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News - 2012

The Newsroom • Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 9:03 AM
UTMB receives $7.6 million grant to study roles of infections and allergies in asthma
The asthma and allergy research effort at the University of Texas Medical Branch got a boost recently with a five-year, $7.6 million project grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Entitled "Signaling in Airway Inflammation," the grant renews NIAID funding that, for the past five years, has supported part of UTMB’s program focused on the role of respiratory viral infections and allergy in the development of asthma.

"This is a real success story — a product of the unique multi-disciplinary and collaborative environment here at UTMB," said Dr. Allan Brasier, co-principal investigator on the grant. "The funding environment is extraordinarily competitive now, and I think this renewal demonstrates the unique strength of our group. We’ve been working together for more than10 years, and we have an exceptional history of very productive studies of the underpinnings of asthma and other chronic diseases that affect millions of Americans."
Dr. Roberto Garofalo, the program’s other co-principal investigator, echoed Brasier’s comments.

"We focus in particular on lung inflammation, how it connects to childhood bronchiolitis and how that relates to adult asthma severity," Garofalo said. "Our accomplishments in those areas show the power of collaborative, interdisciplinary work, bringing together different academic departments and centers of excellence — UTMB’s Sealy Center for Molecular Medicine, Sealy Center for Vaccine Development, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Proteomics Center and Institute for Translational Sciences."

The researchers will pursue four inter-related projects centering on the biochemical processes that induce inflammation in cells lining human airways. Human subjects will be involved in two of the projects. The first, led by Garofalo and Dr. Antonella Casola, will examine severe early childhood infections by respiratory syncytial virus, which have been identified as a precursor for asthma; Garofalo and Casola will investigate genetic components thought to make such disease more likely and test a therapy that could reduce the severity of RSV infection.

The second, headed by Dr. Sanjiv Sur, will look at a key mechanism by which pollen provokes asthma and allergy attacks. Each pollen grain induces airway cells to produce large quantities of destructive molecules called reactive oxygen species, which in turn generate a powerful inflammatory response. Sur has identified a cellular receptor that’s critical to this process and will be working to detail its actions in humans.

The two other projects in the program will be led by Brasier and Professor Istvan Boldogh. Brasier’s investigation will follow up on his longtime interest in the relationship between inflammation and the immune-system regulatory protein NF-kappa B, exploring a novel inflammatory response that’s mediated by a molecule whose modulation may offer a new way to mitigate the exaggerated host responses to RSV infection. Boldogh, an expert in DNA repair, will follow up on his recent discovery that a key DNA-repair enzyme can actually generate harmful reactive oxygen species and inflammation.

Previous efforts by the group produced 52 multi-authored publications during the last five years, and involved eight pre-doctoral and 14 postdoctoral fellows in groundbreaking asthma research.

The Newsroom • Published Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, 4:31 PM
Q&A with flu expert Joan Nichols

Joan Nichols is the associate director for research and operations at the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. If you’d like to interview Nichols, call the UTMB Media Hotline at 409-772-8790.

Facts about Flu
Why are winter months considered "flu season"?

The exact timing and duration of each year’s flu season varies. While outbreaks can happen as early as October some years, flu activity usually peaks in January or later. Colder temperatures may allow the virus to live longer. Transmission of the virus is easiest when people are indoors and in close contact more often. Dry air can dehydrate mucus membranes, making infection easier.

What can you do to avoid getting the flu?

Everyone should get a flu shot every year. Limit your contact with sick people. Get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of fluids and eat properly. Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you or your child gets sick, limit contact with others. Try to stay home for at least 24 hours after fever is gone.

How does flu spread?

The virus spreads through coughing, sneezing or talking to someone with the flu. The virus seems to spread in droplets so people who are sick should cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze. Droplets can be transferred to your hands from objects you touch, and then to your mouth and eyes.

What happened to H1N1 and the other flu strains that garnered so many news headlines over the past few years?

Flu activity is low to minimal in Texas and throughout the U.S. right now. This will change during the next two months as we see more localized outbreaks of influenza A and B. H1N1 2009 influenza A is still circulating although it is not causing high rates of disease. Right now we are seeing a lot of influenza B and some influenza A viruses that are not H1N1.

Why is a new influenza vaccine made each year?

Flu viruses constantly change. It’s not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year. Each year’s vaccine is formulated to keep up with the flu viruses as they change based on what is circulating throughout the world.

Who should get the flu vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control recommend that everyone over six months receive the flu shot as soon as possible this season. It’s especially important for people at high risk of developing serious complications like pneumonia if they get sick with the flu. This includes people with asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease, pregnant women, people 65 years and older and people who live with or care for others who are high risk of developing serious complications.

Joan Nichols is an associate professor in UTMB’s Division of Infectious Diseases and the associate director for research and operations at the Galveston National Laboratory. Her current research focuses on mechanisms the flu virus uses to attack the immune system.

The Newsroom • Published Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, 11:18 AM
UTMB wins prestigious national education award

A unique program at the University of Texas Medical Branch has won a national award for innovations in research training and education.

The program, a joint effort of several UTMB groups, the Institute for Translational Sciences, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the School of Medicine, was recognized by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The program emphasizes collaboration between scientists and clinicians with the goal of benefiting patients’ health. Specifically, students training to be researchers study side-by-side with medical students so that each group will better work together to conduct effective translational research.

The UTMB Human Pathophysiology and Translational Medicine program in the GSBS is headed by Dr. Mark Hellmich. The Translational Medicine Track in the School of Medicine was developed collaboratively with Drs. Judy Aronson and Gustavo Valbuena.

The Newsroom • Published Friday, Sep. 21, 2012, 11:12 AM
Discovery of mosquito virus could lead to new vaccines and drugs

Although closely related to deadly pathogens, Eilat virus is harmless and potentially valuable
A mosquito sample collected three decades ago in Israel’s Negev Desert has yielded an unexpected discovery: a previously unknown virus that’s closely related to some of the world’s most dangerous mosquito-borne pathogens but, curiously, incapable of infecting non-insect hosts.

Researchers believe this attribute could make the Eilat virus a uniquely useful tool for studying other alphaviruses, a genus of largely mosquito-borne pathogens that includes the viruses responsible for chikungunya, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, western equine encephalitis and eastern equine encephalitis. In addition, the researchers say, Eilat could also aid in the development of new alphavirus vaccines, therapies and diagnostic techniques.
"This virus is unique — it’s related to all of these mosquito-borne viruses that cause disease and cycle between mosquitoes and animals, and yet it is incapable of infecting vertebrate cells," said University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston graduate student Farooq Nasar, lead author of a paper on the virus now online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It’s a gift, really, because we can compare it to other alphaviruses and figure out the basis of their ability to infect a variety of animals, including humans."

Eilat was discovered in a virus sample that Joseph Peleg of Hebrew University sent to UTMB’s Dr. Robert Tesh, an author of the PNAS paper and director of the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses. The collection holds over 5,000 identified viruses and dozens of unidentified samples like the one contributed by Peleg.
All the researchers knew about Peleg’s specimen was that it killed insect cells while leaving animal cells untouched, a very unusual behavior. So they sent it to a lab at Columbia University that specializes in doing highly intensive searches for the genetic material of viruses, a process called "deep sequencing." As it turned out, there were two new viruses in the sample. One virus killed insect cells, and the other — Eilat virus — infected them without doing any harm.

"We were extraordinarily lucky to have that other virus in our sample, because without the cell death it caused, we never would have done the work that led us to Eilat," Nasar said.

"Essentially, we found it by accident."
Eilat’s inability to grow in animal cells — even its genetic material cannot replicate in them — makes it unique among alphaviruses, and it also makes it likely that the virus could be uniquely valuable to researchers who study alphaviruses and work to protect humans and domestic animals from them. For example, the UTMB researchers say, Eilat could be transformed into a vaccine against one of its dangerous relatives by making changes to the genes that produce its envelope proteins, which are exposed on virus particle surfaces and stimulate the critical parts of the immune response.

"We have taken the genes for the envelope proteins of very dangerous viruses like eastern equine encephalitis and used them to replace the genes for Eilat’s structural proteins," Nasar said. "That gives us viruses that we can grow in insect cells that can’t do anything in vertebrate cells at all, but still produce immunity against eastern equine encephalitis —they can be used to vaccinate animals, and hopefully someday people."

A variety of Eilat-based "chimeric viruses" — viruses made by combining genetic material from other viruses — could be used to study the interactions between host cells and dangerous alphaviruses, leading to the development of antiviral drugs. The viruses could also serve as the basis for new diagnostic tools that could be deployed in an alphavirus outbreak. Because these chimeras, like Eilat, would not be able to infect vertebrates, such research could be done without the elaborate and often cumbersome containment precautions needed for working with pathogens like chikungunya, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, or eastern and western equine encephalitis.

Other authors of the PNAS paper include research associates Rodion Gorchakov, Hilda Guzman and Amelia Travassos Da Rosa, assistant professor Michael Sherman, and professors Vsevolod Popov and senior author Scott Weaver, as well as Columbia University’s Gustavo Palacios, Nazir Savji and Ian Lipkin. This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The Newsroom • Published Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, 1:52 PM
Potential Nipah vaccine passes primate test

Researchers have successfully tested a vaccine for the deadly Nipah virus in monkeys, raising hopes that it could provide similar protection for humans.

With greater than a 75 percent fatality rate and the ability to be transmitted directly from person to person, Nipah has long been a significant concern for infectious-disease experts. The virus, which is carried naturally by fruit bats, was first discovered in Malaysia in 1998.

Outbreaks have occurred in nearly every year since, in Singapore, Bangladesh and India.
"This vaccine is based on a protein from Hendra virus, which is a very close relative of Nipah — Hendra’s found in Australia and is also spread by bats, which give it to horses, which give it to people," said University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston professor Thomas Geisbert, senior author of a paper on the study now online in Science Translational Medicine. "We’ve got a lot of confidence that the vaccine will work in people, because the animal model we used in this experiment, the African green monkey, faithfully reproduces all aspects of human Nipah and Hendra disease."

Because there is no approved vaccine or therapy for Nipah, the researchers conducted their study in a biosafety level 4 "spacesuit" facility at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont. There, the scientists divided nine monkeys into three equal groups, administering a different vaccine dose to each group.

Forty-two days later, the researchers infected the animals with what should have been a lethal dose of Nipah. But all of the vaccinated monkeys — even those that had received the lowest dose of the vaccine — remained completely healthy.

"The vaccine worked great," Geisbert said.
The researchers plan further studies to prepare for a possible application for review by the Food and Drug Administration to license the vaccine for human use. In addition, the vaccine is now in commercial development in Australia to protect horses from Hendra virus.

Other authors of the Science Translational Medicine paper include Katharine Bossart and Andrew Hickey of Boston University; Barry Rockx and Joan Geisbert of UTMB; Friederike Feldmann, Doug Brining, Dana Scott, Rachel LaCasse and Heinz Feldmann of Rocky Mountain Laboratories; and Yan-Ru Feng, Yee-Peng Chan and Christopher Broder of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Support for this research was provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the NIH.

UTMB scientists awarded NIH grant for lab-grown lung tissue project
Bio-Medicine, July 27, 2012

UTMB researchers have been awarded a two-year, $1.25 million National Institutes of Health grant to develop a method of custom-growing human lung tissue to make a three-dimensional model for biomedical studies. "We've been working on tissue engineering for a long time, and developing this kind of model has always been one of our goals, said UTMB professor Joan Nichols, principal investigator on the project. "These systems could really change the paradigm of what we do."

UTMB scientists tie DNA repair to key cell signaling network
Science Daily, June 15, 2012

UTMB researchers have found a surprising connection between a key DNA-repair process and a cellular signaling network linked to aging, heart disease, cancer and other chronic conditions. The discovery promises to open up an important new area of research — one that could ultimately yield novel treatments for a wide variety of diseases. "This is a totally new concept — it goes against current dogma about the role of DNA repair," said UTMB professor Istvan Boldogh, senior author of a paper on the work now online in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. "We couldn't believe it ourselves, but the data convinced us."

Houston rabies case poses new questions about age-old illness
Austin American-Statesman, April 1, 2012

UTMB researchers are working to test the effectiveness of a rabies treatment. The test animals are ferrets, in which rabies closely mimics the form seen in humans. The idea is to standardize the Milwaukee protocol — what length of coma to induce, which antivirals to use — so that it could be used anywhere, said Dr. Nigel Bourne, the researcher in charge of the project, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Galveston Ball High School joins UTMB for research program
The Daily News, March 27, 2012

Galveston's Ball High School and UTMB are collaborating on a program that might be the only one of its kind in the nation. For the past 15 years, the medical branch has opened the doors of its research labs to a select group of high-achieving juniors and seniors from Ball High School chosen to participate in a yearlong Scientific Research and Design Independent Study course.

A Ball High student has written about the experience as well, in her article, "UTMB's research class an exciting opportunity."

ASM's Infection and Immunity (IAI) Most Read Articles during February 2012
American Society for Microbiology, March 6, 2012

Two publications from UTMB M&I scientists were highlighted by ASM's Infection and Immunity journal as the 3rd and 8th most read articles for February 2012:

Molecular Mechanisms That Mediate Colonization of Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli Strains by Mauricio J. Farfan and Alfredo G. Torres.

A Double, Long Polar Fimbria Mutant of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Expresses Curli and Exhibits Reduced In Vivo Colonization by Sonja J. Lloyd, Jennifer M. Ritchie, Maricarmen Rojas-Lopez, Carla A. Blumentritt, Vsevolod L. Popov, Jennifer L. Greenwich, Matthew K. Waldor and Alfredo G. Torres

Accolades for M&I students
UTMB Department of Microbiology & Immunology, March 1, 2012

Anthony Cao has been selected for a lecture presentation of his work, "TLR4 regulates IFNg and IL-17 production by both natural and induced Foxp3+ Tregs in the inflamed intestine," during Digestive Disease Week in San Diego, California, May 19-22, 2012. Anthony is a graduate student in Dr. Yingzi Cong's lab, as well as a McLaughlin Fellow.

Matthew Huante won a travel award from the Sealy Center for Vaccine Development to attend the 6th Vaccine and International Society for Vaccines Congress in Shanghai, China, October 14-16, 2012. His winning poster is titled, "HIV-1 Alters the Cytokine Microenvironment and Effector Function of DC8+ T cells upon Antigen-specific Activation with Mycobacteria."

Hope Liu has been awarded a 2012 AAI Abstract Trainee Award and will give an oral presentation of her work, "A4 flagellated bacteria inhibit intestinal Th2 response," at the 99th AAI Annual Meeting, IMMUNOLOGY2012™, in Boston, Massachusetts, May 4-8, 2012. Hope is a graduate student in Dr. Yingzi Cong's lab.

Ron Veselenak won a travel award from the Sealy Center for Vaccine Development to attend the 6th Vaccine and International Society for Vaccines Congress in Shanghai, China, October 14-16, 2012. His winning poster is titled, "An Adjuvanted HSV-2 Plasmid DNA Vaccine is Effective for Prophylactic and Therapeutic Use in the Guinea Pig Model of Genital Herpes."

Research sheds light on how immune system's 'first responders' target infection
The UTMB Newsroom, February 29, 2012

University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston researchers have discovered previously unsuspected aspects of the guidance system used by the body’s first line of defense against infection.

The new work focuses on the regulation of immune response by two forms of the signaling molecule IL-8, as well as IL-8’s interaction with cell-surface molecules called glycosaminoglycans (or GAGs for short).

New model accurately predicts who will develop deadly form of dengue fever
Medical News Today, February 20, 2012

Researchers at UTMB have developed the first accurate predictive model to differentiate between dengue fever and its more severe form, dengue hemorrhagic fever. The breakthrough, which could vastly reduce the disease's mortality rate, was reported in related papers in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and Clinical and Translational Science. "We've proved it is feasible to identify predictive proteins associated with DHF," said lead author Allan Brasier, director of UTMB's Institute for Translational Sciences. "If future research bears out these candidate proteins as firm predictors of DHF, doctors can act early to save lives — the highest hope for personalized medicine."

Medical research is key to nation's health
Galveston County Daily News, February 12, 2012

In this guest column, UTMB's Dr. Cary W. Cooper writes about the importance of medical research to the nation's health. "At UTMB, we're investing heavily in the facilities and expertise needed to be a world leader in medical research. … We all want to reduce the deficit. But let's not jeopardize the next generation of cures by cutting funding for medical research."

Three UTMB departments near top in NIH grants survey
Galveston County Daily News, January 25, 2012

A survey of National Institutes of Health grant funding received by medical school departments in 2011 ranked three UTMB departments in the top 10 in their respective fields, and placed the medical branch's microbiology and immunology department sixth in the nation. The report found the medical branch's obstetrics and gynecology and pathology departments both came in eighth nationally in NIH awards in their respective categories.