Common Fungus may affect Crohn’s disease

By Emily Taketa

Malassezia yeasts are typically found near human hair follicles, but were recently found in a higher abundance in the gut of Crohn’s patients. David Underhill, the Janis and William Wetsman Family Chair in Inflammatory Bowel Disease at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, and Jose Limon, a Cedars-Sinai research team member, investigated the connection between the fungi’s abundance in the gut and how it may potentially impact intestinal diseases. Their recent study, published in the Cell Host & Microbe Journal, found that the Malassezia restrica had a higher abundance in gut tissue samples in patients with intestinal diseases than healthy individuals. The availability of Malassezia is also known to indicate a gene variation that decreases an individual’s immunity to fungi. This same gene variation is more common in Crohn’s patients than healthy individuals which suggests a possible connection to intestinal health.            

The researchers initially found that the presence of these fungi worsened the intestinal inflammation in mice and the gene variation for immunity against this fungi was a useful treatment. In Crohn’s patients, the gene variation, called IBD CARD9 risk allele, increases the inflammatory cytokine production in human immune cells when exposed to Malassezia restrica and therefore more Malassezia were found in these patients’ intestinal tissues. When a patient already has intestinal inflammation Malassezia appears to increase the severity of the inflammation, as specifically seen in Crohn’s patients. However, the researchers are unclear whether Malassezia presence by itself, without prior inflammation, has a negative impact. These researchers hope to decrease the concentration of these Malassezia yeasts in Crohn’s patients to alleviate the negative intestinal symptoms in the future.

 

Cell Press. (2019, March 5). A fungus usually found on skin might play a role in Crohn's disease. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 16, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190305112836.htm

Risk of Breast Cancer in BRCA1 and BRCA2 Mutation Carriers Influenced By Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

By Eliana Rosenzweig

Research published on March 8th confirms that both breast feeding and multiple pregnancies can decrease the risk of breast cancer in women at average to high risk. Researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale in Paris conducted the largest prospective study of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers, using data from 21 national or center based prospective follow-up studies and looking at nearly 8,000 women in total. Compared to women with single fun-term pregnancies, women with BRCA1 mutations with two, three, four, or more full-term pregnancies decreased risk of breast cancer by 21 percent, 30 percent, and 50 percent, respectively. Breastfeeding was found to reduce the risk of breast cancer in the carriers for BRCA1 gene as well. In contrast, for women with the BRCA2 gene, it was found that risk of breast cancer only decreased with four or more full-term pregnancies. In fact, this study confirmed that women with a single full-term pregnancy with the BRCA1 gene and women with less than four full-term pregnancies were actually at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.  

Lead author Mary Beth Terry, Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, said, "What we have learned is that timing really matters for many risk factors and the dual effect of pregnancy we see in non-mutation carriers with a long term protection but short term increase following a pregnancy may not extend to all women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations as the short-term increase and long-term protection may relate much more to the timing of when these pregnancies occur.”

            

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. (2019, March 8). Number and timing of pregnancies influence breast cancer risk for women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation: Risk of breast cancer declined for women with BRCA1 gene and more than one pregnancy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 10, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190308133331.htm

THOR’s Hammer: Investigating Microbiological Communities

By Annmarie Hoch

While human understanding of microbes and the complex relationships they form has been growing recently, scientists have been trying to find ways to influence these relationships to our advantage. Unfortunately, little is certain about complex microbial interactions, necessitating more research. At the University of Wisconsin, a community of three types of bacteria (called THOR) was studied to investigate these interactions. The researchers discovered that living in a community allowed the bacteria to exhibit new useful behaviors. The THOR bacteria get their name from their reputation as “The Hitchhikers of the Rhizosphere” because they follow other bacteria when those are isolated from soybean roots. The researchers suspected these bacteria would prove to be interesting subjects due to this behavior. They were right. The THOR community produced a large quantity of and more resilient biofilm (which protects bacteria) than one bacterial species could on its own. The different species protected each other from each’s harmful effects. The THOR community will be useful as a model for how microbiomes can be influenced to help humans, but it will also be useful for investigating the bacterial communities in plant roots. This is interesting in the context of climate change and erosion and should be investigated further. The THOR investigation has widened the potential of microbiomes being used to help human health.

 

University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2019, March 8). THOR wrangles complex microbiomes into a model for improving them. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 15, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190308180259.htm

Age-Related Changes in Emotional Sensitivity

By Yasaman Khorsandian

Most people have different skill levels at detecting subtle changes in social cues or facial emotion intensities, but could these abilities be related to our age? A new study conducted at McLean Hospital recently discovered that people are most sensitive to social cues during adolescence and become more optimistic as they grow older. This study was conducted using the online platform named TestMyBrain.org, during which participants were shown various images of pairs of faces and asked to choose the one that was more angry, happy, or fearful. The web-based platform allowed the researchers to reach out to a very large and diverse sample set with participants from different age groups. This novel testing method also produced more accurate results regarding the participants’ ability to decode facial cues and helped the researchers achieve a deeper understanding of emotional processing in humans.

The main findings of the study show that sensitivity to anger cues are significantly higher during early to mid-adolescence, which also happens to be the age at which individuals are most exposed to various forms of social threat, such as bullying. This discovery could be very influential in improving anti-bullying programs for young children and helping them overcome such difficulties. Furthermore, the researchers found that although the ability to decode emotional cues decreases with age, the decline in the ability to detect happiness is virtually nonexistent. In other words, while other visual perceptual abilities decline with age, our perception of happiness does not. The lack of sensitivity to negative social cues combined with the same perception of happiness at an older age suggests that we become more positive as we grow older. The findings of this study could help doctors and mental health professionals personalize treatments and help individuals best overcome emotional obstacles in life based on their age.

 

McLean Hospital. (2019, March 1). How sensitivity to emotions changes across the lifespan: Researchers gain a deeper understanding into differences in emotion processing. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 9, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190301192648.htm

How Special K Evolved: From Club Drug to FDA- Approved Antidepressant

By Jacqueline Katz

Depression is an American epidemic. Even many who seek treatment, not to mention those whose cries for help are unanswered, go without remedy. But, the FDA approved what could be a sort of mental health magic bullet at the end of last month. Derived from the anesthetic ketamine, esketamine is a fast-acting, nasal spray antidepressant.

But, how did Special K get from the club to the clinic? The truth is, we still don’t really know. Ketamine’s antidepressant properties are ill-understood. And, more daunting than the underlying question of how it works, the drug comes with a potential for abuse.

But, these unknowns are insignificant in the face of crippling, untreatable depression. This newly approved drug offers hope of recovery for those who have been previously resistant to antidepressants and behavioral therapy. And, while the drug only slightly outperformed the placebo treatment in a series of trials, researchers found that, among those who saw significant mood improvements on esketamine, far fewer subjects relapsed than those receiving the placebo nasal spray.

Earlier studies of ketamine suggest that this drug has broader benefits beyond depression and has proven to be effective in treating other behavioral and mood disorders, such as anxiety and anhedonia.

The study of ketamine-based compounds for depression treatment is in its infancy. We still do not understand why esketamine may be less effective in adults over fifty, know how esketamine compares to intravenous ketamine, nor can we determine what it is about the ketamine molecule that makes it a seemingly effective antidepressant.  

 

Benedict Carey. (2019, March 5). Fast-Acting Depression Drug, Newly Approved, Could Help Millions. The New York Times. Retrieved March 7, 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/05/health/depression-treatment-ketamine-fda.html.

Ironic applications of spider webs: Spider silk has properties that would make it useful as robotic muscle

By Patrycja Sztachelski

Spider silk contains resilient fibers that contract and twist upon changes in humidity, a significant finding for medical innovation because the silk can exert enough force to possibly serve as an actuator, or a device that moves to perform some activity: in this case, the silk could serve as robotic muscle.

Researchers have discovered the property of supercontraction, in which the fibers in spider silk can shrink as a result of changes in moisture. Simultaneously, though, the threads twist, which produces a strong torsional force. MIT Professor and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Markus Buehler believes that this discovery “could be very interesting for the robotics community”, explaining that “it’s very precise in how you can control these motions by controlling the humidity”.

Although researchers are not sure of the biological purpose of this twisting force as it relates to adaptive functions of the spider, they have successfully determined how the twisting mechanism occurs. Furthermore, they have found that it depends on the folding of proline, a specific kind of protein building block.

Essentially, spider silk is a protein fiber, and it’s composed of the two main proteins MaSp1 and MaSp2. Additionally, “the proline, crucial to the twisting reaction, is found within MaSp2, and when water molecules interact with it they disrupt its hydrogen bonds in an asymmetrical way that causes the rotation. The rotation only goes in one direction, and it takes place at a threshold of about 70 percent relative humidity”.

Researchers are hopeful that the properties of spider silk can be replicated in synthetic materials, and transfer to various useful applications, including humidity-driven soft robots and sensors, smart textiles, and green energy generators.

 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2019, March 1). Spider silk could be used as robotic muscle: Unusual property of the ultrastrong material could be harnessed for twisting or pulling motions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 8, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190301160907.htm

Research Highlight: Tira Oskoui

By Kurtis Chien-Young

Tira Oskoui, REACH Lab

Tira Oskoui, REACH Lab

Tira Oskoui is a senior pursuing Community Health and Biology majors at Tufts University. She works with Dr. Keren Ladin at the REACH Lab at Tufts, where she researches the impact of advance care planning. In addition to research, Tira serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the TuftScope journal.

1. How did you get involved with your research in the first place? Why did you choose to work in public health rather than any other field?

I knew going into Tufts that I wanted to pursue research in some health-related setting, but I always envisioned it as being within a biology lab, mixing test tubes and such. However, once I started taking community health classes, I fell in love with the field and realized that I wanted to conduct research that involved human interaction and allowed me to actually connect with my participants. I found Dr. Keren Ladin’s REACH Lab (Research on Ethics, Aging, & Community Health) on the department website the summer after my first year, and the combination of public health work in a clinical setting with chronic disease patients appealed well to my intersection of interests in community health, biology, and medicine. I reached out to Dr. Ladin, and started working in the lab that fall!

2. Can you tell me about your thesis project?

Overall, the projects I’ve been involved with in the REACH Lab have focused on decision-making among older patients with advanced chronic kidney disease (CKD). For my thesis, I’m working off of data we collected through a series of surveys last year at Tufts Medical Center, where we are investigating the effects of a decision-aid for these patients, their care-partners, and their clinicians in the treatment decision-making process. In particular, I’m investigating advance care planning among this population — that is, whether and how clinicians guide these patients and their care-partners through understanding their options and outlining their values and treatment goals in advance of the time when these decisions may become critical. Advance care planning is particularly important for this population, since elderly CKD patients often experience high comorbidity and cognitive impairment, and they sometimes experience unexpected complications that require a treatment decision to be made quickly. By having their goals and preferences decided upon prior to an emergency or a loss of ability to consent to care, the treatment they receive can best align with their values, allowing them maximum autonomy in these challenging medical situations.

3. What are some of the findings that have surprised you the most in your research?

This patient population faces several difficult treatment decisions, such as whether or not to initiate dialysis, and due to factors such as comorbidity, cognitive impairment, and unforeseen complications. Issues of capacity and consent to decision-making often come into play. They are often put on dialysis, despite findings that for many of these patients, dialysis may not grant much extended life expectancy, and most of these patients and their care-partners have indicated a preference for comfort care over life-sustaining treatment in these cases. For me, it has been very interesting to investigate the reasons why this discrepancy exists between care preferred and care received. We have found that patients often want to be engaged in advance care planning discussions, including transparency from their clinicians regarding elements such as prognosis. However, our surveyed patients most often report not being involved in such conversations with their doctors. They report rarely being asked about their values, fears, and concerns in their clinical care, and they seem to be having these discussions more often with their families than with their clinical team. Based on our findings, we are recommending that nephrologists put more focus on transparent, holistic advance care planning with this patient population and that they involve care-partners and/or families in these decision-making discussions.

4. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as you collected data for your research? How did you overcome your obstacles?

One challenge we’ve faced is in recruiting patients and care-partners to enroll in our study. The study takes time, and understandably, some of our potential participants would prefer not to spend additional time in the hospital and would rather not answer a long survey that asks difficult questions, such as about their end-of-life preferences. However, we have found that many of our participants appreciate the study and enjoy learning about their options via the decision-aid. We try to communicate this generally positive experience to our potential participants and to include their clinicians in our recruitment strategy. Patients generally trust their doctors, so if their nephrologist is the person to initiate the recruitment process for our study, we tend to have a higher success rate.

5. How do you think your experiences surveying patients about their decisions with chronic kidney disease will affect your long-term career goals?

One of my favorite aspects of my research is the patient-interaction component, which I am sure will prove beneficial in my long-term goal of being a physician. I’ve had the chance to interview many patients and care-partners, and since these conversations deal with very serious subjects due to the nature of end-of-life decision-making, I have had to learn how to approach such topics with empathy and in a way that preserves the patients’ dignity. In addition, since our research is in a way critical of the current medical system, I have had the chance to think seriously and learn about what it means to be a compassionate care provider, and I hope I will be able to take these lessons forward with me as I venture into a clinical provider role. Lastly, I hope to continue to incorporate research into my career through medical school and beyond, and I am very grateful to have had this hands-on research experience as a first step toward this goal.

6. Do you have any advice for other rising seniors who are looking to pursue a senior thesis, or anything you want to say to undergraduates who want to get into public health research?

My main piece of advice is to just take the plunge and go for it! I was a bit nervous as a first-year student about reaching out to professors, but it’s important to remember that they want to teach and mentor students, and chances are, they’ll be excited to hear of your interest. I am certainly biased, but I think that research relating to public health provides an underrated and invaluable opportunity for pre-med students, since thinking critically about the health care system is, in my opinion, crucial to becoming a good clinician. As for pursuing a senior thesis, it is definitely not an easy task, but if you have the time and energy to commit to it, I think it can be a very rewarding experience. I am excited to have a final product to cap off my past three years of research, and I believe the scientific writing experience it provides is very useful, especially considering that we typically do not get many other opportunities to practice those skills. My feeling is that if you have a passion for something, you may as well pursue it to its fullest!

If you would like to have your own research featured on the TuftScope blog, you can reach Kurtis at kurtis.chien_young@tufts.edu

YOUNG BLOOD: NEW STUDY SHOWS THAT BLOOD AND BONE MARROW MAY AFFECT AGING PROCESS

By Alyssa, Quinlan

Dementia affects over 50 million people worldwide – a number that is only expected to increase as life expectancy rates continue to rise globally. However, a new study published in Communications Biology may provide promise for a cure.

While previous studies – particularly in mice – related to neurodegeneration point to blood cells playing a role in cognitive decline and aging, the reasons behind this correlation were not entirely understood. Recently, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center shifted their attention to bone marrow, the site of blood cell production.

In their study, researchers worked with three groups of mice – older mice with bone marrow transplants from other aged mice, older mice with bone marrow transplants from younger mice, and a control group (no transplants). Six months after the transplants, the mice underwent tests of activity levels, learning ability, and spatial and working memory skills. In these tests, mice with young bone marrow greatly outperformed both the mice with old bone marrow and the control group.

While this study seems to signal the potential cognitive benefits of young blood marrow and blood cells, this procedure cannot be immediately applied to human treatments due to issues with blood marrow transplants.  However, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center researcher Clive Svendsen, PhD, hopes that stem cell technology can eventually be utilized to achieve the same outcome.

Nonetheless, the Cedars-Sinai study offers hope for the prevention of the progression of neurodegenerative diseases – an increasingly important issue in an aging population.

 

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. (2019, February 20). Young bone marrow rejuvenates aging mouse brains: Transplanting marrow from young lab mice to old mice preserves memory and learning skills. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 1, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190220103341.htm

Carabid Beetles Have the Potential to Help Humans, Who Knew?

By Duru Cosar

A study done recently by researchers at Penn State revealed that a gland inside the abdomen of carabid beetles could be useful in biomedical engineering and have other biomedical applications. The gland, known as the pygidial gland, is made of “defensive chemical-producing-lobes” that are connected to a muscular reservoir chamber through a duct. These glands produce caustic chemicals that the beetles spray to defend themselves against predators. The tissues that make up the gland system have been a mystery to entomologists for quite some time. However, researchers were able to shed light on this mystery by using a process that was developed in a previous Penn State entomological study. This process is known as autofluorescence-based laser scanning-microscopy, which works by having tissues emit different wavelengths of light based on their contents. Through this method, they found that the tissues in the gland system had resilin, which is a compound that is found in many insects. Resilin gives elasticity to the mechanically active tissues, but it was previously not known to be in the glandular systems of beetles. Lead researcher Adam Rork collected ground beetles from agricultural fields a few miles from Penn State’s Park campus to study their abdominal tissues. He believes that the pygidial glands are a key reason that carabid beetles have survived for so long. 

Furthermore, the researchers believe that resilin can be used in future bioengineering and biomedical applications because it is flexible and has an ability to resist chemicals, so it can be used to keep two different chemicals away from each other within the same environment. Another use that they note is for tissue engineering. Resilin is similar to elastin, which is a protein in human bodies, and thus it could be used to design new tissues for people who have degenerative diseases or injuries.

Penn State. (2019, February 25). Material that shields beetle from being burned by its own weapons, holds promise. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 4, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190225170231.htm

Poor Sleep is Linked to Atherosclerosis Plaque Buildup

By Sanjana Puri

It is a well-worn adage that sleep is the best meditation and that a full night’s rest provides a host of physical benefits, especially in regards to cardiovascular health. The processes by which this occurs are numerous, but one of the most significant may involve the slow accumulation of white blood cells in arteries following consistent interrupted or insufficient sleep. The hormone hypocretin, produced in the hypothalamus has been known to play a key role in the regulation of sleep. Its lesser known role as a white blood cell production mediator became evident when researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital exposed a group of mice to sleep fragmentation, and found higher levels of inflammatory cells within their vessels along with larger arterial plaque development. Also interesting was that the production of stem cells within the mice bone marrow increased by nearly two fold.

Upon further investigation, the researchers uncovered that hypocretin regulates white blood cell production through communication with neutrophils in the bone marrow. The neutrophils, in turn, activate monocyte (inflammatory white blood cell) production through the release of factor CSF-1. Insufficient sleep drives a drop in hypocretin production, resulting in a loss of sleep regulation and an increase in CSF-1 production, contributing the process of atherosclerosis. "This is a direct demonstration that hypocretin is also an important inflammatory mediator," said Filip Swirski, one of the senior researchers on the team.

Massachusetts General Hospital. (2019, February 13). Why getting enough sleep reduces cardiovascular disease risk: Sleep-modulating hormone hypocretin found to also control production of inflammatory cells. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 3, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190213132317.htm

Distrust in politics and its effects on healthcare: the increase in populist views in Europe has led to concerns of vaccine hesitancy

By Patrycja Sztachelski 

According to a study by Queen Mary University of London, there is a significant correlation between the rise of populism across Europe and the level of mistrust around vaccines. Dr. Jonathan Kennedy from Queen Mary University of London claims that “even where programmes objectively improve the health of targeted populations, they can be viewed with suspicion by communities that do not trust elites and experts. In the case of vaccine hesitancy, distrust is focused on public health experts and pharmaceutical companies that advocate vaccines”.

The study looked at national-level data from 14 European countries, and found that there was a relevant positive association between the percentage of people in a country who believe that vaccines are not important, safe and/or effective and the percentage of people in that country who voted for populist parties in the 2014 European Parliament elections.

Dr. Kennedy points out in the research article that modern vaccine hesitancy can be traced back to Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet article, which proposed a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Vaccination rates for MMR fell from 92 per cent in 1995 to 79 per cent in 2003 in the UK, while cases of measles in England and Wales rose from 56 in 1998 to 1370 in 2008--Wakefield was removed from the UK medical register and the Lancet study was retracted as a result of these trends.

Nonetheless, Wakefield’s ideas proved to be influential—in Italy, the Five Star Movement (5SM) posed concerns about vaccine safety and the link between MMR and autism, which are believed to have caused MMR vaccination coverage to fall from 90 per cent in 2013 to 85 per cent in 2016. In response to this, the upper house of the Italian Parliament has passed a law to repeal legislation that makes vaccines mandatory for children entering state schools.

Mistrust around vaccines has spread among other countries in Europe as well, including France and Greece, and Dr. Kennedy has emphasized that the underlying causes of populism have to be further examined before the issue of vaccine hesitancy is addressed.

 

Queen Mary University of London. (2019, March 1). Rise of European populism and vaccine hesitancy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 3, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190301123250.htm

Gene Therapy Restores Hearing in Deaf Mice

By Emily Taketa

A recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Journal (PNAS) reported that adult mice with congenital genetic deafness, specifically the prevalent DFNB9 deafness model, were treated with intracochear gene injections which successfully restored their hearing. Researchers from the University of Miami, Columbia University, University of San Francisco, Institut Pasteur, Inserm, CNRS, Collège de France, Sorbonne University and the University of Clermont Auvergne collaborated to create this specific method of targeted gene therapy, in mice, with the hopes of treating humans with the similarly common DFNB deafness.

The researchers first identified that DFNB deafness, or a highly prevalent autosomal recessive deafness, is caused by a deficiency in the otoferlin protein that is vital in communication between the synapses of auditory sensory cells. To reverse the detrimental effects of the deaf mice’s lack of otoferlin production, the researchers relied on adeno-associated viruses (AAVs) as the primary vectors to insert the otoferlin gene coding region into the deaf mice. AAVs’ efficacy as a gene therapy model in mice and humans was tested by experimenting on mice who already expressed deafness with a developed auditory system parallel to the human physiology. These trials focused on DNFB9 deafness specifically caused by genetic mutations in the coding region of otoferlin so the auditory synapses were unable to release neurotransmitters when stimulated by sound and therefore the mouse was profoundly deaf. In this experiment, the researchers administered one intracochlear injection of two different recombinant AAVs, one with the otoferlin cDNA 5’ end and one with the 3’ end. The injection led to a production of otoferlin in the inner cilia hair cells and reversed the deafness phenotype in the mice.

These results have exciting implications for the future of gene therapy and treatment for deafness in humans. These late stage gene therapy model could challenge the previous conception that DFNB9 deafness has a narrow therapeutic window and this successful model can hopefully be applied to other forms of deafness.

 

Institut Pasteur. (2019, February 19). Gene therapy durably reverses congenital deafness in mice. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 2, 2019

Developments to Precision Medicine in Pain Threatens Ongoing American Opioid Crisis

By Eliana Rosenzweig

Researchers have produced a novel prototype blood test that can detect pain biomarkers, carrying potentially meaningful and clinical significance to curb the extensive opioid crisis in Indiana and the rest of the country. The opioid crisis has arisen largely due to the over prescription of addictive medications to help patients experiencing significant pain. Traditionally, pain is considered a relatively subjective measurement that is individual to each patient. However, a study led by psychiatry professor Alexander Niculescu at the Indiana University School of Medicine has identified and targeted potential biomarkers of pain in hundreds of participants at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center that can be tested in a blood test and determine pain severity in a patient.

The prototype produced allows for physicians to prescribe medicine that is specifically designed to individual patient pain. Once the biomarkers of pain are identified in each patient, the designed prototype also allows physicians to match the biomarker to a compound that can directly target the pain associated with the biomarker, which is often natural compounds rather than opioid drugs. In addition, some of the biomarkers can also indicate if a patient will experience pain the future, and long-term chronic pain.

This study supports the larger Indiana University Challenge Precision Health Initiative with the introduction of precision medicine for pain. Niculescu’s team plans to conduct future research on the prototype to make it more usable in clinical application.

 

Indiana University. (2019, February 13). Breakthrough toward developing blood test for pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 25, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190213142715.htm

HCV Donors Now Saving Lives

By Ella Do

In the case of organ transplantation, donors with viral diseases are often rejected and their organs discarded, as recipient survival rates in these cases are significantly lower. With such a limited donor pool, hundreds of patients on the waitlist for heart transplantation fall victim to illness or even death while waiting as many as ten years for appropriately matched available organs.

At University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Peter Reese, MD, MSCE and David S. Goldberg, MD, MSC–associate and assistant professors of Medicine and Epidemiology, respectively–and Medical Director Rhondalyn McLean, MD, MHS, of Penn's Heart Transplant program, co-led a research team and clinical trial in hopes of identifying another viable option for patients who may otherwise never receive their needed transplant.

From June of 2017 to April of 2018, Penn Medicine’s trial aimed to transplant hearts from HCV–hepatitis C–donors into patients on the transplant waitlist who were HCV negative. The clinical trial, USHER, was modeled after THINKER, a study led by the same medical company to transplant HCV-infected kidneys with an antiviral therapy post-transplantation. After informing participants and their families of risks involved, ten patients received transplants and tested positive for the virus just days after surgery. A 12-week course followed in which patients took Zepatier, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved oral medication to treat HCV. Unfortunately, one patient died. However, complications were not due to presence of the virus or therapy. For the remaining patients, both of Penn’s studies resulted in the eradication of HCV contracted from the donors’ hearts, reports of continued healthy living, and discoveries of the virus’s interactions with recipients. With this antiviral therapy, the team hopes to apply their newfound results to other transplant types, lungs being a primary candidate for the upcoming trials.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. (2019, February 25). Doctors eradicate Hepatitis C in patients after heart transplants from infected donors: Study suggests the use of HCV-infected organs may be viable option for patients awaiting a heart transplant. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 25, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190225100716.htm

Pills over Injections: The Future of Type 1 Diabetes Management

By Ursula Biba

An MIT-led group of researchers have developed a capsule that may revolutionize the management of Type 1 diabetes. While most people with Type 1 diabetes receive insulin via subcutaneous injection, this new pill can potentially deliver comparable levels of insulin to lower blood sugar levels orally. The biodegradable capsule, with its singular needle made of compressed insulin that injects into the stomach wall, has unique features that elevate it among the group’s previous capsule designs. The pill’s single needle lowers its likelihood of injecting drugs into the stomach, where acids would dissolve the substance before it had any effect. The capsule can also self-orient in the dynamic environment of the stomach to ensure the needle contacts the stomach lining at injection. While the insulin in the current study took about an hour to dissolve after injection into the stomach wall, researchers can further control its rate of dissolution as the pill is prepared. Researchers have found no negative side effects related to ingesting the capsule based on results from animal studies. The MIT team is now working with scientists at Novo Nordisk to further develop the technology used in the capsule and optimize it for manufacturing. They hope that this pill can not only make it easier for patients with Type 1 diabetes to receive insulin, but also be used for the treatment of other conditions that often require subcutaneous injection of medication.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2019, February 7). New pill can deliver insulin through the stomach. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 26, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190207142206.htm

Cue the Addiction: Environmental Cues and their Effect on Women’ s Addiction

By Annmarie Hoch

Though little is known about addiction in women, a study has found that women’s hormones may make them more susceptible to relapse triggers. It has been known that women are more likely to become addicted following drug exposure. However, recent research at Vanderbilt University has shown that fertility hormones can make women more susceptible to learning cues. This translates to them being more susceptible to environmental triggers that cause relapse. This discovery can be used to aid with recovery and direct research for medications. Much addiction research has focused exclusively on male addiction, due to the uncertainty of the effect female hormones could have on addiction. As a result, much research and medication for addiction aren’t as effective for women as they are for men. The study at Vanderbilt, conducted by Erin Calipari, compared the effect of environmental cues on male and female rats exposed to cocaine. Hormones in the female rats created strong associations between the environmental cues and the cocaine. With this discovery, more research is needed. It’s a good start, but we still need more research on other factors that make women more susceptible to addiction. More research could be done based off this study to look at the particularities of human female addiction as well.

Vanderbilt University. (2019, February 8). Women's hormones play role in drug addiction, higher relapse rates: Attention drawn to lack of female-specific research. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 16, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190208161442.htm

Age is the leading risk factor for breast cancer, but not in the way we think: Accelerated biological age linked to greater risk for breast cancer

By Patrycja Sztachelski

Studies have shown that biological age, which involves making a DNA-based estimate of a person’s age, has a correlation with the risk that someone has for developing breast cancer in the future. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health measured DNA methylation, or a chemical modification to DNA that occurs naturally as people age. According to the study, a woman had a 15 percent increase in her risk of developing breast cancer if her biological age indicated that her DNA was five years older than her chronologic, or actual age.

Scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences believe that biologic age may be related to environmental exposures (i.e. as is the case in the field of epigenetics), which may help indicate disease risk. Researchers used epigenetic clocks, which measure methylation located at specific parts of DNA, to determine biologic age.

In a particular NIEHS-led Sister Study, DNA was collected from blood samples provided by a group of more than 50,000 women in the U.S. and Puerto Rico in order to identify genetic and environmental risk factors for breast cancer. As Jack Taylor, M.D., PhD., head of the NIEHS Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group has stated, the results indicate that “if your biologic age is older than your chronologic age, your breast cancer risk is increased. The converse is also true. If your biologic age is younger than your chronologic age, you may have decreased risk of developing breast cancer”. Nonetheless, researchers have yet to determine how environmental factors impact biologic age, or whether the effects of such factors on DNA methylation can be reversed.

 

NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (2019, February 22). Older biologic age linked to elevated breast cancer risk: NIH scientists use epigenetics to help predict disease development. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 24, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190222125223.htm

The Neuroscience of Texture

By Sanjana Puri

Humans have the ability to respond to a plethora of different textures - soft, hard, velvety, rough, we can even distinguish between thread counts in a bedsheet. Researchers at the University of Chicago sought to understand the driving force behind this acute sense of touch. In a 2013 study, researchers worked to identify the nerve sensations associated with different textures. They ran a rotating wheel of material along the fingertips of a Rhesus macaque monkey - an animal with neural circuitry very similar to that of a human - and recorded the neural responses. Using a system of electrodes planted in the somatosensory cortex of the monkeys, they were able to find a vast array of heterogeneous responses depending on the sensation experiences. Depending on the material’s coarseness and level of indentation among numerous other factors, researchers were able to identify 55 different responses. These responses are so distinct that Sliman Bensmaia, PhD, one of the lead researchers says that he can identify the texture simply based on the pattern of activity in the brain. Understanding touch could have an enormous impact on the engineering of prosthetics in the future. However, recreating these neural responses could prove difficult due to the vastness of sensations available. Bensmaia says, “It's very heterogeneous, which could make it difficult to implement in prosthetics. But that's also how we get this rich sensation of texture in the first place."

University of Chicago Medical Center. (2019, February 8). How the brain responds to texture: Neurons respond to a variety of features of a surface, creating a high-dimensional representation of texture in the brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 20, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190208124705.htm

Clues to Evolution Uncovered below the Oceanic Crust

By Yasaman Khorsandian

The majority of life on Earth is composed of microbial species, most of which have never been cultivated in laboratories even though they are considered to be the simplest forms of life. An example of such organism is the group of microbes named Hydrothermarchaeota. A team of researchers at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Scientists have only recently succeeded in cultivating these organisms with the use of a new genetic sequencing technique named genomics; this novel method can be used to sequence and analyze large portions of any genetic code. With the help of this technique and the use of the deep-diving robot Jason, who can collect water samples from the oceanic crust, researchers were able to discover this species’ survival strategies that allow it to thrive in extreme conditions.

The researchers found that Hydrothermarchaeota use the rare metabolic strategy of processing carbon monoxide and sulfate, which allows it to survive on low amounts of energy. Moreover, the members of this species possess the ability to move, which can be essential to their survival in an environment such as the deep sea with very scarce resources. The analysis of their genome also revealed the fact that they belong to the prokaryotic group of life named archaea, meaning that they evolved very early on in the history of life on Earth; therefore, the information uncovered by their genome can be essential in understanding how evolution took place on Earth, and maybe even on other planets.

 

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. (2019, February 7). Unusual microbes hold clues to early life: Cutting-edge molecular methods reveal unusual metabolism of extreme microbes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 18, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190207102621.htm

New Molecules to Regenerate Neurons Bring Promise to Treat Neurological Disease

By Duru Cosar

Recently, a team of researchers at Penn State recognized a set of three or four molecules that had the ability to convert glial cells, which are typically used for insulation in neurons, into new neurons. They believe that these functional new neurons may be able to treat stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain injuries. Gong Chen, head of the research team and Chair in Life Sciences at Penn State, informs that the main issue with brain damage is that neurons do not regenerate because they don’t divide, which makes repair difficult. Glial cells accumulate around the damaged tissue and can multiply. In a previous study, his team tested nine molecules to convert glial cells into neurons, but because the number of molecules was so high, the process of transitioning to a clinical treatment became complicated. The team tested different numbers and combinations of molecules to determine the best method to convert astrocytes, a type of glial cells, into new neurons. Through hundreds of drug combinations, they determined that the best combination was of four molecules that control four signaling pathways in human astrocytes. This method results in successful conversion (about 70%) of human astrocytes into functional neurons. These neurons can survive more than seven months in a laboratory and have the abilities that normal neurons do. It is also possible to use three molecules instead of four, but this drops the conversion rate down to 20%. 

Previously, Chen and his team had developed a gene therapy technology that converts astrocytes into functional neurons, but due to the high cost and complex delivery method, they wanted to find a different approach. Their new method would be delivered in the form of a pill as the molecules can be chemically synthesized into a pill. Chen also notes that a pill would allow for wider distribution around the world, reaching areas that lack a developed hospital system. Chen and his team do acknowledge that the specifics of drug packaging and delivery as well as other technical issues and potential side effects still need to be resolved. However, once they are resolved, the team believes that this combination of molecules holds promise to help treat patients with neurological dysfunctions. 

 

Penn State. (2019, February 7). Simple drug combination creates new neurons from neighboring  cells. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 17, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190207173226.htm