Health Briefs

Brain Cell Research

$1.9 million grant may shed light on mood disorders

At any one moment in the human brain, billions of neurons are trying to communicate with one another in a massive effort reminiscent of the workings of a frantic telephone switchboard operator.

Of course, not all neurons connect with one another. Specific protein codes help connect specific neurons and the study of one such code by a team of Creighton School of Medicine researchers has earned them a five-year, nearly $1.9 million National Institutes of Health grant, which may have far-reaching implications for better understanding of mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder.

“The protein we’re specifically looking at, called glutamate delta-1, has been associated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism, among other mental disorders,” says Shashank Dravid, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and the grant’s lead investigator. “We think some of these may arise because of improper communication between neurons in certain unique brain circuits.”

Using cutting-edge technology, including optogenetics, which uses light to activate the communication processes between neurons, Dravid and the research team hope to be able to closely inspect the connections between neurons and watch for breakdowns.

“There’s a lot of excitement around this field right now, a lot of different international teams working in this area,” Dravid says. “The fundamental question is: How is the brain wired? How does it work? We think this is one of the keys to understanding that wiring.”

What Causes Age-Related Hearing Loss?

David Zhi-Zhou He, MD, PhD, professor of biomedical sciences, recently received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to research the causes of age-related hearing loss.

He believes this hearing loss could be related to hair cell degeneration in our ears. He is investigating inner and outer hair cells — the two types of receptor cells that convert sound into electrical impulses in the auditory nerve.

He will compare the changes at the cellular and molecular levels of hair cells between young and aging mice to determine age-related changes in gene expression, ultrastructure and cellular function.

The research also will look closer at the CLU gene, or Clusterin, known to play a role in degeneration of neurons in the brain, to determine if the gene also plays an important role in hair cell aging.

“Loss of hearing in the elderly also can contribute to social isolation and loss of autonomy, and is associated with anxiety, depression and cognitive decline,” He says. “Currently, there is no medication available to treat or postpone age-related hearing loss.”

The private partnership of the Bellucci DePaoli Family Foundation also funds He’s research projects. Since 2002, the foundation, established by the late Richard J. Bellucci, MD’42, has invested $763,000 in Creighton Bellucci Research Group funding.

Grant Funds Research Into Riboswitches

Juliane Strauss-Soukup, PhD, BSChm’93, professor of biochemistry and director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (CURAS), has received a three-year, $436,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the structure and function of ncRNAs, with the long-term goal of developing antibiological agents, including the potential for some cancer-fighting applications.

Strauss-Soukup’s work focuses on noncoding parts of RNAs called riboswitches. When small molecules, ligands or metabolites bind to riboswitch RNAs they induce a structural change in the RNA that “switches” the production of protein up or down. Although riboswitches are widespread among bacteria, none have been found in animals. The NIH grant will specifically aid Strauss-Soukup’s lab in looking at the potential, in humans, for RNA riboswitches to affect protein production. She said there is reason to think such a possibility exists and the opportunity could mean big things for clinical applications.

“In bacteria, riboswitches control a number of essential metabolic pathways,” Strauss-Soukup says. “If we are somehow able to dysregulate genes controlled by riboswitches, such as those involved in cancer progression or those needed for the increased metabolism of tumor cells, we may have a new target for chemotherapy.”

Strauss-Soukup’s lab is usually staffed by 10 to 16 undergraduate students, and the students did a lion’s share of the work collecting preliminary data for this proposal.

“The involvement of undergraduates in this cutting-edge work is essential to their training as scientists,” Strauss-Soukup says. “Taking classes is just one part of a biochemistry major’s curriculum. Designing experiments, analyzing data and critically thinking about results is an exhilarating and exciting part of learning science.”

Study Examines New Skin Cancer Preventative

A two-year, $500,000 National Institutes of Health grant led by a School of Medicine biomedical sciences professor and researcher is aimed at getting a revolutionary new skin-cancer preventative to market.

Laura Hansen, PhD, principal investigator on the grant, is seeking to test a topical nanoparticle delivery system that can send antioxidant enzymes into the deepest layer of the skin to combat reactive oxygen species (ROS) — the biggest culprit in skin cancer. While these enzymes already exist in the skin, they are severely hampered by sun exposure.

The new solution, called Pro-NP, would provide a slow release of these ROS-fighting enzymes and would be longer-lasting and more effective than traditional sunscreens. Pro-NP could also reduce the need for multiple applications — vigilance that’s required with traditional sunscreens — and it may also have applications to reduce photoaging and skin wrinkling.

“With more than a million cases of skin cancer in the U.S. annually and rates rising, it’s clear we need something better,” says Hansen, who is working on the grant with ProTransit Nanotherapy, the company that’s developed the solution, and researchers from Creighton and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “We’re excited about what this could mean for prevention.”