University research recap


University professors and researchers released new discoveries during winter break.

While University students spent winter break catching up on sleep and social lives, some University professors and researchers were busy changing the face of the scientific world.

Of the study results released over break, some of the most significant research took place in the fields of medicine, astronomy and health. Researchers across the campus were involved with projects looking at everything from cancer cell growth to comet dust.

What follows is a recap of some of the projects University researchers announced since classes ended in December.

It’s alive!

Doris Taylor’s latest discovery sounds like something out of Frankenstein.
It’s alive!

What: A re-created beating heart, made in a laboratory.
Who: Doris Taylor, professor of physiology and medicine.
When: Announced Jan. 13
Why it’s important: This is the first-ever working organ created in a laboratory. It could be a step toward an alternative to heart or other organ donation.

When the physiology and medicine professor announced Jan. 13 that her team had created the first laboratory-made heart, it created a rush of excitement through the scientific community.

Taylor, however, remained grounded in her team’s discovery.

“The mantra I’ve had for years is, ‘Give nature the tools and get out of the way,’ ” she said.

Through a process called “decellularization,” in which the researchers cleared the cells out of a dead rat’s heart by running a soap-like solution through it, Taylor’s team was able to successfully reanimate the heart by implanting new heart cells into the organ.

“Within a couple of days, we could see tiny, microscopic contractions,” she said. “Over time, those contractions got stronger, and by a week, we could see the thing beating.”

Since the creation of the pumping rat heart, Taylor’s team has moved on to hearts from other animals – like pigs, whose hearts are closer in size and anatomy to humans’ – and said the process is expected to work on any organ.

The idea of decellularization isn’t new; the procedure is already used to prepare heart valves for human transplant.

But, “what was novel was the thought that maybe we could do that with the whole tissue or the whole organ,” Taylor said.

While the heart isn’t strong enough to support a living rat, Taylor said it is compatible with a blood stream.

“We were really just trying to prove it would work,” she said.

Up to 50,000 people on the heart transplant list don’t get a heart, Taylor said. While her discovery is a step in the direction of providing an alternative to donations, she said donors are still vital.

“We still need organ donors,” she said. “Even if we had more organ donors, I don’t think we’ll ever have enough to meet the demand. Our hope is to create another option.”

Lucy in the sky…

Physics professor Bob Pepin was one of the first people in the world to ever get his hands on dust from a comet – even if it was one quarter of a billionth of a gram.
Lucy in the sky…

What: Gas concentration found in comet dust.
Who: Bob Pepin, physics professor.
When: Announced Jan. 3
Why it’s important: Professor Pepin is one of the first people to study dust from a comet. It could help lead to a better understanding of how the earth’s atmosphere was formed.

Pepin’s lab was one of only 56 from around the world to get a share of the comet dust, which was collected by NASA in early 2006.

And while the amount of dust itself was miniscule, the concentration of the noble gases helium and neon was the largest ever found in a natural sample, Pepin said after results were released Jan. 3.

“A little bit of material goes a long way in this business,” he said.

Studying how typical these old dust particles are in comets could lead to a better understanding of how Earth was formed, as comets are suspected to have supplied some of the gases of the atmosphere, Pepin said.

“By looking at the noble gases,” he said, “we can tell quite a lot about where the gases came from and what their history has been.”

What interests scientists about this finding is the particles of dust could only have formed very near the sun, Pepin said.

Not only that, but the amount of energy needed to get the particles from near the sun to where the comet formed – around the orbit of Pluto – would only have been available within the first million years of the solar system’s existence, Pepin said.

“The comet probably incorporated them right away,” he said, “which would make the comets extremely old.”

Getting both sides to the table

Epidemiology and community health professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer’s newest findings might not go over well with some moody teenagers.
Getting both sides to the table

What: Study results linking family meals to better eating habits in teenage girls.
Who: Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor of epidemiology and community health.
When: Findings released Jan. 8
Why it’s important: It could lead to better prevention methods for eating disorders in teens.

Findings released Jan. 8 by the University’s Project Eating Among Teens found that adolescent girls who eat frequent meals with their families are less likely to develop disordered eating habits, such as self-induced vomiting or using diet pills, which can lead to eating disorders.

“These results do not say if you eat meals with your family, you’re not going to get an eating disorder, or vice versa,” Neumark-Sztainer said. “They do seem to be one factor which could help in their prevention.”

Participants in the study, which included 2,516 male and female students from schools across Minnesota, took two surveys, five years apart.

Girls who had frequently eaten with their families over that time were one-third less likely to develop disordered eating habits, Neumark-Sztainer said.

She said family meals generally provide healthier food and the opportunity for parents to connect with their children.

This outcome was not the same for the boys surveyed, she said.

“It’s a little harder to predict these behaviors in boys than in girls,” she said. “While it’s important to prevent disordered eating in both boys and girls, the prevalence is higher in girls. That’s kind of our greatest concern.”

Neumark-Sztainer said there could be benefits to college students eating with what she calls their “college family.”

“Many college students don’t eat with their families,” she said.

Another front in the battle against cancer

To pediatrics professor Timothy Hallstrom, a picture is worth 1,000 words – or at least 30,000 genes.
A new front in the battle against cancer

What: A discovery that a certain chemical reaction can actually shut off death genes in cancer cells.
Who: Timothy Hallstrom, pediatrics professor.
When: Announced Jan. 8
Why it’s important: This discovery could lead to better forms of treatment for certain cancers.

Hallstrom has spent the past three years using gene expression studies, in which a snapshot of a cell shows around 30,000 genes and their functions within, to look at how certain genes in cancer cells can cause the cell to either multiply or die.

What he found is that a certain protein, called E2F1, can perform both functions.

“It’s got this sort of strange dual function,” he said. “Clearly a cell cannot be dividing and killing itself at the same time.”

However, when Hallstrom applied a certain cancer-activated pathway, or chemical reaction, to the cell, he could see the death genes turning off in the cell’s snapshot.

“A certain pathway, called PI3K, now functions to control the cell death and shut off genes recorded for executing cells,” Hallstrom said.

Researchers hope to determine how to turn off the PI3K, enabling the E2F1 protein to kill cancerous cells.

This finding could have important implications for treating cancer patients, he said.

Independent studies in women with breast and ovarian cancers revealed that, in circumstances where the death gene was expressed nicely, the women performed better in terms of survival, Hallstrom said.

Since the PI3K pathway turns off the death genes, Hallstrom said it’s important to study how it does that.

A better understanding of this could lead to a more effective “therapeutic tool,” he said.

Cyanide: One less place to hide

Creating new antidotes shouldn’t be too surprising for researchers at the University’s Center for Drug Design.
Cyanide: One less place to hide

What: A new safe and effective cyanide poisoning antidote.
Who: Steven Patterson, associate director of the University’s Center for Drug Design.
When: Announced Dec. 26
Why it’s important: There are only two other cyanide poison antidotes used in the United States. This one is safer and more effective, Patterson said.

Associate director Steven Patterson, however, is still excited about his most recent discovery, announced Dec. 26 -an antidote that is effective at protecting against cyanide poisoning.

After four years of research, Patterson said he now has a drug that is, “more effective than the antidotes currently used today, and much safer.”

Inspired by former University professor Herb Nagasawa’s desire to create a cyanide antidote around the time of the first Gulf War, Patterson jumped at the opportunity to work with the poison, which prevents the body from using oxygen.

He and his team started with four prototype antidotes. After all four had successful trials in mice, Patterson continued to test the best antidote.

They are now hoping to be ready for clinical trials within the next three years, Patterson said.

Cyanide poisoning is a risk for people who are exposed to smoke, including firefighters and first responders, Patterson said. Only two antidotes are used in the United States, he said, and while his could be taken as a pill, an injection is a more likely form.

“Cyanide affects people too rapidly for (a pill) to be effective,” he said. “Of course, many of the people who are exposed to cyanide are unconscious.”

Patterson’s team is two years into a five-year grant to research cyanide antidotes. He said they have applied for additional funding for the future.

“There’s still a lot of fundamental research to do,” he said.