April 30, 2013

CBC Scholars share their research at the Fourth Annual Scientific Exchange

On April 17, 2013, CBC Scholars assembled at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago for the Fourth Annual CBC Scholars Scientific Exchange. There, graduate students from Northwestern University (NU), University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) presented ten minute ‘snapshots’ of their dissertation projects, generating a pastiche of amazing Chicago biological research. Based on these presentations, it is clear that Chicago scientists are tackling some of the biggest challenges faced by modern medicine. These include generating new antibiotics, targeting drug delivery to specific tissues, and treating damaged neurological systems.

Chaitanya Aggarwal (UIC) grabbed our attention with the description of an alarming, global increase in antibiotic resistance. Instead of engaging in an ever-escalating antibiotic arms race, however, Aggarwal proposed a more diplomatic solution. This solution is based on the fact that, much like eusocial insects such as bees and ants, bacteria communicate with one another via secreted signaling molecules, or ‘pheromones.’ Aggarwal studies this bacterial cell-to-cell communication, or ‘Quorum sensing,’ in Streptococcus, the bacteria responsible for strep throat.  

Why study Quorum sensing in pathogenic bacteria? Aggarwal and his colleagues are interested in learning to manipulate Quorum sensing so that they can, in Aggarwal’s words, “jam the communication system of the bacteria.” With this strategy, they may be able to prevent bacterial virulence without directly killing the bacteria. Because the bacteria are not being actively killed, there would be less selection pressure driving the evolution of drug resistance. In this manner, the development of a ‘Quorum sensing antibiotic’ could revolutionize infectious disease treatment across the globe.

Some diseases, like cancer and diabetes, are not caused by bacterial infection, but are a result of faulty gene expression. How can such diseases be treated? Fatima Khaja (UIC) is interested in safely and specifically altering gene expression in living humans. Gene expression in cultured cells can be disrupted with small molecules called small interfering RNA (siRNA). “[siRNA] binds to messenger RNA and can be used to downregulate proteins that are overexpressed,” Khaja explained. Unfortunately, in a living animal, siRNA molecules are rapidly broken down and excreted, making them ineffective for therapeutic purposes.

To surmount these challenges, Khaja packages siRNA molecules into phospholipid nanocarriers. These serve two functions: they protect the siRNA from degradation, and they can be tagged for delivery to specific tissues. Khaja is currently using this strategy to alter gene expression in the rodent liver, with the overall aim of treating liver fibrosis and cirrhosis in human patients.  

When drugs are not available, we sometimes turn to physical treatments. According to Kristan Leech (NU), the gym slogan “use it or lose it” can be applied to a patient’s ability to recover from neurological damage. In the case of a spinal cord injury, for example, physical therapists aim to restore a patient’s ability to walk. “Currently it’s understood that task specificity and the amount of practice are key pieces to rehabilitation intervention,” explained Leech. For example, if you aim to recover walking, then you should repeatedly practice the act of walking.

Leech, however, is not just asking whether you need to ‘use it’ but rather how intensely you should use it. She is exploring whether high-intensity exercise improves the rate of recovery following neurological damage. She does this by examining both behavioral and molecular traits in human patients with incomplete spinal cord injury. Leech’s thesis, therefore, like the hard work of her patients, is built on “blood, sweat, and tears,” but her results could directly improve rehabilitation programs currently used by physical therapists.

There was more to the CBC Scholars Exchange, however, than the presentation of scientific data. This event was also an opportunity for scholars to build and foster professional relationships across the three major academic research institutes in Chicago. CBC Scholars did this by planning future outreach activities, organizing interdisciplinary seminar series, comparing ideas for both academic and non-academic career trajectories, and working on the new ‘CBC Scholars Handbook.’ Based on the overall mood at the 2013 CBC Scholars Exchange, it seems that the scholars are looking forward to another year of collaboration and camaraderie.

TEXT: Joanna Rowell, CBC Scholar Class of 2012; PHOTOS: CBC

To learn about other CBC Scholars and their research interest please visit the CBC Scholars webpage.