Research Highlight: Dominic Kleinknecht

By Kurtis Chien-Young

  Dominic Kleinknecht

Dominic Kleinknecht

Dominic Kleinknecht is a Masters student researching at the Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation at Boston University. He worked with TuftScope while studying in Boston in 2015.

1. Tell me a bit about yourself. What did you think about your time as an exchange student at Tufts? Where are you working now?

My name is Dominic Kleinknecht, I am a second year masters student in Biomedical Technologies, and am currently working on my Master thesis research project at the Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation at Boston University. I’m developing a rapid, field-ready diagnostic test for biodefense priority pathogens such as Zika virus. This is the second time I’m in Boston for a thesis project, after I extended my study abroad during my junior year at Tufts University for a summer research project in the Kaplan lab for my Bachelor thesis. There, I supported a PhD student on a tissue engineered, in vitro human cortical brain model.

My time at Tufts was actually a big factor for me to actively look for options to come back to Boston, since my two semesters as a Jumbo were an amazing experience from start to finish! My undergrad program in Germany in Molecular Medicine had a mandatory year abroad integrated into the curriculum, and my home university in Tübingen has a long exchange history and awesome exchange program with Tufts. I wanted to study abroad in the US, and more specifically in Boston, so Tufts checked all the boxes – and in Fall 2015 I found myself arriving on the beautiful Tufts campus and picked up my keys at the Police Station for my dorm room in Lewis, ready to take on my exchange year! Another cool thing of my exchange year was that I did not have to fulfill any credit requirements for my German program - I could take whatever class I wanted to. I took full advantage of that and thus got to know many amazing people, all from different majors and minors, ranging from Biomedical Engineering to Computer Science, IR, and Psychology. It was amazing, and a very formative year for me that made me fall in love with Boston. And unsurprisingly, I am back again for more. ^^

2. You were recently credited as a co-author on a paper published in ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering. Could you tell me about this work, as well as how you personally contributed to it?

Yes, the paper was first authored by the PhD student I joined in summer 2016. He was working on developing a tissue engineered human cortical brain model in a petri dish. Therefore, he prepared silk polymer scaffolds that looked like little donuts, in which he wanted to culture human induced pluripotent stem cells. These cells would then be differentiated into neurons or other neuronal cell types to, eventually, mimic a human neural network in vitro. The research was foundational in nature but in the long run, having a tissue model for human brain tissue could be used as a drug testing platform, or a research platform for e.g. traumatic brain injury with more translatable results than animal models. I remember that when I joined the project, it was a 50:50 chance that cells would survive or die, and he didn’t know why. We figured it would be helpful to determine the best possible baseline conditions for undifferentiated stem cell survival in the scaffolds, before differentiating them into neurons. My project over the summer was thus culturing human stem cells, preparing the silk polymer scaffolds to provide the cells a space for spatial attachment, and seeding the stem cells into the scaffolds, maintaining the seeded cells in 3D tissue culture, and running viability tests on them. The experiments I ran were seeding the cells into the scaffolds at defined concentrations, maintaining them for 5 days, and then running experiments on cell viability. After 5 days, my supervisor took over the stem cell-laden scaffolds and started the differentiation process. By the time I left and had finished my project, we had nailed down the optimal seeding and maintenance conditions for the first 5 days to yield densely stem cell-laden 3D scaffolds with viable cells. From there on, he optimized the neuronal differentiation in 3D, kept the growing neural network alive for 6 months in culture, and ran experiments on neural action potential firing patterns in the “little brains,” which there were! The model even responded to physical stress – the firing pattern changed when weights were dropped onto the neural network, just like a mini-concussion! All in all, a very cool project with many promising implications for further research and the future!

3. Why is your research important? How do you imagine the 3D tissue models will be used?

I reckon the main application for the near future is going to be further research. The model is impressive on its own already but could obviously be improved in many ways. We are far from replicating a brain in a petri dish; there is no vascularization, many cell types are missing, and it’s only a couple thousand neurons compared to the millions of neurons in an actual brain. But that’s why it’s a tissue model, after all. It could also be very well used for better drug research or even foundational research into traumatic brain injury. Animal models are the norm, but only a fraction of drugs that show promising results in lab animals make it through the approval process or show any effects in human pilot studies to begin with. Testing drugs on human tissues could be an important building block in expediting active compound research and could also help understanding human pathologies and conditions better. Why study Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s in rats when you could grow a neural network derived from Parkinson or Alzheimer patients that already come with the exact pathological genetic or enzymatic changes we see in humans? For these points, the tissue models I helped develop could certainly be a helpful and powerful tool.

4. What are some of the problems you faced when doing research? How did you go about solving them?

Research is, at its core, daily problem solving, and I had quite a few in my project. The stem cells kept dying for no reasons, then survived in all seeding concentrations the next experiment, which was baffling. It was the first research project I was part of where I basically had free hand over what I do, and how I do it, so running into issues meant it was on me to figure it out. What really helped was meticulously going over the routine that was performed to set up the experiment. Were the stem cells contaminated? Were the tips not sterile? Was the media expired? Questioning everything was my number one strategy for spotting potential sources of error. I also applied the rubber duck approach to my experiment planning, a concept I was introduced to in COMP11 during my Spring semester. I would talk out my planned experiments, either to myself or to someone in the lab, to have a second opinion on potential issues. And the last thing is not shying away from asking people. Asking never hurts, and my experience has been that scientists are very helpful and encouraging.

5. Do you have any advice for undergraduates who may be interested in your field of study? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you started working?

Don’t think you need to come in with a ton of knowledge or skills. Science is often just giving it a shot and seeing what’s happening. How did I determine my initial seeding concentrations I tested? I checked some paper, found very different concentrations, tried to adjust it to the size and volume of the scaffold, and ballparked it, basically. Science is an iterative process, which means it is time-consuming, and can be very, very unforgiving, especially if nothing seems to work. But, that’s what I had to learn the hard way in my first couple weeks, even that is a scientific finding, and one piece in the big puzzle that you want to solve. I’ll be honest, science is not for everyone, but if you have a passion and want to gain a deep understanding of what you are researching, you’ll have a great and rewarding time! Personally, looking back, it had helped me a lot that I tried myself out in many different disciplines of Biomedical Research over the course of my academic career through lab courses, internships, and side jobs. I’d recommend to just try it out, get your feet wet in different fields, do a little side project, or join a lab over the summer, and maybe you’ll also catch the science bug. The feeling of finally figuring out why your experiments were not working, or your experiments coming out the way you want them to are hard to beat. 😉

6. What kind of projects are you working on now, if you are allowed to talk about it?

As said, I am currently working on my Master thesis project where I am developing a rapid and field-ready diagnostic test for Zika virus, one biodefense priority pathogen. The end game is a diagnostic device, and we’re very focused on rapid manufacturing and low costs, which guides most of the design and assay development decisions. Unfortunately, I signed a confidentiality agreement concerning the details of my work, but what I can say is that it is an awesome project and that I highly enjoy my day-to-day research routine! The pieces are coming together, and the main assay is already working under lab conditions – next steps will focus on making it more robust to environmental conditions and contaminations and come up with an initial design for the device. Outside my thesis project I also work on a biotech startup as an affiliate, network my way around Boston, and am currently applying for PhD programs. Also, what a surprise, in Boston. 😉

Brain Development in Infants

By Corey Bryton

A research team at the University of Turku conducted a study with the goal to investigate brain development in infants. While there is a fairly comprehensive understanding of adult brain structure and function, much of the brain development process in infancy remains a mystery to the scientific community.

In the study, the research team studied 68 babies (of both sexes) that were between 2-5 weeks old. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the brains of the babies were observed and compared with a focus on age’s effect of lobar volumes and brain symmetry. Satu Lehtola, the lead researcher, reported, "we observed that in both sexes, the lobes were asymmetric in the same way: the right temporal lobe, left parietal and left occipital lobes were larger than their counter side. Differences between sexes were found, but they were subtle and included only locally restricted areas in the grey matter." These findings support previous assumptions that the growth of grey matter in the brain occurs more rapidly than the growth of white matter in early infancy.

These findings strengthen findings from other studies that investigated infantile brain development. A strong foundation of understanding can allow further studies to be carried out to study the environment’s effect on brain development in infants.

University of Turku. (2018, November 30). New information about infant brain structure. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 9, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181130111613.htm

High-Crime Neighborhood Residents Three Times as Likely to Experience Epileptic Seizures

By Yasaman Khorsandian

Over 65 million people worldwide suffer from epilepsy, a chronic neurological disorder causing seizures that can be difficult to control, even with medication. Numerous studies have previously shown that individuals who live in neighborhoods with high crime rates have significantly higher levels of a hormone associated with stress, named cortisol; stress is often times considered a risk factor for people who have epilepsy because it can trigger seizures. A recent study published in Science Daily that included 63 Chicago residents with epilepsy attempted to find a correlation between number of seizures and neighborhood crime rates. The researchers used the participants’ zip codes and the City of Chicago Police Data Portal to find each individual’s neighborhood crime rate. The participants self-reported the number of seizures they had experienced in the past month and in the past three months. The study concluded from the resulting data that people living in high-crime neighborhoods experienced three times as may seizures in the previous month compared to those living in low-crime neighborhoods. The results are all the more striking because the study showed no correlation between neighborhood crime rates and the participants’ socioeconomic statuses, meaning that the fewer number of seizures in individuals living in low-crime neighborhoods cannot be linked to their easier access to medications. Epileptic seizures can significantly lower one’s quality of life, affecting an individual’s professional and personal lives; therefore, the need for understanding the correlation between the number of seizures and crime rates is a pressing matter because it might help people suffering from epilepsy manage their seizures with better education regarding stress and self-management.

University of Illinois at Chicago. (2018, December 2). Epileptics in high-crime neighborhoods have three times as many seizures. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 9, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181202184348.htm

Our Skin is Making Us Sick: Newly Discovered Bacteria that is Causing Antibiotic Resistance in Post-Surgical Patients

By Shruti Sagar

Researchers at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath have discovered that Staphylococcus epidermidis, like MRSA, is an apparent cause of post-surgical life-threatening infections. Post-surgical infections can be incredibly serious and sometimes fatal. To identify the specific genes that allow what is normally harmless skin bacterium to cause life-threatening infections, the researchers took the skin samples of patients who suffered infections after hip or knee surgeries and compared them to skin samples of healthy volunteers. By comparing genetic variations in the genomes of these samples, they pinpointed 61 genes in the post-surgical samples that were not present in the healthy samples. These genes are so dangerous because they have the ability to help the bacteria grow and replicate through the bloodstream, avoid immune response, and make the cell surface sticky so that organisms can form biofilms that eventually cause resistance to antibiotics. Post-surgical infections are extremely difficult to diagnose and pinpoint, so being able to refer back to the disease-associated genes is very helpful in being able to identify who is highest at risk for infection prior to undergoing surgery in the first place.  Once they find out who is most at risk of infection, researchers and doctors can design interventions with the purpose of increasing hygiene measures and sanitation protocols in these populations before they undergo surgery.

 

University of Bath. (2018, November 28). The potentially deadly bacterium that's on everyone's skin. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 9, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181128082753.htm

BUGGING OUT FOR NEWLY DISCOVERED FRUIT FLY CULTURE

By Alyssa Quinlan

A groundbreaking new study at the Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition Animale in Toulouse, France revealed that contrary to popular belief, organisms other than humans possess the ability to maintain something resembling a culture.

In the experiment, researchers set five standards that a behavior must meet to be considered “cultural.” Of these five criteria, the first stated that the behavior must passed down generation to generation through observation, and another held that it must be directly copied. The remaining three requirements require that the behavior must be memorized over a long period of time, involve an individual’s characteristics, and be common within the population.

While studying Drosophila, or fruit flies, researchers found that these five criteria were indeed met in terms of the transmission of sexual preferences through generations. When compared with computer simulations, the mating choices made by the flies in question matched up perfectly with the predicted results, therefore confirming the hypothesis that Drosophila observe and pass down preferences in choosing mates. Beyond that, researchers also noted the importance of conformism in the maintenance of culture – especially within the Drosophila genus.

Not only do these results affirm the widely held belief that culture is strictly limited to humans, but they also raise questions about the extent of its affect on evolution and ultimately set the foundation for a new field of research regarding animal culture.

 

CNRS. "Toolbox for studying the existence of animal cultures: Fruit flies can transmit their sexual preferences culturally, study shows." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 November 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181129142447.htm>.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Can Lead to Cardiac Abnormalities, Which Are More Pronounced in Women

By Kurtis Chien-Young

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disease characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. It occurs when the throat relaxes and expands, blocking the airways and preventing air flow into the lungs temporarily. The blockage is characterized by loud snoring and gasps for air, and people who experience it often wake up with dryness around the mouth, as well as headaches and fatigue during the day.

Obstructive sleep apnea also increases the risk for ventricular abnormalities in the heart, and a recent analysis of participants who volunteered at the UK Biobank found that snoring was correlated with increased growth of the left ventricle of the heart. This increase in mass requires the heart to pump harder in order to generate the same cardiac output as before. The researchers also discovered that, among snorers, women had significantly greater left ventricular masses, possibly suggesting that women experience obstructive sleep apnea differently and could be more affected by it.

Dr. Curta, one of the researchers involved in the study, noted that obstructive sleep apnea was underdiagnosed among the research participants, and recommended snorers to go see their physicians for screening. If diagnosed, treatment options include surgery to remove some obstructing tissue, breathing machines that apply constant pressure to prevent obstruction, and weight loss, if applicable.

 

Radiological Society of North America. "Snoring poses greater cardiac risk to women." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 November 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181129084708.htm>.

Glowing in the Dark: New Uses for Iron Molecules

By Annmarie Hoch

Scientists have used metal molecules as sources of fuel or energy before. However, the metals that have been previously used to power photocatalysts and solar cells have been rare, expensive,  and difficult to acquire. Examples of these metals include ruthenium and osmium. In Sweden, researchers have been working for the past five years to make a metal molecule that can perform these tasks but is easier to acquire. They have succeeded by adapting an iron molecule to suit their needs. Iron is a very common metal and much easier to acquire than the other metals used in this project. The molecule’s design maximizes its ability to hold and carry energy. The newly designed iron molecules have the potential to be used for processing solar fuels or for use in lights, as the iron molecule can glow for a significant period of time. The researchers were very surprised that the project only took five years to be successful, having expected to spend ten years on the iron molecule. This molecule could make it much easier to adapt metal molecules into the production of fuel and energy.

 

Lund University. (2018, November 30). Brilliant iron molecule could provide cheaper solar energy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 6, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181130111640.htm

Eating Do’s and Don’ts: A Low-Carb Diet May Stimulate Metabolic Rate

By Jacqueline Katz

Eating do’s and don’ts have been in flux for decades. But, policy and dietary guidelines have generally endowed the theory that calorie restriction stimulates weight loss. A recent finding published in the BMJ contradicts this conventional idea.

This attention-grabbing study is among the largest and most costly feeding trials and reports observed metabolic differences among adults on low- and high-carb diets. The investigation’s key discovery was that overweight participants who replaced calories in carbohydrates with those in healthy fats burned approximately 250 additional calories each day. It is commonly accepted among the scientific community that refined carbohydrates drive insulin levels, which promotes fat storage. The study also measured the effect of carbohydrate intake on ghrelin, a hormone secreted in the stomach that lowers energy expenditure. Individuals on the low-carb diet saw notable decreases in ghrelin production, which is cited as one reason why decreasing carbohydrate consumption prompted an increase metabolic rate.

The authors of the study also stipulate that this research should not be taken as an excuse to avoid fruits and unprocessed whole grain products; the trial primarily condemned refined carbohydrates with added sugars. This study may inform the way in which we tackle the obesity epidemic plaguing the United States, although more research to corroborate this conclusion must be completed before public health policy is changed to reflect this finding.

O'connor, A. (2018, November 14). How a Low-Carb Diet Might Help You Maintain a Healthy Weight. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/well/eat/how-a-low-carb-diet-might-help-you-maintain-a-healthy-weight.html

The early bird gets the worm, the night owl gets sick: establishing the chronic health effects of individuals with an evening preference

By Mohamad Hamze

The first ever review of studies focusing on sleeping habits has reported on what we’ve all known to be true but have collectively accepted as part of college, work, and social life: late nights have the potential to be detrimental to our long-term health. A research team from Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK has analyzed a number of studies that focus on the effects of evening preference on metabolism and cardiovascular health.

A person’s long-term sleep and wake habits can influence their circadian rhythm, or chronotype, and lead to a preference towards morning or evening. These studies correlated evening chronotypes with various dietary trends that can be associated in chronic ill-health effects such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, including the tendency to eat fewer and less-structured but heavier and less-healthy meals than those with morning chronotypes. A member of the research team, Dr. Leonidas G Karagounis of Nestle Health Science in Switzerland, elaborates that the poorer diet of evening chronotypes consists primarily of a “lower intake of fruits and vegetables, and higher intake of energy drinks, alcoholic, sugary and caffeinated beverages, as well as higher energy intake from fat.” Eating late at night also seems to exacerbate the effect of one’s shifting internal clock, causing a spike in glucose levels that the body expects to be lowest before bed. This deviation from the body’s normal metabolic processes “reduces their sensitivity to insulin and affects their glucose tolerance, putting them at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” according to the article.

Poor eating and sleeping habits in adulthood are established in childhood and adolescence, but while there do exist many possible influential genotypic, societal, and geographic factors that have been implicated in an individual’s chronotype, more research is needed to understand how these factors manifest in the physiological differences between early risers and late-nighters.

We know sleep is important, but how can we achieve the best quality of sleep?

By Patrycja Sztachelski

Research has shown that proper bedtime routines are necessary to promote healthy sleep, and a review of recent studies has been performed to compare sleep hygiene practices across different countries and cultures. The focus of these studies has been on four age groups—infants and toddlers (four months to two years), preschoolers (three to five years), school-age children (six to 12 years), and adolescents (13 to 18 years)—leading to a broad analysis of sleep practices.

Experts “found good-to-strong endorsement of certain sleep hygiene practices for younger kids and school-age kids: regular bedtimes, reading before bed, having a quiet bedroom, and self-soothing”, which involves giving children opportunities to go back to sleep on their own if they wake up in the middle of the night. One particularly significant factor that affects sleep habits for adolescents is technology use before bedtime. Furthermore, “studies in Japan, New Zealand, and the United States showed that the more exposure kids had to electronic media around bedtime, the less sleep they had”.

Since these sleep hygiene studies have been performed in various countries, important findings in different cultures include the idea that family dinner time is crucial to helping adolescents sleep (i.e. in New Zealand), and that there is a relationship between school-age children’s and adolescent’s lowered sleep duration to lots of school work and long commute times to school, both of which are findings that resulted from Chinese studies and one Korean study.

Experts recognize that there is more research needed to determine the effects of sleep hygiene factors on overall sleep quality, but recommend setting bedtimes for children, as well as routine habits (i.e. family dinners, reading before bed, and limiting screen time) to improve the sleep that children receive.

 

University of British Columbia. (2018, December 3). Importance of good sleep routines for children. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 8, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181203080327.htm

Weight Cycling Linked to Increased Risk of Death

By Haruka Noishiki

Those who undergo weight cycling, the repeated process of gaining and losing of weight, experience a higher risk of death than those who do not, said Hak C. Jang, M.D., Ph.D., professor at Seoul National University (SNU) College of Medicine and Seoul National University Bundang Hospital in Seongnam, Korea, and the lead author of a study recently published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. When the body experiences weight loss, it induces hunger and lowers the amount of energy needed both when active and inactive. However, people with obesity who underwent weight cycling were less likely to develop diabetes than others. For individuals with obesity, the benefits of the lowered chance of diabetes outweighed the increased risk of death.

The Endocrine Society. (2018, November 29). Weight cycling is associated with a higher risk of death: Weight loss from weight cycling can reduce diabetes risk in people with obesity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 3, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181129153837.htm

Research Highlight: Amel Hassan

  Professor Sinapov and Amel, Image from https://provost.tufts.edu

Professor Sinapov and Amel, Image from https://provost.tufts.edu

By Kurtis Chien-Young

Amel Hassan is a Tufts junior researching Autonomous Intelligent Robots with Professor Jivko Sinapov. She is a recipient of the 2018 Laidlaw Scholarship, which funds Tufts students for research projects that span the course of two summers.

1. What does research with autonomous robots look like?

There are a variety of applications and research topics regarding autonomous robots. In the Autonomous Intelligent Robotics (AIR) Lab where I work, we focus on Autonomous Intelligent Service Robots – simply, robots that help out or interact with humans. Research with autonomous robots is collaborative – humans and robots working together. It requires a mutual understanding; the human has to understand what the robot is doing and the robot has to understand what the human wants it to do.

2. What do you specifically study through your research project?

During my summer research I worked alongside my peer and mentor to develop a platform to aid in human-robot interaction. We created an app that uses Augmented Reality to project what the robot is “thinking.” That is, the robot shares its data with the user through visual representations. The user is able to visualize the robot’s laser scan, path, costmap, and more. For instance, through an iPad’s camera, the user can see red particles overlaying a screen that represent the objects and edges that the robot detects with its camera. The project required setting up communication protocols between the robot and our app as well as data processing and visualizations.

This semester, we are using the platform we created over the summer in a research study. The research study explores how augmented reality can improve human navigation around robots. The study will take place in a tight hallway, with the research participant at one end and the robot at the other. As the participant and robot move towards each other, the goal is to avoid a collision. Our app will be used in the study as the variable that is predicated to improve human-robot navigation. It will take in the robot’s intended path and determine whether it is going to turn left or right. Blinkers in augmented reality will indicate to the user which way the robot is going. (The control trial will not be using our app.)    

3. What are some of the challenges you face when researching? How do you go about solving the problems you come across?

The biggest challenge I face when researching is trying to troubleshoot pieces of the project that I do not understand fully. Since we use many external tools in our project, it is impossible to know and understand every detail of the inner workings which usually makes it hard to debug problems. I combat these challenges by researching, looking at source code, referencing examples online, and discussing with peers and mentors.

4. Why is your field of study important?

This field is becoming increasing important due to its wide variety of applications. For instance, autonomous robots can be used in dangerous situations such as search and rescue scenarios. They are also used in manufacturing and companies such as Amazon’s Kiva robots.

5. Do you have any advice for students who are interested in applying to become Laidlaw scholars? Any general advice for undergraduates who are looking to get into computer science / robotics research?

Prior to LaidLaw, I had little experience with research in Robotics. LaidLaw really gives you the opportunity to explore and grow in a field you are interested in but haven’t had a lot of exposure to.

Its normal to feel intimidated. In fields like robotics and computer science, there are new developments each day and it is nearly impossible to keep up, so it’s ok not to know every detail about technology. If you are looking into getting into computer science / robotics research, email or go to the office hours of a professor whose research interests you. Make sure you know what their field of interest is, preferably even projects they are working on, and even if you don’t have a lot of experience, be enthusiastic and demonstrate your willingness and eagerness to learn. If you don’t have a lot of experience, another piece of advice is to take a class with the professor you want to be your mentor for your LaidLaw project so that you can learn more about the concepts, software, and tools.

Newborn Babies Laughter Found to be More Similar to Non-Human Primates than the Rest of the Human Population

By Eliana Rosenzweig

Recent research suggests the notion that laughter made by babies is more similar to the laughter made by non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, than to that made by adults and even children. Disa Sauter, psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, and other researchers as well as phoneticians, conducted a study to examine the laughter differences in a population of 44 infants and children between the ages of 3 and 18 months of age. 102 listeners from a psychology student population analyzed the laughter of the babies presented on online videos. Specifically, they were focused on discerning the laughter as the production of an inhalation, an exhalation, or both. It was found that the youngest babies frequently laugh using both inhalation and exhalation, which is similar to the laugh of the non-primate population. In contrast, the rest of the infant population more frequently laughed only on the exhalation, which is also seen in children and adults. Although there is no definitive explanation for this distinct difference in laughter, Sauter suggests that the slow yet eventual shift in the laughter process is a direct result of the development of vocal control, which naturally occurs when babies learn to speak. Furthermore, the youngest babies will typically laugh as a result of physical play such as tickling, while older babies will begin to laugh as a result of emotional and social interactions with others.

The next steps for Sauter’s research team and this general area of research include confirming results with expert phoneticians and determining if there are further implications for this study associated with vocal-related developmental disorders in babies. Further research is also looking to establish if there are other differences in the vocalizations of newborn babies besides laughter. 

 

Acoustical Society of America. (2018, November 7). How do babies laugh? Like chimps!. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 18, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181107130301.htm

Immigration and Obesity: How Altering the Microbiome Impacts Obesity in Immigrants

Meghan Mulvey

While immigration can come with a number of new challenges, a changing microbiome may also be added to the list of concerns for people immigrating to the United States. The microbiome refers to beneficial microbes that live within human intestines that complete a variety of functions including helping digestion. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Somali, Latino, and Hmong Partnership of Health and Wellness followed individuals that moved from Southeast Asia to the U.S. The study found that after arriving in the United states, immigrants lost the microbiome typical to their native country and developed a microbiome more similar to Americans. While developing nations tend to have more diversity in the microbiome, the United States does not demonstrate this same diversity, which can influence the way foods are digested and how diet impacts overall health. The research also showed a relationship between the degree of westernization of the microbiome and obesity. Moreover, this change was shown to a greater degree in children. The researchers hope that this can shed light on obesity treatments for both immigrants and eventually others as well.

Cell Press. (2018, November 1). Immigration to the United States changes a person's microbiome. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 18, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181101133936.htm

Preventing a Population Crash: Stem Cells Battling Jumping Gene Invasions

By Yassi Khorsandian

Even though over half of our genome consists of jumping genes, little is known about their functionality and how cells have adapted to survive from their invasions. Since their discovery in 1983, these genes that are now more commonly referred to as transposons, have been found to trigger mutations in the DNA, resulting in sterility or death. A team of researchers at the Carnegie Institution have discovered a novel ability of stem cells to increase the production of non-coding RNAs that decrease the activity of these genes. They studied transposons under different temperature settings in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster because temperature has been proven to affect the sterility of these organisms. The results showed that the rate of transposon mobilization was seven times greater at 25° C, the temperature at which the fruit fly offspring are sterile. The search for the underlying adaptive mechanism that causes this reaction led them to a DNA checkpoint component named Chk2, which was found to be the main constituent of the stem cell response to the transposon invasion. Activating this DNA damage checkpoint momentarily pauses the cell cycle before cell division in order to repair the damaged genome. This interruption in the cell cycle also boosts the production of piRNA elements that suppress transposons, allowing fruit flies to resume normal egg production. This pause period has proven to be critical for increasing the organism’s adaptability and counteracting the genomic instability caused by jumping genes.

 

Carnegie Institution for Science. (2018, November 1). How invading jumping genes are thwarted. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 12, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181101133942.htm

Insect Repellents May Be Increasing Mosquito Populations

By John Fraser

The use of chemical insect repellents internationally is both increasing and adversely affecting the development of salamanders exposed to the deterrent, a recent study uncovers. Emma Rosi, co-investigator of the study and an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, explains the routes and prevalence of toxic agents in the environment: “Chemicals in repellents enter aquatic ecosystems through sewage effluent and are now common in surface waters.” Exposure to contaminated water sources occurs because salamanders are amphibians and an ‘aquatic juvenile phase’ is necessary to their development. The stage of growth spent primarily in water is also the main point of the salamander life cycle where mosquito larvae are consumed.

Researchers tested the effects of exposure to picaridin, a chemical agent commonly found in mosquito repellents, on both mosquito and salamander larvae. Picaridin appeared to have no impact on the mosquito larvae, but demonstrated a significant amount of harm towards the salamander population: “After four days of exposure to replant with picaridin, salamanders in all of the treatment groups began to display signs of impaired development such as tail deformities. By day 25, 45-65% of picaridin-exposed salamander larvae died.” Considering the dominating role that insects play as vectors of disease transmission, the consumption of mosquito larvae by salamanders is a key contributor in keeping the mosquito population in check. The introduction of picaridin-containing mosquito repellent into an ecosystem may then actually lead to an increase in the prevalence of mosquitos as salamanders, their natural predator, are killed off.  

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. (2018, October 31). Widely used mosquito repellent proves lethal to larval salamanders: By harming mosquito predators, picaridin may help mosquitoes survive. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 12, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/10/181031080627.htm

ALL EYES ON NEW VISION LOSS THERAPY

By Alyssa Quinlan

In a recent issue of medical journal ‘Science Translational Medicine,’ researchers at Duke University reported new developments in the search for a cure of an illness that currently plagues the lives of approximately half a million individuals worldwide.

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 7, or SCA7, is an inherited neurodegenerative disease resulting from an excess of CAG nucleotide repeats in the DNA of a gene called Ataxin-7. Due to their faulty structure, the proteins produced by this gene in SCA7 patients misfold and eventually accumulate in the retina – consequently causing a gradual loss of vision.

While no cure for SCA7 currently exists, the research team at Duke is in the process of testing a new therapy in mice that uses single stranded DNA fragments called antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) to decrease the effects of the disease. Upon injection into the eye, ASOs detect the faulty RNA that codes for the accumulated proteins and eradicates them before they reach the point of misfolding, which potentially slows or stops SCA7’s progression. After undergoing this new treatment, mice that received ASOs demonstrated improved visual function over time in comparison to mice not receiving the therapy.

While current research involving ASOs is far from conclusive, these initial results not only provide hope to those affected by SCA7, but also to those living with other neurodegenerative illnesses caused by a build-up of misfolded proteins, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Duke Department of Neurology. (2018, November 1). New study offers hope for patients suffering from a rare form of blindness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181101142900.htm

Combination-drug treatment of depression may pose more harm than help to those unresponsive to single SSRI treatment

By Mohamad Hamze

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly prescribed for the treatment of depression, but an increasing number of clinically depressed patients fail to respond to single antidepressant regiments. Thus, physicians have come to supplement SSRI/SNRI treatment in these patients with atypical antidepressants like mirtazapine.

Earlier this month, a study funded by the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research was published in the British Medical Journal and sought to explore if this combination had a significant effect on depression severity in patients who did not respond to single-medication SSRI/SNRI regiments after six weeks. The double-blind trial studied how 480 adults with treatment-resistant depression responded to combination- versus single-drug treatments. While around four out of ten patients showed a 50% improvement in depression severity after 12 weeks of treatment, the study did not find a clinically significant difference between the group treated with mirtazapine and the group treated with placebo at this or any later time points.

This study’s results imply that psychiatrists and general practitioners should limit the use of combination-drug treatments in patients whose depression does not respond to single treatments on the basis of both cost and patient wellness. Instead, clinicians are urged to consider non-pharmacological alternatives like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which, according to study co-author Dr. David Kessler, “has been shown to be effective in this group of patients” where combination-drug therapy has been poorly tolerated.

University of Bristol. (2018, November 1). Drug combination for treatment resistant depression no more effective than single. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 12, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181101133833.htm

Combatting “Blackout” Culture

By Corey Bryton

Across college campus nationwide, “blackout” drinking is rampant. A “blackout” occurs when someone drinks so heavily that they lose memory of that time. Even though most college students do not drink with the intention of impairing their memory, it still occurs frequently.

Researchers at Brown University sought to investigate what college students know about what causes blackouts and the culture of blacking out. Three separate studies were carried out using several focus groups of college students. In the first study, it was found that most participants were aware that heavy drinking at a fast pace contributed to alcohol-induced memory loss. That being said, not many students knew that biological factors and mixing alcohol with other substances also can induce blackouts.

In the second study, the participants were asked to describe a person’s reaction when he/she blacks out. The researchers observed a mix of negative and positive reactions. Some referred to blackouts as “scary” while others said they can be “exciting”. Regardless, it was determined that social factors, most specifically the opinions of one’s friends, that influences someone’s perspective of blacking out.

In the third study, the researchers studied the language used to describe “blacking out”. They found that the term “blackout drinking” simply refers to heavy drinking, whereas “a blackout” is a period of time when a drinker loses memory. A “brown-out” is also used to describe periods of incomplete memory loss. Finally, a survey was given to 350 college students, and it was found that 49% experienced some alcohol-induced memory loss in the past month, 32% had only “brown-outs”, 5% had only blackouts, and 14% did not experience any alcohol-related memory loss.

Lead researcher, Kate Carey, hopes that this information can be used to improve alcohol education for college students and to help reduce dangerous drinking habits.

Brown University. (2018, November 2). New studies on student alcohol use can inform interventions to reduce blackouts. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 11, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181102094747.htm

Investing at the Cost of a Human Life: More information is needed to determine the cause of rising prices of insulin for diabetic patients

By Patrycja Sztachelski

Unfortunately, the cost of insulin has tripled in the last 15 years, creating a large barrier for patients who need access to it as a result of their diabetes diagnoses. The Endocrine Society has indicated that more information is needed about all parties involved in these cost increases before the cause for price hikes can be determined. More importantly, once the cause is determined, it will be possible to devise a plan to reduce such costs and optimize the quality of patient care.

The Society has recommended policy changes to resolve this financial issue, such as limiting patient costs to a co-pay, with rebates passed along to those without increasing premiums or deductibles, limiting future list price increases, with all stakeholders striving for reasonable financial incentives, and encouraging healthcare providers in their efforts to prescribe lower-cost human insulins whenever possible.

Three particular insulin manufacturers are actively pursuing these changes: Sanofi is expanding its savings program to include nearly all of its insulins, Eli Lilly is working to help patients with high out-of-pocket costs by examining financial plans for each individual, and Novo Nordisk has been limiting price increases. In addition, government involvements to resolve this problem include the efforts of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, which held a hearing to examine the cause of cost increases as well as possible solutions to this issue. Congress also passed legislation last month that cut rules that prohibited pharmacists from informing patients about the possibilities of purchasing their medications for less money.

Clearly, there is an imminent need to reduce the costs of insulin--more than 30 million Americans have diabetes, and an additional 84 million have prediabetes. And for patients diagnosed with diabetes, it is crucial to maintain a health care regimen to avoid costly hospital visits. One study indicates that adherence to such a regimen can prevent a significant number of emergency department visits and hospitalizations, so it is imperative that a solution to the increasing costs of insulin is reached soon.

 

The Endocrine Society. (2018, November 1). Supply chain transparency needed to combat soaring insulin costs: Endocrine Society recommends policies to lower costs for people with diabetes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 11, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181101142922.htm