Category Archives: Research

Untreated Mental Illnesses: The Causes and Effects

By Milena Bimpong

Lawrence High School

People view taking time off from school or work because of the flu or a broken bone as perfectly acceptable, but taking time off because of stress from a mental illness such as anxiety or depression, unfortunately, is not. People usually believe that someone who takes time off from school or work because of a physical illness needs the time to recover quickly. However, when someone does the same for a mental illness, they are usually told that they are “lazy” or that the problem is “all inside their head.” Why is this the case?

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April: Parkinson’s Awareness Month

By Barbara Gruszka

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative brain disorder. While there are many neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and Huntington’s, Parkinson’s is characterized by the development of tremors, impaired movement, and even trouble controlling emotions.[1]

Why does this occur? Current research points to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Neurotransmitters allow for the brain to send signals through neurons, known as “brain cells.” In Parkinson’s disease, the brain slowly stops producing dopamine and is unable to relay signals towards the parts of the brain that help us move. These signals typically stem from the substantia nigra, where the neurons that produce dopamine are heavily concentrated. In a Parkinson’s patient this area is inactive and dopamine is not produced.

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Predictive Measures for Organ Transplant Rejections


While organ transplant operations have been increasingly successful over the past few years, the ultimate concern is whether the transplants will be successful in the long term. Unfortunately often, organ transplants get rejected, as the body’s immune system may suddenly attack the donor organ and cause it to fail. In heart transplants, the rate of organ rejection and patient mortality are the highest, even though the transplants are monitored by regular biopsies. Specifically, some 40% of heart recipients experience some type of severe rejection within one year of their transplant. It is clearly important to develop methods to detect the possible transplant rejection sooner, especially for organs like the heart. The solution might come from developing predictive measures for other types of organ transplants.

In heart transplants, the rate of organ rejection and patient mortality are the highest, even though the transplants are monitored by regular biopsies.

For example, patients with Type 1 diabetes sometimes undergo islet transplantation, which is the replacement of clusters of islet cells in the pancreas that control the blood sugar levels. High blood glucose levels are often indicators of tissue rejection; yet, this is only observed when rejection is imminent and at an advanced stage. Since almost 15% of islet transplant patients experience acute rejection, there clearly is a necessity for a better and earlier way to detect if an organ transplant might possibly be rejected, so that doctors can interfere before cell damage spreads dangerously and enhance patient survival rate. Recent studies have developed biomarkers to detect the possibility of islet transplant rejection, which shows promise in lowering the rate of acute rejection, and might plausibly be applicable to other organ transplants, such as the heart.

Here we present one such study. Specifically, researchers at University of Pennsylvania published a study in late March in which they used exosomes to determine whether islet cells might be rejected by the body. Exosomes are small vesicles, or bodies, outside of the cell that are released by various tissues into the bloodstream or other bodily fluids. Because these exosomes represent their tissue of origin biologically, quantifying and characterizing their presence within the bloodstream could serve as a biomarker for the new islet cells.

First, by transplanting islets from the human pancreas into diabetic mice, the researchers confirmed that exosomes released by islet cells express a certain protein on their surface, the HLA antigen. They then showed that a drastic decrease in the number of HLA-carrying exosomes in the bloodstream is almost always observed prior to an increase in blood sugar levels in the mice, which indicates a high likelihood of rejection. Besides the change in the number of exosomes detected in the bloodstream, an analysis of specific RNA and protein compositions of exosomes revealed numerical differences between normal exosomes and possible rejections.

To test their claim from their mouse models, the researchers attempted to detect islet-related exosomes in a clinical setting. In all the patients tested, exosomes from the donor islets could not be detected prior to transplant, as expected, while after the transplant, exosome levels became quantifiable. Notably, in one out of the five patients tested, a decrease in the number of cell exosomes was observed six months before the blood glucose levels rose, which thereafter led to rejection. The other four patients that did not show a drastic change in exosome level did not experience rejection, even after 5 years of follow-up. The researchers also managed to quantify and characterize exosomes from urine, showing the plausibility of utilizing this method in renal (kidney) transplantation, alongside pancreatic islet transplantation.

Indeed, the application of exosome detection as a biomarker for islet and renal transplants provides a solid foundation on which organ rejection can be predicted. Because the specific RNA and protein compositions of exosomes can also be analyzed, the exosome tool might have many future applications in other organ transplant models, such as heart or lung transplants, and even in other fields, such as stem cells and cancer. Overall, exosomes have been proposed to be a powerful predictive tool in the clinical realm of islet transplantation, which, with more research and trials, can be applied in predicting whether a patient will likely reject their organ many months before current standard techniques could.



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Development of Novel Flow Cytometry Technique to Study Yellow Fever Virus

By Devorah Saffern

Researchers in the Ploss lab of the Molecular Biology department at Princeton University have utilized a new technology to analyze the pathogenesis of the yellow fever virus (YFV), which can be applied to other viruses and lead to significant progress in understanding disease mechanisms. Published in Nature Communications on March 14, their study discusses the ways in which viruses interact with host cells, in an effort to discover more effective vaccines. Currently, there is a lack of scientific knowledge on how viruses interact with the host cells and cause illness or proper immune response, and their research begins to uncover these behaviors.

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Combating Blood Shortage: In vitro Red Blood Cells

By Sharon Washio

At any given time, or more exactly every 2 seconds, blood transfusions are needed for complicated surgeries, treatments, accident victims, sickle patients, pregnancy complications, severely anemic children, and more. While blood can be donated even concurrently with the use of medications like aspirin, and in the U.S. approximately 38% of the population is able to donate, less than 10% do, according to the Red Cross. Even donated blood does not last forever and there is a constant shortage problem that, unless donors increase, is projected to rise due to longer lifespans, the limited shelf life of blood, blood requirements, and the specificity of blood types. The scarcity of blood supplies often prevents necessary surgeries and treatments from reaching a loved one.

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The Links between Gut Microbes and Human Disease

By Devorah Saffern

Our guts are composed of thousands of bacterial species, many of which are essential for physiological processes like digestion and fighting disease. Recent findings suggest that these microbes – the types of which are specific to each individual – are linked to several diseases that affect much of our population. Studying the gut microbiome may therefore reveal the mechanism or cause of these diseases and help us develop better treatments or prevention methods. Here, we focus on two papers in particular that were published in the past three months and analyzed the links between the gut microbiome and specific diseases: a University of Oregon study connects the gut bacteria to intestinal inflammation; and a California Institute of Technology study examines the gut microbiome in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

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Blood-based prion detection: a breakthrough?

By Yusha Sun

Prion diseases are a group of infectious, mostly fatal neurological diseases that affect all animals, including humans. Prion diseases are caused by prions, infectious agents made from a conformationally altered form of the natural PrP protein. They are especially dangerous due to their ability to propagate in the body and brain indefinitely without the requirement of genetic material. One of the most common forms of prion disease, known as the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), or more popularly mad cow disease, results from eating the meat of cattle afflicted with a form of encephalopathy.

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MicroRNAs: The Future of Cancer Treatments

By Sharon Washio

Existing treatments for cancer have varying levels of success depending on the type, location, stage of cancer, and more. Such options include chemotherapy, radiation, drugs, or surgery, but those afflicted must often keep an eye out for relapse even when the cancer seems to momentarily go away. Though improved pharmaceuticals and enhanced prevention screenings have contributed to the decreasing death rate of cancer, the current available treatments are nonetheless associated with a plethora of unpleasant side effects. Additionally, with the steadily aging US population, the incidence of cancer is projected to increase in the future (NCI). As terminal cancer is caused by the unrestricted proliferation of cells, a possible treatment to turn to in the future is gene therapeutics, which deals with the cycles and expression of genes.

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