Island medics’ team uncovers clues to birth defects cause

By Lora-Marie Bernard

TWO UTMB researchers in Galveston have uncovered a lineage mechanism in the zika virus that could help unravel the cause of horrible birth defects like unnaturally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.
As a result, their team has received a $3.7 million National Institutes Of Health grant to continue researching how host factors affect the way the mosquito-borne disease creates birth defects, exploring a global gene pool to see if it can locate a gene that blocks the effects of the virus.
If the team can reveal how genes in a particular lineage interact with the virus, it could help the medical community create vaccines or other treatments against the disease.
The two University Of Texas Medical Branch medics, one of whom specializes in neuroscience and cell biology and the other in pathology, combined their skills to lead a team that studied three lineages to see if they could discover the relationship between the virus and the way it impacts humans’ brain nerve cells.
Neuroscience and cell biology professor Ping Wu and associate pathology professor Nikos Vasilakis led the study, which found that one of the three lineages seems to be associated with the birth defects.
Vasilakis said the multidisciplinary approach towards the research helped the team find the new information and build on the existing knowledge of the recent zika epidemic and the birth defects the virus caused.
He said: “It was a great opportunity for us leveraging the many years of expertise”.
Wu said the study’s approach differed from others done by teams outside UTMB, which gave the Galveston study a fresh perspective from which it learned that, of the three lines they studied, one caused a deficit of brain nerve cells.
Vasilakis said the revelation could help researchers unravel how zika seems to randomly create birth defects, saying: “Not every woman that gets infected will deliver a baby with abnormalities.
“The rate is between one to 100 women infected will have a level of abnormality and that level of abnormality is a big spectrum.”
Wide range
He said damage from a zika infection can range from newborns with abnormal brains to babies with fully-developed brains who exhibit minor defects, such as speech or communication problems. Determining the cause of this wide range has been a stumbling block for researchers.
He said: “This study suggests that many mothers who are infected have kids that do not have any physical effects.
“It’s been mentioned in the grand scheme of things that there could be several factors associated with the human makeup that affects the outcome of the zika infection.”
Wu said the NIH grant funds will allow the team to build on the revelations it found in the lineage study and Vasilakis added that pinpointing a zika-infection-blocking gene could be a watershed moment for pregnant women, saying: “If you have this particular gene you will be completely resistant”.
The team’s findings have been detailed in peer-review publication Stem Cell Reports.

Post photographer Gene Schwartz was in the right place at the right time when relatively tiny Spanish tall ship El Galéon appeared to bump noses with one of the giant cruise liners that ply their trade from Galveston to Mexico and beyond. The replica of a majestic Spanish galleon of yesteryear was visiting the island city’s Texas Seaport Museum when the floating palace breezed by.

A regular roundup of local-authority activities by Lora-Marie Bernard and Trishna Buch

No words for our bond

A CITY’S council members were left staring at empty seats when no one turned up to speak at a public hearing about their proposal for an $18.2 million bond this week.
A new fire station is among the capital-improvement projects planned in the League City bond, which will be put to a vote by the council on June 13 unless five per cent of the city’s registered voters file a petition by May 24 for it to go to an election.
If approved, other works would include construction of a road extension on Ervin Street as part of the existing Calder Road improvement project, sewer rehabilitation, improvements to the city’s Dallas Salmon wastewater treatment plant and other improvements related to its downtown revitalization project.
The certificates-of-obligation bond is part of a $408.9 million capital improvement plan approved by the council in 2016 for works to be carried out between this year and 2021.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, assistant city manager and finance director Rebecca Underhill said: “Financing public-improvement projects is critical to maintaining the city’s ability to serve our customers.
“Our staff has taken numerous factors into consideration as we put together the recommendation for city council. Certificates of obligation are the most effective borrowing for the city.”
The next public hearing on the bond will take place during the council’s June 13meeting, which starts at 6:00pm at city hall.

General goarhead for sailor Sara

A BOAT repair business was this week given the green light to begin operating in Dickinson when city councilmembers approved the owner’s request for a specific-use permit to occupy land in an area zoned general commercial.
Sara Bettale made the request on behalf of property owner Jack Tarpley, from whom she leases the 0.555-acre 4501 Saint Goar Street space.
A building on the land will be used for office space and an accompanying garage will be used to store work trucks, boat parts and other equipment.
In voting to approve the request on Tuesday, the councilmembers endorsed its approval by the city’s planning and zoning commission on the condition that no boats are stored on the property.

Booze barely a toddle away

BEER, WINE and spirits could soon be on sale near a downtown children’s daycare center after a city council split on whether to allow a sports bar and brewery to set up a stone’s throw away.
Two councilmembers voted against on Thursday as the owners of a sports bar and a pizza restaurant were granted a variance in Galveston’s city ordinances allowing them to operate less than 220 feet from Koala Kare Daycare.
The standard distance is 300 feet but business owners Holly Landry and Eric Walker persuaded five of the seven councilmembers to vote for the reduction, with mayor pro tem Terrilyn Tarlton-Shannon and district-one representative Amy Bly voting no.
Tarlton-Shannon said she disapproved because she needed confirmation that the daycare center had approved setting up the businesses.
Koala Kare’s premises are at 602 25th Street and the two new businesses will be less than a block away, at 504 25th Street, where they will join other commercial operations in a multi-business indoor parade owned by James McClure.
Landry is planning to operate a pizza restaurant and bar called House Divided Sports Tavern And Grill in the building, while Walker is aiming to operate a brewery called Devil And The Deep Brewery.
The city’s code states that the sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited within 300 feet of a church, public school, private school or public hospital.
The arrival of the new businesses will not be the first time Koala Kare, which opened in 2001, has had an alcohol-related neighbor in the 504 25th Street building. A bar and grill known as The Loading Dock operated there until 2014.

Call for kids to help teacher count

TWO ELEMENTARY schools are calling for parents to register their kindergarten-age children as students this week so their school district knows how many teachers to hire for the fall semester.
The cafeterias of Cline and Westwood elementary schools in Friendswood will be open from 5:00-6:30pm on Tuesday for the registration of eligible children who will turn five before September 1.
The city’s school district has issued guidelines on its website,, for parents unsure of which school their child should attend or the documentation and other information they need to present at the school’s registration desk.
A site facility known as Route Locator shows not only the school a child will attend but also the number of the bus that will collect and return the student each day.
Meanwhile, Westwood’s pre-kindergarten program, for children who turn four before September 1, will host its registration session in the school’s café from 8:00am-3:00pm on Thursday, May 4.
To be eligible for the program, prospective students must have active military parents, be economically disadvantaged, English-language learners, homeless or have been in foster care.

In brief …

• Santa Fe councilmembers this week approved a $3,200 amendment to the city’s general-fund operating budget to fund the purchase of new equipment for Mae Bruce park.

This week’s meetings

• Santa Fe ISD trustees, 5:00pm, Cowan Education Center, 4133 Warpath Avenue, Santa Fe
• Friendswood council, 4:30pm

• Galveston County commissioners court, 1:30pm, 722 Moody Avenue, Galveston
• Clear Lake Shores council, 7:00pm, 931 Cedar Road, Clear Lake Shores

• Texas City commission, 5:00pm
• Kemah council, 7:00pm

• League City parks board, 10:00am, 400 West Walker, League City

All meetings held at named city’s city hall unless specified otherwise.


The region’s recent sunny weather brought out the best in folks eager to test the joys of spring as, bottom right, Kona Ice gave out free ice cream on April 18 and, bottom left, Texas First Bank’s first branch, Hitchcock, celebrated its 55th anniversary on Thursday, while, on Saturday, La Marque’s public library hosted its Rock And Read day out,  left and below left, and below the Lone Star Deluxe hot-rod show and crawfish festival rolled into Texas City, right.


Texas bill renews call to feds for border security costs

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

A STATE senator wants the federal government to refund $1.6 billion being spent by Texas over four years in the fight to stop illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico.
The senate finance committee on Monday took up a bill that its author says will help the state understand the true cost in state funds of illegal immigration in Texas. Although the federal government is responsible for maintaining border security, its failure to secure the border is costing Texans millions, says Dallas senator Don Huffines.
The state legislature approved $800 million to pay for more troopers and more resources for border security during its 2015 session and the senate version of the new budget includes
the same amount for the upcoming biennium.
Huffines claims his senate bill 764 will help the state’s argument that Washington should pay Texas back for the costs.
He said: “When the federal government fails to protect the border, then the federal government should reimburse the state for its expenditures.
“With this cost accounting, Texas can better explain to the federal government the severity of the consequences of its failure of its responsibilities.”
If passed into law, Huffines’ bill would require state public-accounts comptroller Glen Hagar to tally and release each biennium the total cost to the state incurred by people not lawfully present in the USA.  It would also require that the report break out the specific costs for their health care, education and incarceration.
Some senators opposed to the measure asked why the bill doesn’t include the benefits of undocumented immigrants to the state, citing labor and sales-tax revenue as examples.
Juan Hinojosa of McAllen said: “You want a clear, concise picture, you need to look at the whole aspect of people who are in this state undocumented. Not only what it costs, but what they provide in terms of benefits to the economy.”
The bill passed the committee on a vote of 8-4 and will now go to the full senate for consideration.
• ALSO IN Austin on Monday, the legislature’s state budget conference committee, which is comprised of five members from each chamber, held its first hearing, tasked with reconciling the chambers’ differing proposals for the biennial budget.
They are relatively close in amount – the senate would spend $217.7 billion in state and federal funds over the next two years, slightly less than the $218.1 billion proposed by the house of representatives.
There are differences in where the money would go, however, and the conference committee has until Memorial Day to present a compromise for approval by both chambers.
Representing the senate on the committee are finance-committee chair Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, her vice-chair, Hinojosa, and Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, Joan Huffman of Houston and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown.
Before the committee began deliberating, Nelson pointed out that eight of its 10 members served on the committee in the 84th session, saying: “You have a very strong, experienced team.
“I am confident, members, that we can come to an agreement that will make Texas proud.”