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Oklahoma State University

The official magazine of Oklahoma State University

OSU-CHS Medical News Briefs

Richness in Research

OSU Center for Health Sciences faculty are engaged in an array of medical research and inquiry that is essential to the university’s land grant mission.


By Kim Archer


Sensitivity to salt


Women appear to be more likely to have health problems from consuming high amounts of salt than men do. So Alexander Rouch, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology, is conducting research to find out if that is true.


“Interestingly, some people can consume high salt diets without any increased blood pressure,” he says. “The kidneys play the key role in determining if one is salt sensitive.”


Rouch is zeroing in on the role hormones — estrogen and testosterone — play in salt sensitivity and high blood pressure. So far he has discovered estrogen increases the amount of salt that is reabsorbed from the kidney and appears to induce salt sensitivity.


“The prevailing philosophy is that a diet high in salt results in high blood pressure. For some people, reducing salt intake will reduce blood pressure,” he says. “However, it does not work for everyone.”


Helping cystic fibrosis patients


The primary cause of death for people with cystic fibrosis is chronic pulmonary infection. One researcher is looking at ways to prevent deadly bacteria from invading the lungs in the first place.


“My primary aim is to learn more about the basic biology of bacteria and come up with novel ways to combat them,” says Franklin Champlin, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology. He wants to understand how certain kinds of bacteria cause opportunistic infections in the lungs and why they are so virulent. Champlin is particularly interested in why antimicrobial agents used to fight infections are able to enter some bacterial cells but not others.


“I am hopeful that this research will help scientists develop treatments to more effectively combat these deadly lung infections,” he says.


Toxins and brain development


Children exposed to certain pesticides and heavy metals before birth up to eight years of age are more likely to get cancer or suffer poor brain development, according to David R. Wallace, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology.


He is studying how prolonged exposure to common toxins affects human cells. By studying low levels of exposure to pesticides or heavy metals over time, Wallace hopes to find out when cellular changes begin that will lead to abnormal brain development or tumor growth.

“Brain, breast and prostate cancers have been shown to be sensitive to environmental factors,” Wallace says. “If we can determine how the cells change, we can also find out where we can intervene medically to prevent that growth or kill those tumors.”


Improving pain management


One researcher is working to create an artificial opioid receptor that would bind to drugs like morphine to better treat chronic pain. Craig W. Stevens, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology, is examining the interaction of medications with immune cells in the brain to improve pain management.


“Opioid analgesic drugs, such as morphine or hydrocodone, attach to protein molecules in the brain called opioid receptors,” he says.


Research has shown that opioid receptors have evolved to become more effective in relieving pain in humans than ever before. By analyzing those evolutionary changes, Stevens envisions developing an artificial opiate receptor for use in pain management that could be introduced into the body via gene therapy. 


“Because we know how the opioid receptor binds to drugs like morphine, we can design a receptor that will be more effective,” he says. “This could provide increased pain relief for millions of people who suffer from chronic pain.”




Link between infection and cancer


Researchers believe that 30 percent of all cancers in the world are caused by viral infections. Rashmi Kaul, Ph.D., associate professor of immunology, wants to find how infectious diseases lead to the development of cancer.


“Some reports indicate that cancer-causing viruses can hijack the immune system and cause chronic infection and inflammation that lead to cancer,” she says. “The immune system is a defense system in our body that is supposed to fight infection and kill developing cancer cells.”


Kaul’s research is specifically focused on how the hepatitis C virus contributes to the development of liver cancer, which has an extremely low survival rate. There are no vaccines for the virus and only limited treatments exist for chronic hepatitis C infection.


“The burning question in my lab is, ‘How does the hepatitis C virus evade the immune system and cause persistent infection that leads to the transformation of normal cells to cancer cells?’” she says.


Learning about little-known cilia


For a century, microscopic hair-like structures on the surface of cells were dismissed as unimportant. But one researcher is finding that cilia play a role in several genetic disorders.


“These cilia are immobile and act like a control tower for the cell,” says Nedra Wilson, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and cell biology. “They 

stick out into the external environment, gather signals and then send them back into the nucleus so the cell knows what it needs to be doing at that moment.”


Wilson is identifying cilia defects that cause ciliopathies, or genetic disorders, such as diabetes, blindness, obesity and increased susceptibility to depression or anxiety.


“If we can identify the novel proteins in ciliary function and when they are defective, this will enable us to develop treatments for patients who suffer from ciliopathies,” she says.


Prolonging life for terminally ill patients with liver disease


Injections of a natural antioxidant called lipoic acid may improve liver function in patients diagnosed with terminal liver disease, if you believe anecdotal evidence. Martin Banschbach, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry, wants to find out if it works.


He is seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to enroll terminal liver disease patients at OSU Physicians Clinics in a study to determine if lipoic acid therapy restores liver function.


“We have patients on transplant lists because current medicine is not capable of restoring liver function. We only have the option of replacing the liver,” Banschbach says. 


The problem with so-called alternative medicine is there is no documentation that it is effective, he says and “this study could provide scientific data to support anecdotal evidence.”


The influence of intestinal bacteria on the nervous system and health


Microorganisms living within the human intestine affect the central nervous system and overall health. But Gerwald Koehler, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology, says he is looking to find out exactly how this works.


“The neurons in our intestine are connected to our brain,” he says. “It is conceivable that these microorganisms can utilize neurons to communicate with the brain and that the brain can communicate back.”


Microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract help digest food by breaking down proteins, lipids and carbohydrates into nutrients that can be easily absorbed by the human body. Koehler says he hopes the research will provide a better understanding of how the microorganisms function in the digestive system and enable scientists to develop medical treatments for diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.


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Uploaded on September 1, 2016