Research on random

Research on random

By April Frawley Birdwell

Walk around any corner in the HSC and you will find a lab or researcher focused on making a discovery that aids human health and well-being. They have big ideas, and we don’t always get to tell their stories in The POST. In this issue, we are sharing a random sampling of the science happening all around us. Your tour starts here …

One fish, two fish

John Lednicky/Photo by Jesse S. Jones

About eight years ago, when he was living in Chicago and working at Loyola University, John Lednicky, Ph.D., created an ecosystem. In his basement.

“I was trying to get a grant for the conservation of the world’s smallest fish in the Philippines, and I converted the whole basement,” says Lednicky, now a professor of environmental and global health in the College of Public Health and Health Professions. “I had everything you can think of: I was growing algae, worms, rotifers, paramecium, mysid shrimp … my wife hated it, but my kids loved it.”

The fish didn’t pan out — their habitats in the Philippines were polluted and the fish could not be found — but Lednicky made another discovery in his basement ecosystem; He learned how to grow algae loaded with a type of nutritious oil that fish thrived on. As it turns out, the oil is also good for other products, namely biodiesel. While working in Kansas City, Lednicky turned his side project into a way to efficiently produce biodiesel by cultivating and purifying oil from algae.

“Do you have any idea how much oil you can squeeze out of corn? If you have a field in lab conditions and no bugs, perfect lighting and good water, you can get maybe 300 gallons an acre,” Lednicky says. “If you dedicated an acre to algae cultivation, you could get 15,000 to 50,000 gallons an acre.”

Of course it’s not that simple, Lednicky explains. Cultivating algae to produce oil requires expensive bioreactors, which keeps the organism in perfect conditions. Lednicky came up with a way to improve the oil yields by growing algae in complete darkness.

Aside from making biodiesel, the algae can be used to absorb carbon dioxide from coal plants and to make nutritious food products for developing countries. Lednicky has produced alga oil with a chemical make-up he compares to olive oil, although it tastes a bit more like grass, he admits.

What does this have to do with his lab at UF? Not a lot. He studies avian flu and is leading the development of an aerobiology lab in the college. But he hopes he can generate interest in cultivating algae at UF.

“Health is a multibillion-dollar industry. Energy is a multitrillion-dollar industry,” Lednicky says. “You can imagine if something like this became an economic viability, the importance to the state and UF are high. That, in turn, can support any of our health initiatives, as well. I am still very enthusiastic about this. I hope something comes out of it.”

Lessons from Mother Goose

Charlene Krueger/Photo by Maria Belen Farias

In jumping and tumbling we spend the whole day,

Till night by arriving has finished our play.

What then?

One and all, no more to be said.

As we tumbled all day,

So we tumble to bed.

If you’ve ever recited a nursery rhyme to a cooing infant, chances are you didn’t think about how the rhythm of the words affected the baby’s heart rate. But when spoken regularly by mom, something as simple as a familiar rhyme can have a powerful effect on a developing fetus or premature infant, says Charlene Krueger, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Nursing.

A former labor and delivery nurse at Shands at UF, Krueger measures how babies between 28 and 34 weeks’ gestation respond to their mothers’ voices. In one project funded by the National Science Foundation, she’s studying specifically whether babies can learn a familiar nursery rhyme while in utero. She also is studying whether preemies in the neonatal intensive care unit respond to the rhyme.

“If mothers recite the nursery rhyme, by 34 weeks the fetus will respond with a small heart rate deceleration, which I consider to be a cardiac orienting response,” Krueger says. “They learn the rhythm of the nursery rhyme. We play it with a stranger saying it as well and they respond to it the same way.”

Krueger also is studying how regular exposure to their mothers’ voices can help premature infants thrive in the NICU.

“When a mother talks, not only does her baby hear her, her vertebral column vibrates and, her diaphragm rocks the baby in sync with her speech,” Krueger says. “That is why my research is centered around mom’s voice. It is a unique source of sensory stimulation for the fetus at a time when their auditory nervous system is maturing, which is largely lost in the NICU. I believe, for preterm infants, a mother’s voice is a source of stimulation that is potentially important to continue during care.”

Journey to the center of your DNA

Laurence Morel/Photo by Maria Belen Farias

As a postdoctoral assistant in the early 1990s, Laurence Morel, Ph.D., began looking for genes associated with the autoimmune disease lupus. She thought she would find a gene and that would be it, mystery solved.

But like almost all research questions, finding genes led to more mysteries and more problems to solve, says Morel, now a professor and director of experimental pathology in the College of Medicine.

“My dad, who is not a scientist, used to ask me, ‘Have you found what you are looking for?’ It’s not something you find and move on. It’s a continuous pursuit.”

Lupus is particularly complex, says Morel, whose lab is focused on identifying genes associated with the disease in a mouse model she produced. Because many genes are associated with lupus, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to help patients, and scientists still have a lot to figure out, namely uncovering all of the genes involved and how each affects the immune system.

“Our goal is to ultimately understand the disease better and identify new targets for treatment,” Morel says.

Open up and say a’ha!

Shannon Wallet and Luciana Shaddox/Photo by Jesse S. Jones

If eyes are the windows to your soul, your mouth might be the window to your health.

“If you think about it, your oral cavity is a gateway for everything,” says Shannon Wallet, Ph.D., an immunologist and assistant professor in the College of Dentistry. “It is a specialized compartment that has to deal with a lot of insults, and if it does not deal properly with those insults, it directly affects everything else that happens in your body.”

To better understand the relationship between problems in the mouth and overall health, Wallet teamed with periodontist Luciana Shaddox, D.D.S., Ph.D., after coming to UF four years ago.

Together, they are working on two major projects, one of which involves treating a group of children in Tallahassee who have an aggressive form of periodontitis. Caused by bacteria that stick to teeth under the surface of the gums, periodontitis can lead to bone loss, gum inflammation and ultimately, loss of teeth. It’s typically seen in adults, says Shaddox, an assistant professor in the College of Dentistry. These children have a rare and aggressive form of periodontitis that scientists don’t know much about.

“Our goal is to find out not only what bugs are involved but also the immunological mechanisms at work and the systemic immune response,” Shaddox says. “Right now we target the bugs, but if we find other mechanisms play a big role maybe we can add something else to it.”

The researchers are also looking at the relationship between diabetes and periodontitis. They hope to find out how treating the disease in the mouth can affect a patient’s overall health and control of his or her diabetes.

“A lot of treatments are so invasive,” Wallet says. “If we can fix it in the oral cavity than maybe we can bypass the complications of treatment.”

If these worms could talk

Art Edison/Photo by Maria Belen Farias

No one said decoding a language would be easy. Especially when it involves microscopic worms, specifically parasitic nematodes that communicate via complex chemical signals.

Understanding how parasites parley could help scientists combat organisms that affect human health, one of the reasons why researcher Art Edison, Ph.D., and his lab are busy trying to unravel the language.

“We think there is a universal language,” says Edison, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the College of Medicine. “This is really preliminary, but we think they all communicate with the same category of pheromone. It is neat biology, and I think it could lead to a promising direction in human health.”

Of course the interesting question is not why, but how? Edison’s lab is focused on a type of technology known as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. NMR, which involves placing a sample into a magnet, gives scientist an atom-by-atom chemical portrait of a substance.

Edison and his team developed a probe that heightened the sensitivity of the technology, allowing researchers to examine super small samples of compounds, such as nematode pheromones, for example. The group collaborates with the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

They are currently developing another probe that will allow for better detection of carbon atoms, important because carbon is the key chemical player in the makeup of most organic substances.

“Sometimes, for natural products, it can take months to years to get enough sample to test. This technology allows us to look at low concentrations, making it much more efficient,” he says. “Our devices are 20 times more sensitive than conventional technology.”

The toughest questions

Dr. Vikas Dharnidharka with a patient at Shands Medical Plaza/Photo by Jesse S. Jones

When parents ask a physician what to expect after a child undergoes a kidney transplant, it can be difficult for doctors to give answers based on research.

“In children’s research, we often have to extrapolate from adult research and hope it applies to children,” says Vikas Dharnidharka, M.D., division chief of nephrology in the College of Medicine department of pediatrics. “Sometimes they don’t apply, so it is better if we can make sure what we are doing is valid.”

Simply put, kids are not adults. As a pediatric nephrologist, Dharnidharka is involved in numerous clinical research projects, including developing a panel of tests to help predict infection and rejection after transplants. But he is also involved in larger-scale epidemiological projects to try to get better answers about post-transplant outcomes. Specifically, he is looking at risk factors for a type of lymphoma that occurs in patients who have undergone a transplant.

The problem occurs because patients are on high doses of immunosuppressive drugs to keep the body from rejecting the new organ. The drugs work so well they keep the body from fighting off the cancer.

“All organ transplant recipients are at risk,” he says. “In adults, the risk is seven- to 10-fold. In children, it is 200-fold.”

The eyes have it

Dorette Ellis/Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Inside your eye, there’s a place where water flows like a river, through the lens and cornea. It flows in and out, keeping the parts of your eye in working order.

But if debris builds up, a little dam is formed in a part of the eye where this water flows, called the trabecular meshwork. If the dam grows, the fluid builds, causing pressure to rise inside the eye.

“If this pressure is too high it causes glaucoma,” says Dorette Ellis, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pharmacodynamics in the UF College of Pharmacy. “Pressure kills nerves at the back of the eye. Millions of people go blind because of glaucoma. What I try to do in my lab is figure out how to make the dam break so water can flow through.”

Using donated human eyes, Ellis studies how different drugs affect the flow of water through the trabecular meshwork and another part of the eye called the Shlemm’s canal. Because these parts of the eye are different in humans and animals, getting samples from human eyes in key but can be a challenge.

“We are one of three labs in the world that has the capacity to culture cells from the Schlemm’s canal,” she said.