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Wellcome Trust Research Round-up 13.07.15

13 Jul, 2015

Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust Community

Cancer link to biopsy wounds

B0010015 HeLa cell, immortal human epithelial cancer cell line, SEMCancer surgery and biopsies may play a role in the progression of cancer according to new Wellcome Trust-funded research published in the journal EMBO.

Sometimes described as ‘the wound that doesn’t heal,’ there has been a longstanding link between tissue damage, wound healing and cancer. However until now there has been little research into the direct impacts of cancer surgery or biopsies on the progression of the disease.

Researchers investigating how inflammatory cells react to cancerous wounds used genetically engineered zebrafish larvae that sporadically produce pre-cancerous cells in their skin. They found that inflammatory cells, mainly a specialised type called neutrophils, rapidly migrated from wounds (such as those caused by surgery) to the pre-cancerous cells in the Zebrafish skin, causing rapid growth at these sites.

By then studying the inflammatory response in human melanoma samples, the researchers were able to examine how this process could play a role in human cancer progression. They found a strong link between the presence of inflammatory cells at the site of open wounds in melanomas and the division of the cancerous cells. This was subsequently associated with a poor predicted outcome.

Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Professor Paul Martin, from Bristol University said: “All surgery and biopsy collections carry an element of risk and this study reveals a further potential risk for clinicians to consider. For the first time we can now watch the interplay between inflammatory cells visiting wounds and nearby cancer cells, and use this to determine why and how this occurs and how we might learn to prevent it.”

Exhausted immune cells

exhausted immuneOur body’s immune cells can become ‘exhausted’ in the face of unwanted infections and can actually damage the very body they are trying to protect.

New Wellcome Trust-funded research published in Nature investigated how T cells, a specialised type of immune cells, can be ‘exhausted’ by inhibitory signals which prevent them efficiently fighting unwanted invaders. In this state, T cells are unable to clear chronic infections, such as Hepatitis C or HIV, from the immune system.

The researchers found that the pattern of genes turned on and off in patients with chronic infections is very similar to that of patients with autoimmune diseases (for example Crohn’s or Lupus) suggesting that the T cell ‘exhaustion’ is seen in both cases.

In patients with chronic infections, immune exhaustion reduces the capacity of the immune system to fight infections, meaning a poorer health outcome for the patient. However, the opposite is true for patients with an autoimmune disorder; an exhausted immune response leads to less severe disease and fewer relapses.

Dr Eoin McKinney, a Wellcome Trust-Beit Research Fellow from the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge explains: “We know that the way our bodies respond to infection and to autoimmune diseases differs between individuals. In part, we believe this is due to a process known as T cell exhaustion. For effective treatment, we need to exhaust our T cell responses in autoimmune diseases – and hence limit the attack on our body – and to reverse exhaustion when the fight is against unwanted invaders, such as viruses or cancer.”

A traumatic night’s sleep

B0007025 Doctor and patientA good night’s sleep has often been suggested as a cure for all manner of ailments, but a new study published in Sleep suggests that sleep deprivation might actually help reduce flashbacks in those that have experienced a traumatic event.

Wellcome Trust-funded researchers investigated the effects of sleep deprivation in a clinical setting, showing participants film scenes containing traumatic content. They were then either sent home to get a full night’s sleep, or deprived of sleep in the laboratory.

Through participants’ diary entries, scientists noted that those deprived of sleep experienced fewer intrusive memories than those who got a good night’s sleep at home. Sleep is known to improve memory performance and the research shows that depriving people of it may help to prevent people consolidating memories of a trauma, leading to fewer flashbacks.

Dr Kate Porcheret from the Wellcome Trust-funded Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute said: “Finding out more how sleep and trauma interact means we can ensure people are well cared for after a traumatic event. These are really important research questions to pursue further. For example, it is still common for patients to receive sedatives after a traumatic event to help them sleep, even though we already know that for some very traumatised people this may be the wrong approach.”

Radioactivity re-purposed

B0005635 Enhanced image of a human heartA radioactive tracer originally used to detect bone cancer has been re-purposed to help identify patients at risk of heart attacks or strokes.

Atherosclerosis – commonly known as hardening of the arteries – occurs when arteries become blocked by a build-up of fatty deposits called plaques. These plaques, which contain calcium, can be unstable and detach from the artery wall and can cause fatal heart attacks or strokes if they travel the heart or brain.

Wellcome Trust-funded researchers injected patients with sodium fluoride tagged with very small amounts of radioactive tracer. The tracer’s journey around the body was tracked using a combination of scanning techniques, allowing scientists to see exactly which tissues it accumulated in.

Not all calcium-containing plaques in the artery are unstable – in some patients they are completely stable, although it is unclear why.  Researchers discovered that the tracer only accumulated in unstable plaques and not any surrounding tissue, allowing these patients to undergo surgery to have them removed, reducing their risk of serious illness.

Dr James Rudd, a cardiologist and researcher at the University of Cambridge adds: “Sodium fluoride is a simple and inexpensive radiotracer that should revolutionise our ability to detect dangerous calcium in the arteries of the heart and brain. This will allow us to use current treatments more effectively, by giving them to those patients at highest risk. In addition, after further work, it may be possible to use this technique to test how well new medicines perform at preventing the development of atherosclerosis.”

This research is published in Nature Communications.

Other Wellcome Trust research news

tetrisNew Wellcome Trust-funded research has suggested that playing visually demanding video games may help reduce intrusive memories of past traumatic events. The study, published in Physiological Science, is the first of its kind to show that a cognitive blockade can have a positive impact on the sort of visual memories associated with stress and trauma related disorders such as PTSD.

In other news

It’s been a busy time for awards and prizes recently with numerous members of the community nominated for prestigious accolades. Congratulations to the following academics:

  • Wellcome Trust Governor Professor Kay Davies is to receive the American Society of Human Genetics Allan Award. The prize is given in memory William Allan, one of the first American physicians to research human genetics and hereditary diseases, and recognises far-reaching contributions to human genetics.
  • Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly has become the first recipient of the EASD-Novo Nordisk Foundation Diabetes Prize that recognises outstanding research or technological contributions to the understanding of diabetes. Professor O’Rahilly, co-Director of the Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science, holds a Senior Investigator Award which focuses on the mechanisms of human resistance to insulin.
  • Professor Joel Tarning is awarded the Giorgio Segré Prize for his work on the pharmacokinetic properties of antimalarial drugs in vulnerable populations. Based at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit, a collaboration between Oxford University, Mahidol University and the Wellcome Trust, his work has made a significant contribution to the understanding of the optimal doses for key antimalarial medicines in children.
  • The Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) have won the Open Data Innovation Award in recognition of innovation and excellence in open data. Part funded by the Wellcome Trust, MMV were awarded the prize for their ‘Malaria Box’ which contains 400 compounds to researchers who wish to develop new medicines for malaria.

Image credits: (from top to bottom) Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK, Wellcome Images; HIV infected H9 T Cell by NIAID via flickr, CC-BY; Tim Ellis, Wellcome Images, Gordon Museum, Wellcome Images; Tetris magnets by Andrew Price via Flickr, CC-BY-NC

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