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Wellcome Trust Research Round-Up: 21.12.15

21 Dec, 2015

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

No laughing matter

A change in selaughingnse of humour could signal an early sign of dementia, research published in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests.

Wellcome Trust-funded researchers looked at how sense of humour can change in frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and Alzheimer’s disease.

While memory difficulties tends to be the first indicator in people with Alzheimer’s disease, people with FTD often experience personality and behaviour changes first.

Researchers conducted questionnaires with close friends and relatives of 48 people with various forms of FTD and Alzheimer’s disease. Participants were asked to rank the patients’ comedy preferences (ranging from slapstick to satirical) over the past 15 years, noting if there were any changes towards inappropriate humour.

Findings showed that people with behavioural variant FTD (bvFTD) – a particular form associated with behavioural changes – had an altered sense of humour (for instance, laughing at a dog barking) compared to healthy individuals and those with Alzheimer’s disease. The data also suggested that people with bvFTD often laughed at tragic events that others would not typically laugh about. Changes in humour were reported at least nine years before the onset of more typical symptoms of dementia.

Dr Simon Ridley, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “While memory loss is often the first thing that springs to mind when we hear the word dementia, this study highlights the importance of looking at the myriad different symptoms that impact on daily life and relationships. A deeper understanding of the full range of dementia symptoms will increase our ability to make a timely and accurate diagnosis. We need to see larger studies, following people for extended periods of time, to understand how and when changes in humour could act as a red flag for underlying brain changes.”

Painstaking research


The reasons why people with a rare genetic mutation are unable to feel any pain have been uncovered through new research published in Nature Communications.

The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, is the first to successfully recreate a condition known as congenital insensitivity to pain – where an individual never experiences any pain – with drugs. While previous research has found that Sodium channel Nav1.7 plays an important role in signalling pain pathways, this new study reveals that mice and people who lack Nav1.7 produces higher than normal levels of natural opioid peptides (short sequences of amino acids that bind to opioid receptors in the brain).

Researchers examined whether these opioids were important for painlessness. They found that when they gave naloxone (an opioid blocker) to mice without Nav1.7, the mice were able to feel pain. This had a similar effect in humans, as when naloxone was given to a woman with the rare mutation, she was also able to feel pain for the first time.

Researchers hope that this approach will be tested in human trials by 2017, enabling future research for combinations of drugs to help patients with chronic pain across the world.

Professor John Wood, senior author of the paper at the UCL Department of Medicine said, “After a decade of rather disappointing drug trials, we now have confirmation that Nav1.7 really is a key element in human pain. The secret ingredient turned out to be good old-fashioned opioid peptides, and we have now filed a patent for combining low dose opioids with Nav1.7 blockers. This should replicate the painlessness experienced by people with rare mutations, and we have already successfully tested this approach in unmodified mice.”

Diagnosing drug-resistant infections

tb.jpgA new computer programme could help to detect antibiotic resistance in two life-threatening bacterial infections: Staphylococcus aureus (one form of which causes MRSA) and tuberculosis (TB), according to research published in Nature Communications.

The software, known as Mykrobe Predictor, can analyse bacterial DNA from a patient’s infection to determine which antibiotics will work and which ones have developed drug resistance.

The program is being trialled in three UK hospitals and could help to speed up diagnosis of drug-resistant infections to enable doctors to better target the prescription of antibiotics.

Developed by researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, Mykrobe Predictor can analyse the entire genetic code of a bacterium in less than three minutes.  By automating genome analysis and cross-checking the bacterium’s DNA sequence with previous strains, the program presents information about the bug to doctors and researchers in an easy-to-understand format.

Dr Zamin Iqbal, from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, senior author of the paper, said: “One of the barriers to making whole genome sequencing a routine part of NHS care is the need for powerful computers and expertise to interpret the masses of complex data. Our software manages data quickly and presents the results to doctors and nurses in ways that are easy to understand, so they can instinctively use them to make better treatment decisions.”

Dr Stephen Caddick, Director of Innovations at the Wellcome Trust, added, “Drug-resistant infections pose a major threat to global public health. Antibiotics that were once lifesavers are in danger of becoming worthless, and within our lifetime we could see minor infections returning as a major public health concern. We urgently need new diagnostic strategies that allow us to better target antibiotic use, and thereby safeguard the effectiveness of our existing antibiotics, and any new drugs that are developed in future.”

In other news…

data saves lives.jpgCongratulations to the Data Saves Lives Campaign for being awarded the Best EU In-House campaign of the year at the Public Affair Awards 2015. You can read more about our work on the campaign.

A review has identified widespread barriers faced by many aspiring to pursue a clinical academic career. The research was led by the Medical Research Council in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, Academy of Medical Sciences, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and National Institute for Health Research.

A new universal treatment for eating disorders has been recommended by the UK Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies. The treatment, called enhanced cognitive behavioural therapy, was developed with extensive long-term funding from the Wellcome Trust at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Research on Eating Disorders.


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