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News roundup: June 2018

News roundup: June 2018

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

Research at Shedd Aquarium explores how environment impacts microbiome of dolphins
Research conducted at the Shedd Aquarium with UChicago revealed new details about the microbiome of Pacific white-sided dolphins at the aquarium and how it is influenced by the surrounding environment. (The Forefront)

Can a daily pill prevent kidney stones?
Hatim Hassan and other researchers at Oxalo Therapeutics are developing a drug that uses the microbiome to prevent kidney stones. (Crain’s Chicago Business)

Viruses love what we’ve done with the planet
The more of the planet humans take over, the more we inadvertently make it a viral paradise, and a dangerous place for us to live. (Quartz)

Probiotic, supplement combo extends fruit fly lifespan
A combination of probiotics and an herbal supplement called Triphala extended the lives of fruit flies by 60 percent, report researchers. (Futurity)

Students and UChicago scientists turn Wrigley Field into data lab
Lane Tech students came to Wrigley Field to help UChicago-Argonne researchers install sensors for Array of Things, a project that collects environmental data. (UChicago News)


News roundup: May 2018

News roundup: May 2018

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

How gut microbes are joining the fight against cancer
Nature dives into how the microbiome influences how well cancer drugs work, including highlights of Tom Gajewski’s work at the University of Chicago. (Nature)

The thing inside your cells that might determine how long you live
You may have forgotten about the nucleolus since you took biology class, but scientists think this structure inside every cell in your body may play an important role in aging. (The New York Times)

Gut check: Is a microbiome imbalance undermining your mental health?
What if, in a way, what’s happening in your gut actually does plays a role in what’s going on in your brain? As it turns out, that’s precisely the case (and vice versa). Jack Gilbert is featured. (U.S. News & World Report)

$35 million NIH funding launches health research accelerator at UChicago
The Institute for Translational Medicine (ITM) will help people live their best lives by making research breakthroughs happen and getting those discoveries into the real world to improve everyone’s health as soon as possible. (The Forefront)

American Gut Project explores our bodies’ microbiomes
The first major results are in from the American Gut Project, a citizen science project to get a better understanding of the microbial communities inside our bodies. (Michigan Radio)

Is the microbiome the missing link in macular degeneration?

Is the microbiome the missing link in macular degeneration?

by Kate Dohner

Imagine your vision gradually blurring, from the inside out. When you look at a clock, you see the numbers on the sides but not the hands at the center. Unfortunately, this is not a scenario out of a science fiction movie but instead the experience of the 11 million people in the United States with some form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness among adults over 50.

AMD occurs when the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina, is damaged. The vision loss may happen slowly for some, more quickly for others. AMD significantly impacts quality of life, making it difficult to read, drive, cook, or even recognize the faces of family and friends.

Despite extensive research, there is currently no cure for AMD, and in the years to come, it is predicted to become even more common as the population ages and people live longer. For those over age 75, the risk of AMD is nearly 30 percent. By 2050, researchers estimate that nearly 22 million people in the US will have AMD.

While we know that multiple risk factors—including aging, genetics, and lifestyle choices, such as smoking and diet—may play a role in the development of AMD, we do not yet understand exactly how they act together to cause the disease. For example, while people with a certain genetic mutation are more likely to develop AMD, not everyone with the mutation gets it, suggesting that there must be another element at play.

Dr. Dimitra Skondra

Dimitra Skondra, MD, PhD, assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual science (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Dimitra Skondra, MD, PhD, suspects that the gut microbiome (the community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that inhabit our bodies) is a “missing link” in the development of AMD. Using the digestive diseases research of Eugene Chang, MD, as a model, she seeks to determine if certain gut bacteria—in combination with genetic and lifestyle factors—spur the development of AMD.

Skondra is studying mice raised in a “germ-free” environment (meaning without exposure to any bacteria), as well as mice with a “normal” microbiome, to see how gut bacteria, possibly influenced by diet, affect their visual health. She will also examine mice that are genetically vulnerable to developing AMD in order to assess the role genetics plays in causing the condition.

Because the gut microbiome can easily be manipulated with supplements containing good bacteria (called probiotics), Skondra hopes this research will lead to effective treatments for AMD, along with new strategies for prevention. Thanks largely to support from the Duchossois Family Institute, probiotic treatments are already in development for a number of other diseases.

“Uncovering the causes of AMD could have a huge impact and bring new hope to millions of people,” Skondra says. “The University of Chicago Medicine is the best place to conduct this kind of research. We have the expertise, collaborative culture, and infrastructure to advance understanding of the microbiome’s role in AMD. Philanthropic support can help put us ahead of the game in this effort.”

Skondra envisions a day when patients will no longer face the frightening experience of blurred vision and eventual blindness. Instead, she hopes they will simply be able to take a probiotic pill that corrects—or better, prevents—the heartache of AMD.

Kate Dohner is a senior writer for the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Development office.

News roundup: April 2018

News roundup: April 2018

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

Doctors try to lower $148K cancer drug cost; makers triple price of pill
A group of cancer doctors, including Mark Ratain, found a blood cancer drug called Imbruvica, which typically costs $148,000 a year, could be just as effective at a lower dose. Drug makers found out and introduced a new pricing scheme that ensures dose reductions won’t save patients money or impact company revenue. (The Washington Post)

UChicago startup raises $750K to treat migraines with a nasal spray
Seurat Therapeutics, which will compete in the Polsky Center’s New Venture Challenge this spring, announced Wednesday that it has raised its first round of funding that will allow the company to begin testing their product in human clinical trials. (ChicagoInno)

Specific bacteria in the small intestine are crucial for fat absorption
New research by Eugene Chang and colleagues shows how the typical calorie-dense western diet can induce expansion of gut microbes that promote the digestion and absorption of high-fat foods. (The Forefront)

Genetic screening tool identifies how the flu infiltrates cells
Researchers at UChicago have developed a genetic screening tool—using CRISPR/Cas9—that identified two key factors that allow influenza virus to infect human lung cells. (The Forefront)

Weight might not be why obesity damages knees
The gut microbiome could be the culprit behind arthritis and joint pain that plagues people who are obese, according to a new study from the University of Rochester Medical Center. (Futurity)


News roundup: March 2018

News roundup: March 2018

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

In the battle against cancer, microbes could be the answer
Can your microbiome fight cancer? Evelo Biosciences CEO Simba Gill is working with UChicago cancer expert Thomas Gajewski to find ways to harness microbes against an array of cancers. (WIRED UK)

How trees make people happier and healthier
It’s no surprise that a little nature can go a long way in making people feel better. But the research of UChicago environmental psychologist Marc Berman shows that adding trees to a city can have a significant impact on a person’s health and happiness. (Knowledge Applied podcast)

Gut feelings
This issue of the newsletter μChicago features some of the microbiome work of Eugene Chang and Vanessa Leone, with a fun and informative animation from CNN. (μChicago newsletter)

They don’t make baby poop like they did in 1926, that’s for sure. Here’s why scientists care.
Most of us do our best not to think too much about baby poop. But, as it turns out, stool has a lot more power than we think and that’s true from the first soiled diaper. As Jack Gilbert notes, we need to understand what we can learn from baby’s changing poop to improve our health. (Popular Science)

Immune history influences effectiveness of flu vaccine
New research on why the influenza vaccine was only modestly effective in recent years shows that immune history with the flu influences a person’s response to the vaccine. Flu experts Emily Landon and Allison Bartlett answer questions on Facebook Live. (The Forefront)


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