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News roundup: August/September 2019

News roundup: August/September 2019

A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

Will these startups help biotech take root in Chicago?
Tom Gajewski is stepping into the spotlight with Pyxis Oncology, a cancer-therapy startup. He and co-founders John Flavin and David Steinberg raised $22 million to launch the spinout from his lab. (Crain’s Chicago Business)

Can gut bacteria heal food allergies?
How manipulating the microbiome could reverse and prevent peanut allergies and more. Cathryn Nagler featured. (Elemental by Medium)

Study finds an unexpected link between farming and immune system evolution
A new study by University of Chicago Medicine genetic researcher Luis Barreiro found the immune systems of hunter-gatherers showed more signs of positive natural selection, in particular among genes involved in the response to viruses. (

Wash U team finds the ‘signature’ of guts that don’t get c. diff
Researchers have found the molecular signature of a healthy gut microbiome—the kind of bacterial community that keeps Clostridium difficilein check even in the aftermath of antibiotic treatment. (Futurity)

With new grants, Gates Foundation takes an early step toward a universal flu vaccine
Scientific teams from inside and outside the world of influenza research have been awarded funding to try to unlock mysteries that could provide the foundation for a future universal flu vaccine. Patrick Wilson featured. (STAT)

Human breast milk may help babies tell time via circadian signals from mom
The composition of breast milk changes across the day. Researchers believe this “chrononutrition” may help program infants’ emerging circadian biology. (The Conversation)

Just four nights with less sleep can alter fat storage
Restricting sleep for just four days alters how the body metabolizes fats and changes how satisfying meals seem, according to a new study with 15 healthy men. (Futurity)


News roundup: July 2019

News roundup: July 2019

A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

How the microbiome influences drug action
Through their effects on metabolism and immunity, bacteria in the gut affect whether medications will be effective for a given patient. Tom Gajewski featured. (The Scientist)

A groundbreaking study is good news for cats—and people
UChicago researchers studying the cat-poop parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, made a breakthrough that will spare a lot of felines from research. Rima McLeod featured. (The Atlantic)

UChicago cancer startup gets $22 million
The immunotherapy company, based on the research of UChicago’s Tom Gajewski, will be run from Boston. (Crain’s Chicago Business)

Can gut bacteria heal food allergies?
Recent scientific work suggests that food allergies have spiked in the past few decades because environmental changes have wiped out the gut bacteria needed for coping with allergens. Cathryn Nagler featured. (Elemental by Medium)

Graphene and germ combo paves way for futuristic tech
Researchers have created a method to produce graphene materials using a novel technique: mixing oxidized graphite with bacteria. (Futurity)


News roundup: November 2018

News roundup: November 2018

A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

Researchers find promise in new treatment for food allergies
UChicago is part of clinical trial that doctors hope will lead to an FDA-approved medication for people with peanut allergy. Christina Ciaccio featured. (UChicago News)

Save the germs
With modern medicine killing off whole categories of bacteria and viruses—including benign ones that promote health—Jack Gilbert and colleagues propose a way to preserve microbes that may rescue us one day. (The New York Times)

How might the appendix play a key role in Parkinson’s disease?
Those who have their appendixes removed in young adulthood run a nearly 20 percent lower risk of developing the neurodegenerative disorder decades later or not at all, study finds. (Scientific American)

Polsky Center’s Innovation Fund renamed to honor George P. Shultz
The decision to rename the Innovation Fund was the result of a $10 million gift to the Fund from University trustee and Booth alumna Mary A. Tolan, MBA ’92. (Polsky Center)

Jeffrey Hubbell named to National Academy of Medicine
Research by Hubbell—who co-founded UChicago food allergy startup ClostraBio—has led to tools and treatments, including nanoparticle vaccines and drug delivery systems, that combat diseases ranging from influenza and type 1 diabetes to tuberculosis and cancer. (UChicago News)

News roundup: September 2018

News roundup: September 2018

A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

The end of an epidemic
The number of people with food allergies has exploded in recent years. A dream team of researchers from UChicago may have figured out why, and now they’re developing therapies that could end the epidemic. Cathy Nagler featured. (Chicago magazine)

UChicago startup gets $2.3 million for kidney stone prevention
Biotechnology startup Oxalo Therapeutics is closer to developing a first-of-its-kind drug to prevent kidney stones thanks to $2.3 million from the National Institutes of Health. Hatim Hassan and Yang Zheng featured. (Crain’s Chicago Business)

Science by the sea
In three weeks, there are just over 500 hours. The students in the Marine Biological Laboratory’s September intensive courses tried to use them all. Jack Gilbert featured. (UChicago Magazine)

Nasal bacteria linked to cold severity
In a study, people with certain bacteria in their noses were more likely to develop more severe cold symptoms. (U.S. News & World Report)

Brain-gut link may be way faster than we thought
New research with mice may upend our understanding of the connection between the gut and the brain, as well as appetite. (Futurity)


News roundup: July 2018

News roundup: July 2018

A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

Anglerfish and their headlamp bacteria have a crazy relationship
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the genomes of the glowing bacteria living in the bulbs that hang off the heads of anglerfish. (Futurity)

Can a cat-poo parasite turn you into a millionaire
Scientists have discovered that people infected with toxoplasmosis are more go-getting. But that doesn’t mean we should all be trying to catch it. (The Guardian)

What the mystery of the tick-borne meat allergy could reveal
Unraveling why tick bites are suddenly causing a strange reaction in some people who eat meat could help scientists better understand how all allergies work. (The New York Times Magazine)

Could viruses attacking the microbiome be responsible for inflammatory bowel disease?
New research done in a mouse model of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has suggested that viruses called phages, which have the ability to infect and kill gut bacteria, may be involved in the disease. David Rubin featured. (Forbes)

Celiac disease: A look at what triggers it, possible prevention
Bana Jabri and colleagues at UChicago have found that a common, but mostly harmless, virus could trigger celiac disease. (KPRC 2 Houston)


Celiac disease: It’s all in the mix

Celiac disease: It’s all in the mix

by Elise Wachspress

There was a time when many people thought that unlocking the genetic code would help us easily identify how diseases arose and better strategies for treating or preventing them.

And that was true for the very few diseases precipitated by individual genes, like cystic fibrosis. Single-gene diseases, however, are fairly uncommon, because over time, especially when they interfere with reproduction, natural selection has been pretty effective in weeding them out of the “gene pool.”

Most diseases are “complex,” involving the contribution and interactions of many genes.  An explosion of genetic studies over the past couple of decades suggests most genes contribute only a small degree of disease risk. Thanks to the redundancy built into the human body through eons of evolution, those who carried one or even several “disease genes” would likely never develop the disease.

And even those at very high genetic risk were often disease-free. Researchers began to suspect that some kind of environmental trigger was necessary to activate some disease mechanisms—putting us right back at a (much more complicated) version of the “nature vs. nurture” dilemma.

Environmental triggers can be hard to recognize or assess. Methods for evaluating air and water quality, better food labeling, even sophisticated wearable trackers are helping us identify some potential environmental factors, but there are many others we might not even have considered.

Disease caused by microbes: The other side of the coin

Long before genetic testing, we knew that exposure to certain viruses and bacteria also caused diseases, often independent of our genetic makeup. Polio, measles, rubella, and others were shown to be caused by a single type of microbe, like some diseases were caused by single genes. Again, this simplified the strategy for solving these: scientists developed vaccines, a major medical success story.

Now it is clear that some diseases arise from combinations of bacteria—or combinations of genes and bacteria. Like any puzzle, the more “unknowns” involved, the more complex the problem becomes.

Celiac disease is one very complex problem.

A (painful) gut reaction

Estimated to affect one in 100 people worldwide—two-and-a-half million in the U.S. alone—celiac is a serious autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine, causing diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, anemia, and sometimes an itchy, blistering rash. With celiac, the gut can no longer effectively absorb nutrients; in children, the condition can significantly retard growth.

Initially, celiac causes this damage only in the presence of gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley. Unfortunately, since these grains have sustained humans for millennia, gluten is ubiquitous, not just in food, but also vitamins, hair and skin products, even toothpaste. For those with celiac, avoiding gluten imposes a heavy burden, and reading labels becomes a family sport. Indeed, it is common to find whole families suffering from the condition, as those with a parent, child, or sibling with celiac have a risk as high as one in ten of developing the disease. And for 40 percent of adults whose systems are already damaged, even avoiding gluten allows for only a partial recovery.

Scientists have pinpointed two genes associated with celiac, but even if you have both, your likelihood of developing the disease is only 3 percent. Bana Jabri, MD, PhD, and her team at the University of Chicago were convinced there must be some other trigger involved. Because celiac is an autoimmune disease, they thought a microbe might be a likely candidate.

In studies of both mice and humans with “celiac genes,” they found that a reovirus infection, which causes no other symptoms, could break the body’s ability to tolerate gluten and initiate the pathological celiac response. Thus, it likely takes genes coupled with exposure to a particular virus to trigger the autoimmunity—one reason why incidence even within families is lower than might be expected.

Preventing celiac—and perhaps other diseases

This information gives us new potential strategies for gaining control over the disease. Since children lose their maternal antibodies against reovirus around six to nine months of age, introducing gluten to a baby’s diet outside this window might reduce the chances of getting celiac. And vaccinating children at genetic risk against the virus before they first eat gluten might also keep them disease free.

On a scientific level, this study has broader ramifications. It demonstrates that a clinically silent virus—not a usual suspect—can cause a lifelong, pathogenic inflammatory response to an otherwise harmless substance. So environmental factors that seem innocuous can, in combination with genes or other factors, cause some unexpected and serious outcomes. Like a recipe or a team, it’s all in the mix.

As in so many cases, basic science research like Jabri’s provides broad and surprising insights into not just one particular disease or drug, but how our bodies work as a system. It is these kinds of discoveries that can change our whole approach to health and disease.

There is a simple blood screening available for celiac disease. You can schedule an appointment with the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center at 1-888-824-0200.

Elise Wachspress is a senior communications strategist for the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Development office