Horner Lab Moves To Houston

Posted by Sam Maddox in Research News on August 01, 2015 # Research

Veteran spinal cord injury researcher Philip Horner, Ph.D., has been named scientific director for The Houston Methodist Neurological Institute’s new Center for Neuroregenerative Medicine.

Horner began his research career at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA; there he was an Associate in the Reeve Foundation International Research Consortium On Spinal Cord Injury. He comes to Houston from the University of Washington School of Medicine. He was a professor of stem cell biology and neural repair in the Department of Neurological Surgery and was affiliated with UW's Institute for Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine.

Horner’s research focuses on the manipulation of a patient's own stem cells to regenerate cells damaged or lost following traumatic injuries. "We are learning that many of the controls that make the spinal cord shut down after injury can be manipulated,” he said. “We can come up with therapies targeting those systems and return function to many who are paralyzed."

We caught up with Horner, back in Seattle; he’s still in the process of moving his lab, and family, across the country.

Q. How did this new job come about? You saw a listing? Got recruited?

A. I got an invitation from a former colleague from UW to give a seminar at Houston Methodist. He said to me, there’s a great job here for the right person. I told him I was happy, that I always planned to retire in Seattle. I wasn’t looking for a job. So I gave the talk. I was very impressed with the Texas Medical Center campus. It’s a remarkable congregation of medical institutions, with great research, great science. But I still wasn’t thinking about a position there.

I went back home. The next step was that the CEO of the research institute asked me if I had a research plan in place. I had written a proposal, a very specifically targeted project to bring cell therapy and electrical stimulation to quadriplegics, with a focus on hand function. I was in the process of raising funds for this project. A week later he sent my plan back to me with dollar amounts next to each goal. He said to me, ‘Come Houston and you can stop fund raising. You can get started.’

Obviously Methodist was very serious about translational science. They have made a financial commitment, and cultural one, to develop therapies, not just in the nervous system but for many conditions. I was very happy in Seattle but I decided this is a real opportunity to move faster, to move more in the realm of patients.

Q. Dr. Robert Grossman, who’s been a key advisor to the Reeve Foundation regarding clinical trials, showed me around the Texas Medical Center a few years ago. I’ve never seen anything like it, the density of medical expertise in one area, including universities, hospitals, research institutes. Something like 7000 hospital beds.

A. It blows you away when you see what’s there. My new research institute is across the street from Baylor College of Medicine, right down the street from the MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Texas Children’s Hospital. Once Houston Methodist decided it wanted to lead medicine in many areas, they realized they needed great research; they used to partner with Baylor for research but they decided to forge this on their own. They had a sort of moon shaped piece of land in the back of the emergency room. Some suggested building the research institute a few blocks away, where there was more room. But stakeholders and the board said, no, you have to put the research right in the hospital if you want to do translational research. Scientists need to be running into physicians in the hallways. Our brand new building is literally the front door to the emergency room for Houston Methodist. The ER is the valet entrance to our labs.

Q. Speaking of Dr. Grossman, he’s there at Methodist, do you see him?

A. Dr. Grossman is right down the hall. He was a big figure in my recruitment; he has been a wonderful host, introducing me to people and integrating me into the community.

Q. Moving, ugh. It’s no fun to move across town. Did you get to bring along staff from Seattle?

A. I invited everybody; some of the Northwesterners were tied to the region and couldn’t relocate. About a third of the staff did come along. And yes, it is a headache, especially the downtime. Luckily, I have maintained good relations with UW. They agreed to keep me on as an affiliate, which allows us to keep several projects running, using students and post-docs. This way we honor our commitments. For the most part what we are bringing with us to Houston are cells, software and technology, maybe a small number of microscopes. Our new equipment is just arriving. We are getting out of boxes and putting cells in freezers.

Q. Time becomes more precious, yes?

A. We are setting up the lab, hiring staff; I have funding, for example, to add six early-career scientists in strategic disciplines. It all takes a tremendous amount of time. The typical reality when one moves a lab is that you lose six months of productivity and that for a full year the lab won’t be fully up and running efficiently. That’s frightening, thinking about a whole year with no output.

Q. What about your grant funding, some of that follows you, right?

A. Yes. For certain NIH grants, it’s pretty straightforward – they transfer, and if you are a co-PI [principal investigator] you split it. For other grants it gets more complicated. I have a military grant, for example, that doesn’t just transfer. All the indirect costs have to be renegotiated; we have a year to do so and will be as strategic as possible to see what parts of the grant will move to Houston.

Q. I will ask about your science projects in a moment. I was wondering how you, as an avowed bicyclist, are adjusting to what is certainly a more car-centric city in Houston, compared to Seattle.

A. I didn’t even own a car in Seattle so I guess I’ll have to get one. There are a number of bike paths in Houston but one thing they don’t have is bikeways on the main thoroughfares. I’ve been biking from my apartment to Methodist; there is potential that this could be a good city for bikes. I have an amazing amount of wet weather gear so I could ride in wet and cold weather. I can throw all that out now.

Q. Now, what are your science priorities?

A. My main goal is to combine cell engineering and electrical stimulation, to form new nerve circuitry. As a clinical targets, we really want to address hand function.

Q. You did some of this work with Chet Moritz at UW. Will you continue to collaborate?

A. I am certain we will; I’m sure we will apply for grants together. Also, I’m hoping to develop an in-residency program at Methodist, to bring in outside expertise for hands-on projects. In scientific collaboration, the glue usually proximity. If there’s no proximity, then there needs to be a little money. So Chet and I are losing proximity but we have some resources to maintain our relationship. Our fields – mine in stem cells and his in stimulation – are both very strong and very exciting. But the fields don’t communicate at all. The physiologist and the molecular biologist speak two different languages. The question of how stimulation influences cell integration or how it can be used to drive circuitry from the spinal cord, those have not been addressed by any publication. This is the birth of a new field. Chet and I will have to work together.

Q. Your time in the Reeve Consortium ... certainly that instilled in you the value of collaboration and discussion.

A. Yes. Those of us who were Associates in the early days, we realized spinal cord injury is a very difficult problem; we weren’t going to solve it next month. We worked together to create new insight or new thought. One way to do that is to talk to people in different disciplines – which is what the Consortium provided us. It allowed us to sit down and just talk, something we don’t often get the chance to do. Communication without expectation – it’s a unique thing. I still have an affinity for that. And of course I still have relationships with the other Associates. We publish together. I just wrote a grant with another former Associate.

Q. Good luck.

A. Thanks.

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