Molecular hub links obesity, heart disease to high blood pressure
Obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure (hypertension) are all related, but understanding the molecular pathways that underlie cause and effect is complicated.
A new University of Iowa study identifies a protein within certain brain cells as a communications hub for controlling blood pressure, and suggests that abnormal activation of this protein may be a mechanism that links cardiovascular disease and obesity to elevated blood pressure.
Funding: The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (HL084207 and HL014388), the American Diabetes Association, and the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center at the UI.
Gene Variation for Obesity In Those of African Ancestry
An international team of scientists, including six from Vanderbilt University, has identified the first unique genetic determinants of body mass index (BMI) in people of African ancestry. Genetic variations associated with BMI have previously been identified through genome-wide association studies (GWAS) — examinations of genetic information — conducted in large groups of individuals of European and Asian descent.
But until now, this hadn’t been done in people of African ancestry.
In the current study, called a meta-analysis, the researchers pooled data from 36 GWAS involving more than 39,000 men and women of African ancestry.
Funding: Vanderbilt’s participation in the study was supported in part by National Institutes of Health grants CA068485 and CA092447.
Restoring ‘Exhausted’ HIV-Fighting Immune Cells
Johns Hopkins researchers identified a protein that causes immune cells combating HIV to tire and lose function. The scientists say that the protein known as Sprouty-2 is a promising target for future HIV drug development, since disabling it could help restore the cells’ ability to combat the virus that causes AIDS.
Funding: The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute (grant number RO1 CA 108835), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (grant numbers PO1 AI072677, AI 080313 and AI 36219), the Department of Veterans Affairs Merit Review Award Program and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Breastfeeding benefits babies’ brains
A new study by researchers from Brown University finds more evidence that breastfeeding is good for babies’ brains.
The study made use of specialized, baby-friendly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brain growth in a sample of children under the age of 4. The research found that by age 2, babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula exclusively or who were fed a combination of formula and breastmilk. The extra growth was most pronounced in parts of the brain associated with language, emotional function, and cognition, the research showed.
Funding: The work was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health.
Scientists pinpoint brain’s area for numeral recognition
Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have determined the precise anatomical coordinates of a brain “hot spot,” measuring only about one-fifth of an inch across, that is preferentially activated when people view the ordinary numerals we learn early on in elementary school, like “6” or “38.”
“This is the first-ever study to show the existence of a cluster of nerve cells in the human brain that specializes in processing numerals,” said Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford’s Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program. “In this small nerve-cell population, we saw a much bigger response to numerals than to very similar-looking, similar-sounding and similar-meaning symbols.”
Funding: The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (grant NS0783961), the Stanford NeuroVentures Program and the School of Medicine’s Medical Scholars Research Program. Other co-authors were postdoctoral scholars Dora Hermes, PhD, Brett Foster, PhD, Mohammad Dastjerdi, PhD, and Jonathan Winawer, PhD; research assistant Vinitha Rangarajan; and neurosurgery resident Kai Miller, MD.
After a Brain Bleed: Surgery Successfully Treats CCM
“I was frantic,” said Sherry Kedra, who is from Akron, Ohio. “My local neurosurgeon told me I had multiple vascular malformations in my brain and one had leaked. He said it would heal and called it ‘no big deal.’” Worried there was more to her diagnosis, she went home and searched the Internet for information.
Landing on the website of Angioma Alliance, an online support group for patients with a cerebral cavernous malformation (referred to as CCM and also known as cavernous angioma), Kedra found answers. After watching a video presentation on CCM by University of Chicago Medicine neurovascular surgeon, Issam Awad, MD, she jotted down his name and number. Awad and Kedra discussed her condition over the phone. Not long after, Kedra told her husband, Steven, “We’re going to Chicago.”
In the fall of 2010, Awad, an internationally known expert on CCM, met with the Kedras. He described cerebral cavernous malformations as abnormally enlarged blood vessels clustered together in bubble-like structures that resemble raspberries. If the blood vessel walls stretch and become brittle, they can leak or bleed into the brain causing headaches, visual or hearing difficulties, weakness in the arms and legs, seizures, and hemorrhages.
Longtime HIV researcher makes a breakthrough cancer discovery
“Mutant variants of human cells”: the phrase conjures up images of a bad sci-fi movie. But Reuben Harris, Ph.D., a member of the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, has been studying cell mutations for more than 20 years, and his recent finding is more akin to an Oscar-winning blockbuster.
So remarkable is his work that the prestigious journal Nature—widely considered the journal of note for scientists—in February published his discovery that a protein that occurs naturally in the body appears to be a driver for more than half of breast cancers he studied. This breakthrough could lead to new diagnostic tools and, potentially, new treatments for breast cancer.
Fecal “Transplant” Helps One-year-old Beat Relentless Infection
On August 3, 2012, Grant Fisher became the first child in the Midwest, one of the first five in the country, and, at 18 months old, possibly the youngest, to undergo FMT—fecal microbiota transplantation—also known, among other many less delicate names, as a stool transfer.
Grant had a “persistent infection with C. diff,” said Stacy Kahn, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine. Although C. difficile is often found in normal intestines, this increasingly common bacterial infection can multiply rapidly, especially after antibiotics kill off other gut bacteria, leaving room for drug-resistant germs like this one to grow.
Although the first fecal transplants for control of C. difficile were performed in 1958, the recent explosion of knowledge about the microbiome has triggered interest in many new applications. In 2003, an Australian team reported that FMT helped six patients get rid of ulcerative colitis. Newer research suggests that manipulating gut bacteria could help prevent or treat many more diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome, type-2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Tinkering with the gut flora may also help some forms of malnutrition and, on the flip side, prevent obesity.
Discovery opens door to multipronged attack against common skin cancer, study shows
Hailed as a major step forward in the effort to develop targeted cancer therapies, a recently approved drug for the most common type of skin cancer has been a mixed blessing for patients. Although the initial response is usually dramatic, the tumors often recur as the cancer becomes resistant to treatment.
Now researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a second way to block the activity of the signaling cascade, called the Hedgehog pathway, that is abnormally active in these cancers. The researchers hope the new approach may not only one day help patients with tumors that have become resistant to the first drug, vismodegib (marketed as Erivedge), but may also provide a novel combination therapy for newly diagnosed tumors that may be more effective than either treatment alone.
Funding: The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (grants 1F32CA14208701, AR052785 and AR046786). Information about Stanford’s Department of Dermatology, which also supported the work, is available at http://dermatology.stanford.edu/.
Retraining the brain
On a chilly Minnesota evening last December, 16-year-old Tiffany Cowan sat uncomplainingly in Room 242 of the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Memorial Building as two graduate students from the University’s Brain Plasticity Laboratory carefully attached a series of wires to her scalp and right arm.
She is participating in a University study examining the safety of using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) as a treatment for children with congenital stroke.
Cowan, who suffered a stroke either before or during birth, has limited use of the right side of her body. Although the lithe, blonde teenager leads an active life, including playing the violin, she’s eager to participate in research that might enable her to have more muscular control of her stroke-damaged hand.
Findings from this research are not only enabling scientists to gain deeper insight into how the injured brain restructures itself, but they are also pointing to promising new therapies that may help children and adults recover lost function after such an injury.
Funding: Funded by a $1 million challenge grant from the National Institutes of Health
Saint Louis University Researchers Discover A Way to Detect New Viruses
In NIH-funded research published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, Saint Louis University researchers describe a technology that can detect new, previously unknown viruses. The technique offers the potential to screen patients for viruses even when doctors have not identified a particular virus as the likely source of an infection.
Study reveals probable role of Parkinson’s protein in healthy brain
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have exposed the possible function, in the healthy brain, of a mysterious molecule that has been strongly implicated in Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. They made their discovery using a stripped-down experimental system that mimics key aspects of how nerve cells communicate with one another.
Funding: The study was funded by the HHMI and by the National Institutes of Health (grants R37MH63105 and NS077906).
A GPS for Personalized Medicine
Pharmacogenomics, or the study of how genetics affect a patient’s response to medications, is an area of research made possible over the past decade by a better understanding of the human genome. Translating that knowledge from research labs to the clinic has been a challenge, though.
In a 2009 survey, 98 percent of physicians said they believed that patients’ genetic profiles could influence their response to medications, but only 13 percent had actually ordered a genetic test to screen for a patient’s compatibility with drug treatments.
To bridge this gap, a group of researchers at the University of Chicago Medicine is conducting an ongoing clinical study, known as The 1200 Patients Project, that creates a database of how patients with particular genetic profiles react to specific drugs, and then puts that information online for physicians in the clinic to use and compare against. The study is supported by the University’s Center for Personalized Therapeutics.
Heart Failure: Is There a Breath Test?
Cleveland Clinic researcher Raed Dweik, MD, published research in the high-impact Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggesting thatthat breath analysis could help diagnosis heart failure. Measuring certain molecules in the breath (called a “breathprint”) to detect disease is an exciting area of research that can be applied to various diseases. Dr. Dweik said, “I call it the new frontier of medical testing, and I think it’s really the future of medicine where you can do something very easy and very simple and convenient for the patient and get a lot of information out of it.” Dr. Dweik is director of Cleveland Clinic’s pulmonary program and a member of the Lerner Research Institute’s Department of Pathobiology.