Roderic I. Pettigrew

The Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry
Texas A&M University Health Science Center

Roderic Pettigrew came to Texas two years ago from the National Institutes of Health, where he was the founding director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, to serve as executive dean for the new Engineering Medicine, or EnMed, collaboration between Texas A&M and Houston Methodist Hospital. Combining education, research and translation, the EnMed initiative welcomed its inaugural class this year to earn graduate degrees in both engineering and medicine through a blended four-year program.

“We are training people to be intellectually and conceptually fluent in multiple scientific languages across the whole landscape of medicine and engineering,” he explained. “The idea is that our graduates will have an integrated engineering and medicine mindset, with the tools to more fundamentally understand and solve big problems.”

Dr. Pettigrew’s background includes a master’s in engineering and a doctorate in applied radiation physics from MIT as well as an M.D. He applies this multidisciplinary background to his own research in cardiovascular regenerative medicine. His goal is to understand and develop treatments to inhibit the arteriolosclerosis that comes with aging.   

Working with John Cooke at Houston Methodist, their current project is exploring the blood-borne hemodynamic and physical factors important in the aging process. He calls it “mechanogenomics” – a new way of looking at the cells involved in accelerated aging. Over time, telomeres, the caps on the ends of chromosomes that protect against cell aging and death, wear away, leading to defects that can cause cellular dysfunction.

To better understand and potentially slow this process, the team is working with cells harvested from patients with progeria, a rare disease that causes extremely accelerated aging.

“With this condition, a child of 7 can look like a 70-year-old, and the average age of death is 14 from cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Pettigrew said.

In early work in the Cooke lab, they have been able to synthesize messenger RNA that codes for telomerases, showing improved function and the return of near normal morphology in progeria cells. Studies are ongoing now to measure, characterize and model the progeria cell before and after genetic therapy.

“Our goal is to understand the physiochemical signals that govern cell function in the human body,” he said, “including the structure and mechanical features critical in receiving the cues that tell the cells what to do. Chemical and biology are interwoven with physical features and parameters so it is important to look at the convergence of all these sciences in order to more fully understand human health and disease. From this more complete understanding should come more effective therapies and preventative strategies.”