Dr. Atul Chopra, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, was recently named a Caroline Wiess Law Scholar, an award designated to recruit and retain accomplished, young physician-scientists who have the potential to translate scientific discoveries into effective clinical applications.
The award funds researchers for $1 million over three years, with the expectation that the scientists will then have obtained sufficient funding to continue his/her work.
“The designation of Dr. Chopra as a Caroline Wiess Law Scholar represents a major recognition for his past and recent scientific achievements in metabolic diseases. This award will greatly enhance his career development to a position of national leadership in his field,” said Dr. Bert O’Malley, chair of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor.
Chopra’s work focuses on metabolism and energy homeostasis. He studies how energy enters the body and how it is used once it’s in the body. That usually involves an interplay between several organs and thus requires a whole-body experimental approach.
“One cannot isolate one organ – you have to pay attention to how one organ and its function is interconnected to other organs,” said Chopra. “How does energy flow in the whole body? That’s the most important question that we tackle in the lab.”
Chopra also works as a medical geneticist, focusing on patients with specific genetic problems related to consumption of energy, processing of energy and loss of energy. The problems usually manifest as a very high weight or very low weight.
Diagnosing the genetic mutation is the first step of the problem. The problem is then brought back to the lab to determine how that gene/protein affects the flow of energy. Chopra uses model systems to try and figure out the mechanism that connects that gene to body weight.
“The tools that we have in the clinic, namely whole exome sequencing and genome arrays, have made it easier to make a molecular diagnosis with a reasonable amount of certainty in a reasonable amount of time. In a few weeks we are able to come up with a genetic diagnosis in patients whose conditions have been mysteries all their lives,” said Chopra. “Then we take that knowledge to the lab to begin connecting the dots between the gene and how it controls the flow of energy in the body. Understanding such a fundamental process is potentially useful against scores of diseases including obesity, diabetes, cancer and neurodegeneration”.
Chopra was born and raised in India and completed his education through medical school there. He worked in clinical research in Austin, but wanted the opportunity to be more involved in the lab. He did graduate school research at Baylor, where he also completed his residency in medical genetics.
“It means a lot for me to receive the Caroline Wiess Law Scholar Award. An award like this allows physician-scientists to take a problem that begins in patients, bring it to the lab and try to improve our mechanistic understanding in the hope that something develops during that process that can serve as a treatment. It can impact not only the patients that you started off with, but also patients at the other landmarks of energy homeostasis.”
For instance, if one begins with extremely thin patients and tries to figure out what’s happening with them in the lab, it’s possible that the treatment target that you come up with could also benefit patients with obesity, he explained.
“This award continues the rich tradition of philanthropy that exists at Baylor College of Medicine and Houston and enhances the unique space physician-scientists operate in, with one foot in the clinic and the other in the lab. I believe that will be vital to solving some of the most difficult and impactful biomedical problems facing the nation today,” he said.
The late Caroline Wiess Law was a generous Houston philanthropist whose estate endowed the Scholar program. Her relationship with Baylor began in 1970 and continued until her death in 2003. Her generosity has benefitted many Baylor departments.