Posts tagged with Dean's Spotlight

Paleontology discoveries uncover ancient history of vertebrates

Michael Coates, professor of organismal biology and anatomy, published a study in Nature recently that sheds light on the early evolutionary history of vertebrates. Mike and his colleagues performed CT scans of the fossilized skull of a 280-million-year-old, shark-like fish found in the Karoo sediments of South Africa. The fossil was thought to belong to an early type of shark, but the scans revealed that the interior of the skull showed telltale structures of modern day chimaeras, an odd, deep water-dwelling group of cartilaginous fish related to sharks.

Chimaeras have long fascinated biologists because their bodies include features of sharks, ray-finned fishes and tetrapods. Modern day chimaeras have extremely slow-evolving genomes as well, and seem to offer the best promise of finding an archive of information about conditions close to the last common ancestor of humans and a Great White. But their odd anatomy and relative scarcity of intact fossils have made it difficult to place them on the evolutionary tree. Thanks to innovative use of modern technology by Mike and his team, we now have a better understanding of our shared past with these fascinating creatures.

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Video on UChicago octopus research wins Emmy

In December, a feature video produced by UChicago Creative’s Anthony Penta won a 2016 Chicago/Midwest Region Emmy for Outstanding Achievement for Informational/Instructional Programming. The segment looks at the work of Cliff Ragsdale, professor of neurobiology, and graduate students Carrie Albertin and Yan Wang as they study one of the most extraordinary creatures on the planet.

In 2015, Cliff and his team sequenced the genome of the California two-spot octopus, the first cephalopod ever to be fully sequenced. They found striking differences from other invertebrates, including a dramatic expansion of a gene family involved in nervous system development that was once thought to be unique to vertebrates. This work demonstrates the breadth of research taking place in the Biological Sciences Division, from clinical trials that directly impact patient care to quite literally the depths of the oceans. I’m pleased that Cliff’s work and the creative efforts to promote it have been recognized.

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Kovler Diabetes Center marks a decade of patient care and research

Kovler MODI

Kovler Diabetes Center welcomed more than 120 patients and family members at this year's Monogenic Diabetes Family Forum, June 23-25

This year, Kovler Diabetes Center is celebrating its 10th anniversary, capping a decade of cutting-edge patient care and research notable for its leading role in identifying new genes for diabetes and using genetic information to drive clinical decision making. 

The celebration of this milestone will look ahead to the next 10 years, building on a long tradition of accomplishments in diabetes research at the University of Chicago based on scientific advances that impact patient care. These include the discovery of the pathways of insulin biosynthesis and secretion by Donald Steiner, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the demonstration by Arthur Rubenstein, Professor of Medicine, that the measurement of byproducts of the insulin secretory pathway (proinsulin, C-peptide and other peptides) provides important insights into the health of the pancreatic beta cell and alterations in disease. Other advances include the development of methods to accurately measure pancreatic beta cell function in humans and the identification of diabetes susceptibility genes led by Graeme Bell, Professor of Medicine.

The establishment of the Kovler Diabetes Center by a transformative gift from Jonathan Kovler and the Kovler Family Foundation has allowed us, under the leadership of Lou Philipson, Professor of Medicine, to organize diabetes care more comprehensively into a center that includes endocrinology and various specialties essential for optimal diabetes care, including podiatry, cardiology, ophthalmology, nephrology, psychology and neurology. The gift from the Kovler family gave the new center an identity and a space dedicated to all aspects of diabetes care. We are deeply grateful to Jonathan Kovler for his generosity and also to his wife, Sally, whose leadership of the Kovler Diabetes Center Board has raised funds to support the ongoing needs of the Center.

Unfortunately, the epidemic of diabetes in our country continues unabated. At any given time, almost 30 percent of UCMC inpatients have some form of diabetes, and the economic and public health costs to our community are enormous. Cutting-edge research and innovative treatment have never been more important.  Congratulations to Lou Philipson and the physicians and staff who work in the Kovler Diabetes Center for a very productive first 10 years.  We are confident that the next 10 years will be equally successful.

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Exciting advances in recreating the sense of touch

Bensmaia piano

In recent weeks, neuroscientist Sliman Bensmaia, Associate Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, has been involved with two major advances in restoring the sense of touch for paralyzed and amputee patients. First, he worked with a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to develop a brain computer interface that was surgically implanted in a man who is paralyzed from the chest down. The interface is connected to a robotic arm that transmits sensory feedback through electrodes implanted in areas of the brain responsible for hand movement and touch.

The results of that work, published in Science Translational Medicine (STM) on October 13, show how the patient is now able to distinguish between touches on individual fingers and the palm of the robotic arm with input from the system. The story received international media attention when the patient shook hands with President Obama at a conference using the robotic arm.

Sliman also worked with a separate team from Case Western Reserve University on a similar project with two men who each lost an arm after traumatic injuries. In this study, published in STM on October 26, both subjects were implanted with neural interfaces, devices embedded with electrodes that were attached to the median, ulnar and radial nerves of the arm. Those are the same nerves that would carry signals from the hand were it still intact. The men were able to distinguish variations of intensity through the devices, and reported that they felt like natural sensations of touch.

Both studies incorporate years of research by Bensmaia describing how the nervous system interprets sensory feedback as we touch or grasp objects, move our limbs and run our fingers along textured surfaces. In a series of experiments with monkeys, whose sensory systems closely resemble those of humans, he has identified patterns of neural activity that occur naturally as the animals manipulate objects, and successfully recreated those patterns by directly stimulating the nervous system with electrical signals. His work provided a blueprint for both teams to recreate the sense of touch using a “biomimetic” approach that approximates the natural, intact nervous system.

Robotic limbs and brain computer interfaces sound like science fiction, and I am excited that the University of Chicago is part of making these advances a reality. This research has the potential for profound impact on improving the lives of patients who have suffered catastrophic injuries.

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Important study on house dust, immunity and asthma

Amish barn 2.jpg

Earlier this month, Carole Ober, PhD, and Anne Sperling, PhD, published a fascinating study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Carole has long studied the Hutterites in South Dakota, a farming community founded by immigrants from Central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. They have similar genetic ancestry as the Amish of northern Indiana, and for the most part, share similar lifestyle. The study showed that their lifestyles differ in an important way that has implications for health.

The Amish rely on traditional farming methods, using horses for manual fieldwork, and live close to livestock on single-family farms. The Hutterites, however, use modern, industrial farm machinery, and live on large communal farms separate from the animals. Meanwhile, Amish children have much lower rates of asthma than Hutterite children, and much lower than the national average. Carole and Anne’s research, along with colleagues in Arizona and Germany, showed that the dust in homes of each community made the crucial difference. Due to the proximity to animals, dust in the Amish homes contained a much richer diversity of microbes that triggers innate immune system responses that protect against asthma.

This research shows the profound influence lifestyle and environmental influences can have on the development of asthma, and provides an exciting look at how the microbiome can impact human health and disease. I invite you to read more about their work at the Science Life blog.

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Study advances understanding of how fins became fingers

Mouse digits, fish fin rays.jpg

In an interesting study published in Nature, Neil Shubin, PhD, and his research team show that the same cells that make fin rays in fish play a central role in forming the fingers and toes of four-legged creatures.

These findings followed three years of painstaking experiments using novel gene-editing techniques and sensitive fate mapping to label and track developing cells in fish. Postdoctoral scholar Tetsuya Nakamura, PhD, used the CRISPR/Cas gene-editing technique in zebrafish to delete important genes linked to limb-building, and then selectively bred zebrafish with multiple targeted deletions. Andrew Gehrke, PhD, a former graduate student, refined cell-labeling techniques to map out when and where specific embryonic cells migrated as the animals grew and developed. The researchers also used a high-energy CT scanner to see the minute structures within the adult zebrafish fin.

 “For years, scientists have thought that fin rays were completely unrelated to fingers and toes, utterly dissimilar because one kind of bone is initially formed out of cartilage and the other is formed in simple connective tissue,” Neil said in an interview for the Science Life blog, where you may read more about this research. “Our results change that whole idea. We now have a lot of things to rethink.”

This study and the study by Carole Ober and Anne Sperling discussed in the previous post were both featured on the front page of The New York Times in the month of August. This level of national attention enhances our research reputation, and also helps the public become more engaged in science. We congratulate Carole, Anne and Neil on their outstanding work.

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