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."

The immortality enzyme? Telomerase fights aging, fuels cancer

In a lab in the heart of Campbell Hall, UAB biologist Trygve Tollefsbol, Ph.D., D.O., stores the secret to immortality—but you may not want it.

Trygve Tollefsbol is a renowned expert on telomerase, an enzyme that
plays crucial roles in determining our lifespans and fueling cancer growth.
Telomerase, the enzyme in question, is a quirky character. Even though it is dormant most of the time, it appears to play a key role in all three of Tollefsbol’s main research interests: aging, cancer, and epigenetics.

Telomerase’s job is to lengthen telomeres, little caps at the end of our chromosomes that keep the chromosomes from becoming unstable during cell division. (They’re kind of like the plastic cylinders on the ends of shoelaces, Tollefsbol says.) But a little bit gets shaved off with each cycle of division. Eventually, there is very little protective telomere left, and cells age and stop dividing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Truth and consequences: Building a game to fight the rural HIV epidemic

UAB researcher Comfort Enah is developing a video game to help high-risk teens and pre-teens
learn vital lessons about HIV prevention. An early graphic concept is shown above.

Comfort Enah, Ph.D., a researcher in the UAB School of Nursing, can't build a time machine to help teens avoid making bad decisions in the future. So she's creating the next best thing: a video game.

Working with a team from the School of Engineering, Enah is crafting a simulation of the challenges of modern teen life—including social media shaming, drug and alcohol use, dating boundaries, and the wildfire spread of misinformation on the Internet. The goal is to slow the HIV epidemic among adolescents in the rural South. Enah's dream, if the game proves effective, is to take it to the even more hard-hit communities of sub-Saharan Africa, where she grew up.

Maturity without Maturity

Over the past century, puberty has been arriving earlier and earlier, which means that “teens are spending longer and longer periods with bodies that are sexually mature and brains that aren't yet capable of anticipating the long-term consequences of their actions,” says Enah, an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing Community Health Outcomes. “They need to practice their responses to those risky situations, and games are a way to do that in private and as often as necessary.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How do mom's microbes affect pregnancy outcomes? UAB research aims to find out

As a baby slides out of the birth canal, on the way to its first breath, its body becomes coated in its mother’s microbes. This first interaction with outside organisms could be key to shaping the development of the baby’s immune system.

Our microbes, collectively called the microbiome, most often live in harmony with our bodies. They support the immune system, help to digest food and keep the metabolism on track, and fight off disease-causing bacteria. But researchers suspect that mom’s microbiome could play a role in when her children are born, and what happens to them as they grow.

“Most people know about the microbes that colonize the gut,” says Rodney Edwards, M.D., an associate professor in UAB’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “But there are bugs in and on us in many other sites—our skin, our mouths, our noses, our genitalia.”

During pregnancy, it turns out, the new needs and demands of a woman’s body change the numbers and types of these microbes. Alterations in how the body divvies up nutrients, stores fat, and produces hormones shift the properties of the microbes’ environments. But exactly how the microbiome changes over this nine-month period varies between pregnancies. And these variations, researchers are discovering, could impact not only the well being of a pregnant women herself, but the likelihood of pregnancy complications and the long-term health of a baby.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Scanning Electron Microscope

The high-tech look of UAB's Scanning Electron Microscope facility makes it a popular spot on campus tours, but the machine's ability to image everything from exotic metals to living tissues makes it an invaluable research tool, says facility director William Stonewall Monroe (above).

When you need to see something so tiny that light skips right over it—and you don't want it vacuum-sealed and messed with in the way that a transmission electron microscope requires—you're in the market for a scanning electron microscope (SEM).

An SEM is the go-to machine for materials engineers, who are very interested in close-up pictures of faulty pipes or the inner workings of exotic, lab-created composites. That's why UAB's SEM is located on the ground floor of the School of Engineering. But the device is also gaining a following with researchers all over campus, says William Stonewall Monroe, director of the UAB Scanning Electron Microscope facility.

"If you want to look inside something, you use a transmission electron microscope," Monroe says. "That's what most people think of as an electron microscope. But the samples have to be elaborately prepared and able to survive the vacuum conditions."