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Wellcome Trust Research Round-up 24.08.15

24 Aug, 2015

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

A breakdown in communication

B0001919 Hippocampal neurons/glutamate receptorsResearchers have identified the possible mechanism in the brains of patients with psychiatric disorders that could be the cause of some of their symptoms.

Many fundamental cognitive functions are reliant on the communication channels between two areas of our brains; the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex. Controlled by chemicals called neurotransmitters, these communications drive essential skills like learning and memory and have previously been shown to be disrupted in patients with psychiatric disorders.

Wellcome Trust-funded scientists investigated two neurotransmitters, glutamate and dopamine, which communicate chemical information between the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex.

They identified that even subtle changes in the interplay of the two chemicals could have an impact on the communication channel between the two regions. When the receptors for the dopamine neurotransmitters were over-activated, it led to the suppression of the function of the receptors for glutamate – called NDMA receptors.

Overall, researchers observed a significant disruption in communication which could help to explain why the functions governed by these channels are disrupted in patients with psychiatric disorders.

This research is published in PNAS.

Targeting Pulmonary Hypertension

L0004130 The heart, circa 1749.A new drug target has been identified which could offer hope to thousands of sufferers of the life-threatening disease, Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH).

Caused when blood vessels in the lungs constrict, the disease puts undue strain on the heart which can lead to heart failure. PAH can be caused by low oxygen conditions and is therefore sometimes seen in those that travel to high altitudes. However, a more severe and chronic form of the disease affects around 6,500 people in the UK and leaves patients breathless and exhausted.

Currently, treatment is only designed to tackle the symptoms of the disease and patients have a 30% chance of dying within three years of diagnosis. In research published in Nature, Wellcome Trust-funded scientists have identified a gene that is ‘switched on’ in the lungs of patients with PAH that could offer new hopes for treatment.

The gene, which is not active in people with healthy lungs, is responsible for producing the protein ZIP12, a zinc transporter that regulates zinc levels within cells. Researchers found that disabling the gene helps to protect the lungs from pulmonary hypertension in low oxygen conditions. They hope that developing drugs that act on the ZIP12 protein could provide a solution to reversing or delaying the progression of the disease in chronically affected patients.

Professor Martin Wilkins from Imperial College London, said: “Very little is known about the link between zinc transporters and cardiovascular disease. With this research we show that a gene involved in the way that zinc is transported within our cells is also involved in a chronic illness called pulmonary arterial hypertension. Our research provides a new opportunity to understand how pulmonary hypertension develops and with this find new ways to treat this illness.”

A new approach to combating dysentery

B0008379 Shigella flexneri invading embryonic stem cellVaccines may not offer the most effective solution to tackling bacterial dysentery, according to new research published in eLife.

Shigella flexneri is the leading cause of bacterial dysentery which affects an estimated 165 million people in low-income countries, most of whom are children under the age of five. Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute conducted the largest global genomic survey of S. flexneri to date, using 351 samples of the bacteria from Asia, Africa and Central America.

They found that distinct groups of the bacteria can survive, and are endemic, in certain locations and environments, and have been for many years without being dependent on humans for survival. This finding may explain why they are able to repeatedly re-emerge in an environment and cause disease.

Researchers also found that certain lineages of the bacteria can switch between serotypes (the makeup of antigens it displays on its surface) and evade vaccines based on specific serotypes.

This genomic analysis enables researchers to gain a much greater insight into the bacteria’s evolution and transmission, a vital step in developing more effective interventions. This research highlights the importance of clean water sources, rather than vaccines, as the most effective method of combatting bacterial dysentery.

Nick Thomson from the Sanger Institute said: “By using genome sequencing to study the species at the highest resolution possible, we are able to identify clear lineages of bacteria based on the virulence genes they carry. These lineages can then be targeted more effectively for intervention whether that be through vaccine development and/or alternative strategies.”

In other news…


Dr Buddha Basnyat

Dr Buddha Basnyat, Director of the Wellcome Trust-funded Oxford University Clinical Research Unit Nepal, this week called for a widespread vaccination programme to combat the growing risk of a typhoid epidemic in post-earthquake Nepal. In an article published in Nature, Dr Basnyat called for an international effort to assist the Nepalese government to purchase the vaccine with the aim of protecting the millions of people affected by the devastating earthquake in April.

Congratulations to Dr Rohan Paul who is named in MIT’s Top 35 Innovators under 35. Dr Paul played a key role in the development of the Wellcome Trust-funded SmartCane device, an innovative and affordable navigation aid enabling safe mobility for the visually impaired.

Image credits: (from top to bottom) A J Irving, Wellcome Images; Wellcome Library, London; David Goulding, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Wellcome Images

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