Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hunting for clues to healthy aging, from the lab to the sea floor

Researchers are "making an incredible amount of progress" in the search for molecular mechanisms underlying successful aging, says Steven Austad. His own studies are uncovering the secrets of long-lived animals, and investigating the anti-aging effects of the immunosuppressive drug rapamycin.

The longest-lived human on record didn’t make it much past 120 years. That’s nothing compared to the ocean quahog, a fist-sized clam found off the coast of Maine. “They can live 500 years or longer,” said Steven Austad, Ph.D., chair of UAB’s Department of Biology and associate director of the UAB Comprehensive Center for Healthy Aging. “They’ve been sitting out there on the sea floor since before Shakespeare was born.”

Austad’s research focuses on understanding the underlying causes of aging at the molecular level. Although his studies take him in many fascinating directions, it’s the ancient clams that everyone remembers. “I’m known in the field as the guy who works with weird animals,” Austad said.

So what do animals like the quahog know about healthy aging that we don’t? That question drives Austad’s studies in comparative gerontology, which look to long-lived animals to identify new molecular targets to help humans.

Protein Power

Clams — technically, bivalve mollusks — live longer than any other animal group; more than a dozen species have lifespans of a century or more. But they are not all masters of aging. Austad’s lab is studying mitochondrial function, protein stability and stress resistance across seven species of clams, with lifespans ranging from one year to the ocean quahog’s 500-plus years.

Studying long-lived animals is “a way to quickly identify new genes that might be targets for new drugs to keep people healthy longer.”
Austad’s research has convinced him that one key to slowing aging is to protect the proteins inside our cells. “Proteins make everything work in the cell, and to do that, they have to be folded precisely like origami,” Austad said. “But as we get older they get battered about, and ultimately lose that precise shape.”

That’s why Austad is so excited by what he’s found in ocean quahogs. “They keep their proteins in shape century after century,” he said. When Austad takes human proteins and adds them to a mix of tissues from the clams, “they become more stable, less likely to unfold.” His lab is now working to identify exactly what is protecting the clams’ proteins. That mechanism could point to a potential treatment for aging, along with new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions caused by protein misfolding, Austad notes.

Enter the Hydra

In addition to clams, Austad studies a tiny freshwater creature called a hydra, which is basically immortal. Or so scientists once thought, until they found one particular species of hydra that begins to age rapidly under the right combination of environmental conditions.

“Under certain conditions, this hydra turns on a symphony of genes that prevent aging; under others, it does not,” Austad said. His lab is working to discover the molecular mechanisms that get switched on, or off, as the hydra’s environment changes. “These kinds of studies are a way to quickly identify new genes that might be targets for new drugs to keep people healthy longer,” Austad said.

He adds that the opportunities for collaborative, translational work in the Comprehensive Center for Healthy Aging, which brings together a wide range of basic and applied scientists from schools across campus, helped draw him to UAB.

Living Longer — and Better

This is a very exciting time to study aging, says Austad, who is in a position to survey the field as the scientific director for the American Federation for Aging Research. “We’re making an incredible amount of progress,” he said. “We know a lot of things from animal work that will slow aging by 20 percent, and that’s the difference between being healthy for 60 years and being healthy for over 70 years.”

Old Friends

Austad’s book “Why We Age,” published in 1997 and since translated into eight languages, explained the latest aging research in layman’s terms. Ever since, “publishers have been after me to do an updated version,” he said. “But there are lots of books out there now on that topic.”

Instead, he’s working on a book called “Methuselah’s Zoo,” which he described as “a natural history of successful aging.” It will include profiles of his favorite 500-year-old clams, but also 200-year-old whales and 40-year-old bats.
Living longer wouldn’t be much fun if you got progressively sicker, but “what we’re finding is that, if you treat the underlying causes of aging, you can push back cancer, heart disease, blindness, hearing loss — all of these diseases associated with aging,” said Austad.

One particularly intriguing lead, being followed by Austad and other researchers worldwide, is the drug rapamycin, which is FDA-approved to prevent rejection after organ transplants. A series of studies, from yeast, worms and mice, have shown that rapamycin can extend lifespan as well.

Rapamycin has “almost miraculous” effects against aging in mice, Austad says. “It prevents cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s — a whole host of things.” His lab is now working to understand how administering rapamycin at different points in an animal’s life affects the aging process.

Curb Your Enthusiasm?

Despite these exciting findings, caution is required, Austad notes. “Nothing I have learned so far has changed my behavior,” he said. “I don’t take a bunch of pills; I’m not even tempted to take rapamycin at this point.” For one reason, rapamycin has several side effects in mouse studies, including an elevated incidence of cataracts, loss of glucose sensitivity and testicular atrophy. Austad believes that the right dosing and formulation could overcome these issues in humans, but “we still don’t know what the best dose is,” he said.

At the moment, the best advice about healthy aging “is still the boring stuff your mother already told you,” Austad said. “‘Eat the right foods; don’t eat too much; exercise.’ But come back in 10 years and it will be a different answer.”

Biology’s Moment

The development of ever-better tools for investigating genes has brought about a revolution in biology, Austad says. He believes biology is set to dominate the 21st century the way that engineering and physics shaped the 20th — making vital contributions to everything from personalized medicine to climate change. And UAB’s Department of Biology will take a leading role in training, research and discovery in these areas, he adds.

“The human world 50 years from now will be unrecognizable,” Austad said. “People never realized that they could go faster than a horse and suddenly they had airplanes. We haven’t had this fancy DNA technology for more than a decade and a half, and we’ve already come so far.” Learn more at

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wheel genuises: UAB team is teaching Army's self-driving trucks a new way to move

Amazon got the world talking with its promise of aerial drone deliveries. Google is making progress toward its dream of a driverless car. But the U.S. Army has already surpassed the tech giants with an operational convoy of robot-driven trucks capable of traveling up to 40 miles per hour.

A self-driving convoy could deliver supplies without putting soldiers in harm’s way, or let those soldiers keep their eyes out for bandits instead of keeping them glued to the road. The Autonomous Mobility Appliquè System (AMAS), built for the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), has demonstrated its prowess in several online videos (see an example below).

Now researchers in the UAB School of Engineering are working with TARDEC on an even more powerful unmanned system — one that will use smart tires, enhanced sensors and some very quick thinking to guide trucks safely over rough terrain.


Vladimir Vantsevich, Sc.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and director of the UAB Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Laboratory, is an expert on the unique design challenges of multiwheeled vehicles. He has teamed up with UAB Ph.D. candidate Jeremy Gray, who is also a member of TARDEC’s Ground Vehicle Robotics group, on the unmanned convoy project.

Teaching a six-wheeled, 18-ton truck to make smart driving decisions is one problem. String several more behind it, and the challenges multiply. “Imagine: no drivers, just five trucks, following the lead vehicle,” said Vantsevich. One issue is that, even though they are in a line, each vehicle is experiencing different terrain.

“They’re following the same track, so each vehicle will compress the soil a little more, changing its physical properties,” Vantsevich said. “How do you redistribute power between the wheels to overcome this? If one gets stuck, how do you teach the others to avoid that obstacle? No one has ever done this before.”

Big Wheels Keep on Turning

In 2013, Vantsevich and Gray, along with TARDEC’s Jim Overholt, presented an algorithm that unmanned vehicles can use to react to changing ground conditions in real time. Putting that method into practice has required them to make several technical leaps.

Compared to Google’s self-driving car, “an off-road vehicle requires much more information about its surroundings,” Vantsevich explained. A car driving on a highway will pretty much experience the same interaction between tire and asphalt throughout its trip, he says. “But a wheel going over off-road deformable terrain is experiencing continuous changes in its dynamics and motion.”

The UAB researchers are dealing with this challenge by developing tires that read and react to their environment at unprecedented speeds — fast enough to respond to an obstacle while they are moving over it. “You have 60 milliseconds to understand what is going on with the tire, make a decision — should you change the torque of the tire, and in which direction? — and send a signal to the motor controlling that tire,” Vantsevich said.

At One With the Road

To accomplish this, the engineers are designing new types of high-speed sensors, and embedding them in the trucks’ tires and wheels. They are also devising ways to transmit this information from truck to truck, giving following trucks early warning about approaching hazards and terrain conditions.

(Article continues beneath graphic)

Vantsevich declines to describe the new sensors and transmission methods in detail while patents are pending. He is no stranger to innovation, with 30 certified inventions related to the dynamics, energy and fuel efficiency of multiwheel-drive vehicles. In a related project, Vantsevich and Mostafa Salama, a Ph.D. candidate at UAB, are developing new control algorithms to boost fuel efficiency in unmanned vehicles by giving each wheel its own electronic brain.

“I want my vehicle to be able to move from point A to point B with minimum power loss, and to do that I need to minimize the power loss that happens between each tire and the terrain,” said Salama. He has already adapted his original mathematical solution to this problem into a working prototype. Now he is refining that prototype in the Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Laboratory.

These techniques could eventually let unmanned vehicles travel farther, and improve the efficiency of even conventional vehicles, Vantsevich notes. A 40-ton truck, for example, could improve efficiency up to 12 percent with this approach, he says. “That represents a huge fuel savings.”

Lessons From the Frontier

This summer, Vantsevich shared details from his unmanned convoy work with researchers from 15 nations at a NATO Advanced Study Institute (ASI) on “Advanced Autonomous Vehicle Design for Severe Environments” in Coventry, England. The ASI, supported by a NATO grant received by Vantsevich, was arranged and conducted with Coventry University and Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology. Vantsevich is also the editor of two new series of books that explore hot topics in ground vehicle engineering (Taylor & Francis, CRC Press) and robotics engineering (ASME Press).

UAB students can learn the fundamentals of these new fields in several courses that Vantsevich has developed in the School of Engineering. Although they cover everything from robot design to innovative methods of power distribution, the courses have a unifying theme: mechatronics. This emerging discipline takes an interdisciplinary approach to engineering problems, acknowledging that today’s devices are a complex intermingling of mechanical, electrical and computer systems.

Courses such as Systems Modeling and Controls, which Vantsevich taught to undergraduates in the spring 2014 semester, are all part of a mechatronics track that encompasses classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels, Vantsevich says. “We’re sharing our knowledge with a younger generation, and encourage them to work in these directions.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Using magnets to find new drugs: Inside UAB's high-field nuclear magnetic resonance facility

Most high-end lab equipment is inaccessible to the public eye, but one of UAB's most powerful drug-discovery tools is clearly visible from the Campus Green. The Central Alabama High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility occupies a gleaming ground-floor space in the Chemistry Building. Its massive magnets give researchers invaluable insight into disease-causing proteins — and the data they need to find new ways to stop them.

UAB Magazine Fall 2014 cover
The cover story of the latest issue of UAB Magazine features the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, a partnership between UAB and Southern Research Institute that aims to accelerate high-potential discoveries from the lab to patient-ready treatments. One key tool in that process is the Central Alabama High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility, which opened in 2013. The Mix takes a closer look in this new feature.

Spin This Way

Each of the facility's NMR machines specializes in a different type of job, but the basic functioning is the same, explains NMR director N. Rama Krishna, Ph.D., UAB professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. The machines generate strong magnetic fields that polarize the tiny magnets in the nuclei of hydrogen atoms. “Then, using radiofrequency pulses, you can count all of the individual hydrogen atoms in a sample, which tells you what amino acids are present and how they are arranged in space,” Krishna says. And that’s precisely the information you need to create a detailed picture of a protein’s structure.

Mapping a protein's structure is crucial to understanding its function — and to finding ways to alter that function to treat disease. For instance, locating suitable "binding pockets" on a protein linked to brain cancer tells medicinal chemists how to design a drug to block (or enhance) that protein. "That's why NMR is one of the most versatile tools for drug-discovery research," Krishna says.

The bigger your magnet, the better images you can get. The centerpiece of the NMR facility is an 850 MHz Bruker BioSpin model, one of the largest in the South, which allows scientists to analyze structural data on even the largest proteins.

(Story continues after graphic)

Building a Better Drug

The 850 MHz machine can also accelerate the drug-discovery process "by allowing researchers to rapidly test new compounds they've developed in the lab," Krishna adds. Using a technique called saturation transfer difference NMR (STD-NMR), Krishna and his team can register the minute changes in signals from hydrogen atoms that occur when a compound binds to a protein. It would be nearly impossible to capture this interaction directly, he points out, because "it may last only a few microseconds." With STD-NMR, researchers can screen a number of potential drugs at once, then focus on the ones that show signs of binding to the target protein.
UAB's Rama Krishna and scientists from Southern Research
Institute have collaborated in developing a novel high-field
NMR-based protocol for determining the binding of
allosteric ligands to target proteins. They used the kinesin-5
protein Eg5 (a cancer target) and its inhibitor monastrol
 as an example (see above) for this protocol.

Using other techniques, researchers can analyze the disease-causing interaction between two proteins, and then find the right location to dock an inhibitor that would prevent the proteins from coming together. Or they could do the opposite, in an approach dubbed “fragment-based discovery” — using NMR data to identify two compounds that bind close together on a protein and “cross link” them to significantly improve their binding.

Krishna uses these techniques in his own National Cancer Institute-funded research to find new treatments for pancreatic cancer. Other UAB investigators are using the NMR facility to further their drug-discovery efforts in Parkinson's disease, brain tumors, breast cancer, heart disease, HIV and more. And as word of these capabilities has spread, researchers at institutions across the South have begun sending in samples to the NMR facility for evaluation.

Early Warning Signs

NMR is useful for many applications beyond drug discovery, Krishna adds. The facility's 600 MHz machine specializes in a hot area of medicine known as metabolomics, which studies the way the body processes everything from food to medicines.

"If you are taking a drug that is toxic to the liver, the body will generate some small molecules — known as metabolites — associated with liver damage,” Krishna explains. "We can detect these molecules in the NMR spectra of biofluids such as urine and blood plasma and say, 'Aha, after this patient started taking the drug, we can see an increase in these signals, so something is going wrong." That can warn researchers of side effects from new drug treatments "long before there is any major problem," Krishna says.

"The range of applications in this facility is amazing," adds Krishna. "It is a unique platform for everything from basic science to translational research.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

Unique gene machine opens new pathways to personalized medicine

In the UAB Nanostring Laboratory, researchers such as Eddy Yang are taking advantage of the nCounter Analysis System's novel digital profiling technology to examine specific signaling pathways in cancer and other diseases. That work could lead to new insights to improve diagnosis and treatment decisions.

Cancer is a devious enemy. In lab tests, researchers have identified plenty of exciting genetic targets — weak links that should allow them to destroy tumors by halting production of a crucial enzyme, for example, or blocking a signal the cell needs to keep growing. All too often, however, these promising findings fizzle out in further testing.

That is because cancer cells can take advantage of multiple, redundant signaling pathways to avoid areas that come under attack. “Tumor cells will just figure out a way to bypass them,” said Eddy Yang, M.D., Ph.D., an associate scientist in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and associate professor in the UAB Department of Radiation Oncology.

Mapping out the complex pathways involved in cancer and other diseases is a crucial step in finding better treatments — and identifying the best treatments for individual patients. If you know all the routes a tumor can use to evade attack, you can find therapies — or combinations of therapies — to block them all. Indeed, tracing cancer-related signaling pathways, and finding ways to use these insights to improve diagnosis and treatment decisions, is a major focus of research at the Cancer Center, Yang says. But spotting these pathways amid the information overload of a genomewide screening test can be extremely complex and time-consuming.

nCounter: In Focus
  • 48-800 genes can be studied simultaneously
  • Applications include gene expression analysis, microRNA and lncRNA analysis, copy number variation analysis, ChIP-String analysis and leukemia fusion gene analysis
  • The system's novel digital technology is based on direct multiplexed quantification of nucleic acids; it provides highly reproducible data over 5 logs of dynamic range
  • Preconstructed panels include: PanCancer Pathways Panel, Human Kinase Panel, Human Immunology Panel, microRNA Panels, Cancer Copy Number Variation Assay
  • See the UAB Nanostring Laboratory site for more information and a schedule of fees and services

Targeting Crucial Pathways

Now, UAB researchers and clinicians have a new tool to investigate signaling pathways — and to translate their discoveries into clinic-ready diagnostic tests. The unique nCounter Analysis System, produced by Nanostring Laboratories, “is a platform to measure the expression of genes in a targeted manner,” Yang said. “Instead of looking at the whole genome, you can investigate anywhere from 48-800 genes at a time.” Researchers can zero in on certain pathways that they are studying, Yang explains, or they can use preset panels of previously identified cancer networks.

Yang directs the new UAB Nanostring Laboratory, which is open to investigators across campus. He is using the nCounter to pursue his own research in experimental treatments for breast, prostate, and head and neck cancers. “I’m very interested in understanding the pathways that make a tumor tick,” Yang said. “I want to know which ones make it resistant to therapy and which ones could actually make it more sensitive to treatment.” With the nCounter, Yang said, “we can look from a 10,000-foot perspective rather than from sea level. It’s an exciting technology.”

Another advantage of the nCounter is that, unlike other technologies, which may require whole molecules of high-quality RNA or amplification for analysis, the nCounter can gather information from small pieces of RNA. That means researchers can use it to look at pathways in tissue that is up to several decades old, retroactively verifying new patterns they have found instead of having to collect new samples for analysis. The nCounter can also perform a range of other tests, Yang says, including analysis of microRNAs, gene fusions and gene amplifications.

From Concept to Clinic

The nCounter is more than a research tool. It can run new diagnostic tests such as the ProSigna Assay, which gives clinicians an estimate of a patient’s likelihood of tumor recurrence based on which pathways are active in that patient. It is an excellent example of personalized medicine in action, Yang says. He envisions UAB researchers using the nCounter to develop novel tests to inform treatment decisions in cancer and other diseases. UAB is one of the first institutions nationwide with the ability to do both laboratory and clinical testing using the nCounter.

“We hope to use the pattern of the pathway of genes to help guide therapy,” Yang said. “That’s the personalized medicine approach.”

Yang and collaborator Andres Forero, M.D., senior scientist at the UAB Cancer Center, will use the nCounter as part of a clinical trial testing a new treatment approach against triple-negative breast cancer. The trial, which recently began enrolling patients, is testing two different drugs — a PARP inhibitor and an EGFR inhibitor — to block two different pathways used by these tumors.

“By blocking PARP, you block the ability of the tumors to repair DNA damage,” which should eventually result in cell death, Yang explains. But the tumors can take advantage of an alternate backup pathway to repair that damage, meaning PARP inhibitors alone are often ineffective. “By blocking EGFR, we will block that backup pathway,” Yang said. [To learn more about this study, call (205) 934-0309; visit the Clinical Trials section of the Comprehensive Cancer Center's website to see all current studies.]

Using the nCounter, the researchers will compare the pathways altered in patients who respond to the therapy with those in patients who aren’t helped by the combination. In the future, that could let them identify the most appropriate patients for this treatment with a simple test. “We hope to use the pattern of the pathway of genes to help guide therapy,” Yang said. “That’s the personalized medicine approach.”

Friday, September 12, 2014

Grad student receives national award for new insight on alcohol and liver damage

Uduak Udoh
By connecting the dots between chronic drinking, molecular clocks, and energy storage patterns, UAB doctoral student Uduak Udoh has identified a potential new approach to target alcoholic liver disease. The work has also earned her a top honor from the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and kudos from former NIAAA director Enoch Gordis, M.D.

Udoh, a fifth-year doctoral student in Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine, received the Enoch Gordis Research Recognition Award during the RSA's annual scientific meeting this summer. At the meeting, she presented results from her dissertation project, "Hepatic Glycogen Metabolism Is Impaired by Alcohol Consumption: Possible Role of the Liver Molecular Clock."

Liver cells, like almost all human cells, have a built-in circadian clock—a set of genes that control metabolism and other biological processes in a daily cycle. Udoh's research shows that chronic alcohol consumption disrupts the liver's normal pattern of creating glycogen, a storage form of glucose.

"Glycogen in the liver is an important fuel reserve that the body uses in between fasting and eating," explains Udoh, who is a member of the lab of Shannon Bailey, Ph.D., in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Pathology. Previous research has shown that the liver clock controls glycogen synthesis in a regular rhythm throughout the day. Emerging studies show that alcohol can disrupt the liver clock's timing, just as it disturbs the main circadian clock in the brain to disturb sleep and other behaviors.

Udoh's work connects these two observations. In mouse models, "we normally see a nice diurnal rhythm to glycogen content in the liver, which makes sense because metabolic needs vary throughout the day," Udoh says. But chronic alcohol consumption brings a significant change in that pattern, and a corresponding decrease in glycogen levels, Udoh found. She also demonstrated that alcohol disrupts signaling genes and proteins regulated by the liver clock that control glycogen metabolism.

Without sufficient glycogen, the liver may lack the energy to repair alcohol-generated damage, contributing to alcoholic liver disease. Ultimately, Udoh's research "highlights the molecular clock as a novel therapeutic target for alcoholic liver disease," says Bailey. (Learn more about Bailey’s own research into chronic alcohol consumption and the liver clock in this Mix podcast.)

Udoh's work was one of only six selected for presentation at the Research Society on Alcoholism meeting from hundreds of applications. Judges selected her for the Gordis award, which recognizes outstanding research among graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, based on her oral presentation and research poster session. One of the highlights of the event was discussing her work with Dr. Gordis himself, Udoh says. "It's a great honor."

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Using 3D printers and movie modeling techniques, UAB researchers enhance workplace safety devices

Claudiu Lungu and a team from UAB's Department of Environmental Health Sciences have devised a high-tech, low-cost method for designing and fabricating new respirator prototypes to improve workplace safety.

If you work on an auto painting crew, stir vats of artificial butter at a popcorn factory or handle asbestos at a shipyard, you are one of the 5 million American workers legally required to wear respiratory protective equipment on the job.

But legal requirements and actual practice don't always match up. And even when workers wear their respirators, they may not be doing much good.

Studies show that hundreds of thousands of workers—from 15 to 20 percent, according to recent research—may be wearing ill-fitting respirators, not designed for a workforce that has rapidly changed over the past decades.

But a UAB research team has devised a high-tech, low-cost method for designing and fabricating new respirator prototypes to better match the variety of facial shapes in today's workplace. In addition to protecting industrial workers, the technology could aid members of the military as well. The findings are published online in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Superfoods and breast cancer: Study takes a closer look at broccoli and green tea

Could a combination of broccoli sprouts and green tea offer protection against breast cancer — and transform hard-to-treat breast tumors into a type that responds to medication?

A series of studies in the lab of UAB biologist Trygve Tollefsbol, Ph.D., D.O., have generated encouraging findings. Tollefsbol, who is also a senior scientist in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, has shown that mice given sprouts in their chow and green tea polyphenols in their water are protected against tumor development. Intriguingly, he has also shown in animal studies that the combination can change estrogen receptor-negative (ER-) tumors, which have few treatment options, into estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) tumors, which can be treated with the anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen.

Now, Tollefsbol has received a $1.5-million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to pinpoint the molecular mechanisms behind these effects. "We already have a lot of preliminary data showing that this combination works," Tollefsbol says. "The grant will allow us to extend that research and explore the effects genome-wide."