Medical research in the news

NIH award to tackle early infant morbidity due to increasing incidences of food allergies

A Wayne State University School of Medicine researcher has been awarded a $1.93 million, five-year grant by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of maternal immunoglobulin D (IgD) transferred to the fetus during pregnancy and its impact on protecting against food allergies. Kang Chen, Ph.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology will use the grant, “Mechanism and function of transplacental IgD,” to tackle early infant morbidity due to increasing incidences of food allergies. “This project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will allow our research team to elucidate the mechanisms of the placental transfer of IgD and determine if maternal IgD promotes neonatal immune protection against food allergy,” said Chen. “Our studies have shown that maternal IgD specific to vaccines or food acts as a specific and prophylactic fetal immune education cue to protect neonates against food allergy. Our research will have a major impact on our understanding of the origin of allergies in newborns and children.” Chen’s  study is expected to reveal the unique functions of maternal IgD — an ancient yet still mysterious antibody — in neonatal immune function that maternal Immunoglobulin G (IgG) does not have, and aims to have a profound impact on improving neonatal health by directing the design of IgD-targeting maternal vaccines or adoptive immunotherapies.
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Wayne State establishes infectious disease research center to aid in future pandemics

Wayne State University announced Monday the opening of a new center focused on the study of infectious diseases and strategies to combat future pandemics. The Center for Emerging and Infectious Diseases will enhance training and research in the field of public health. The center is not a physical building but a collection of doctors, researchers and professors at the Detroit-based university. "The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered local, state and national mindsets toward infectious disease threats, including pandemic diseases," Dr. Mark Schweitzer, dean of Wayne State's School of Medicine and vice president of health affairs for the university, said in a news release. "The pandemic revealed deep and broad gaps in our clinical and public health infrastructure that responds to pandemics. "In line with the mission of WSU to support urban communities at risk for health disparities, the center will have the expertise and capacity to support and collaborate with neighborhoods, hospitals and public health agencies to deliver state-of-the-art diagnostics, treatments and preventive strategies for the benefit of all residents in Detroit and other communities." Work done at the center will focus on vaccine development, clinical vaccine evaluational, deployment strategies for the vaccine in underserved populations and research on pandemic mitigation efforts. Directors of the new center include: Dr. Teena Chopra, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases; Dr. Paul Kilgore, associate professor of pharmacy practice; Dr. Marcus Zervos, head of infectious diseases division for Henry Ford Health System, professor of medicine and assistant dean of WSU Global Affairs. Key faculty include Dr. Phillip Levy, professor of emergency medicine and assistant vice president of translational science and clinical research at WSU, and Matthew Seeger, professor of communication.
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Wayne State University researcher invited to edit book on neuropsychiatry

A Wayne State University School of Medicine faculty member is editor of a newly published book, Brain Network Dysfunction in Neuropsychiatric Illness: Methods, Applications & Implications. Vaibhav A. Diwadkar, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State, and his colleague, Simon Eickhoff, Ph.D., from Heinrich-Heine University in Dűsseldorf and Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany, were invited co-editors of the volume, which is published by Springer Nature Publishing, a subsidiary of the Nature Publishing Group, one of the largest scientific publishing houses in the world. The volume is a unique compendium of diverse chapters from more than 40 of the world's leading experts in the fields of brain imaging, computational and analytic methods, and neuropsychiatry. It is the first collection of its kind to focus attention specifically on the challenging problem of understanding how abnormal brain network function might give rise to debilitating conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, mood disorders, borderline personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.

Recorded cases of influenza dropped to ZERO at one Detroit hospital in 2020 as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions killed flu season

Cases of influenza plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one Detroit health system having a zero percent positivity rate for the virus, a new study finds. Researchers from Wayne State University looked at data from the Detroit Medical Center for the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 flu seasons. They found that every single one of the 6,830 tests administered for adults, and the 1,441 for children came back negative for Influenza A and Influenza B during the 2020-21 (September 2021 to February 2021) flu season. There were also zero positive tests for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in adults - out of 6,822 - and one for children among 1,404 tests. The findings add to the wealth of existing information that shows social distancing and mask mandates put in place to protect from COVID-19 were effective in combatting the flu. Researchers expect cases of the flu to return to normal levels now, though, as many COVID precautions are dropped around the country. 'It is likely that the number of cases of flu and other respiratory infections will rise back to normal in the coming years as SARS-CoV-2 becomes a seasonal virus,' said Siri Sarvepalli, a member of the research team at Wayne State. 'However, if handwashing and other mitigating measures are followed to the same extent as last winter, numbers could instead remain lower than usual.'  The team will present its findings at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases this week. 
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Wayne State University and Henry Ford Health System announce new initiative in cardiometabolic health and disease

Wayne State University and Henry Ford Health System announced today the launch of a basic and translational research initiative in Cardiometabolic Health and Disease as a thematic focus for program growth. The Integrated Research and Development Initiative in Cardiometabolic Health and Disease will focus on program strengths at both institutions that directly addresses health issues of cardiac disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity metabolism and kidney disease that are of particular relevance for the broad communities that the two institutions serve. “We are excited and pleased to be bringing our two institutions together to better serve our community’s cardiovascular needs,” said Mark E. Schweitzer, M.D., dean of the Wayne State University School of Medicine. “Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Michigan, and by joining forces with the excellent team at Henry Ford Health System, we aim to reverse this trend.”
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There’s a neurological reason you say "um" when you think of a word

Eishi Asano's latest work sheds light on those seemingly pesky words that litter our speech: uhs and ums. As a neurologist at Wayne State University, Asano works on mapping human abilities to brain regions. One such important ability is the ability to use language. Neuroscientists have discovered that, like many little cogs in a wheel, a wide network of brain regions all work together to produce language. Certainly, the ability to communicate with others affects all aspects of life. Thus, protecting these brain regions during brain surgery is of high priority. Asano has an opportunity few have: to study the brain in action. During a pre-surgical procedure called an electrocorticography (ECoG), an incision is made in a research participant's skull, and electrodes are placed directly on the exposed surface of their brain. He then presents them with photographs of complex scenes and asks them to describe it. When they ran this study, Asano and his team were originally interested in deciphering which regions of the brain were responsible for describing what was in the picture, what they were doing, where and when. But, as his team rummaged through transcripts, what transpired between these words – the uhs – caught their attention.
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MDMA may help treat PTSD – but beware of claims that Ecstasy is a magic bullet

Dr. Arash Javanbakht, associate professor of psychiatry, wrote an article for The Conversation. “Recent clinical trials, including one soon to be published in Nature Medicine, have suggested that MDMA combined with psychotherapy may help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The news generated considerable optimism and excitement in the media, and some in the scientific community. As a psychiatrist and an expert in neurobiology and treatment of PTSD, I think these developments may be important – but not the major breakthrough that some people are suggesting. This approach is not a new magic bullet.
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Researchers receive $1,894,271 grant to address new drug targets for diastolic dysfunction

After the left ventricle of the heart contracts, it must relax efficiently to prepare to refill and supply the body with blood on the next beat.  An increasing number of patients — including nearly all patients with heart failure — suffer from impaired relaxation, which is part of a clinical syndrome known as diastolic dysfunction. Currently, treatments for impaired relaxation do not exist. A team of Wayne State University School of Medicine researchers led by Charles Chung, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology, recently received a $1,894,271 grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health to address the critical need for new drug targets and diagnostic indexes for diastolic dysfunction using novel biomechanical tests that ultimately can be translated into clinical practice. According to Chung, the project was inspired by his research team’s finding that how quickly the heart’s muscle moves is directly related to how fast the muscle can relax. The project will use unique experiments and imaging techniques to link mechanical properties of the heart with models of heart failure that occur in patients. “My lab’s main research focus is to understand how the heart muscle moves at the end of contraction and how this motion can speed up the force decline, or relaxation, of the muscle,” said Chung. “Major proteins in muscles called myosin, actin and titin control the force of each beat. When the heart muscle contracts, myosin binds to actin to generate force. Our lab is trying to determine if motion — and how fast the motion occurs — makes myosin let go of actin faster and make the muscle relax faster.” 
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Wayne State secures more than $5 million in NIH funding for cerebral palsy research

The National Institutes of Health is supporting a Wayne State University School of Medicine physician-researcher’s work at preventing and treating cerebral palsy in the form of two new five-year R01 grants worth a collective $5.59 million. The principal investigator on both projects is Sidhartha Tan, M.D., professor and co-division chief of Neonatology in the Department of Pediatrics. Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. CP is the most common motor disability in childhood, caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control his or her muscles. Tan obtained his first R01 last May for “Potent Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase Inhibition for Prevention of Cerebral Palsy,” which will provide $2,393,590 over the half-decade award period to test new, promising drugs aimed at a preventive cure for the condition. “These are new drugs aimed at brain condition called neuronal nitric oxide synthase. New information about how these drugs act, how they affect brain cells and how effective they are in an animal model of cerebral palsy will be very valuable for future translation to clinical use in humans throughout the world,” Tan said. His second, a multiple principal investigator award launched Dec. 15, is “Probing Role of Tetrahydrobiopterin in Cerebral Palsy by Using Transgenic Rabbits.” The grant will provide $3,197,644 in funding over five years to explore whether an essential enzyme co-factor is involved in brain injury before birth. The cellular and genetic basis of brain regional injury will be investigated using an animal model in which genes have been altered by genetic engineering methods, as well as advanced methods of magnetic resonance imaging.
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How Drs. Joseph and Renuka Roche pinpointed a potential treatment for Covid-19

At first, Joseph and Renuka (“Ray”) Roche just followed the news about the coronavirus, like everyone else. After all, they’re not epidemiologists. He is a physical therapist. She is an occupational therapist. So to the Roches, back in January, the novel coronavirus landed somewhere between curiosity and concern. Nearly a year later, the Roches are still a little bit surprised how much of their problem this really is. Because while the nation hinges its hopes on the vaccine news out of companies like Pfizer and Moderna, the Roches came up with a distinctly different approach to the battle against Covid-19. They’ve isolated a potential explanation for the array of symptoms associated with the disease. And they’ve pinpointed an existing drug that could help mitigate these symptoms — but that hardly anyone is talking about. The Roches’ titles are as long as their road to Michigan. Joseph is the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Associate Professor of Physical Therapy at Wayne State University. Ray is an assistant professor of occupational therapy (with a focus on developmental neurology) at Eastern Michigan University.
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Wayne State University and Karmanos Cancer Institute to host two-day symposium focused on advancing health equity and the impact of COVID-19

Wayne State University and the Karmanos Cancer Institute will host the “Community-Engaged Research Symposium to Advance Health Equity: The Impact of Coronavirus Now and in the Future,” on Dec. 1 and 2. The virtual symposium is free and open to the public; registration is required and can be completed online. “This is our third annual symposium, and we are honored to take on the challenge of adapting it to the pandemic,” said Rhonda Dailey, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine and public health sciences, and scientific director of the Office of Community Engaged Research at Wayne State University. “The virtual platform is a convenient way for academicians, community organizations and community members involved in community-based research to present their hard-earned work related to COVID-19. We hope that attendees will use the symposium to form new, lasting connections and partnerships.” Community-academic research partnerships are more important than ever, according to Hayley Thompson, Ph.D., professor of oncology in the Wayne State School of Medicine and associate center director for community outreach and engagement at Karmanos Cancer Institute. “Just like cancer, heart disease and a host of other conditions, the burden of COVID-19 is greater in communities of color, in under-resourced areas and among groups who are marginalized in other ways,” said Thompson. “If we want to generate data and knowledge that can make a difference, meaningful collaboration between these groups and academic researchers is essential. This symposium is one step toward real collaboration.”
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This is why you love to be scared

Halloween is almost here which means ghouls, ghosts and goblins will be lurking around every corner, ready to scare you. But have you ever wondered why so many of us love to be scared? Whether it's a scary movie or haunted house, the experts say the thrill and desire of getting creeped out is rooted deep inside your brain. But being able to suspend our disbelief and tap into that primal part of our brain isn't new. "The fear system evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago to prepare us for real dangerous situations," Dr. Arash Javanbakht of Wayne State University said. "Our current environment is too safe so, basically, those fear experiences could also be a form of practice." Javanbakht said constantly asking ourselves "what would I do in that situation?" is a problem-solving exercise to prepare us for similar situations. Experts say that fear can be a great motivator for good. Challenging yourself to face your fears can be a healthy way of proving to yourself that you are capable of things you may not have thought possible.
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The medical community has failed people of color in the past: these doctors want to build trust

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept through the United States, highlighting racial inequities in healthcare. The numbers of infections and deaths related to COVID-19 are far higher among people of color, especially Black Americans, than among white Americans. Despite these higher risks, Black Americans are less likely to sign up for experimental medical treatments or potential vaccines. To help bridge this gap and champion the interests of Black people and other marginalized groups during the pandemic, the National Medical Association set up an expert task force to vet regulators’ decisions about COVID-19 drugs and vaccines. “We are more interested in efficacy,” said Dr. Bret Hughes, a professor of ophthalmology at Wayne State University and longtime member of the National Medical Association. He added that the process for vetting vaccines and other kinds of medications is very regimented and specific, and has two goals: safety first and then effectiveness. But “there are political groups that are willing to bypass those procedures and say there is a vaccine in order to quell fears. In fact, you can take a vaccine and develop other conditions because there’s more in the vaccine no one is aware of until you get it.” Dr. Rick Baker, a professor of ophthalmology and vice dean for medical education at Wayne State University and a longtime National Medical Association member, said the association will be doing three things in vetting vaccines: making sure whatever is developed is scientifically sound and effective; assessing whether there’s adequate representation of people of color in the trials; and ensuring that the distribution of the vaccine is equitable. In these uncertain times, he added, someone needs to be the trusted messenger, adding that physicians are uniquely qualified to be that messenger. “The message needs to be transmitted from physicians to patients,” he said. “The physician-to-patient relationship is very important.”
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Wayne State-led team explores link between diabetes, obesity and liver disease

Diabetes, obesity and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) are all common diseases that can lead to serious health implications. NAFLD affects over 30% of Americans, and is characterized as a fatty liver, which can progress to an inflammatory and fibrotic liver, called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), as well as liver cirrhosis. The molecular causes of NAFLD and NASH are still not fully understood and, to date, no FDA-approved drug is available for NAFLD. A major hurdle for scientists is understanding the causal relationships between NAFLD, diabetes and obesity, which are often presented together in patients and treated as comorbidities. Without a clear understanding of their causal relationship and root cause, drug development may fail. Faculty from Wayne State University’s Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences are leading a team of researchers to understand the causal relationships between these three diseases in hopes of developing a treatment.Wanqing Liu, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Wayne State, along with his collaborators, recently published a paper in the Journal of Hepatology that attempts to understand the molecular causes of NAFLD. The team conducted a large-scale genomic analysis called Mendelian randomization, a strategy similar to a randomized clinical trial that relies on a naturally occurred randomization of genetic alleles in human populations.
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Study explains why fetuses and newborns are mostly spared by COVID-19

Why are newborns born to mothers with COVID-19 rarely infected? Researchers at the Wayne State University School of Medicine and the Perinatology Research Branch of National Institute of Child Health and Human Development/National Institutes of Health in Detroit have found that placental cells minimally express the instructions, or mRNA, to generate the cell entry receptor and protease required by the virus that causes COVID-19 to invade human cells. The pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 has infected more than 10 million people worldwide, including pregnant women, yet to date there is no consistent evidence that pregnant mothers pass the virus to their newborns. “The findings of this study help to understand why mother-to-fetus transmission is so rare (less than 2% of cases),” said Roberto Romero, M.D., D.Med.Sci, chief of the PRB. “The most likely explanation is that the cellular instructions for the production of the main receptor for SARS-CoV-2 are not expressed in the human placenta. In contrast, the receptors for other viruses known to cause fetal infection such as Zika and cytomegalovirus were found in placental cells.” Roger Pique-Regi, Ph.D., assistant professor of the WSU Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, and of Obstetrics and Gynecology, first author of the study, explained that the single-cell genomics technology the researchers employed allows them to study the transcriptome of individual cells isolated in tiny oil droplets using microfluidics.  
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Addressing the toxicity of cancer treatment costs

Lauren Hamel, Ph.D., assistant professor and member of the Population Studies and Disparities Research Program at Karmanos Cancer Institute and the Wayne State University School of Medicine, was awarded a Research Scholar Grant by the American Cancer Society. She will use the grant to test the effectiveness of a patient-focused intervention to improve patient-provider treatment cost discussions and other patient outcomes related to the financial consequences of cancer treatment. Hamel and her team responded to the growing problem of financial toxicity, or the severe material and psychological burden of the cost of cancer treatment. Financial toxicity affects an estimated 30% to 50% of patients with cancer, especially patients who are racial/ethnic minorities, have lower incomes or are under 65. However, well-timed and effective patient-oncologist treatment cost discussions could help.
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Fireworks can torment veterans and survivors of gun violence with PTSD – here’s how to celebrate with respect for those who served

Arash Javanbakht, associate professor of psychiatry, wrote an article for The Conversation about celebrating the Fourth of July with respect to individuals with PTSD. “For some combat veterans, the Fourth of July is not a time to celebrate the independence of the country they love. Instead, the holiday is a terrifying ordeal. That’s because the noise of fireworks – loud, sudden, and reminiscent of war – rocks their nervous system. Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans. This reaction is not unique to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Also affected are millions of others, including civilians, refugees, and first responders. As a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma and PTSD, I urge you not to overdo an act which causes so much suffering for so many of your fellow Americans.”
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Why safely reopening high school sports is going to be a lot harder than opening college and pro ball

Tamara Hew-Butler, associate professor of exercise and sports science, and Phillip D. Levy, assistant vice president for translational science and clinical research innovation, wrote an article for The Conversation about reopening school and club sports amidst the pandemic. “Along with the revival of professional sports comes the yearning for a return to amateur sports – high school, college and club. Governing officials are now offering guidance as to when and how to resume play. However, lost in the current conversation is how schools and club sports with limited resources can safely reopen. As an exercise scientist who studies athlete health and an emergency medicine physician who leads Michigan’s COVID-19 mobile testing unit, we wish to empower athletes, coaches and parents by sharing information related to the risks of returning to play without COVID-19 testing. This includes blood tests to see if athletes have already had COVID-19 plus nasal swabs to test for the active SARS-CoV-2 virus. Regular COVID-19 testing on all athletes may seem like overkill, but the current tally of 150 collegiate athletes, mostly football players, who have tested positive for COVID-19 grows longer by the day.”
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Are we all OCD now, with obsessive hand-washing and technology addiction?

David Rosenberg, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, wrote an article for The Conversation. “One of the hallmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorder is contamination fears and excessive hand-washing. Years ago, a patient with severe OCD came to my office wearing gloves and a mask and refused to sit on any of the “contaminated” chairs. Now, these same behaviors are accepted and even encouraged to keep everyone healthy. This new normal in the face of a deadly pandemic has permeated our culture and will continue to influence it. Many stores now prominently post rules mandating face masks and hand sanitizer use and limit the number of customers allowed inside at one time. Walkers and joggers politely cross the street to avoid proximity to each other. Only a few months ago, this type of behavior would have been considered excessive, irrational, even pathological, and certainly not healthy. So, where do doctors draw the line between vigilance to avoid being infected with the coronavirus and obsessive-compulsive disorder that can be harmful? This is an important question that I, a psychiatrist, and my co-author, a wellness and parenting coach, often hear.”
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Doctors heavily overprescribed antibiotics early in the pandemic

The desperately ill patients who deluged the emergency room at Detroit Medical Center in March and April exhibited the telltale symptoms of the coronavirus: high fevers and infection-riddled lungs that left them gasping for air. With few treatment options, doctors turned to a familiar intervention: broad-spectrum antibiotics, the shot-in-the-dark medications often used against bacterial infections that cannot be immediately identified. They knew antibiotics are not effective against viruses, but they were desperate, and they feared the patients could be vulnerable to life-threatening secondary bacterial infections as well. “During the peak surge, our antibiotic use was off the charts,” said Dr. Teena Chopra, the hospital’s director of epidemiology and antibiotic stewardship, who estimated that more than 80 percent of arriving patients were given antimicrobial drugs. “At one point, we were afraid we would run out.” Chopra and other doctors across the country who liberally dispensed antibiotics in the early weeks of the pandemic said they soon realized their mistake. “Many physicians were inappropriately giving antibiotics because, honestly, they had limited choices,” she said. Chopra estimated that up to a third of coronavirus patients who died at the hospital were killed by opportunistic pathogens like C. difficile, a pernicious infection that causes uncontrolled diarrhea and is increasingly resistant to antibiotics. That figure, she said, was quite likely heightened by the poor underlying health of patients who also had diabetes or hypertension or were obese. “Even before Covid hit, our population in Detroit was very vulnerable to drug-resistant infections,” said Chopra, a professor of infectious diseases at Wayne State University.