Thursday, May 30, 2013

Image post 5: eye nerves shed light on memory disorders

While most posts from The Mix feature a science story, we have also begun sharing images coming out of UAB research. Below is a brief description of what we are looking at and how related work may contribute to a better understanding of Alzheimer's disease.

Pictured here is a retinal ganglion (center), a kind of nerve cell near the eye’s retina that helps to process light into the images we perceive. It had been injected with a fluorescent dye, which made it glow green along with the cells connected to it electrically. In each of our eyes, 125 million photoreceptors capture light. They then trigger nerve messages in 1.5 million retinal ganglion cells, long extensions of which bundle together to form the optic nerve.

Captured by Christianne Strang, Ph.D., research instructor in the Department of Vision Sciences within the UAB School of Optometry, this image represents signaling mechanisms between the retina and surrounding nerve cells. Strang's lab seeks to understand how photoreceptors connect to surrounding nerve pathways, as well as the degree to which they signal using the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Within nerve pathways, each nerve cell sends an electric pulse down an extension of itself called an axon until it reaches a synapse, a gap between itself and the next cell in line. When it reaches an axon’s end, the pulse triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters that float across the gap. Upon reaching the other side, they either cause the downstream nerve cell to “fire” and pass on the message, or stop the message. Certain neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s, have been linked to a decrease in acetylcholine signals in nerve pathways related to vision and memory.

As for rest of the color scheme, the pictured eye tissue has also been treated with dyes that interact with choline acetyltransferase (blue), which helps to produce acetylcholine, and synaptophysin (red), which reveals the location of synapses. The work was done in the lab of Kent Keyser, Ph.D., professor in the School of Optometry.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The hard work of making cities smart and green

By 2050, 90 percent of Americans will live in cities that consume most of the nation's energy and generate most of its greenhouse gases. Whether sprawling cities devolve into ecological disasters or slowly transform into smart, sustainable economic growth engines will depend partly on the next generation of engineers and the technologies they invent.

To face the challenges posed by megalopolises, experts say Americans need to do more than just upgrade the current, rusting infrastructure. In a perfect world, future cities would boast advanced public transportation systems, renewable energy resources,"complete streets" and green roofs. Birmingham aspires to become such a place, with a new kind of UAB campus at its heart. Solar-powered electric vehicles would traverse its avenues passing facilities cooled in part by the breeze instead of fossil-fuel-burning air conditioning.

As a step toward this futuristic vision, Fouad H. Fouad, chair of the UAB Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering – and director of the UAB Sustainable Smart Cites Research Center – recently convened the second annual Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium. We thought the meeting made for a good occasion to ask him about related research frontiers. It's an exciting time, but there is still a long way to go, with progress slowed by economic hard times and the slow pace of technological development. When will U.S.-made solar panels, for instance, be cheap enough to compete with fossil-fuel-generated electricity?

For any city re-imagining itself as sustainable, the effort must start with investment in smart, green infrastructure – power, transportation and buildings, according to Dr. Fouad.

On the frontiers of alternative power generation, Alabama Power is currently testing solar panels at 50 locations across the state. Unfortunately, Alabama is not windy enough for massive wind power projects using current technologies, but engineers continue to experiment with the viability of rooftop units.

Research is underway in UAB Mechanical Engineering on the next generation of solar cells, some of the work done in combination with Alabama Power, said Dr. Fouad. UAB Energy Management’s dream is to carpet the roofs of UAB’s buildings with solar panels but presently, projects would take 30 years to generate enough savings to pay for themselves – in part due to the relatively low utility rates in Alabama.

Smart, green transportation systems are a major ingredient in future-looking cities, with related efforts seeking to create new street plans that favor non-motorized traffic, take advantage of biofuels and launch electric vehicle fleets.

In terms of city planning research, Fouad said his team is doing many studies on congestion management.  Dynamic signaling systems may make it possible to better route traffic to lessen traffic jams. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, UAB recently joined the National Center for Transportation Performance and Management to conduct multi-disciplinary research on sustainable transportation infrastructure, economic competitiveness and safety.

Other concepts under investigation by UAB civil engineers include the "complete street," where city streets are designed to accommodate foot and bike traffic as much as motorized traffic. A UAB demonstration project is planned for 10th Avenue in combination with The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, said Dr. Fouad.

Under the heading of green fuels and vehicle fleets, the planning commission's partnering initiatives include Alabama Partners for Clean Air and the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition. Recent related news includes the announcement by the City of Trussville that it's expanding its fleet of compressed natural gas vehicles and opening a CNG fueling station. Compressed natural gas is a fossil fuel substitute for gasoline that is more environmentally sound. CNG may also be mixed with biogas, produced from landfills or waste water, which doesn't increase the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.

UAB Civil Engineering has a project underway in conjunction with the Jefferson County Transit Authority and the U.S. Federal Transit Administration to design and construct a prototype for a hydrogen fuel cell powered bus, which they hope could be the workhorse of new green public transportation fleets in Birmingham. The first vehicles should on the road later this summer, said Fouad. Such vehicles make electricity to power the car using hydrogen, and they give off nothing more than water vapor from the tailpipe. On the consumer front, Honda and Toyota are getting closer to producing hydrogen-powered cars that could be sold to consumers, but they will be costly to start.

Alabama Power is also experimenting with fleets powered by alternative energy sources, and to date has more than 100 electric vehicles and 50 charging installations. The UAB Department of Energy Management has purchased two electric cars that are charged entirely by solar panels, which offer them the chance to evaluate a grid-free transportation technology with no carbon footprint.

Buildings and bridges
The UAB Department of Materials Science & Engineering has great research strength in the design of green composite materials for building, Dr. Fouad said. Often such materials are made from recycled materials and are lightweight, stronger and less expensive to use. His smart cities center will be participating in the Alabama Composites Conference starting on June 18 in Birmingham.

UAB Civil Engineering is also designing materials for use in the building of next-generation, critical infrastructures like the highways and bridges. Dr. Fouad is an expert, for instance, in autoclave-aerated concrete, which is filled with air bubbles such that it requires one-fifth of the weight of classical concrete to create a material that is much stronger. Composed of 80 percent air, it promises to deliver huge savings to the industry while creating an air-bubble barrier in building materials that insulates the building against energy loss. The barrier of air within the concrete acts as thermal installation, reducing heating/air conditioning costs.

UAB civil engineers are also looking at what's next for materials used to make bridges. Along with bridge materials research, projects underway are studying "bridge way in motion" sensors that send messages continually about the structural health of bridges to ensure timely maintenance, not to mention alerting authorities when trucks breaking weight limit laws cross bridges.

Also maturing are research efforts to develop green roof technology, where plants grown in soil beds on roofs conserve energy and improve air quality as plants turn carbon dioxide generated by cars into oxygen. Green roof test beds are currently in place atop the Hulsey Center, the Business and Engineering Complex, Campbell Hall and Hill University Center at UAB. They limit water runoff into the storm water drains, pumping it back through the irrigation system, which keeps polluted water from running into area creeks and the Black Warrior River. The presence of plants and surrounding soil controls water evaporation in a way that creates a cooling effect. Combined with the moist soil, this helps drop temperatures and has resulted in a 20 to 25 percent savings in power bills.

Both the vegetative and white reflective roofs are perhaps 80 degrees cooler in the mid-day summertime than standard black roofs, which can literally be used to fry eggs. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is interested in promoting the adoption of vegetative roofs across the state.  

Impact on health
One of the most exciting projects underway is a partnership between Civil Engineering and the UAB School of Medicine's Division of Preventive Medicine. Called the "Go-ing Forward Project," it seeks to determine how the condition of the "built environment" in a city - the streets, lighting, housing, sidewalks, etc., - impacts the health of city dwellers. UAB researchers are going door to door surveying residents to determine how various aspects of the built environment are impacting their lives. The project's emphasis is looking at how transportation options, urban design, infrastructure decay, safety and security, and housing conditions affect obesity. More than one third of the American population is obese.

From the layout of streets to the options available for exercise, to the quality of air and water and to the condition and upkeep of residences, the built environment exerts silent but significant influence on the likelihood that people will be obese. Of all the engineering factors correlated with negative health outcomes, housing conditions are the most closely tied to health impacts. The presence of mold and its impact on asthma, poor indoor air quality in private homes and certain pollutants (e.g. estrogen-related compounds) in drinking water are all hypothesized to contribute to obesity risk.

Looking for partners
It was no accident that Richard Michos - global vice president, Smarter Cities, from IBM, was invited to speak at Fouad's recent UAB Smart Sustainable Cities symposium. UAB and the City of Birmingham hope to partner with IBM, perhaps through its Smarter Cities Challenge. This competitive IBM grant program is in the process of awarding $50 million worth of technology to 100 cities around the globe. These grants are designed to address the wide range of financial and infrastructure challenges facing cities today. Fouad met with Michos and Mayor Bell while Michos was in Birmingham, with their discussion covering the potential for IBM doing an assessment of the city's greatest sustainability needs, which is expected to yield a report and contribute to an action plan.

Speaking of partnerships, the City of Birmingham and UAB took a step toward smarter, healthier and more sustainable development with the Feb. 27, 2013, signing of a memorandum of understanding to partner on projects such as energy efficiency and city planning that accounts for a more “livable” city. Pilot projects expected out of the partnership include research into new recycling systems and lighting systems downtown that use less energy, perhaps in partnership with IBM.

UAB is also discussing the idea of creating a master's program in Sustainable Smart Cities, which would move forward with contribution from the deans and leadership of several schools across UAB.

For those interested in more information, other good sources include the UAB sustainabiltiy page and My Green Birmingham.

Image post 4: nanodiamonds may solve implant problem

While most posts from The Mix feature a science story, we have also begun sharing images coming out of UAB research. Here is an image of nanodiamonds currently being studied as a potential coating for artificial joints. UAB researchers are exploring whether such coatings can reduce wear on joints made of metal alloys. The work is important because more than 400,000 knee replacements and 300,000 hip replacements are performed each year in the United States.

The grinding force placed on joints causes the artificial versions to shed debris that can cause pain, limit mobility and hasten joint failure. Debris particles are absorbed by scavenging immune cells called macrophages, which then secrete chemicals that cause swelling and pain. This inflammation turns on bone-eating cells near implants, and bone-loss increases the likelihood implants will break loose and require a second surgery.

Diamond coatings may significantly reduce such shedding, and studies are underway to confirm that they are safe and effective. For more information on the work led by Yogesh Vohra, Ph.D.,  director of the UAB Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration, read this 2012 article.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jolie news highlights changing nature of mastectomy

Breast cancer cells
The world pays extra attention to diseases when celebrities have them, so it dominated the news this week when actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she recently had a double mastectomy. Tests had revealed she has the BRCA1 genetic variation known to drastically increase breast cancer risk. A sad detail in her case was her mother's death from the disease, which points to the interplay between genetic tests and family history when assessing risk.

The media did a good job of explaining that each case is different, and that women should make decisions with respect to breast cancer surgery in partnership with their doctors and genetic counselors. Included in the coverage was a fine piece by The Associated Press that described how women who make the same decision as Ms. Jolie now benefit from new approaches and technologies.

The nature of mastectomies has changed in recent years to save more of the breast, reduce scarring and pain and, in some cases, to enable breast reconstruction during the same surgery that removes the cancer. About 220,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States, and 40,000 die.

We asked Helen Krontiras, M.D., co-director of UAB Breast Health Center and scientist at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, for her take on the news and emerging trends in breast cancer surgery, which is her specialty.

Making it easier

Women who had double mastectomies in years past likely faced the removal of their entire breasts, including nipples and good deal of skin. They then faced a series of surgeries required to rebuild the breast with skin taken from the belly, construct a nipple and tattoo a ring around it.

Today, most women chose to have some degree of reconstruction done during the same surgery as their mastectomy, said Dr. Krontiras. For reconstruction requiring implant, surgeons must still, in many cases, put in expanders to stretch the skin for a time before a second surgery to put the implant in. Some patients go straight to implant at the time of mastectomy. According to the AP article, about 25 to 30 percent of women nationally get immediate reconstruction.

Despite a growing focus on the cosmetic aspects of breast reconstruction, Dr. Krontiras emphasized that the first goal is obviously to remove all the cancer. Second to that, but still important, is the effort to preserve cosmetic outcome. In some patients, she starts with chemotherapy first to try to shrink the tumor to the point that patients become candidates for skin saving techniques. One factor making this possible is the increasing sophistication of chemotherapy against breast cancer based on the realization that breast cancer can be one of several cancers, with treatment now tailored for each patient's genetic make-up.

In addition, new approaches to mastectomy that save original nipples are gaining in popularity. Many studies now show that the rate of local breast cancer recurrence in patients that retain their nipple and areola are low and on par with older procedures that remove them, Dr. Krontiras said. Injections of body fat are used in some cases to fill in defects that may occur as a results of removing breast tissue.

Looking forward, women may one day benefit from an experimental out-patient technique called cryoablation. A liquid-nitrogen-cooled probe freezes bits of cancer to death, with the dead cancer tissue removed by normal bodily processes. The technique is currently being tested in clinical trials.

Talk it over

Jolie made the decision to have the double mastectomy because counseling revealed she had the BRCA1 gene, and because her mother had died of breast cancer. It has been reported that her health team told her she had an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer.  Of course, such numbers are the opposite of universal, and vary greatly form patient to patient.

Dr. Krontiras recommends that women diagnosed with the BRCA 1 or 2 gene start with a discussion of options with their doctor and genetic counselor. Each patient’s risk for cancer will be managed by varying combinations of surveillance, chemoprevention and prophylactic surgery of breasts and/or the ovary. There is no once-size-fits-all approach.

She added that she hopes the widespread attention generated by Jolie’s announcement does not lead to a whole-sale increase in requests for mastectomy. Genetic predisposition for breast cancer affects less than 10 percent of all women diagnosed with breast cancer.

However, women who do carry such a gene can have an up to 85 percent lifetime risk for breast cancer. Therefore, asking questions about family history are important, and patients need to learn about risk on both their mother’s and father’s sides of the family.

While the BRCA genes are important predictors of breast cancer risk, they are likely to be the first of many as yet undiscovered genetic and familial factors that contribute to risk, Dr. Krontiras said. Even those with negative BRCA tests should be watched closely if family members have developed breast cancer.
Women and family members interested in genetic counseling with respect to breast cancer can visit the UAB Cancer Genetics Clinic site. There is a website offered by The National Society of Genetic Counselors that has information about family history, as well as another by the National Cancer Institute on preventive mastectomies.  More commentary is available in this UAB news story and in this article and video from Medpage Today.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Image post 3: dangerous clumps of fungus

While most posts from The Mix feature a science story, we have also begun sharing images coming out of UAB research. Below is a brief description of what we are looking at and how related work may help to diagnose and treat fungal infections.

Here is a scanning electron microscope image of the fungus called Aspergillus. It's in the process of germinating, or emerging from round spores (at the center) to begin growing. The fungus has sprouted long, branching filaments called hyphae.

Most people breathe in Aspergillus spores daily without incident, but those with lung diseases or weakened immune systems can contract Aspergillosis, symptoms of which range from allergic reactions to severe lung infections. The fungus is a major player in some forms of allergic asthma, as clumps of hard-to-remove hyphae build up in the lungs.

According to the CDC, fungal infections pose an increasing threat to public health because of the growing number of people with weakened immune systems, including AIDS, cancer and transplant patients. In addition, treatment-resistant fungal infections have emerged as a growing problem in hospitals. Global warming may be contributing to an increase in infections, as fungi thrive in warm, moist conditions. Please see the CDC fungal page for more.

Current treatments are largely incapable of reducing morbidity and mortality in Aspergillosis, said John Kearney, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Microbiology within the UAB School of Medicine. He and his team are developing a new kind of vaccine that could provide protection against invasive Aspergillosis. Bacteria elicit a stronger human immune response than fungi but contain some of the same proteins (e.g. chitin). Based on these common building blocks, it may be possible to develop a vaccine where bacterial protein vaccine ingredients are used to activate immune cells that also target a fungus and remove it from the body.

This image was made by Dr. Jeffrey Sides from the Kearney laboratory at UAB using an instrument made available by the UAB School of Engineering.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Image post 2: Worm gonads and Lou Gehrig's disease

While most posts from The Mix feature a science story, we have also begun regularly sharing images coming out of UAB research. Below is a brief description of what we are looking at and how related work may help diagnose and treat Lou Gehrig's disease.  As we get more of these, we will add them to a slide show on the blog page and share them via FacebookTumblr and Pinterest.

This image is a dissection of a species of worm called  Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), among the most famous of worms because it has made possible several discoveries in molecular biology. It did so by serving as a simple model of cellular processes conserved by evolution and still at work in humans.

The picture shows the worm's intestine running across the middele (in blue), which is working to provide fatty building blocks (e.g. omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid) to the worm's egg-producing cells (oocytes) in green. The egg-producing cells then convert the fatty acids into chemical cues called prostaglandins that help sperm find the sites (purple areas) where they can fertilize the eggs. C. elegans sperm in turn release a protein called major sperm protein (MSP), which tells the egg to prepare for fertilization.

Interestingly, the studies related to this image are providing key insights into how prostaglandins and MSP are made and function in humans.While MSP, for instance, was first found in worms and in connection with reproduction, it appears to have been put to work by human evolution in signaling roles in many cell types.

For instance, Michael Miller, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology, and creator of the attached image, last year published key work showing that MSP may be involved in the development of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. This unexpected connection may provide new approaches to diagnosing and treating the disease.

Note: if you have an amazing UAB research image you would like to share, please email