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UT scientists awarded nearly $1 million in federal grants to examine cell behaviors

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded nearly $1 million in federal grants to two scientists at The University of Toledo for research projects examining cell behaviors that can lead to the development of better medicines to treat cancer, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disease.

“Once again one of our top-level Ohio universities proves that they are on the cutting edge of medical research and innovation,” said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. “Northern Ohio is a leader in medical research, and these funds build on that foundation of excellence. These researchers are pushing boundaries and working to develop treatments and therapies to help those suffering from chronic illness. The University of Toledo distinguishes itself by competing and winning competitive grant opportunities such as the one announced [Sept. 11]. I am pleased to be able to support their efforts to access federal research resources.”

Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, received $441,323 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to examine the regulation of a crucial group of signaling pathways named G-protein and GPCRs that help the body control functions, including heart rate, and are involved in pathological processes such as cancer and heart disease.

“Knowledge from our experiments will help develop tissue- and organ-specific therapeutics for a variety of diseases, including cancer, that are less harmful to bodily functions,” Karunarathne said.

Dr. James Slama, professor in the UT Department of Medicinal and Biological Chemistry, received $461,898 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to identify the elusive receptor for nicotinic acid adenine dinucleotide phosphate, or NAADP, which could lead to the development of inhibitors that may be useful as anti-tumor drugs.

“This project is part of an effort to discover how cells in an organism control their behaviors, and how they can respond to changing outside conditions,” Slama said. “Calcium inside of the cell is an important controller, and a second chemical, named NAADP, is one of several substances that triggers internal calcium release. Our goal is to understand how NAADP causes this calcium release and to identify the individual steps in the process in both normal and in diseased states.”

UT chemists awarded $2.1 million to develop new antibiotic to treat TB

The National Institutes of Health awarded a team of chemists at The University of Toledo a five-year, $2.1 million grant to create a new, more effective drug to treat tuberculosis, the most common cause of death from an infectious disease worldwide.

The grant renews funding through 2023 for the project that combats drug resistance to current antibiotics.

Dr. Donald Ronning, left, and Dr. Steve Sucheck are using a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a better drug to treat tuberculosis.

Dr. Donald Ronning and Dr. Steve Sucheck, professors in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, will build on their progress made in the fight against Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which can be spread through coughing, sneezing or laughing, and kills more people each year than HIV, malaria and the flu. It takes at least six months to clear the infection with the drugs currently available.

“Antibiotics discovered 60 years ago are becoming obsolete as bacteria naturally evolve to outsmart drug therapies,” Sucheck said. “Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which kills 1.5 million people a year, is one of a number of bacteria that have become increasingly drug-resistant.”

“We’re designing an antibiotic to shorten the time it takes to clear the infection,” Ronning said. “Instead of six to 24 months, we’re aiming for a therapy of two weeks, like treating strep throat or an ear infection, as well as reducing the side effects.”

The team has published several papers about breakthroughs in their ongoing research in journals, including Nature Communications, Scientific Reports and the Journal of Biological Chemistry, as well as the American Chemical Society’s journals Biochemistry and Infectious Diseases.

“We’ve used X-rays to structurally characterize two targets and are making progress in understanding how to better hit those targets to make a molecule that is going to be much more potent against the bacterium that causes tuberculosis,” Ronning said.

The research centers around inhibiting two essential classes of enzymes found in Mycobacterium tuberculosis. One is called the antigen 85 Complex that the researchers learned changes shape as it performs its job in the cell, making the protein more vulnerable to some of the compounds the lab has been testing. The second enzyme class synthesizes long polymers of sugar. Inhibiting this enzyme promotes an accumulation of compounds toxic to the bacterium and leads to rapid killing.

“There is a tremendous need to identify new drugs and new drug targets that can be used to treat this increasingly drug-resistant bacteria,” Sucheck said. “We are creating something that has never been made. The work is urgent because many cases of TB are almost impossible to treat.”

Art and science set to collide at Toledo CellulART Sept. 14

Toledo CellulART, a regional meeting that brings together the art and scientific communities, will take place Friday, Sept. 14, in the UT Center for the Visual Arts on the Toledo Museum of Art Campus.

CellulART celebrates the link between art and science while promoting collaboration, interaction and discussion between cytoskeletal researchers.

This year the keynote talk will be given by Dr. Kenneth Yamada, National Institutes of Health Distinguished Investigator in the Cell Biology Division at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research in Bethesda, Md. He will speak at 1 p.m.

The meeting also will feature a scientist/artist talk by Dr. Edna Cukierman, co-leader of the Pancreas Research Interest Group at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. She will talk at 5:30 p.m.

Throughout the daylong event, there will be oral and poster presentations by faculty members, researchers, and undergraduate and graduate students.

The meeting is sponsored by the American Society for Cell Biology; Cytoskeleton Inc.; Fisher Scientific International Inc.; and by the UT offices of the President and the Provost; the UT College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; and the UT Department of Biological Sciences.

For more information regarding registration, abstract submission or the image competition, click here.

UT faculty member wins second Blackboard Catalyst Award

Dr. Claire Stuve was among honorees from around the world who were recognized during Blackboard’s annual conference this summer in Orlando, Fla.

It was the second year in a row the curriculum developer and technology researcher for University College won a Blackboard Catalyst Award.

Stuve

Stuve was honored in the category of exemplary course, which recognizes faculty and course designers who develop exciting and innovative classes that represent the very best in technology and learning.

Since its establishment in 2005, the Blackboard Catalyst Awards have honored innovation and excellence in the Blackboard global community of practice.

Recipients of the awards are selected by a cross-functional team of Blackboard experts.

The awards program honors clients who have gone above and beyond in using technology in innovative ways from impacting the student experience to building exemplary courses.

Since 2011, Stuve has been a staff member and an adjunct professor in University College; she joined the Department of Mathematics and Statistics as an adjunct in 2016.

Her responsibilities as curriculum developer and technology researcher in University College include creating a research-based curriculum that incorporates emerging technologies and evaluating data on new and redeveloped courses.

Her research interests include using technology to foster engagement and applying the principles of good course design.

“I love technology and the impact it can have on learning,” Stuve said. “So I’m interested in finding out what technologies have the biggest impact, how I can help students learn better and increase retention, and how I can help students have fun.”

She is also a campus liaison for New Media Consortium and a Quality Matters Certified Master Reviewer. And she is a master’s student in UT’s Public Health Program. The UT alumna received a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in instructional technology, and a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction.

The course she is being recognized for this year by the Catalyst Awards is called Blackboard Collaborate Ultra Training, which is designed to teach faculty how to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra with students and how to incorporate it into their curriculum.

As an undergraduate student, Stuve struggled with her work, motivating her to help future students who may be struggling become successful while also teaching faculty how to ensure their students’ success.

“Part of helping students be successful is helping faculty be better teachers and know themselves how to help struggling students,” she said. “Therefore, I wanted to design a course where I could teach faculty how to use innovative and fun technology to help students.”

The training course utilizes innovative technology through advanced multimedia, simulations and web conferencing, and was the first course of its kind offered at UT that incorporated training simulations.

Stuve explained how she recognizes every student is different and learns differently, so she tries to incorporate numerous teaching methods that present content in multiple ways. She also makes it her mission to ensure students are having fun when they’re learning.

“I’m honored to have won a Catalyst Award for a second year because it reaffirms to myself that I am making a difference and that what I do is helping students,” she said.

Women in STEM to host network-building event

Women in STEM at The University of Toledo is working with the Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women and the Association for Women in Science to create mentoring programs and initiatives for students.

A welcoming and network-building event will take place Monday, Aug. 20, for women pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering or math at the University. The organization also has expanded its inclusion of those studying the medical sciences.

This free event will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Libbey Hall Dining Room and provide students and faculty with a relaxed atmosphere that will allow them to establish and develop mentoring relationships to ensure their success at UT.

Women in STEM at UT also has worked with IDEAL-N, a multi-university project that is funded through the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program and facilitated by Case Western Reserve University.

IDEAL-N aims to institutionalize gender equity transformation at leading research universities by creating a learning community of academic leaders that is empowered to develop leverage knowledge, skills, resources and networks to transform university cultures and enhance diversity and inclusion.

“Organizations like these and the Association for Women in Science are a valuable source of information for women in STEMM,” said Dr. Patricia Case, associate dean for the UT College of Arts and Letters. “They provide links to education and research opportunities, as well as provide opportunities to develop relationships with other women in STEMM.”

Research has found that a male-dominated discipline can be demoralizing to women, and having a group of individuals to guide you or “have your back” can be the difference between success and exiting a career path, Case explained.

“Women account for approximately 52 percent of the population, so equality would mean that we have more representation in these fields,” Case added. “When barriers are lifted, women pursue and succeed in these degrees as much as men.”

If interested in attending the event, RSVP to Angelica Johnson at angelica.johnson2@utoledo.edu or 419.530.5146.

For questions about the event, contact Case at patricia.case@utoledo.edu.

UT chemists discover how blue light speeds blindness

Blue light from digital devices and the sun transforms vital molecules in the eye’s retina into cell killers, according to optical chemistry research at The University of Toledo.

The process outlined in the study, which was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, leads to age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the United States.

Dr. Ajith Karunarathne examined toxic oxygen generation by retinal during blue light exposure.

“We are being exposed to blue light continuously, and the eye’s cornea and lens cannot block or reflect it,” Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said. “It’s no secret that blue light harms our vision by damaging the eye’s retina. Our experiments explain how this happens, and we hope this leads to therapies that slow macular degeneration, such as a new kind of eye drop.”

Macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease that results in significant vision loss starting on average in a person’s 50s or 60s, is the death of photoreceptor cells in the retina. Those cells need molecules called retinal to sense light and trigger a cascade of signaling to the brain.

“You need a continuous supply of retinal molecules if you want to see,” Karunarathne said. “Photoreceptors are useless without retinal, which is produced in the eye.”

Karunarathne’s lab found that blue light exposure causes retinal to trigger reactions that generate poisonous chemical molecules in photoreceptor cells.

“It’s toxic. If you shine blue light on retinal, the retinal kills photoreceptor cells as the signaling molecule on the membrane dissolves,” Kasun Ratnayake, a PhD student researcher working in Karunarathne’s cellular photo chemistry group, said. “Photoreceptor cells do not regenerate in the eye. When they’re dead, they’re dead for good.”

Karunarathne introduced retinal molecules to other cell types in the body, such as cancer cells, heart cells and neurons. When exposed to blue light, these cell types died as a result of the combination with retinal. Blue light alone or retinal without blue light had no effect on cells.

“No activity is sparked with green, yellow or red light,” Karunarathne said. “The retinal-generated toxicity by blue light is universal. It can kill any cell type.”

The researcher found that a molecule called alpha tocopherol, a vitamin E derivative and a natural antioxidant in the eye and body, stops the cells from dying. However, as a person ages or the immune system is suppressed, people lose the ability to fight against the attack by retinal and blue light.

“That is when the real damage occurs,” Karunarathne said.

The lab currently is measuring light coming from television, cell phone and tablet screens to get a better understanding of how the cells in the eyes respond to everyday blue light exposure.

“If you look at the amount of light coming out of your cell phone, it’s not great but it seems tolerable,” Dr. John Payton, visiting assistant professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said. “Some cell phone companies are adding blue-light filters to the screens, and I think that is a good idea.”

To protect your eyes from blue light, Karunarathne advises to wear sunglasses that can filter both UV and blue light outside and avoid looking at cell phones or tablets in the dark.

“Every year more than two million new cases of age-related macular degeneration are reported in the United States,” Karunarathne said. “By learning more about the mechanisms of blindness in search of a method to intercept toxic reactions caused by the combination of retinal and blue light, we hope to find a way to protect the vision of children growing up in a high-tech world.”

View Mars at UT observatory as red planet comes closest to Earth in 15 years

Mars will be visible to the naked eye in late July as the planet approaches its closet point to Earth since 2003 — 35.8 million miles away.

Astronomers at The University of Toledo are hosting Mars Watch 2018 to share the UT telescope with the public for a view of what is called opposition, the point when Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of the Earth as the planets orbit around the sun.

“Due to the orbit of Mars and Earth, Mars is really only well-placed for observing from Earth for a month or two every two years or so,” Alex Mak, associate director of UT Ritter Planetarium, said. “The end of July and early August mark one of those opportunities.”

The Brooks Observatory in McMaster Hall will be open to the public for four nights — from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday, July 26; Monday, July 30; Tuesday, July 31; and Wednesday, Aug. 1. Visitors are invited to meet in the lobby of McMaster Hall, where they will be guided up to the observatory.

“Mars is the planet that has fascinated humanity for the longest,” Mak said. “From its retrograde motion in the sky and its blood red color to the question of whether Mars has or had life, it is a planet that has never failed to make us wonder.”

The event is dependent on clear skies.

Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children 5 through 12. Children 4 and younger are admitted free.

UT neuroscientist awarded $1.75 million to develop method to modify traumatic memories, treat PTSD

A neuroscientist at The University of Toledo is creating a new way to help people face their fears.

The National Institute of Mental Health awarded Dr. Jianyang Du, assistant professor in the UT Department of Biological Sciences, a five-year, $1.75 million grant to develop a method to modify fearful memories, which could lead to new treatment options for mental health illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

Du

“Excessive fear memories such as war-time trauma or a near-death experience can be crippling,” Du said. “However, fear memories also can be critical for survival. Developing means to either erase or to strengthen fear memory could aid understanding of how memories are formed and may suggest novel therapeutic strategies.” 

Du, who studies how protons regulate brain circuits and behaviors, found in mouse brains that manipulating pH in the amygdala can influence or control fear memories during recollection, creating a short window of increased susceptibility to either erase or enhance the memory.

Du manipulates the pH levels by using carbon dioxide inhalation and activating key molecular components of the central nervous system called acid-sensing ion channels, which spread throughout the body and allow for transmission of signals in the nervous system. The acid-sensing ion channels are important targets for pharmaceutical drug designers because of their importance to learning and memory.

“Our goal is to uncover the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which traumatic memories are stored in the brain and how carbon-dioxide inhalation and acid-sensing ion channels influence or control emotional behaviors, such as anxiety and depression,” Du said. “The ability to rewire the brain to modify existing fearful memories is very important as it relates to mental disorders.”

UT astronomer part of NASA mission that discovered famously furious star system shoots cosmic rays

The average person encounters cosmic rays when the fast, tiny particles shoot through the clouds and cause bright pixels on photos. Very few actually reach the ground, and they are not known to be harmful.

Astrophysicists long believed those lightweight protons or electrons moving close to the speed of light reach Earth’s atmosphere after supernova explosions, deflecting off electromagnetic fields in their scrambled path through space that ultimately masks their origin.

The left panel shows the Hubble image of Eta Carinae, and the right shows an X-ray image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory on the same scale. The green contours show where NuSTAR detected the very high-energy source, which also proves that it is Eta Carinae and not another source in the region. The images are courtesy of NASA.

However, a groundbreaking new study involving NASA’s NuSTAR space telescope shows the most luminous and massive stellar system within 10,000 light years also is a source of cosmic rays that sometimes reach Earth, no explosion necessary.

The Eta Carinae discovery, which was published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy, was made by an international team, which includes an astronomer at The University of Toledo.

Dr. Noel Richardson, postdoctoral research associate in the UT Department of Physics and Astronomy, analyzed data from NuSTAR observations of Eta Carinae acquired between March 2014 and June 2016. The space telescope, which was launched in 2012 and can focus X-rays of much greater energy than any previous telescope, detects a source emitting X-rays above 30,000 electron volts at a rate of motion approaching the speed of light.

Richardson

“Most stars can’t produce that much energy,” Richardson said. “Eta Carinae is one of only three star systems NuSTAR has been able to observe. The new technology allowed us to push what we understand about the high-energy universe. And we discovered that we don’t always need an exploding star, but rather two stars with massive winds pushing out cosmic rays.”

The raging winds from Eta Carinae’s two tightly orbiting stars smash together at speeds of more than six million miles per hour approximately every five years. Temperatures reach many tens of millions of degrees — enough to emit X-rays.

“Both of Eta Carinae’s stars drive powerful outflows called stellar winds,” Dr. Michael Corcoran, team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said. “Where these winds clash changes during the orbital cycle, which produces a periodic signal in low-energy X-rays we’ve tracked for more than two decades.”

“We know the blast waves of exploded stars can accelerate cosmic ray particles to speeds comparable to that of light, an incredible energy boost,” said Dr. Kenji Hamaguchi, astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and lead author of the study. “Similar processes must occur in other extreme environments. Our analysis indicates Eta Carinae is one of them.”

Eta Carinae’s primary star is almost 100 times more massive and five million times more luminous than the sun. That star also is famous for losing 10 suns worth of material — huge amounts of gas and dust — into space in an enormous explosion in the 1830s that briefly made it the second-brightest star in the sky.

Richardson studies massive stars and also was part of the international team that captured the first sharp image of Eta Carinae’s violent wind collision zone and discovered new and unexpected structures in 2016.

In addition to UT and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, researchers from the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, Catholic University of America, California Institute of Technology, University of Leeds, Hiroshima University, University of Utah and San Jose State University contributed to the new study.

Read more and see a video here.

UT team receives research award at international Biodesign Challenge Summit

UT students who thought outside — and inside — the hive won the Outstanding Field Research Award June 22 at the Biodesign Challenge Summit in New York.

“Apigiene Hive: Rethinking Bee Hygiene” was selected for the honor that recognizes a team that takes the initiative to go into the field and interview experts as well as potentially affected communities in order to find and understand the social impacts of their project.

Members of the UT team — from left, Madeline Tomczak, Jesse Grumelot, Domenic Pennetta and Lucya Keune — posed for a photo with the Outstanding Field Research Award they won June 22 at the Biodesign Challenge Summit, which was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Members of the UT team are Madeline Tomczak, who graduated with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science in May; Domenic Pennetta, a sophomore majoring in art; Jesse Grumelot, who graduated in May with a bachelor of science degree in bioengineering; and Lucya Keune, a senior studying visual arts.

The four were in New York for the award ceremony and exhibition with Brian Carpenter and Eric Zeigler, assistant professors in the Department of Art in the College of Arts and Letters, who taught the Biodesign Challenge class spring semester.

“We are very proud of our UT students,” Carpenter said. “This challenge is fantastic. It encourages students to think creatively, take risks, and gather science and data. They realize their designs can work.”

“This competition was such an incredible opportunity for our students,” Zeigler said. “For UT to win an award our first year in the challenge shows the dedication and creativity of our students.”

Solving problems creatively is what the Biodesign Challenge is all about. The Genspace NYC program offers college students the chance to envision future applications of biotechnology by working together interdisciplinarily.

At UT, the Biodesign Challenge class brought together students majoring in art, bioengineering and environmental science, as well as peers from the Jesup Scott Honors College.

UT went head to head against 29 schools from across the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Guatemala, Japan and Scotland. Six awards were presented at the challenge.

“This was an incredible win on a world stage. Our students competed against teams from New York University, Rutgers, the University of Sydney, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Ghent University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Georgetown. It was our first time out of the gate, and UT took an award,” said Barbara WF Miner, professor and chair of the UT Department of Art. “We are ecstatic!”

“[The 30] finalists were selected from a pool of 450 participants,” Daniel Grushkin, founder and director of the Biodesign Challenge, said. “I firmly believe that they are leading us into a sustainable future with their visions.”

The UT team wanted to help the bee population and created additions for the popular Langstroth hive to fight one of the insect’s biggest foes: mites.

A fibrous brush filled with zebra mussel powder at the hive entrance targets Varroa destructor mites on the surface of adult bees. The insects will clean off the powder — and the mites — and leftover powder will help kill the intruders inside the hive.

And to tackle the Acarapis woodi mites, which invade the hive and lay eggs, the team turned to a natural deterrent: mint, which was infused with the wax frames.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the UT students presented their project to more than 200 scientists, designers, entrepreneurs and artists.

“Our students’ design is economically feasible; beekeepers would just add two simple modifications to their existing hives,” Zeigler said. “It’s a happy solution, and one that could have tremendous market impact all over the world.”

“Eric, the students and I want to thank the University for its support,” Carpenter said. “We wouldn’t have been able to develop this class without assistance from the College of Arts and Letters; the Jesup Scott Honors College; the College of Engineering; the Department of Art; and the Department of Environmental Sciences. We’re already looking forward to next year’s challenge.”