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Researcher’s study of how cells move could lead to enhanced medical therapies

A University of Toledo chemistry and biochemistry faculty member and his research team of graduate students have answered a fundamental biological question about cell migration that could have implications for enhanced medical treatments.

Results from the two-year study have been published in the Oct. 20 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Dr. Ajith Karunarathne look at optically controlled cell migration using a next generation confocal imager.

“If we better understand how cells migrate, we can target some of these molecules for therapeutic purposes,” said Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who led the research team.

Scientists have long been trying to better understand exactly how cells move throughout the body. If you can control a cell’s movement, you might be able to prevent cancer cell movement and secondary tumor formation in vital body organs such as the lungs or pancreas. Or you could help immune cells move to the site of an infection and accelerate healing.

In their research, the UT team targeted the cell’s G protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs. These receptors are known as the “sniffers,” Karunarathne said, because they sense the environment and steer the cell where it’s needed in the body. They also regulate everything from heart rate to how much insulin the pancreas kicks out.

One-third of marketed drugs are used to control the GPCR pathways, according to Karunarathne. That includes everything from beta blockers to cancer and diabetes medicines.

When a cell moves, the front of the cell scoots forward, while the back of the cell retracts. You need both things to happen for the cell to move. It’s called “treadmilling.” Until now, scientists haven’t had much information on the how the retraction piece of the puzzle works, Karunarathne said.

In its study, the research team inserted GPCR receptors from the eye, which are sensitive to light, into cells from other parts of the body. They then used light to activate the receptors and target a specific area in the front of the cell. In this way, they could take a look at how the back of the cell reacted — the piece of the puzzle that’s been missing.

The use of light receptors was an important innovation in the team’s research. It is part of a fairly new field called subcellular optogenetics, Karunarathne said.

Normally, chemicals are used to activate receptors. But chemicals, which dissipate throughout the cell, are hard to control. By using light instead to stimulate the receptors, researchers could target specific, small regions on a single cell. They also could turn the light on and off, stopping and starting the activation.

As the researchers activated the GPCR in the front of the cell, the cell generated proteins. Through trial and error, and by targeting combinations of those proteins, the UT team found two pathways that affect how the back of the cell retracts and that are essential to cell migration. Stop either of those pathways and the cells can’t move.

With this discovery, scientists can now begin thinking about how to create therapies that either slow, stop or accelerate a cell’s movement. Karunarathne said one possibility is gene therapy whereby patients are injected with genes that make cells to produce light-sensitive GPCRs. Tumor cells could be “told” not to migrate, and immune cells could be “told” to attack nasty infections.

Three researchers elected Fellows of American Association for the Advancement of Science

Three University of Toledo researchers have been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in recognition of their important contributions to scientific discovery.

The UT faculty members who are among the 396 AAAS Fellows elected in 2017 are Dr. Heidi Appel, dean of the Jesup Scott Honors College and professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences; Dr. Karen Bjorkman, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, and Helen Luedtke Brooks Endowed Professor of Astronomy; and Dr. Steven Federman, professor of astronomy.

AAAS is the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific and engineering society. Since 1874, it has elected Fellows to recognize members for their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

“I am proud three UT faculty members earned this prestigious national honor in one year,” UT President Sharon L. Gaber said. “This recognition by AAAS is an external validation of the talented experts on our campus. UT faculty make important contributions to their fields of study and actively engage our students in research projects in the process.”


Appel, who joined UT in 2016, is being elected to the biological sciences section of the AAAS for her contributions to the field of chemical ecology. Her research on how plants can “hear” by detecting feeding vibrations from insects and responding with an enhanced chemical defense has been widely cited.

Her other research project explores how galling insects trick plants into making novel structures that they then use as protected places to feed and reproduce. Some of these insects are major agricultural pests worldwide on grapes, wheat and rice.

“Plant defenses against insects are mostly invisible to us because they are chemical. Just think about all of the herbs and spices we use — plants evolved that chemistry to defend themselves against their own diseases and insect pests,” Appel said. “I’ve been fortunate to spend my career working with great collaborators to advance our understanding of how plants detect and respond to insect pests, including a sensory modality we didn’t realize plants had.”


Bjorkman, who has been a member of UT’s faculty since 1996, is being elected into the association’s astronomy section for her leadership in the field of stellar astrophysics and spectropolarimetry to better understand the disks around massive stars.

The massive stars she studies, which are 10 to 20 times the mass of the sun, can have unpredictable gaseous disks around them that change over time for reasons as yet unknown. Bjorkman studies these disks both in individual stars and in larger samples within star clusters to better understand their physical characteristics and the mechanisms behind their formation and variability.

“Most of the atoms that make up everything around us originated in the center of stars, so it is important to advance our understanding of stars and their evolution, while at the same time applying the laws of physics. That is how we learn things, by continuously testing our understanding,” Bjorkman said. “It is an honor to have one of the largest science associations in the world acknowledge our contributions to science. When two of the seven astronomers in this year’s class of Fellows are from UT, that is nice recognition from our colleagues about the strength of our program here.”


Federman also is being elected into the astronomy section of the AAAS for his contributions in the research of interstellar matter and for advancing the field of laboratory astrophysics.

He has been a UT astronomer since 1988 and for much of his career has studied interstellar gas clouds to better understand the elements and isotopes within these clouds that form stars. He also is a leader in establishing the field of laboratory astrophysics that brings together theoretical and experimental astronomy research to combine observational and lab data to better test theories. He was the first chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Laboratory Astrophysics.

“Studying the abundances of elements and isotopes in the material between stars informs about the reactions and processes that happened in the past that led to the outcome we see today,” Federman said. “I’m proud to have been able to contribute over the years as we’ve moved from modeling to observations to lab studies as we continue to learn more and more about the chemical makeup in material that will become the next generation of stars and planets.”

Appel, Bjorkman and Federman will be recognized at the AAAS Fellows Forum at the association’s annual meeting Feb. 17 in Austin, Texas.

The 2017 AAAS Fellows join UT’s Dr. Carol Stepien, Distinguished University Professor of Ecology, who was elected last year, and Dr. Jack Schultz, who joined UT in September as senior executive director of research development and has been an AAAS Fellow since 2011 when he was elected while at the University of Missouri.

Preparing medical labs to assess bioterrorism agents topic of Nov. 17 workshop

The University of Toledo Department of Biological Sciences will host a workshop titled “Agents of Bioterrorism: Sentinel Training for Clinical Laboratories” Friday, Nov. 17, in Bowman-Oddy Laboratories.

The workshop will provide an overview of the sentinel clinical laboratory’s role in the identification of primary agents of bioterrorism and will emphasize how to safely handle suspect organisms in clinical specimens and cultures.

Participants will include microbiologists in the northwest Ohio region, including practitioners at UT Medical Center, Mercy Health System and ProMedica Health Systems.

“Currently, very few labs in northwest Ohio are qualified to handle samples contaminated with bioterrorism agents,” said Dr. Bruce Bamber, associate professor and chair of the UT Department of Biological Sciences. “Protocols must be in place for the rapid and safe collection, handling, analysis, transport and storage of samples. Increasing the number of qualified medical testing laboratories increases the speed and effectiveness of our response to potential bioterrorism attacks in the northwest Ohio region.”

The Ohio Department of Health is hosting this workshop at various locations throughout the state to train practitioners of medical laboratory testing to respond safely and effectively to potential bioterrorism attacks.

“There is a clear need for expertise in the area of how to handle requests, handle specimens, identify potential bioterrorism agents, and report back to response agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Homeland Security, the Ohio Department of Health, and the patient’s physician,” Bamber said. “This expertise is needed to maintain a high state of general preparedness in case a bioterrorism attack takes place.”

The event is co-sponsored by the National Laboratory Training Network and the Ohio Department of Health Laboratory.

Alumnus to return to campus Nov. 16 to discuss breakthrough physics research

Dr. Robert Cooper will visit his alma mater Thursday, Nov. 16, and talk about the cutting-edge physics research he and graduate students at New Mexico State University are conducting.

He will discuss “Observation of Coherent Elastic Neutrino-Nucleus Scattering” at the UT Physics and Astronomy Colloquium at 4 p.m. in McMaster Hall Room 1005.


The assistant professor of physics at New Mexico State University is among 80 researchers from 19 institutions and four nations working on the COHERENT experiment, which investigated a 43-year-old mystery.

Since 2015, Cooper and company have been attempting to measure coherent elastic neutrino-nucleus scattering at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This process has eluded detection despite a standard model prediction for the low-energy particles that only interact via weak subatomic force and gravity.

“This situation is akin to measuring the momentum transferred by a pingpong ball colliding with a bowling ball,” Cooper explained.

Using the smallest neutrino detector on the planet, researchers recorded the first measurement of coherent scattering of neutrinos off nuclei. They published their results in the August issue of Science.

“This measurement capability has applications to help understand supernovae, nuclear structure, neutrino oscillations and nuclear reactor monitoring,” Cooper said.

“We are proud to welcome back Robert Cooper to campus to hear more about his role in the exciting frontier of particle physics,” said Dr. Karen Bjorkman, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy; and Helen Luedtke Brooks Endowed Professor of Astronomy. 

Cooper received a bachelor of science degree in physics and mathematics from The University of Toledo in 2002. He studied particle physics at the University of Michigan, where he received a doctorate in 2008.

For more information on the free, public colloquium, contact Dr. Scott Lee, UT professor of physics, at scott.lee@utoledo.edu or 419.530.4779.

Photographers encouraged to submit photos for Lake Erie Center contest

The Lake Erie Center is looking for submissions for its eighth annual photo contest with the theme, “The Nature of Our Region, From Oak Openings to Maumee Bay.” The deadline to submit photos is Friday, Nov. 17.

Submissions are limited to three photos per person, and shots must be taken at either Maumee Bay, Lake Erie or the Maumee River watershed to qualify.

Quentin Francis-Emonds took the top prize in the teen category in 2016 with this shot of a chestnut-sided warbler at Magee Marsh.

“We feel it is important to mesh art and science when possible,” said Rachel Lohner, education program manager for the Lake Erie Center. “The Maumee River watershed is a complex and dynamic system that is the focus of most research at the center. This region provides numerous picturesque backdrops for amateur photographs to utilize in their photographs.”

In addition to the prizes being offered in multiple age categories, winners of the contest will gain access to a wide audience for their photos.

“We encourage photographers to enter our contest because we compile a visually appealing display that showcases their work on the walls of the Lake Erie Center. We use these photographs throughout the year on our website and in our marketing materials,” Lohner said. “Winners of our contest will be invited to attend an awards reception and be presented with their prizes in January.”

For online submissions, past winners and official contest rules, visit utoledo.edu/nsm/lec/webforms/2017_LEC_Photo_Contest.html.

Professor joins editorial board of mathematics journal

Dr. Zeljko Cuckovic, professor of mathematics, has been invited to join the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications published by Elsevier as an associate editor.

“It is an uncommon honor to be selected as associate editor of such a high-level journal,” said Dr. Donald White, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. “We are proud of Zeljko and are happy to have him represent the University at this publication.”


The Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications publishes 24 issues per year and receives about 3,500 submissions annually.

“Being invited to join the editorial board of a well-recognized and highly reputable journal is a great honor,” Cuckovic said. “This invitation represents recognition of years of my research work.”

He has published nearly 40 papers and has more than 400 citations. He has given talks in the United States and abroad and has held visiting positions at several universities. In 2006, he received one of UT’s Outstanding Teacher Awards. He also serves on the board of the European Journal of Mathematics.

“In addition to personal recognition, I hope this higher visibility will help me attract quality PhD students to our Department of Mathematics and Statistics,” Cuckovic said.

Cuckovic received his PhD at Michigan State University. His research includes expertise in functional analysis, operator theory and complex analysis.

American Chemical Society topic of Nov. 13 colloquium

In celebration of 100 years of existence, the Toledo section of the American Chemical Society is partnering with the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to host a colloquium next week.

Dr. Thomas Connelly Jr., senior director and CEO of the American Chemical Society, will speak Monday, Nov. 13, at 4 p.m. in Wolfe Hall Room 1205. His seminar is titled “American Chemical Society: Journals and Information Solutions.”


He has served as chief science and technology officer and as chief innovation officer for the DuPont Co. While there, he was responsible for science and technology, with special emphases on polymer science, chemical process development, and bioprocessing for chemical synthesis and production.

Connelly graduated with highest honors from Princeton University with degrees in chemical engineering and economics, and received his doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge, where he was a Winston Churchill Scholar.

For inquiries about the free, public event, contact Dr. Joanna Hinton at 419.530.4292 or Dr. Jon Kirchhoff at 419.530.1515. Both are faculty members in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Biology graduate students to host research symposium Nov. 3

The Biology Graduate Students’ Research Symposium will take place Friday, Nov. 3, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Thompson Student Union Ingman Room.

This is the fifth year for the symposium, which is designed to showcase the biology research being conducted at the University and introduce graduate studies to students.

The free, public event will include a poster presentation by graduate students followed by an introduction to undergraduate research opportunities by faculty. Snacks and beverages will be provided.

“Biology research can be an alien language for a lot of the people in the community due to its complexity and ambiguous findings,” said Kyoung Jo, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences. “We are attempting to simplify our findings and research subjects into posters so that people can understand better what kind of science we are doing in the community.”

There will be poster presentations on fertility; cancer, including breast cancer; viruses and the immune system; neuroscience; and plants.

The event also will include a presentation from Dr. Claire Walczak, assistant director of research for the Medical Sciences Program at Indiana University. Her presentation titled “Polypoid Cell Divisions and Genome Stability” will begin at 3:30 p.m.

The event is sponsored by the Graduate Student Association, the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and the Department of Biological Sciences.

UT researcher makes discovery about massive stars as part of international team of astronomers

For the first time, astronomers have mapped the surface of a massive hot star, proving a decades-long theory that hot spots on the star’s surface affect the behavior of stellar winds. A University of Toledo astronomer was a member of the international research team that made the groundbreaking discovery.

“We’re now better able to understand how massive stars send out material into space through their winds,” said Dr. Noel Richardson, postdoctoral research associate in the UT Department of Physics and Astronomy, who was a member of the research team. “This research gives us a better understanding of how stars lose material, which then forms new stars and planets.”

This artistic rendering depicts Zeta Puppis, a massive star that astronomers studied to learn how hot spots affect stellar winds. Dr. Noel Richardson, UT postdoctoral research associate, was a member of the international team that made the groundbreaking discovery.

The team’s research appears in a paper recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, one of the world’s leading astronomy journals.

For decades, astronomers have theorized that there were hot spots on the surface of massive stars that affected stellar winds, but they didn’t know how those spots behaved or how they impacted the winds.

To test that theory, the research team chose as its test subject a supergiant called Zeta Puppis, a massive star 60 times larger than the sun and seven times hotter at the surface. Massive stars are rare and usually travel in pairs. But Zeta Puppis flies solo — and it flies fast. The star hurtles through space at 37 miles per second, 60 times faster than a speeding bullet.

Using a network of nanosatellites from the “BRIght Target Explorer” (BRITE) space mission, researchers monitored the surface brightness of Zeta Puppis every 100 minutes for six months in 2014. They simultaneously monitored the behavior of its stellar winds over time from several ground-based observatories.

After correlating the two sets of data, the team found that Zeta Puppis rotates at tremendous speed — once every 1.78 days. In comparison, our sun, which is 60 times smaller, takes almost a month to rotate once.


Astronomers in the past had never had enough data to verify their claims about hot spots and their effects on stellar winds. The new data allowed them to map the surface of Zeta Puppis. It proved what the astronomers suspected: The structures on the star’s surface were indeed there, and these hot spots did affect the star’s winds.

Astronomers have mapped the surfaces of cooler stars, Richardson said, but this is the first time they’ve mapped a hot star. They learned that a brighter, hotter spot creates huge spiral structures in stellar winds that scatter more material into space.

A team of more than 40 astronomers participated in the research. The group included six amateur astronomers in Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, who spent three to four hours every night for six months peering into their telescopes and collecting data.

Department of Mathematics and Statistics celebrating 100 years

In celebration of 100 years dedicated to education and research at UT, the Department of Mathematics and Statistics will host several events, starting with a Matheatre double feature Wednesday, Nov. 1, in the Lois and Norman Nitschke Auditorium.

The first feature, “Curie Me Away,” a musical about the science, life and legacy of Madame Marie Curie, the first scientist to win two Nobel prizes, will begin at 6:30 p.m.

The second feature “Calculus: The Musical,” a comic review of the concepts and history of calculus, will start at 8:30 p.m.

There also will be an intermission sponsored by the UT Department of Women’s and Gender Studies on women in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Admission is free and is open to all, but registration is required. Go to math.utoledo.edu.

The department also will host a centennial celebration dinner for those affiliated with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics Thursday, Nov. 2. Doors will open at 5 p.m.

“This is a great opportunity to celebrate our rich history, to thank those involved with the department today, and to embrace a myriad of wonderful possibilities for our future,” said Dr. Donald White, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. “The scheduled events also include a strong element of connecting with the rest of the University community.”

In addition, on Friday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m., the UT Department of Theatre and Film will present the play, “Arcadia,” which has mathematically oriented elements. There will be a discussion regarding mathematics and the production after the performance.

“Mathematics and statistics are foundational to understanding so much of what we do and who we are,” White said. “Mathematical models that describe the universe and our role in it, along with statistical methods that enable us to properly study phenomena in science and social science, are vital to our effective functioning in the universe and to our responsibly handling each other and our planet.

“In addition to the importance of the fields, we celebrate because it gives us a chance to join together and relish the past, enjoy the present, and embrace a great future.”

For more information or to register for the matheatre event, visit math.utoledo.edu.