Thomas Y. Ma, M.D., Ph.D
Thomas Y. Ma, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Cell Biology and Molecular Medicine at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center and University of New Mexico (UNM), Albuquerque, received the National Institutes of Health's prestigious National Research Service Award for Outstanding Basic-Clinical Research.
Ma, chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at UNM, is recognized internationally for his research on defective intestinal barriers as one of the causes of inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
NIH cited MA specifically for "his pioneering work in intestinal tight junction barrier and introduction of innovative technical approaches and paradigm-shifting scientific concepts that greatly advanced the field."
"Tight junctions" are complexes of proteins found in epithelial cells, including those lining the intestines. They help hold cells together and control the passage of molecules between cells, acting as a barrier to maintain normal cell function.
When tight junctions become too "loose," the result is increased permeability in the gut. Whereas a normal gut absorbs only vital nutrients and keeps out harmful substances, a gut with defective tight junctions may allow in toxins or antigens that cause inflammation.
In a March 2015 article published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Ma's group looked at how autophagy—the process by which new cells replace old ones—enhances the tight junction barrier function and helps prevent the onset of inflammatory bowel disease.
Ma has been continuously funded through VA Merit Review awards since 1990.