Category: Health

UGA-Emory collaborations in Infectious Disease research

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The Provost's Office highlighted some research collaborations in the state of Georgia among our premier institutions, the cummulative extramural support awarded these efforts and its effects. The summary included work by Franklin College professor of genetics, Jessica Kissinger:

Kissinger, who directs the UGA Institute of Bioinformatics, is leading a team that is organizing, distributing and mining the massive quantities of data produced by the project with the ultimate goal of identifying new opportunities to diagnose the disease, which causes an estimated 660,000 deaths annually.

"The goal of my team is to integrate the terabytes of data being produced on both the host and the parasite and make it accessible to our mathematical modelers, who are looking for patterns and signals, as well as the global malaria research community to guarantee that this large investment has the biggest impact possible on malaria research," Kissinger said.

More news coming soon on Kissinger's work with bioinformatics. Suffice it to say we are inspired by her efforts and those of other faculty members working beyond campus to further important goals for improving health around the world.

CCRC-Franklin researchers target cancer stem cells

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A new paper by research scientists at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center focuses on cancer stem cells:

the research team demonstrates that the sugar molecule, made by an enzyme known as GnT-V, regulates the development of a particular subset of cancerous cells known as cancer stem cells.

Much like normal stem cells that sustain organs and tissues, cancer stem cells can self-renew, and their cellular offspring clump together to form tumors. Conventional treatments like surgery, chemotherapy or radiation may reduce overall tumor size, but if they do not kill the cancer stem cells, the disease is likely to return.

"You can think of it like a colony of ants," said Michael Pierce, director of UGA's Cancer Center, Mudter Professor in Cancer Research in UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and principal investigator for the study. "You can kill the ants in the mound, but if you don't get the queen, they will come back."

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Their discovery paves the way for new cancer treatment methods specifically designed to inhibit GnT-V, which, when combined with other treatments, may help prevent disease recurrence.

While their study focused particularly on colorectal cancers, the researchers hope their discovery may one day work for a variety of cancer types.

"This is a rapidly growing field within the cancer research community," said Pierce, who is also a Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "We want to know what makes these cancer stem cells unique and what we need to do in order to target them specifically so we can develop new treatments and save lives."

Great work by some of our best. Congratulations to Pierce and his team. Continued good results on this important work.

$1.44 million NIH grant to statistics researcher

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Wenxuan-Zhong.jpgA better understanding of epigenetics, or changes in our genetic activity that do not precipitate changes in our genetic code, is one of outcome of expanded research capabilties. As technology gets more refined, broadening possibilities for scientific investigation and, indeed, our ability to inquire into the nature of things, our best researchers gain new insights on a range of questions, conditions and phenomena. This of course includes the latest in electron micrscopy and advanced clinical trials but also mathematical and statistical modeling techniques that increasingly hold the key to advanced analysis and identification:

 [A] statistics researcher has been awarded a $1.44 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop statistical models that may one day be used to predict cancer and other diseases.

Wenxuan Zhong, an associate professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of statistics, will use the funds to develop predictive statistical models based on epigenetic change patterns.

Epigenetics—epi meaning ‘over' or ‘other' in Greek—is the study of changes in a gene's behavior that can be passed down without actually altering the genetic code. Like an airport traffic controller, the epigenome passes along instructions that change the way the gene is expressed by switching genes on and off.

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Zhong hopes to shed light on the role of epigenetic changes in illnesses, particularly cancer.
One form of epigenetic change known as DNA methylation is particularly understudied in this area.

"There's a large amount of evidence that a process known as DNA methylation is a key player in cancer development," Zhong said. "Today's next-generation sequencing techniques give us the data we need to close the gap in this area of research."

Zhong and her team will develop a suite of statistical models to broaden the understanding of how epigenetic patterns are established and maintained during normal development and under different environmental conditions.

Large amounts of epigenetic and genomic data are routinely collected, processed and stored. Statisticians like Zhong look for ways to make the data tell the story.

Congratulations to Dr. Zhong and her team on this new support for an important path of inquiry. These pursuits represent the very best of university research and the leading edge of scientific discovery.

The relationship between relationships and health

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French_Quarter_Kiss.jpgHow important is it to have a caring and supportive partner? We all understand, perhaps intutively, that being a part of a couple has dramatic impacts on our quality of life, and now sociology researchers have published evidence on this question:

Published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the research explores the connection between romantic relationships and health. Using data from primarily African-American couples, the findings include evidence for the importance of positive partner behavior in predicting health. The study also found that interracial couples-whether dating, cohabiting or married-tend to report worse health than couples of the same race.

"There is a great body of research that says romantic relationship quality matters, though much of that research is on married couples," said Ashley Barr, a recent doctoral graduate in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences' sociology department and lead author on the study. "We approached the question from a different angle, asking how romantic relationships, in their varied forms, matter for young people in the transition to adulthood."

The study used data from the Family and Community Health Study, a UGA research project in operation since 1995. The results about the importance of quality in the relationship no matter the status matched the researchers' hypotheses. They also found that having a hostile partner-being in a low-quality relationship-was more disadvantageous in cohabiting or married relationships.

While the racial components of this work are a bit disconcerting - we still have far to go for mixed-race couples to have the positive health outcomes of their relationships match that of same-race couples - it's important to acknowledge this disparity so that we can work to overcome it. Soon there will likely be similar research supporting the impacts of same-sex couples, though likely that research, too, will reflect lingering biases in American society. But here's to giving new meaning to the term 'healthy relationships.'

New approach for early diagnosis of dementia

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psychology.jpgResearchers in the department of psychology have developed a unique method for diagnosing the earliest stages of dementia by applying tasks commonly used to gauge levels of impulsive or risky behaviors related to financial decisions:

This approach, which has been used in the past to evaluate the decision-making processes of problem gamblers and other impulse control disorders like substance abuse, may help diagnose many forms of dementia before more obvious symptoms emerge. They reported their findings in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology.

"The brain is so good at compensating for losses associated with dementia that disorders like Alzheimer's disease can progress for years before anyone notices symptoms," said Cutter Lindbergh, lead author of the study and doctoral candidate in psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "By the time people realize something is wrong, the disease has become irreversible, so we need better diagnostics to give medical interventions the best chance of success."

The number of people living with dementia worldwide is estimated at 35.6 million, resulting in more than $600 billion in annual costs, according to the World Health Organization. But as people live longer and elderly populations increase worldwide, the number of dementia sufferers will double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050.

Great work that will have real impact on millions by homing in on the decision-making processes that present another view to conventional testing by neuropsychologists - not a different view, but a way to evaluate symptoms differently. Congratulations to our researchers on the publication of this new study.

NIH supports UGA glycoscience training program

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Glycogen_structure.pngComplex carbohydrates are the key to cell behavior, and the ability to study them at UGA and train the next generation of researchers just received a great boost:

University of Georgia researchers have received a five-year $850,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a glycoscience training program for pre-doctoral graduate students that will help train a new generation of carbohydrate researchers.

The award makes UGA one of only 26 NIH-funded universities to offer specialized training designed to bridge gaps between biology and chemistry, and it is the only program focused especially on the science of complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates, more commonly known as glycans, cover the surface of every living cell in the human body-allowing those cells to communicate, replicate and survive. But they are also involved in the development and spread of many diseases, including cancer, viral and bacterial infections, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.

"UGA is home to a powerful glycoscience research program, so our faculty are uniquely qualified to lead this new initiative," said Michael Pierce, Distinguished Research Professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and co-principal investigator for the project. "This field is revolutionizing our understanding of fundamental biological processes and disease treatment, and we need to support rigorous training for new generations of researchers."

Mentoring students in chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology; special training in glycomics; specially designed courses, public seminars and an annual retreat developed specifically for the new program; all of these innovations are made possible by past investments in people and facilities that not only come to fruition in the form of breakthrough discoveries, but leading-edge training programs as well. These programmatic innovations help the university continue to draw the brightest graduate students to campus to work, teach, learn and train. Congratulations to our Franklin teams at the CCRC. 

Yellow pigment in the eye and greater visibility

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1920px-Eye_iris.jpgHow our eyes absorb light and achieve great definition in visibilty is a fascinating subject and the focus of one of the best neuroscience researchers in the country, a faculty member in our department of psychology:

[People] with more yellow in their macula may have an advantage when it comes to filtering out atmospheric particles that obscure one's vision, commonly known as haze. According to a new University of Georgia study, people with increased yellow in their macula could absorb more light and maintain better vision in haze than others.

Billy Hammond, UGA professor of brain and behavioral sciences and director of the Vision Sciences Laboratory, conducted the study published in the September issue of Optometry and Vision Science. He explored how yellow light in increased macular pigment helps filter out shortwave light called blue haze, which is damaging to retinal tissue.

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"We've found that the yellow filters out the effects of blue haze," Hammond said. "The pigment affects how far people can see outdoors and how they can adapt to their environment."

Hammond's recent findings support his philosophy on eating healthy and regular exercise. Through his research, Hammond has found that the amount of macular pigment in the eye depends on a person's diet. The macular pigments, known as lutein and zeaxanthin, are most commonly found in leafy, green vegetables. Hammond recommends that in order to maintain healthy eyes, people eat more vegetables.

Dr. Hammond is unfliching about the connections between diet, exercise and good health, which sounds obvious but represents an indefatigable conundrum in American society. Walk more. Eat green vegetables and fruit. The impediments we have created to good health - the keys to vitality and creativity - are mostly a product of passive, sedentary lifestyles and, importantly, workstyles. It's all in our hands to change. Thanks to Hammond for continuing to draw attention to the unnatural ways we live and their deleterious effects on living well.

Expanding the fight against Infectious Diseases

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CEIGD.pngThe UGA Faculty of Infectious Diseases is comprised of many Franklin College faculty members and departments, researchers who have garnered significant resources in the fight against a variety of global health challenges:

"The board of regents investment in infectious disease research provided a unique opportunity to recruit strategically to bridge existing strengths in veterinary medicine, ecology, tropical and emerging diseases, and vaccine development as well as the rapidly expanding the new College of Public Health at UGA," said Duncan Krause, director of UGA's Faculty of Infectious Diseases and a professor of microbiology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "The resulting synergy has been exceptional."

Their studies promise to continue to enhance the research enterprise at UGA and foster new partnerships, both within the UGA Faculty of Infectious Diseases, which brings together researchers across UGA colleges and schools, and with researchers globally.

"A particular strength of the faculty members recruited through the board of regents initiative is their ability to identify promising collaborative opportunities that enable new research capabilities and often spawn new research directions," Krause said.

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Don Harn and Biao He study very different infectious agents, but both expand UGA capabilities in vaccine development. A major research focus of the Harn lab is schistosomiasis, a disease caused by worm-like organisms found in water. This work builds upon UGA's global leadership efforts to control this disease, including the Gates Foundation SCORE program here under the direction of Dan Colley. Harn's research also explores how schistosomiasis can limit the effectiveness of vaccines against HIV and other viral diseases.

He has identified a virus with potential as a delivery vector for vaccines and gene therapy. This discovery has spawned multiple new collaborations with researchers at UGA and beyond.

Having met an Infectious Diseases researcher from another Franklin department earlier today, I can vouch for this program's broad reach across our campus. The nature of fighting emerging and established global diseases dictates an interdisciplinary mix of specialties plus an ability to synthesize voluminous amounts of data even as they expand on it. Data management and sharing is an emerging challeneg itself for scientists and researchers in the digital age, one will revisit soon.

 

Genetics researchers unveil fully functional lab-grown thymus

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Manley_Nancy-portrait.jpgA major advance from researchers in the department of genetics:

A team of scientists including researchers from the University of Georgia have grown a fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal for the first time.

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The researchers created a thymus, a butterfly-shaped gland and vital component of the human immune system. Located beneath the breastbone in the upper chest, the thymus is responsible for producing T-lymphocytes, or T-cells, which help organize and lead the body’s fighting forces against threats like bacteria, viruses and even cancerous cells.

“We were all surprised by how well this works,” said Nancy Manley, professor of genetics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and co-author of the paper describing their finding in Nature Cell Biology.

“The general idea in science is that to make cells change their fate, you need to reprogram first to a stem-cell like state and then coax them to change into what you want,” said Manley, who is also director of UGA’s Developmental Biology Alliance. “But we jump-started the process just by expressing a single gene that was sufficient to initiate the entire process and orchestrate organ development.”

Congratulations to the research team on this fantastic news, a very big step along the way to clinical trials and treatments which, while they might be still far out in the future, seem to have just become significantly closer.

Nature article highlights UGA malaria researcher

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R_cellbio2012_01.jpgCongratulations are in order to University of Georgia professor Vasant Muralidharan, an assistant  professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of cellular biology. His research was recently highlighted in the journal Nature.  Muralidharan, who studies the biology of the deadly malaria eukaryotic parasite, worked with with a group of researchers as a post-doc at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to investigate a means to trap and kill the parasite. You can read more and hear an accompanying audio piece about this published research here

Scientists may be able to entomb the malaria parasite in a prison of its own making, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis report July 16 in Nature.

As it invades a red blood cell, the malaria parasite takes part of the host cell’s membrane to build a protective compartment. To grow properly, steal nourishment and dump waste, the parasite then starts a series of major renovations that transform the red blood cell into a suitable home.

But the new research reveals the proteins that make these renovations must pass through a single pore in the parasite’s compartment to get into the red blood cell. When the scientists disrupted passage through that pore in cell cultures, the parasite stopped growing and died.

Muralidharan now works on his research here at UGA and his work is a great addition to the collaborative efforts of researchers at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. His lab website describes the crux of his research interests as follows: