A ‘Crazy Idea’ to Cure Heart Disease

It all began with a crazy idea.

“I remember that day when I cut a slice out of the heart and did some staining. I identified some reprogramming cell and that was on Christmas Eve and there was no one there. I was looking around for someone because I thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe something is real.’”

That night, Li Qian made her first big step towards curing heart disease. Now, the UNC researcher, mother of two and lab mentor has won the first ever award for stem cell and regenerative medicine. The Boyalife, Science and Science Translational Medicine Award is for researchers younger than 45 years old who are making critical advances in the fields of science and medicine.

“I started to get involved in some sort of cardiovascular research when I was an undergrad student,” Qian said. “Later on, when I went on for my post-doc training, my goal was to cure heart disease.”

While Qian estimates curing the disease is still a decade away, she said her ‘crazy ideas’ are actually working, and moving researchers one step closer to finding that cure. Her work proved it is possible to reprogram cardiac fibroblasts – the cells of scar tissue – to become functional cardio-myocytes – the healthy muscle tissue that helps the heart to beat.

“Maybe some crazy ideas are true. Maybe we can make that happen. So that’s very rewarding to all the hard work and all the frustration and all the failures.”

This research began in 2009, followed by the opening of Qian’s own lab in 2012. That same year, The American Heart Association ranked her research number two on the list of top ten advances in heart disease and stroke research. Qian’s breakthrough is the beginning of what she hopes will be regenerative treatments that can be tailored to individual patients.

“I think stem cell and regenerative medicine can really lead to something we never expected before – some new therapeutic strategy to help human patients.”

Qian is an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. She says her years of experience in the labs have given her the strength to move beyond her failures and the wisdom to mentor UNC students.

“I always tell them, probably 90 percent of the time, the experiment will fail. But one out of 10 times, you’ll see some result coming out of the experiment and it’s something you’ve never seen. And that’s the tremendous excitement that you won’t find anywhere else.”

It’s that excitement that Qian says keeps her passion alive.

“I think I can feel excitement from every single small, but to us major, findings. I can get inspiration from all of those and still keep the passion.”

Qian went to San Francisco in June to accept her award and present her essay for Science magazine. She says the recognition gives her reassurance.

“This kind of brave testing, bold ideas gets rewarded by such a prestigious prize. And getting recognized can reassure us.”

Qian has a special word she uses to describe her research.

“We want to convert a scar into a heart muscle. It’s almost like magic.”

One day that magic, Qian says, just may cure Heart Disease.


UNC Researchers: Removing a Brain Tumor Makes Cancer More Aggressive

Researchers at the University of North Carolina are working to perfect stem-cell research after a discovery made regarding glioblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor.

The research team from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy has found that surgically removing these brain tumors causes cancer to grow 75 percent faster than before surgery.

Treatment of glioblastoma is typically a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation but varies from patient to patient. Because of the obtrusive nature of brain tumors, glioblastoma can not be fully removed during surgery, leaving a portion of the tumor behind.

The assistant professor in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy who led the research, Shawn Hingtgen says that the remaing glioblastoma in the brain after surgery is fundamentally different from the original brain tumor.

“The process of removing the tumor speeds up the cancer such that we have to rethink of how to treat the disease differently after the surgery,” Hingtgen said.

Neuropathologist and associate professor at the UNC School of Medicine, Ryan Miller, says that current drugs are developed to treat large, solid tumors and do not accurately work on the residual brain tumors.

Hingtgen and his research team are working on a new stem-cell treatment that can hunt down and kill the cancer cells that are left behind when a brain tumor is surgically removed.

To more accurately test new treatment, a graduate student working in Hingten’s laboratory, Onyi Okolie, has developed a new mouse model of a brain with glioblastoma after surgery.

To do this, Okolie implants a tumor into the mouse’s brain and allows it to grow until it is comparable to when a human would begin having symptoms from the tumor such as headache, seizures or an altered mental state.

At that point 90 percent of the tumor is surgically removed from the mouse, which causes astrocytes, star-shaped glial cells, to secrete chemicals that trigger the remaning cancer cells to move and grow 75 percent faster than before.

The new model will help researchers better understand the effect of surgery on glioblastoma and could potencially lead to new therapeutic targets that will improve post-operative care.

The new findings are published in the journal Neuro-Oncology.


UNC Researchers Develop New Cancer Drug Delivery Method

UNC researchers have found a way to kill drug resistant lung cancer using 50 times less chemotherapy.

For the first time, researchers have developed a way to package cancer drugs inside naturally occurring particles found in white blood cells, allowing them to freely pass through membranes that would otherwise resist the drug.

Dr. Elena Batrakova at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy’s Center for Nanotechnology in Drug Delivery and her team discovered this method that allows for more effective cancer treatment.

“My idea was to load the cancer drug into these white blood cells and let them go and let them find the cancer cells in the patient’s body and kill these cancer cells,” said Batrakova.

The key to this process is exosomes, small particles from white blood cells that help the body fight against infection. Batrakova said exosomes are engineered by nature to be perfect delivery vehicles.

“And what we found was amazing. We found that these exosomes loaded with the drug target cancer cells,” said Batrakova.

Loading the exosomes with the cancer drug utilizes the body’s natural process for fighting disease.

“I am absolutely positive that whatever nature created is a thousand times more efficient and better than whatever people can create,” said Batrakova.

Without the exosomes the body blocks some of the cancer medicine, seeing it as foreign object. When the medicine is contained inside the exosomes it is able to work without the body fighting back.

“They work like an invisibility cloak, and they cover this drug, deliver to cancer cells, release it, inject it into the cancer cells and kill them very efficiently,” said Batrakova.

This method has only been tested on mice, but Batrakova believes that it could limit the bad side effects of chemotherapy.

“Now we know we can use even less anti-cancer drug and kill and efficiently eradicate these cancer meta-stages,” said Batrakova.

Batrakova said this method could also be effective in diagnosing cancer because it is so good in finding cancerous cells. If applied to humans, this research could help treatment of many different diseases.


Most NC Hospitals Ban E-Cigarettes

According to a survey done by UNC researchers, approximately 80 percent of North Carolina hospitals have a written policy regarding the use of E-cigarettes. Research associate Clare Meernik said the vast majority of these hospitals ban the use of E-cigarettes anywhere on their campus.

“I think it’s a really necessary step, there are a lot of unanswered questions about E-cigarettes,” said Meernik. “We are still unclear about the health effects of E-cigarettes and especially long term health effects; it hasn’t been around and studied long enough so it’s really important that hospitals and health care organizations kind of take the lead in this.”

Many hospitals have added E-cigarettes to their tobacco-free policies, which Meernik said is a step in the right direction, but since E-cigarettes are relatively new, people might be unsure of what the rules are.

“A lot of people are just unclear about the policy, whether they’re patients or visitors at a hospital and there is not proper signage or a lack of signage surrounding what the policies are regarding tobacco-free or smoke-free,” said Meerknik.

E-cigarettes use a small battery to vaporize a liquid that usually contains nicotine to simulate a smoking experience.

“Particularly when the tobacco-free or smoke-free policy incorporates E-cigarettes, a lot of times signage isn’t clear that E-cigarettes are banned, it might just say smoke-free or tobacco-free,” said Meernick.

While many might view E-cigarettes as a healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes, Meernik worries that their acceptance might backtrack on the negative stigma around public smoking.

“You see someone smoking an E-cigarette and it’s kind of re-normalizing that smoking behavior and taking a step back on the progress we’ve made of de-normalizing smoking in public places,” said Meernik.

This is the first study of E-cigarette polices in hospitals in the state and Meernik said so far she has seen strong support and little resistance to hospitals banning E-cigarettes.

Durham County also incorporated E-cigarettes into the county’s smoking ban starting January 1.


Duke Researchers Find Radioactive Contamination In Coal Ash

Coal ash, the waste generated by coal-fired power plants, is already known to contain environmental contaminants such as selenium, cadmium and arsenic. Now, researchers at Duke say it may also be radioactive.

“Radiation is another set of contaminants that needs to be considered when we are trying to weigh the impact of coal ash in the environment,” says Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Vengosh and a team of researchers found radium isotopes and lead-210 in coal ash at levels five times higher than in normal soil.

He says this could pose a human health hazard if coal ash is not properly handled. Dry ashes can be easily inhaled. Wet coal ash can leak into ponds and rivers as happened in 2014 when tens of thousands of tons spilled into the Dan River.

The Environmental Protection Agency is set to begin regulating coal ash next month, but those regulations don’t yet include monitoring of radioactive materials. Vengosh says that needs to change.

“I think that naturally occurring radioactive materials should be part of an overall monitoring procedure to make sure that those contaminants that occur in coal ash indeed remain in coal ash, and not transferred or mobilized into drinking water or waterways around coal ash ponds or landfills.”

Duke Energy is preparing to move 20 million tons of coal ash from across the state to sites in Chatham and Lee Counties. Vengosh says he’d like to see increased transparency and monitoring to make sure that process is completed safely.

“The common sense answer is first, that all information is transparent and available, and second, that there is independent monitoring of what’s going on,” says Vengosh. “So I think if those two conditions are met, that we do know what’s happened and we can actually report that, then I would feel more secure about this process.”

More broadly, he notes that the energy industry as a whole is largely exempt from the Clean Water Act, leaving scientists in the dark when it comes to monitoring water quality and pollution.

“It’s a much larger issue of lack of regulation and lack of monitoring, and I think that kind of legacy is resulting in us waking up one day and seeing we have an issue or a problem someplace.”

The study was published September 2 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.


UNC Gathers Second-Highest Research Funding Total

UNC secured nearly $793 million in research contracts and grants in the 2014 fiscal year, an increase of $215 million since 2004.

Chancellor Carol Folt made the announcement Thursday during a meeting of the Board of Trustees.

The University received almost 72 percent of its $792.7 million from the federal government. Some of the biggest federal contributors include the National Institutes of Health, which contributed $428 million, and the National Science Foundation, which contributed $37.4 million.

Scientific teams from research centers and institutes at the University won $141.5 million funding in FY14 to study things like malaria, HIV, autism and alternative fuel methods.

The research awards from FY14 are only surpassed by those from the FY10. The University received $803 million that year. Almost $126 million were from the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009. The Act aimed to save jobs and promote economic growth. This year, only $3.5 million were part of that economic stimulus plan.


UNC System Reviewing Centers’ And Institutes’ Functionality

Additional reporting by Danny Hooley

The UNC Board of Governors plans to review more than 200 centers and institutes in the UNC system, with the possibility of redirecting state funding elsewhere, in some cases.

The Board of Governors recently formed a review committee to check on the 237 centers and institutes, after the state legislature recommended as much as $15 million in reductions to research centers, speaker series, or other non-academic areas.

The committee’s leader, BoG member James Holmes, Jr., told the News and Observer that the group seeks to review and understand the centers, to determine whether they continue to “fit the school’s mission.”

He also told the N&O that most of the centers and institutions won’t see any cuts, adding: “There’s no mandate to get any dollars.”

UNC-Chapel Hill stands to lose the most if cuts are made. Eighty of the 237 centers and institutions across the system are within the flagship university; N.C. State houses 48.

Cuts would likely reduce the federal and other outside sources of funding. Last year, $556 million was collected.

WCHL requested a comment from UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Jim Dean, but neither was available on Friday.


Cystic Fibrosis Risks Increase with Mucins

Researchers from the UNC School of Medicine have found evidence to suggest that patients with cystic fibrosis possess a much greater number of the proteins that forms mucus, known as mucins.

Associate professor at the department of pathology and laboratory medicine, Dr. Mehmet Kesimer, explains what cystic fibrosis, or CF, is and what it can do.

“Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening genetic disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive system,” says Dr. Kesimer. “People with CF have a defective gene, and its protein product causes the body to produce abnormally thick and sticky mucus. That is a problem in the lungs; they cannot clear the mucus very well. That is the life-threatening part of the cystic fibrosis.”

With over 70 thousand people across the globe suffering from this disease, UNC researchers have found that the increased amount of mucins the body produces within patients with cystic fibrosis prevents the mucus from clearing through the lungs, which builds and creates inflammation infection, and lung failure. However, if this increased amount of mucins can be reduced, then there is a greater opportunity for better treatments.

“Our study offers simple therapeutic strategies for treating CF lung disease,” explains Kesimer, “for instance, diluting mucins in the mucus layer by simply hydrating agents.”

Using “nebulized hypertonic saline,” a type of sterile salty water, can improve the hydration of the CF airways in order to help in the patient’s mucus clearance to increase lung function. Utilizing these sorts of solutions for patients can provide a much better means of treatment to reduce risk of the mucus build-up.


Mary Willingham’s Research Privileges Suspended

CHAPEl HILL – Mary Willingham says her research privileges at UNC have been revoked.

Multiple media outlets report that Willingham has been asked to re-apply for research privileges by the Institutional Review Board. She says she plans to do so.

Willingham was quoted in a CNN article January 8 as saying there is an alarming number of illiterate student athletes at UNC. The University released data Thursday afternoon that disputes the claims in the CNN article.


Duke Researcher Produces New Camera 100X Stronger

DURHAM – Researchers at Duke University continue to develop new technologies with versatile uses.

Associate Research Professor at Duke, Daniel Marks, says his team has been working for several years on a new kind of camera.

“My main project right now actually is to build giga-pixel cameras, we have been almost four years into a project and what we do is make really high resolution, really wide angle instruments so we can for instance image an entire football field to two or three millimeters resolution” Marks says.

This new giga-pixel camera uses complex optics and hundred of micro-camera to create a wide-angle snapshot. Other cameras have had pictures that are a giga-pixel in size, but Marks says the most unique feature to their camera is that it is all one snapshot.

“What we have aimed to do is, our camera literally takes a snapshot, and it’s a single giga-pixel image, currently it’s about a tenth of a second so you really see a single instant in time” Marks states.

Their newest camera was built only a few months ago and has a 100 degree by 30 degree camera angle.  The giga-pixel camera research is currently funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency with the intention to help protect soldiers in the field and identify threats from afar.  Marks says they took this into consideration when designing camera to take wide-angle photographs.

“It became likely to be used for terrestrial imaging, for imaging on the ground, and if you have a wide-angle camera you find out your mostly taking pictures of the sky and ground so it doesn’t really make sense to have a vertical field of view that’s really large”  Marks says.

Currently, in a test done with the camera, Marks found that their camera can see boats five times farther away than the ones the military uses.  The research being done on this camera can be useful for many other applications as well.  The camera has potential uses in sporting games, but Marks says some of the optical design in the giga-pixel camera can benefit telescopes and help further other academic research.

“I think there would be applications for astronomy, I think versions of this are possible that would greatly increase the amount of sky we can survey, and therefore not just for looking for dangerous objects, but also for interesting science” Marks says.

Marks and his team have tested out this camera at the Duke vs. UNC football game and produced some high quality pictures available online.

To view the pictures Daniel Marks has take with his camera click here.

For more information click here.