Research Notes

Lab Notes — Fall 2019

The Key to Allergies

An unexpected source drives severe allergies, researchers from UConn Health, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, and Yale University report in Science. An antibody known as high-affinity IgE is often behind the most severe food allergies, triggering anaphylactic shock. The researchers looked at mice with a genetic immune problem that causes severe food allergies including anaphylaxis. They found a subtype of immune cells called Tfh13 signal to B cells, another category of immune cell, telling them to make high-affinity IgE. When the researchers deleted Tfh13 cells in mice, the allergies disappeared. People with severe allergies tend to have elevated Tfh13 levels compared with nonallergic peers. The findings could point the way to better allergy testing and perhaps new approaches for treating allergies.


Just Breathe

Yoga practice that emphasizes mental relaxation and breathing techniques can have as much of a beneficial impact on high blood pressure as aerobic exercise, according to research by Yin Wu, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in UConn’s Department of Kinesiology. The study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, highlights the potential for yoga as an alternative antihypertensive therapy, particularly for those unable or unwilling to perform aerobic exercise. “We are not telling people to use yoga to substitute for aerobic exercise,” says Wu. “Aerobic exercise is the gold standard for antihypertensive lifestyle therapy. But yoga provides an additional option that can be just as effective.”


Caution: Falls Ahead

Antidepressant drugs known as selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, can lead to adverse events in adults over 65, according to a team of researchers from UConn School of Pharmacy, UConn Health, and Yale University. Among this drug class, duloxetine, which is commonly known as Cymbalta, was shown to most likely increase the risk of falls over time, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. SNRIs, particularly duloxetine, should be avoided or used with caution in older adults, the researchers say.


Halting Hypertension’s Effects

Elderly people with hypertension who took a high dosage of medicine to manage their high blood pressure showed significantly less accumulation of harmful brain lesions compared to those taking a lower dose of the same medicine, UConn Health researchers reported at the American College of Cardiology’s 68th Annual Scientific Session. However, the reduction in brain lesions did not translate to a significant improvement in mobility and cognitive function. The INFINITY study is the first to demonstrate an effective way to slow the progression of cerebrovascular disease, a condition common in older adults that restricts the flow of blood to the brain. In addition to seeing beneficial effects in the brain, those who kept their blood pressure lower also were less likely to suffer major cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack or stroke.

Follow-Up

Research doesn’t stop when we report it. Here are updates on past UConn Health Journal stories:


Breast Milk Donations

UConn Health’s milk depot collected more than 12,000 ounces of donated breast milk in its first year, providing approximately 37,000 meals for premature babies. The depot, opened in August 2018, is the first at a Connecticut hospital and the only one in the greater Hartford area to join Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast. The nonprofit community milk bank, accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, distributes donated, pasteurized human milk to babies in fragile health throughout the Northeast.

 

Lactation consultant Marisa Merlo helps maternity patient Bekkilyn Toone breastfeed her newborn son in UConn Health's labor and delivery unit.

Fall 2018

Lab Notes – Spring 2019

Deciphering Herpes Hybridization

Herpesviruses reproduce in an unusual way. Normally, DNA viruses replicate their genes by copying each strand of the double-stranded DNA. But researchers have suspected that herpesvirus uses recombination — exchanging one version of a gene with another related version — to replicate. Now, UConn Health researchers from Sandra Weller’s lab have found another clue: a specific viral protein that seems essential to the new DNA’s ability to assimilate into the strand. This protein may provide a target for new herpes drugs. Blocking the protein responsible for the insertion event prevents the virus from copying its own DNA. If it can’t copy its DNA, it can’t reproduce, and so the herpesvirus can’t be infectious or reactivate after going dormant.

herpes virus

Electron micrograph of HHV-6, human herpesvirus-6


‘Stealth Condition’ Riskier Than Previously Thought

The Western world’s most common genetic disorder is a “stealth condition” that causes far more death and disability than previously thought. Hemochromatosis, which causes people to absorb too much iron from their food, quadruples the risk of liver disease, doubles the risk of arthritis and frailty in old age, and causes a higher risk of diabetes and chronic pain, report researchers at UConn Health and the University of Exeter. It’s thought that the extra iron absorption was advantageous for northern European women eating poor diets, but is harmful in today’s iron-rich food supply. Although more than 1 million Americans have hereditary hemochromatosis, few doctors are taught to look for the condition in the early stages of joint pain and tiredness, when it can be easily treated.


Moving the Motivation Meter

Two novel drugs kick-start motivation in rats suffering from apathy and a lack of oomph, UConn researchers led by behavioral neuroscientist John Salamone reported at the 2018 Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego. Both of the experimental drugs cause a buildup of dopamine in the synapses between brain cells. Stimulants like amphetamines and cocaine do the same thing, but in a much more extreme way. The researchers are now testing other, chemically related drugs to see which are most effective and have the least potential for abuse. Lack of motivation is a common symptom of depression that’s harder to treat than other symptoms; the findings could point toward potential treatments.


Targeting Tricky Tuberculosis

school of fish

Tuberculosis is a sneaky disease. The bacteria that cause it allow themselves to be eaten by the immune cells sent to destroy them. But instead of dying, mycobacterium tuberculosis sets up housekeeping and multiplies before busting out to infect more cells. Antibiotics can’t get inside the immune cells, so the only time the mycobacterium are vulnerable are when they’ve just broken out and are cruising for a new cell to infect. But now, UConn chemist Alfredo Angeles-Boza and his colleagues have found certain antibiotic proteins from fish can get at the mycobacterium where they hide, and report their results in ACS Infectious Diseases.

Follow-Up

Research doesn’t stop when we report it. Here are updates on past UConn Health Journal stories:


Hearing Loss

UConn Health otolaryngologist Dr. Kourosh Parham and his colleagues are collaborating with French pharmaceutical company Sensorion to develop a blood test that can warn patients and their doctors of early damage to the inner ear, before hearing loss is noticeable. Parham and his colleagues report in Hearing Research that levels of prestin, a protein found only in cells in the inner ear, rise sharply when those cells are damaged and start to die. Currently, hearing loss can only be identified after it has occurred.

Physician-scientist Dr. Kourosh Parham looks in patients ear

Fall 2016, “Detecting Vertigo, Hearing Loss via Blood Tests”


Health Disparities

Men and boys of color in Connecticut are less likely to have health insurance, more likely to be victims of violence, and more likely to die early from preventable diseases than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, UConn’s Health Disparities Institute reports in its inaugural Connecticut Report Card on Health Equity Among Men and Boys of Color. The report identifies social experiences that can negatively impact health in the population, as well as actions the state can take to address the disparities. Read more at UConn Today.

young black father looks over his ailing son on a hospital

Summer 2018, “Bridging the Health Care Gap”

Follow-Up – Fall 2018

Research doesn’t stop when we report it. Here is an update on a past UConn Health Journal stories:


Glycogen Storage Disease

Dr. Annabelle Rodriguez-Oquendo, professor of cell biology at the UConn School of Medicine, was recently issued a diagnostic patent to test for a genetic predisposition for an abnormal inflammatory response that causes several life-threatening disorders, like coronary artery disease and chronic inflammatory disease. Lipid Genomics, the start-up Rodriguez-Oquendo founded in 2010, has exclusively licensed the technology from UConn Health. The company is currently in discussion with potential investors to continue commercialization of this product, as well as other therapeutic innovations for HDL-cholesterol dysfunction.

Winter 2015, “Getting to the Heart of the Matter”

Lab Notes – Summer 2018

Gout Drug Increases Risk of Death in Some

A study of gout patients taking one of two medications used to prevent excess buildup of uric acid has linked the drug febuxostat to an increased risk of death for users with heart disease when compared to the medication allopurinol. In contrast, the study found no difference between the two medications when considering the risk of nonfatal coronary events, including hospitalizations for heart failure, arrhythmias, pulmonary embolism, myocardial infarction, or stroke. The findings of the trial (commonly referred to as the CARES trial), led by UConn School of Medicine’s Dr. William B. White, were released at the American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Session and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Previously, no cardiovascular clinical trial has ever demonstrated an increased risk of cardiovascular death without also showing a heightened risk of other cardiovascular outcomes.


Prostate Medication Ups Dementia Threat

Tamsulosin

Tamsulosin, a medication prescribed to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), may increase the risk of dementia in men ages 65 or older, a recent UConn study published in Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety found. The risk of developing dementia increased by as much as 17 percent when compared to similar patients who were not taking any medication to treat BPH. According to Dr. Helen Wu of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science and UConn Health, tamsulosin may also quicken the decline of those with early memory loss.


New Compound Stimulates Immune Response Against Cancer

A new synthetic compound created by a team of top immunologists, molecular biologists, and chemists has proven to be highly effective in activating human invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT). The compound called AH10-7 also causes the cells to release a specific set of proteins that stimulate anti-tumor immunity. One of the limitations of earlier compounds was their tendency to cause iNKT cells to release a rush of different cytokines with conflicting immune responses. The study, led by UConn chemistry professor Amy Howell, Ph.D., was published in Cell Chemical Biology. The findings could lead to more effective cancer treatments and vaccines.


Type of Dwarfism Linked to Infertility

human egg and sperm

UConn Health cell biologists Laurinda Jaffe and Leia Shuhaibar were studying fertility when they noticed unusually long bones in their mice. Upon further examination, they discovered that a mutated gene for the NPR2 enzyme, which controls how eggs mature in the ovaries, blocks an enzyme called the fibroblast growth factor receptor, resulting in abnormally long bones. In contrast, the fibroblast growth factor receptor is always “on” in individuals diagnosed with achondroplastic dwarfism, causing decreased bone growth and shortened limbs. The study, funded in part by the NIH and published in eLife, may lead to new drug therapies to treat achondroplasia.

Follow-Up – Summer 2018

Research doesn’t stop when we report it. Here are updates on past UConn Health Journal stories:


Glycogen Storage Disease

The world’s first gene therapy clinical trial for Glycogen Storage Disease (GSD) Type Ia is expected to start this year, hosted by the GSD Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and UConn Health, under the direction of Dr. David Weinstein. The FDA–approved trials will be done in conjunction with biopharmaceutical company Ultragenyx.

Spring 2017, “Free to Be Imperfect”


Advancing Surgical Care for Older Adults

UConn John Dempsey Hospital will be one of seven U.S. hospitals to pilot-test newly developed guidelines for improving the quality of surgical care for older adults for the American College of Surgeons’ Coalition for Quality in Geriatric Surgery (CQGS), the American Geriatric Society, and the John A. Hartford Foundation.

Fall 2017, “Pinpointing Risk Factors to Prevent Postoperative Delirium”


Detecting Hearing Loss

Findings presented at the 53rd American Neurotology Society annual spring meeting reveal the first potential biomarker for noise-induced hearing loss. A collaborative study by UConn Health and Sensorion showed changing levels of prestin, an outer hair cell protein, in the blood correlated with the severity of hearing loss.

Fall 2016, “Detecting Hearing Loss, Vertigo Via Blood Tests”


Breast Health

UConn Health assistant professor and breast surgeon Dr. Christina Stevenson has begun providing breast health education in hair salons, funded by the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative. The program aims to reach women in Hartford County who may be at risk for late- stage diagnosis of breast cancer due to health care access barriers.

Fall 2016, “On the Ground for Breast Cancer Awareness”


Skin Cancer Screening

Up to 60 percent of UConn Health patients with a suspicious skin lesion or mole can now avoid invasive biopsies thanks to confocal microscopy technology, according to dermatologist Dr. Jane Grant-Kels. The technology uses a painless laser light to see skin cells on a cellular level and help doctors identify skin cancers, including melanoma.

Summer 2016, “Finding Skin Cancer in a Flash”


Cooling Cap Therapy

Marisa Dolce, a Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center breast cancer patient, reported keeping 70 percent of her hair as the first UConn Health patient to use optional scalp-cooling technology while undergoing chemotherapy. UConn Health is the only Connecticut institution outside Fairfield County to offer the FDA-approved DigniCap.

Fall 2017, “Cooling Off Chemotherapy’s Side Effects”

Lab Notes – Spring 2018

Early Dependency Leads to Lower Achievement

cannabis

A new study has found that young adults who are dependent on marijuana and alcohol are less likely to achieve adult life goals. UConn Health scientists from the psychiatry department analyzed data from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) and found that these substance-dependent young adults go on to have lower levels of education, decreased rates of full-time employment, less marriage potential, and less social economic potential. The study, presented at the American Public Health Association 2017 Annual Meeting & Expo, also found that marijuana and alcohol dependency may have a more severe effect on young men, affecting them in all areas of measure versus women, who were less likely to obtain a college degree and had lower economic potential, but were equally likely to get married or obtain full-time employment.


Biodegradable Sensor Monitors Pressure, Disappears

hand holding tiny biodegradable sensor

A patent is pending for a biodegradable pressure sensor developed by UConn engineers that could help doctors monitor chronic lung disease, swelling of the brain, and other medical conditions, before dissolving harmlessly in a patient’s body. The small, flexible sensor is made of medically safe materials already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in surgical sutures, bone grafts, and medical implants. It is designed to replace existing implantable pressure sensors that have potentially toxic components and require an additional invasive procedure to remove, extending patients’ recovery time and increasing the risk of infection. The research was funded by a National Institutes of Health grant and funds from UConn’s Academic Plan and is featured online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


DNA Becomes Harder to Access as We Age

A comparison between the immune cells of seniors ages 65 and over and those of adults between the ages of 22 and 40 has revealed that DNA changes with age, impacting how the immune system renews itself. In the sample from the aging population, chromosomes appeared more tightly coiled, making it difficult for cells to access the DNA that might be critical in defending our bodies against diseases, including flu and some cancers. In contrast, the regions of chromosome coding for genes associated with cell death and inflammation appeared to be more open in the elderly than in the young. The study, conducted by a team from UConn Health and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, appeared in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

DNA strand


Portable Microscope a Game Changer in the Field

portable microscope

UConn optical engineers have developed a portable holographic microscope that enables medical professionals to identify diseased cells and other biological specimens in the field in just minutes. The detailed holograms generated by the microscope can be used by medical workers attempting to identify malaria patients in remote areas of Africa and Asia, where the disease is endemic. It also can be used in hospitals and other clinical settings for rapid analysis of cell morphology and cell physiology associated with cancer, hepatitis, HIV, sickle cell disease, heart disease, and other illnesses. The device was recently featured in a paper published by Applied Optics.

Follow-Up – Spring 2018

Research doesn’t stop when we report it. Here are updates on past UConn Health Journal stories:


Longevity Indicators

A new large-scale international study published in the journal Aging has expanded the number of genetic markers known to be associated with exceptional longevity from 8 to 25. Researchers at UConn, the University of Exeter, University of Wisconsin, and University of Iowa studied 389,166 volunteers who took part in U.K. Biobank, identifying genes that could one day be targeted to help prolong human life.

Fall 2016, Lab Notes, “Parents Living Longer Is Good News for Offspring, Study Says”


Health Disparities Institute

Wizdom Powell, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, is the new director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health. Powell’s focus in the eradication of health inequities is improving men’s mental health awareness, resources, and services. As chair of the American Psychological Association’s Working Group on Health Disparities in Boys and Men, Powell testified Jan. 30 to the Congressional Briefing on Men’s Mental Health in Washington, D.C., and proposed policy solutions to create a more supportive social climate for men suffering from depression.

WIzdom Powell

Summer 2016, “Fighting for Equity”

Lab Notes – Fall 2017

E-Cigarettes Not a Safe Alternative

Using a new low-cost, 3-D-printed testing device, UConn researchers found that e-cigarettes loaded with a nicotine-based liquid are potentially as harmful as unfiltered cigarettes when it comes to causing DNA damage. The researchers also found that vapor from non-nicotine e-cigarettes caused as much potentially cancer-causing DNA damage as filtered cigarettes, possibly due to the many chemical additives present in e-cigarette vapors. Several factors impact the amount of DNA damage e-cigarettes cause, says Karteek Kadimisetty, a postdoctoral researcher in UConn’s chemistry department and the study’s lead author. “I never expected the DNA damage from e-cigarettes to be equal to tobacco cigarettes,” says Kadimisetty. “I ran the controls again. I even diluted the samples. But the trend was still there — something in the e-cigarettes was definitely causing damage to the DNA.” The findings appear in the journal ACS Sensors.

electronic cigarette


New Device Tests Heart Health

finger pricked with a spot of blood (for blood sugar test)

UConn researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering have developed a device that can test blood viscosity during a routine office visit. The heart must work harder to pump sticky — high viscosity — blood, and studies have shown thicker blood can indicate cardiac event and stroke risk. UConn associate professor of mechanical engineering George Lykotrafitis and doctoral candidate Kostyantyn Partola have filed a provisional patent on the small electronic device, which requires just a finger prick of blood, gives precise readings in minutes, and costs under $1,000. Currently, physicians must send large blood samples to off-site labs for analysis in a rheometer. “With this information, doctors can suggest simple lifestyle changes on the spot to prevent their patients from having a stroke or heart attack,” says Partola.


The Lack of Black Men in Medicine

Male african-american doctor

Medical school matriculation rates for black males have failed to surpass those from 35 years ago, according to a recent UConn Health analysis of data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. African-American men make up just 2.8 percent of the applicants to medical school. Out of all African-American applicants, only 38 percent are men, and black males who are unsuccessful in their first application are less likely to reapply than their white counterparts, the researchers write in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. “The absence of Black males in medical school represents an American crisis that threatens efforts to effectively address health disparities and excellence in clinical care,” wrote authors Dr. Cato T. Laurencin and Marsha Murray.


Lifting Spirits Doesn’t Require Many Reps

25KG weight

More physical activity is not necessarily better when it comes to improving your mood, especially if you spend most of your day sitting, UConn and Hartford Hospital researchers found in a recent study. The work, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, found that people who led sedentary lives and engaged in light or moderate activity showed the greatest improvement in overall sense of well-being. Further, the study found no positive or negative association between high-intensity physical activity and subjective well-being, contradicting a widely reported recent study that found high-intensity workouts significantly lowered some people’s sense of well-being.