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Wellcome Trust Research Round-Up: 27.10.14

27 Oct, 2014

Our fortnightly round-up of research news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Treating diabetes with light-activated drugs

A new method of treating type 2 diabetes has been developed by researchers at Imperial College London and LMU Munich. They have adapted currently used drugs so that they can be selectively activated using blue light. The hope is that this technique will improve treatment of diabetes by having fewer side effects than current treatments.

Dr David Hodson, one of the principal investigators on the project, said: “In principle, this type of therapy will give patients better control over their blood sugar because they can switch it on for a short time when it’s needed after a meal. It should also reduce complications by targeting drug activity to where it’s required in the pancreas”

Drugs called sulfonylureas stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin and are widely prescribed to treat type 2 diabetes. However they can cause organ damage or stimulate too much insulin production, leading to serious drops in blood sugar levels. To avoid this, the team including Dr Hodson, Professor Guy Rutter, Professor Dirk Trauner and Johannes Broichhagen adapted this drug type to change shape when exposed to blue light.

The study, supported by the Wellcome Trust, was recently published in Nature Communications. It describes the adapted drug, named JB253 which is inactive until it is switched on using blue LEDs stuck to the skin, and switched off again in the absence of blue light.

Initial tests found that JB253 successfully stimulates insulin release from pancreatic cells in the lab. The next step is for tests on animals and clinical trials. If both of these stages are successful then it is hoped that the drug could be available within 10 years.

New drug could provide step forward in treating norovirus

Scientists funded by the Wellcome Trust have found that an experimental drug reduces, and in some cases eliminates, norovirus in mice.

B0009541 Norovirus, illustrationThe drug, favipiravir, is currently being trialled in treatment of Ebola and Influenza. The research by Professor Ian Goodfellow and his team, published the journal eLife, found that it reduces the amount of norovirus found in mouse tissue and faeces, which may help in reducing the severity of the disease and onward transmission.

“Norovirus is an unpleasant bug that spreads quickly,” says Prof Goodfellow, a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow. “Most of us will have experienced it at some point and will know that the only option is to ride out an infection, drinking plenty of fluids. But some patients get infections that can last months or years, and this has a real impact on their quality of life.

“The ease with which infections spread, particularly in places such as hospitals, schools and cruise ships, and the potentially serious health problems norovirus can cause people with weakened immune systems means that we desperately need a way to treat infection.”

The University of Cambridge team has found that the drug works by causing errors in the virus’s genetic information which build up as the virus replicates – known as lethal mutagenesis. These errors make the virus unable to function properly and prevent further spread of the virus.

This is one of the first demonstrations of this method successfully fighting viruses in their natural hosts and suggests that it may be possible to tackle other viruses in the same way.

Skin cancer cells may spread through body by following molecular trail

Scientists at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow have found that a molecule directs the movement of melanoma cells, which are responsible for the most serious form of skin cancer.

B0003294 Human melanoma cell dividingThe study, published in PLOS Biology and supported by the Wellcome Trust, found the molecule lysophosphatidic acid (LPA) is used as a signal that gives melanoma cells the “green light” to travel around the body.

The researchers found that in cancer cell lines and in mice that tumour cells first break down nearby sources of LPA molecules. Once these levels of LPA are depleted, the cells then move out of the tumour in search of more. This creates a trail leading to the bloodstream and onto a new site in the body.

Lead author, Professor Robert Insall said: “The next step will be to find how the melanoma cells break down the LPA molecules to see if this sparks ideas for new ways to stop the cancer from spreading. At the moment our research is still in early stages but we hope this could help doctors to make sure this cancer doesn’t spread.”

Over 13,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year in the UK. Each year, around 2,200 people die from the disease.

In other news…

Congratulations to Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow Vikram Patel from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has been awarded the Institute of Medicine’s prestigious Sarnat Prize for his research on global mental health. Professor Patel, produced epidemiological studies which linked mental health issues to poverty, and also demonstrated the potential for realistically treating these conditions in low and middle income countries using evidence based methods.

Virologist Paul Kellam from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute has collaborated with playwright Sarah Woods to create a five-part radio drama My Life with Flu airing on BBC Radio 4. The show developed from a workshop held by the Wellcome Trust and BBC, where Paul and his PhD student met Sarah. Tune in to BBC Radio 4 on October 27th at 10:45 to catch the first show.

The 2014 MQ Fellows have been announced – with over £900,000 to support four early career research fellows who will be carrying out cutting-edge, innovative mental health research. Their projects address some of the major questions we face in mental health, exploring new ways to understand, treat and prevent mental illness. The 2014 MQ Fellows are: Dr Jeremiah Cohen, neuroscientist based at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, building a ‘map’ of serotonin to improve our understanding of the biology of mood, Dr Helen Fisher, interdisciplinary scientist from King’s College London exploring the biological, psychological and social aspects of adverse childhood experiences to understand the development and trajectory of psychotic symptoms in childhood, and Dr Sergiu Pasca, biologist based at Stanford University is generating in a dish live human neurons from patients with schizophrenia to gain insights into how schizophrenia develops and to identify new therapeutic targets and Dr Andrea Reinecke, an Oxford University clinical psychologist developing an innovative, effective, single-session Cognitive Behavioural Therapy treatment for anxiety disorders.

Image credits: Diabetes drug graphic – Imperial College London, Norovirus illustration – Anna Tanczos, Wellcome Images, Human melanoma cell dividing – Paul J.Smith &Rachel Errington, Wellcome Images

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