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Creative Minds

Taking a Community-Based Approach to Youth Substance Abuse Prevention

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Credit: LaJoy Photography, Atlanta

As a child born and raised in a low-income, urban neighborhood of Jersey City, NJ, Ijeoma Opara counted herself lucky. She had strong support from her parents, both college-educated Nigerian immigrants. But she also saw firsthand the devastating effects that gang violence, crime, drugs, and alcohol were having on too many young people in her community. When she was in high school, her family bought their first house about 20 miles away in the middle-class, suburban neighborhood of Roselle, NJ. The dramatic differences between these two worlds drove home for her how significant a zip code can be in determining a child’s outlook and opportunities.

Today, inspired by this childhood moment of truth, Opara, an assistant professor of social work at The State University Stony Brook University, NY, is the recipient of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, tackling the complex relationships between neighborhoods, substance use, and mental health among urban youth. She’s focusing her efforts on Paterson, NJ, a city of about 150,000 people where the rates of substance abuse are among the highest in the country. She hopes to develop community engagement models that will work not only in Paterson, but in struggling urban communities across the United States.

Opara first explored the streets of Paterson, which is located about 20 miles west of New York City, and ultimately fell in love with the place as a PhD fellow studying substance abuse and mental health services. She got to know the youth of Paterson and heard from them directly about what their community was lacking to help them build a brighter future.

She also fell in love with community-based participatory research (CBPR). In this approach, researchers immerse themselves in a community and work as partners with community members, leaders, and organizations to understand the issues that matter, gather essential information and data, and translate them into efforts needed for a community and its youth to thrive.

When Opara decided to apply for the high-risk, high-reward Early Independence Award, she knew her proposal must be innovative and creative. Ultimately, though, Opara realized she needed to propose an idea about which she was passionate.

Opara remembered her love for Paterson and decided to go back there, focusing her attention on filling the many gaps in that community to prevent substance abuse among young people. True to her CBPR approach to research, she also spent weeks meeting with the people of Paterson to ensure that her work would address the community’s most-critical needs and strongest desires from day one.

Opara’s first aim is to look at neighborhoods across the city of Paterson and their relationship to substance abuse and mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression among its youth. Her work will factor in access to safe housing, healthy food, parks, and playgrounds.

She’ll also recruit young people, including those who are most at risk, to get their take on their community including the prevalence of drug use. Opara won’t just be checking with kids at school. She’ll also spend lots of time with them on basketball courts, in grocery store parking lots, or wherever they like to congregate. What she learns will help her craft evidence-based and community-driven substance abuse interventions for young people at risk. She’ll then work with her partners in the community to help put the interventions to the test.

She recognizes that many consider urban youth too hard to reach. In her view, that’s simply not true. It’s her job to meet these young people where they hang out, learn to engage them, and listen to their needs.

In Paterson, she wants to build vibrant neighborhood models that will enrich the community and help more of its children get ahead. Most of all, she wants to change the way substance abuse and mental health work is done in urban communities like Paterson, and see to it that more resources for youth are put into place.

Opara hopes one day to inhabit a world where urban kids have access to the emotional and mental health resources that they need to cope with the many challenges that confront them. She also wants to inhabit a world where young girls growing up in the inner-city, as she did not so long ago, will be nurtured to move upward and onward as leaders. Her efforts and the strength of her example are certainly a push in the right direction.

Links:

Ijeoma Opara (The State University Stony Brook University, NY)

The Substance Abuse and Sexual Health Lab (Stony Brook)

Opara Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Early Independence Award

NIH Support: Common Fund


Tackling Cancer Metastasis with Engineered Blood Platelets

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Tara Deans
Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering, Salt Lake City

When cancer cells spread to new parts of the body in a process called metastasis, they often get there by traveling through the bloodstream. To avoid alerting the immune system and possibly triggering their demise, cancer cells coax circulating blood platelets to glom onto their surfaces and mask them from detection. This deceptive arrangement has raised a tantalizing possibility: What if blood platelets could be programmed to recognize and take out those metastasizing cancer cells?

Tara Deans, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, was recently awarded a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to do exactly that. It’s an exciting opportunity for a researcher who stumbled onto this innovative strategy quite by accident.

Deans is a bioengineer and expert in designing synthetic gene circuits. These circuits consist of small collections of genetic “parts” that can be assembled and integrated to program cells to behave differently than their natural counterparts [1]. In her initial work, Deans got these specialized gene circuits to prompt blood-forming stem cells to mass-produce platelets in the lab.

But blood platelets are unusual cells. They’re packed with many proteins that help to repair small nicks in blood vessels and stop the bleeding when we’re injured. Blood platelets do so even though they lack a nucleus and DNA to encode and make any of the proteins. Their protein cargo is pre-packaged and comes strictly from the bone marrow cells, called megakaryocytes, that produce them.

Deans realized that engineering platelets might pose a rare opportunity. She could wire the needed circuitry into the blood-forming stem cells and engineer them to make any desired therapeutic proteins, which are then loaded into the blood platelets for their 8- to 10-day lifespan. She started out producing blood platelets that could safely carry functional replacement enzymes in people with certain rare metabolic disorders.

As this research progressed, Deans got some troubling personal news: A friend was diagnosed with a blood cancer. At the time, Deans didn’t know much about the diagnosis. But, in reading about her friend’s cancer, she learned how metastasizing tumor cells interact with platelets.

That’s when Deans had her “aha” moment: maybe the engineered platelets could also be put to work in preventing metastasizing tumor cells from spreading.

Now, with her New Innovator Award, Deans will pursue this novel approach by engineering platelets to carry potentially promising cancer-fighting proteins. In principle, they could be tailored to fight breast, lung, and various other cancer types. Ultimately, she hopes that platelets could be engineered to target and kill circulating cancer cells before they move into other tissues.

There’s plenty of research ahead to work out the details of targeting the circulating cancer cells and then testing them in animal models before this strategy could ever be attempted in people. But Deans is excited about the path forward, and thinks that platelets hold great promise to function as unique drug delivery devices. It has not escaped her notice that this approach could work not only for controlling the spread of cancer cells, but also in treating other medical conditions.

Reference:

[1] Genetic circuits to engineer tissues with alternative functions. Healy CP, Deans TL. J Biol Eng. 2019 May 3;13:39.

Links:

Metastatic Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Deans Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Deans Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute


Tackling Fibrosis with Synthetic Materials

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April Kloxin
April Kloxin/Credit: Evan Krape, University of Delaware, Newark

When injury strikes a limb or an organ, our bodies usually heal quickly and correctly. But for some people, the healing process doesn’t shut down properly, leading to excess fibrous tissue, scarring, and potentially life-threatening organ damage.

This permanent scarring, known as fibrosis, can occur in almost every tissue of the body, including the heart and lungs. With support from a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, April Kloxin is applying her expertise in materials science and bioengineering to build sophisticated fibrosis-in-a-dish models for unraveling this complex process in her lab at the University of Delaware, Newark.

Though Kloxin is interested in all forms of fibrosis, she’s focusing first on the incurable and often-fatal lung condition called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). This condition, characterized by largely unexplained thickening and stiffening of lung tissue, is diagnosed in about 50,000 people each year in the United States.

IPF remains poorly understood, in part because it often is diagnosed when the disease is already well advanced. Kloxin hopes to turn back the clock and start to understand the disease at an earlier stage, when interventions might be more successful. The key is to develop a model that better recapitulates the complexity and irreversibility of the disease process in people.

Building that better model starts with simulating the meshwork of collagen and other proteins in the extracellular matrix (ECM) that undergird every tissue and organ in the body. The ECM’s interactions with our cells are essential in wound healing and, when things go wrong, also in causing fibrosis.

Kloxin will build three-dimensional hydrogels, crosslinked sponge-like networks of polymers, peptides, and proteins, with structures that more accurately capture the biological complexities of human tissues, including the ECMs within fibrous collagen-rich microenvironments. Her synthetic matrices can be triggered with light to lock in place and stiffen. The matrices also will make it possible to culture the lung’s epithelium, or outermost layer of cells, and connective tissue that surrounds it, to study cellular responses as the model shifts from a healthy and flexible to a stiffened, disease-like state.

Kloxin and her team will also integrate into their model system lung cells that have been engineered to fluoresce or light up under a microscope when the wound-healing program activates. Such fluorescent reporters will allow her team to watch for the first time how different cells and their nearby microenvironment respond as the composition of the ECM changes and stiffens. With this system, she’ll also be able to search for small molecules with the ability to turn off excessive wound healing.

The hope is that what’s learned with her New Innovator Award will lead to fresh insights and ultimately new treatments for this mysterious, hard-to-treat condition. But the benefits could be even more wide-ranging. Kloxin thinks that her findings will have implications for the prevention and treatment of other fibrotic diseases as well.

Links:

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

April Kloxin Group (University of Delaware, Newark)

Kloxin Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Could A Gut-Brain Connection Help Explain Autism?

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What is Your Big Idea?
Diego Bohórquez/Credit: Duke University, Durham, NC

You might think nutrient-sensing cells in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract would have no connection whatsoever to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But if Diego Bohórquez’s “big idea” is correct, these GI cells, called neuropods, could one day help to provide a direct link into understanding and treating some aspects of autism and other brain disorders.

Bohórquez, a researcher at Duke University, Durham, NC, recently discovered that cells in the intestine, previously known for their hormone-releasing ability, form extensions similar to neurons. He also found that those extensions connect to nerve fibers in the gut, which relay signals to the vagus nerve and onward to the brain. In fact, he found that those signals reach the brain in milliseconds [1].

Bohórquez has dedicated his lab to studying this direct, high-speed hookup between gut and brain and its impact on nutrient sensing, eating, and other essential behaviors. Now, with support from a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, he will also explore the potential for treating autism and other brain disorders with drugs that act on the gut.

Bohórquez became interested in autism and its possible link to the gut-brain connection after a chance encounter with Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. Dawson mentioned that autism typically affects multiple organ systems.

With further reading, he discovered that kids with autism frequently cope with GI issues, including bowel inflammation, abdominal pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea [2]. They often also show unusual food-related behaviors, such as being extremely picky eaters. But his curiosity was especially piqued by evidence that certain gut microbes can influence abnormal behaviors in mice that model autism.

With his New Innovator Award, Bohórquez will study neuropods and the gut-brain connection in a mouse model of autism. Using the tools of optogenetics, which make it possible to activate cells with light, he’ll also see whether autism-like symptoms in mice can be altered or alleviated by controlling neuropods in the gut. Those symptoms include anxiety, repetitive behaviors, and lack of interest in interacting with other mice. He’ll also explore changes in the animals’ eating habits.

In another line of study, he will take advantage of intestinal tissue samples collected from people with autism. He’ll use those tissues to grow and then examine miniature intestinal “organoids,” looking for possible evidence that those from people with autism are different from others.

For the millions of people now living with autism, no truly effective drug therapies are available to help to manage the condition and its many behavioral and bodily symptoms. Bohórquez hopes one day to change that with drugs that act safely on the gut. In the meantime, he and his fellow “GASTRONAUTS” look forward to making some important and fascinating discoveries in the relatively uncharted territory where the gut meets the brain.

References:

[1] A gut-brain neural circuit for nutrient sensory transduction. Kaelberer MM, Buchanan KL, Klein ME, Barth BB, Montoya MM, Shen X, Bohórquez DV. Science. 2018 Sep 21;361(6408).

[2] Association of maternal report of infant and toddler gastrointestinal symptoms with autism: evidence from a prospective birth cohort. Bresnahan M, Hornig M, Schultz AF, Gunnes N, Hirtz D, Lie KK, Magnus P, Reichborn-Kjennerud T, Roth C, Schjølberg S, Stoltenberg C, Surén P, Susser E, Lipkin WI. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 May;72(5):466-474.

Links:

Autism Spectrum Disorder (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)

Bohórquez Lab (Duke University, Durham, NC)

Bohórquez Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Mental Health


Finding New Genetic Mutations Amid Healthy Cells

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Po-Ruh Loh
Po-Ru Loh Courtesy of Loh Lab

You might recall learning in biology class that the cells constantly replicating and dividing in our bodies all carry the same DNA, inherited in equal parts from each parent. But it’s become increasingly clear in recent years that even seemingly healthy tissues contain neighborhoods of cells bearing their own acquired genetic mutations. The question is: What do all those altered cells mean for our health?

With support from a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Po-Ru Loh, Harvard Medical School, Boston, is on a quest to find out, though without the need for sequencing lots of DNA in his own lab. Loh will instead develop ultrasensitive computational tools to pick up on those often-subtle alterations within the vast troves of genomic data already stored in databases around the world.

How is that possible? The math behind it might be complex, but the underlying idea is surprisingly simple. His algorithms look for spots in the genome where a slight imbalance exists in the quantity of DNA inherited from mom versus dad.

Actually, Loh can’t tell from the data which parent provided any snippet of chromosomal DNA. But looking at DNA sequenced from a mixture of many cells, he can infer which stretches of DNA were most likely inherited together from a single parent.

Any slight skew in those quantities point the way to genomic territory where a tiny portion of chromosomal DNA either went missing or became duplicated in some cells. This common occurrence, especially in older adults, leads to a condition called genetic mosaicism, meaning that, contrary to most biology textbooks, all cells aren’t exactly the same.

By detecting those subtle imbalances in the data, Loh can pinpoint small DNA alterations, even when they occur in 1 in 1,000 cells collected from a person’s bloodstream, saliva, or tissues. That’s the kind of sensitivity that most scientists would not have thought possible.

Loh has already begun putting his new computational approach to work, as reported in Nature last year [1]. In DNA data from blood samples of more than 150,000 participants in the United Kingdom Biobank, his method uncovered well over 8,000 mosaic chromosomal alterations.

The study showed that some of those alterations were associated with an increased risk of developing blood cancers. However, it’s important to note that most people with evidence of mosaicism won’t go on to develop cancer. The researchers also made the unexpected discovery that some individuals carried genetic variants that made them more prone than others to pick up new mutations in their blood cells.

What’s especially exciting is Loh’s computational tools now make it possible to search for signs of mosaicism within all the genetic data that’s ever been generated. Even more importantly, these tools will allow Loh and other researchers to ask and answer important questions about the consequences of mosaicism for a wide range of diseases.

Reference:

[1] Insights into clonal haematopoiesis from 8,342 mosaic chromosomal alterations. Loh PR, Genovese G, Handsaker RE, Finucane HK, Reshef YA, Palamara PF, Birmann BM, Talkowski ME, Bakhoum SF, McCarroll SA, Price AL. Nature. 2018 Jul;559(7714):350-355.

Links:

Loh Lab (Harvard Medical School, Boston)

Loh Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences


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