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Year in Review: UChicago Research 2010

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ScienceLife ran 219 posts in 2010, and choosing the best of them is as hard as picking a favorite gene.  So here’s a month-by-month scan of a busy year at the University of Chicago Medical Center, full of exciting discoveries in the laboratory and the clinic. The impact of some of this research is already being felt by patients receiving improved, evidence-based medical care. For other studies, the clinical benefit may be years in the future, and may take unpredictable forms. As a closing message for 2010, we’ll re-quote the recently departed Eugene Goldwasser, whose laboratory research isolating and purifying the hormone erythropoietin has helped millions of people worldwide.

“It is a particularly impressive example of how basic research can pay a dividend that could not be anticipated at the start,” Goldwasser wrote about his life’s work, “and it is a pity that the lesson still has not been learned by those who control public funding of science.”

January: Tong Chuan-He looked at how cancer may result from cells who don’t want to grow up. Scientists studied how sleep affects the language learning skills of starlings (with painstakingly acquired video of the experiment!). Richard Jones combined two laboratory staples – Western blots and DNA micro-arrays – to develop a new method for studying protein networks. While physicians such as Tammy Utset treat patients with lupus, UChicago scientists are looking for the genetic origins of the autoimmune disorder.

February: Many Medical Center employees returned from volunteering with relief efforts in Haiti, and we filmed video interviews with Rex Haydon, Tiffany Cupp, Richard Cook, and Dima Awad on their experiences. Most of the human genome is “junk” between protein-encoding regions, but Marcelo Nobrega developed a way to find important regulatory elements in that genetic sea. Like birds, human learning can be affected by sleep, and Leila Kheirandish-Gozal reported on the impact of obstructive sleep apnea upon learning in children. Can a single protein in the brain create behaviors associated with drug addiction in rats?

lukehand-300x1601March: Everyone knows air travel is stressful, but did you know that eastbound flights cause stronger cortisol changes than westbound trips? The laboratory of Milan Mrksich found a way to direct stem cells to form fat or bone by shaping them into stars or flowers, a brilliant example of bioengineering. Computational neuroscientists discovered how touch is like vision in the brain, knowledge that could be used to someday re-engineer Luke Skywalker’s robot hand. Dartmouth president and Partners in Health co-founder Jim Yong Kim visited to talk about a new, needed area of research: health care delivery.

April: Researchers at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago teamed up for the Emerging Pathogens Project, an effort to find new viruses in animals before they jump to humans. Cardiologist Martin Burke tested out a new type of internal defibrillator device that can go under the skin, instead of into the heart (the clinical trial, reported in May, was a success). In a lecture to the MacLean Center of Clinical Medical Ethics, transplant surgeon J. Michael Millis described his efforts to bring American organ transplant practices to China.

3989665583_e680b02fa4May: A trial testing the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra for a rare, untreatable lung disease failed, but pulmonologist Imre Noth found a silver lining. Lauren Sallan and Michael Coates uncovered evidence of a previously unappreciated mass extinction event 360 million years ago that changed the path of life on Earth. Researchers from the University of Chicago and around the world presented science at the frontier of biotechnology at the annual BIO conference.

June: In a study that is literally the size of an entire country, epidemiologist Habibul Ahsan measured the toll of a tragic, accidental exposure of millions to arsenic in Bangladesh. Putting a gene from fireflies into the pancreas of mice isn’t mad science, it’s an imaging tool that will help study cures for diabetes. Epigenetics, the modifications that turn genes on and off, took off in 2010, and cardiologists Stephen Archer and Jalees Rehman linked one epigenetic factor to pulmonary artery hypertension.

July: Scientists don’t often get to see the fruits of their research in the flesh, but the Celebrating the Miracles gathering of diabetic children weaned off injected insulin thanks to genetic research was a moving exception (video of the event can also be viewed). Another hot topic in science and medicine this year was the use of computational analysis to sift through rapidly accumulating data, topics explored by Gary An and Andrey Rzhetsky. Or you can build a computer model of a brain network to study the dynamics of epilepsy, like neurologist Wim van Drongelen.

friends-chatting-around-stove1August: Air pollution is a problem indoors as well as outdoors in developing countries where dung and firewood are used to cook food – a problem being tackled in a project led by Sola Olopade. A study of the hormonal changes induced by a stressful test revealed a surprising protective effect of marriage and long relationships. Microbiologist Olaf Schneewind’s laboratory developed two new strategies against MRSA, the most-wanted cause of hospital-acquired infections.

September: To study multiple sclerosis, neurologist Brian Popko’ s laboratory developed a new mouse model that can replicate the disease, then spontaneously recover. Meanwhile, a new drug to treat MS, originally isolated from fungus found in wasps, was approved by the FDA and is being studied for broader uses at the Medical Center. The micro-organisms that live in humans were analyzed as part of a “microbiome” study looking at the protective effects of breast-feeding against a intestinal disease.

October: Common wisdom on quitting smoking says to stay away from cigarette-associated cues, but research from psychiatrist Harriet de Wit’s laboratory revealed that abstinence could make craving even worse. A study of how getting a good night’s rest affects dieting results suggested that “sleeping off the pounds” isn’t merely a fantasy. Graduate student Daniel Matute solved a 100-year-old riddle about how quickly new species become reproductively incompatible with each other.

November: In perhaps our favorite study of the year, geneticist George Perry found a way to acquire the genomic information of endangered species from…poop. The evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen passed away, but his Lewis Caroll-inspired Red Queen Hypothesis lives on. Sometimes statistics don’t tell the whole truth, as in the curious case of the aspirin paradox – why the cardio-protective drug may actually predict worse outcomes after heart attack.

December: Evolution textbooks may need a rewrite after geneticist Manyuan Long’s laboratory discovered that new genes can be just as essential as old genes. A study by neurobiologist Nicholas Hatsopoulos proved that the only thing better than a thought-controlled device is a thought-controlled device equipped with a robot arm. Ripped from the headlines: microbiologist Jack Miller weighed in on the hype over arsenic-based bacteria, and ethicist/physician/friar Daniel Sulmasy discussed the Presidential Bioethics Commission’s report on synthetic biology.

All told, it was a great year of science and medicine. Let’s do it again in 2011! Regular posting will resume Jan. 3rd. Happy Holidays.

About Rob Mitchum (514 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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