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Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 18.04.16

18 Apr, 2016

Our fortnightly round-up of news from our research community… 

Slowing down ageing

B0007686 Drosophila melanogaster headScientists have identified a new molecule that could be targeted to slow the ageing process, according to new Wellcome Trust-funded research published in Cell Reports.

Researchers found that fruit flies given low doses of lithium – a known mood stabiliser – lived on average 16% longer than those not given the drug. Higher doses, given during adulthood or later life reduced the flies’ lifespan.

How lithium works to stabilise mood in people is not well understood. This new study found that lithium delays ageing by blocking the action of a molecule called glycogen synthase kinase-3 (GSK-3), and activating another called NRF-2, which is important for defending cells against damage. GSK-3 therefore presents an attractive target for drugs to control ageing.

Professor Dame Linda Partridge, Director of the UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing said: “Our aim is to identify ways to intervene in ageing, with the end goal of keeping us all healthier for longer and compressing the time at the end of life when we suffer from physical decline and diseases. This can be done by diet, genetics or drugs, which is why we want to identify promising drug targets. The response we’ve seen in flies to low doses of lithium is very encouraging and our next step is to look at targeting GSK-3 in more complex animals with the aim of eventually developing a drug regime to test in humans.”

Fever and pregnancy in Laos

Sanofi Pasteur Dengue NCNDCCBYInfectious diseases such as dengue, pyelonephritis and typhoid are a common cause of fever in pregnancy in Laos, and may be contributing to the high levels of maternal death seen in the region, according to a new study.

Laos has the highest levels of maternal mortality in mainland Southeast Asia and also a high incidence of infectious disease. But there has been little investigation into the impact of these illnesses during pregnancy.

Wellcome Trust-funded researchers at the Lao-Oxford-Mahosot Hospital-Wellcome Trust Research Unit recruited 250 pregnant women with fever, which is often an indication of infection, to investigate the cause and impact of their high temperature. Of these women, 132 had a single infectious disease and 17 were diagnosed with mixed diseases. The most common single disease was dengue, followed by pyelonephritis (inflammation of the kidney tissue), rickettsiosis disease and typhoid.

Twenty-eight of the women with dengue, rickettsiosis or typhoid also suffered from serious complications, including miscarriage and premature birth and death.

The researchers hope that this hospital based study will provide evidence of the cause of illnesses in pregnant women admitted to hospital, but stress that larger community cohort studies would help us learn more about fevers and their impact on pregnancy.

This research is published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Genetic links to neuroticism

B0000545 Comparitive DNA profiles of 14 peopleWellcome Trust-funded researchers have identified nine new gene-associations that can be linked to neuroticism according to a new study published in Molecular Psychiatry.

Neuroticism is a personality trait heavily associated with mental illness and anxiety, as well as physical conditions such as obesity and even heart disease. In the largest ever study of a personality trait, the University of Glasgow researchers tested 100,000 people, including individuals from UK Biobank, to identify genes associated with neuroticism.

The exact DNA changes responsible are still to be identified, but molecules thought to be involved in neuroticism already have important roles in the body’s response to stress and the function of glutamate, an important chemical involved in a range of psychiatric disorders. Researchers believe that the existence of these gene associations could indicate a person’s predisposition to the personality trait.

Dr Raliza Stoyanova, Neuroscience & Mental Health Senior Portfolio Developer at the Wellcome Trust, said: “By combining a number of very large studies, including UK Biobank, the researchers have identified new genetic associations for neuroticism – one of the five fundamental personality traits present in all of us. It will be important for future work to uncover how these genetic links affect brain function, and to pin down whether they increase someone’s chance of developing clinical depression.”

Rhythm of the night

FP0000071FE03 Baby, sleepingMagnesium is essential for helping us to adapt to the rhythms of day and night, according to new research published in Nature.

Wellcome-funded researchers investigated how this nutrient, found in many everyday foods, helps to control how cells keep their own form of time to cope with environmental cycles. Researchers measured magnesium levels in human cells, algae and fungi, and observed the levels rising and falling in a daily cycle. These magnesium cycles also impacted metabolism in cells, controlling when they converted food into fuel.

The researchers believe this discovery at the cell level will be linked to circadian rhythms of the whole body and could offer insights into the development of treatments scheduled to specific times of the day.

Dr John O’Neill from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge said: “Although the clinical relevance of magnesium in various tissues is beginning to garner more attention, how magnesium regulates our body’s internal clock and metabolism has simply not been considered before. The new discovery could lead to a whole range of benefits spanning human health to agricultural productivity.”

Other Wellcome Trust research news

Wellcome Trust funded researchers from the University of Edinburgh have mapped thousands of genetic mutations in yeast to identify how these can affect a cell’s chances of survival. It is the first time scientists have been able to measure the effects of every possible combination of mutations in a gene and the technique could help studies into the effects of mutations that lead to diseases in humans. This research is published in Science.

Cancer cells are able to ‘persuade’ healthy cells around them into helping the disease to grow and spread, according to new research published in Cell. Wellcome Trust-funded researchers investigated the KRAS gene, the most commonly mutated gene in cancers, and found that it is able to influence healthy cells to ‘help’ the cancer by encouraging growth. You can see a video of how this process works here.

In other news

Ubiobank.pngK Biobank has launched the world’s biggest body scanning project to shed new light on major diseases. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, MRC and BHF, the £40m project will collate scans of the internal organs of 100,000 current Biobank participants. Dr Sara Marshall, Head of Clinical Research at the Wellcome Trust, said: “Each day we’re discovering more and more about how genetics and lifestyle play a part in the onset and development of diseases, but this extra piece of the puzzle – seeing physical changes even before symptoms develop – will give us a completely new perspective on how we can prevent and treat them.”

Congratulations to Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow, and Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, Professor Karl Friston who has won the Charles L. Branch BrainHealth Award. The award, set up in 2010 to honour neurosurgeon Dr Branch, recognises pioneering neuroscientists whose innovations have made a tremendous contribution to the area of brain research.

The results of the third wave of the Wellcome Trust Monitor were announced last week. The survey of 1,500 adults in the UK tracks the public’s understanding and attitudes to science and medical research. You can read a round-up of the main results in a previous post on this blog and see the full report on our website.

Image credits: (from top to bottom) MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, Wellcome Images; Dengue fever Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND; Sue Moberly, Wellcome Images; Fiona Pragoff, Wellcome Images; Jimmy Bell, University of Westminster and AMRA

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