP by the R25 STEER grant mechanism. The SURP provides structured laboratory experiences for undergraduate students as well as a variety of career development activities. More than 210 students have participated in the SURP since its inception in 1996. The vast majority of these students subsequently entered graduate programs in toxicology or related biomedical sciences. The summer training of undergraduate students, and in particular minority students, continues to be highly supported by our toxicology-training faculty as a mechanism to foster the interest of students towards a career in toxicology or related biomedical sciences.

In January of 2000, under the vision of Dr. Monks, the Center for Molecular and Cellular Toxicology (CMCT) was founded as an official organized research unit at UT-Austin as a mechanism to organize and oversee the numerous interdisciplinary toxicology training and research programs. The CMCT is an interdisciplinary center with the mission of providing leadership for the expansion of programs of excellence in environmental health sciences education and research. The CMCT fosters interdisciplinary graduate training in toxicology by providing resources to enhance all aspects of the graduate student experience, including student fellowships, travel to scientific meetings, and a world class seminar program. The CMCT also provides a formal infrastructure that allows for undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students from various academic departments to directly interact with faculty and students with research interests in toxicology. Faculty members of the CMCT represent a wide variety of scientific disciplines and/or departments (pharmacology, toxicology, medicinal chemistry, neuroscience, nutrition, molecular biology, carcinogenesis, marine biology, and engineering). Dr. Richburg has served as the director of the CMCT since 2005 and, under his direction, the CMCT has been instrumental in fostering the growth and support of the pre- and post-doctoral toxicology program, as well as promoting an increase in faculty research in toxicology on the UT-Austin campus.

An account of the toxicology program at UT-Austin would be remiss if it failed to mention the strong and supportive leadership of the College of Pharmacy (COP) that provided the resources and commitment to promote a program of excellence in toxicology. The contemporary toxicology program that exists today was influenced by three very supportive Deans of the COP. Dr. James T. Doluisio served as Dean from 1973-1998, Dr. Steven Leslie from 1998-2007, and Dr. M. Lynn Crismon from 2007- present. As is evident in the following sections, it is clear that the toxicology program's successes and continued growth would not have been possible without the strong commitment and backing of each of these Deans.

Soon after his appointment, Dean Doluisio worked diligently to convince the UT-Austin central administration to allow for an increase in the number of new basic science faculty positions to support the graduate education and research mission of the college. In 1974, Dr. Acosta was the first toxicology faculty member hired by Dean Doluisio. The expanding basic research faculty of the College put a strain on research space. One of Dean Doluisio's substantial achievements was gaining the approval of the board of regents for a new research and education building that was completed in 1980. Toxicology faculty members recruited to the college by Dean Doluisio in the 1980s included Drs. Kehrer, Lau, and Monks, and in the 1990s, Dr. Richburg. The research programs of each of these faculty members flourished with the support of the Dean in providing resources for needed equipment and additional laboratory space. Dean Doluisio also provided the critical administrative support and resources to support graduate students that allowed for both the successful award of the NIEHS training grant in 1990 and the NIEHS-supported Center grant in 1996.

Upon Dean Doluisio's retirement in 1998, Dr. Steven Leslie was appointed Dean of the college. Dean Leslie continued to strongly support the toxicology program and several new faculty were appointed during his service as Dean (Miller, Gore, Bratton, Mills and Van Den Berg). The creation of the CMCT as an official organized research unit at the University would not have been approved by the University administration without the strong backing of Dean Leslie. Furthermore, Dean Leslie put into place a recurring system for the College support of the CMCT as a mechanism to support the interdisciplinary training of predoctoral students in toxicology. Dean Leslie served in this position until January of 2007 when he accepted the position of Executive Vice President and Provost of UT-Austin.

Dr. M. Lynn Crismon served as Dean Interim until the Fall of 2007 when he was appointed as Dean. In the short time since becoming the Dean of the College, Dean Crismon has helped to orchestrate the most substantial growth in the program since the late 1980s. During his first year as Dean, he provided increases in support of the toxicology program that were necessary to gain the renewals of the CRED center grant and the toxicology training grant during a very competitive funding environment. Dr. Casey Wright was hired in 2008 for his research in inflammatory cell signaling and its connection to lymphoma development. In 2009, Dean Crismon, with the full support of Provost Leslie, has facilitated exciting new growth and expansion of the toxicology program through the acquisition of new research space and focused additional hires in the area of environmental carcinogenesis, with a particular focus on pediatric cancers. Presently under construction is a new wing of the biomedical engineering research building that will provide laboratory space for eight investigators from the college. This space will provide updated laboratories for each of the existing toxicology faculty. In addition, Dean Crismon has secured laboratory space for investigators in the new Dell Pediatric Research Institute located adjacent to the Dell Pediatric Children's Hospital in Austin.  The recent recruitment of Dr. John DiGiovanni to the toxicology program and the University's commitment for three additional faculty lines in the area of carcinogenesis will ensure the continued growth and expansion of the toxicology program in the years to come.

The Society of Toxicology (SOT) has played a central role in enhancing the success of our toxicology program by providing a platform for interaction and collaboration with other toxicologists. Our training faculty have strongly supported the Society through committee service as well as by taking on leadership roles including service as president of the Society (Acosta & Walker). In addition, one of our toxicology trainees has served as SOT president (Ken Ramos). Faculty and students of our toxicology-training program have been active participants in the annual meetings of the SOT and, in particular, the Mechanisms Specialty Section. Drs. Kehrer, Monks, and Lau are all past presidents of this specialty section. Finally, UT-Austin and UTMDACC-SPRD are founding members of the Gulf Coast Regional Chapter of the Society of Toxicology. This organization has served as an important professional organization for fostering the development of our pre- and post-doctoral toxicology students by providing them with a venue to present their research, and faculty and student colleagues to help guide them during their training.

On this 50th anniversary of the Society of Toxicology, I believe that the reflections from its early leaders will show that the success and growth of the Society has been rooted in SOT's effective role in facilitating interactions and collaborations amongst faculty, students, and scientists. The UT-Austin and UTMDACC-SPRD toxicology-training program has a similar biography and has developed and flourished alongside the SOT over the last 30 years. From the program's humble beginnings, under Dr. Acosta's leadership in the 1980s, the initial interactions of a small nucleus of faculty with shared collaborative research interests and the desire to create a program of excellence in toxicology education has led to the development of the well-respected training program that exists today. As a result, the toxicology-training program has provided the initial training of many of today's leaders in the field of toxicology and, consequently, has contributed significantly to the strength of the toxicology profession worldwide.

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Last Reviewed: February 24, 2010

Division Information

Mailing Address:
Pharmacology & Toxicology
College of Pharmacy
The University of Texas
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Email Address: pharmtox

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