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UT researcher receives grant to study male infertility

In approximately 40 percent of infertile couples, the male partner is either the sole cause or a contributing factor of infertility. Of these cases, only half can be attributed to an identifiable reason.

A University of Toledo biologist hopes to learn more about what causes infertility in men with support from a National Institutes of Health grant.



The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has awarded Dr. Tomer Avidor-Reiss, UT associate professor of biological sciences, a two-year $147,500 grant to support his research titled “A Genome-wide Drosophila RNAi Screen for Regulators of Centrosome Reduction.”

The study’s outcomes are expected to advance the understanding of how and why centrosomal proteins decrease during sperm formation. Those centrosomal proteins are specialized subunits within an animal cell that serve as the main microtubule organizing center and regulate the division and duplication of DNA.

“Infertility is a problem for one in eight couples. Often we see sperm cells that look normal, but when they fertilize the egg, there are abnormalities in the embryo,” Avidor-Reiss said. “This study has provided the first insight into a molecular mechanism that regulates centrosome reduction and the first direct evidence this process is essential for post-fertilization embryonic development.”

“Once again The University of Toledo is the recipient of research grants for breakthrough discoveries,” said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. “This time it’s for the challenge of identifying contributing factors for male infertility, early stage miscarriages and developmental diseases, and, hopefully, finding new treatments.” 

Kaptur is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, which has oversight over the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Engineers awarded $175,000 grant to develop program for cybermanufacturing of micro-electro-mechanical systems

The National Science Foundation awarded a pair of engineering professors at The University of Toledo a $175,000 grant to design a program to manufacture micro-electro-mechanical systems on the Internet.

Micro-electro-mechanical systems, called MEMS, have tiny moving parts and are used in cell phones, vehicle airbags and other consumer electronic products. For example, these devices are what cause the screen on a tablet or smartphone to rotate automatically from portrait view to landscape.

College of Engineering LogoDr. Vijaya Kumar Devabhaktuni, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Dr. Daniel Georgiev, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will lead the project titled “CloudMEMS: Cybermanufacturing of Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems” to develop a web-based, low-cost program to design micro-electro-mechanical systems, which will allow entrepreneurs and researchers to more efficiently prototype their designs.

Devabhaktuni and Georgiev will collaborate on this project with Norfolk State University and the University of Dayton researchers who have been awarded $100,000 and $225,000. Overall, the National Science Foundation invested a total of $500,000 in this collaborative project.

According to the award, “The CloudMEMS platform will be made accessible via the Internet to bridge the cyber and manufacturing domains, thereby promoting leadership in the U.S. in cyber-driven microsystems and manufacturing.”

This three-year grant is one of five UT research projects to recently receive federal funds from the National Science Foundation totaling $375,000 in the fields of cybersecurity, advanced materials manufacturing, smart grid technology and three-dimensional cell culture.

“These funds will allow the top researchers at The University of Toledo to focus on developing breakthrough discoveries that will likely spur private-sector economic growth from new products and services for the automotive and aerospace sectors, cybersecurity and agriculture,” Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said. “There are exciting things happening at The University of Toledo.”

UT medical faculty, students studying effects of algal bloom toxins on liver

A research team in The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences is taking an in-depth look at Lake Erie algal bloom toxins and the impact they can have on your liver.

“No one knows what safe limits are for a large segment of the public,” said Dr. David Kennedy, assistant professor in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine. “Previous studies only focused on healthy animals.”

Andrew Kleinhenz, biomedical research assistant, and Dalal Mahmoud, UT junior majoring in biology, thawed plasma samples from mouse blood for molecular analysis to measure liver damage.

Andrew Kleinhenz, biomedical research assistant, and Dalal Mahmoud, UT junior majoring in biology, thawed plasma samples from mouse blood for molecular analysis to measure liver damage.

During the heart of this algal bloom season, researchers are using mice as a model to study the impact of microcystin exposure on patients who have the most common and often undiagnosed form of liver disease that is tightly linked to obesity.

“Microcystin is a toxin that specifically targets the liver, a vital organ that needs to be healthy in order to process the food you eat,” Kennedy said. “And non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is the most prevalent type of liver disease nationally — particularly in northwest Ohio. Whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, a third of northwest Ohioans have this disease that is silent at first, but predisposes you to big problems down the road, such as the liver becoming scarred and inflamed.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, obesity is a major risk factor for the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which causes the organ to swell with fat. Unchecked, the disease can lead to liver failure and the need for a transplant.

“There is a large population of people who may be susceptible to the effects of microcystin exposure, whether it’s swallowed while swimming at the beach or through the tap should toxic algae once again contaminate the public water supply,” said Dr. Steven Haller, assistant professor in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine and co-leader of the project that began in the spring. “The Toledo water crisis inspired us to re-evaluate what levels we’re calling safe.”

Taking a closer look at how algal bloom toxins affect the liver are, from left, Dr. David Kennedy; Dr. Steven Haller; Dalal Mahmoud, junior undergraduate student; Aaron Tipton, second-year medical student; Erin Crawford, research assistant; Andrew Kleinhenz, research assistant; Dr. Fatimah Khalaf, second-year graduate student; Shungang Zhang, second-year graduate student; Dr. Paul M. Stemmer, associate professor and director of the Proteomics Facility at the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at Wayne State University; and Dr. Johnna A. Birbeck, ‎senior research scientist at Wayne State University.

Taking a closer look at how algal bloom toxins affect the liver are, from left, Dr. David Kennedy; Dr. Steven Haller; Dalal Mahmoud, junior undergraduate student; Aaron Tipton, second-year medical student; Erin Crawford, research assistant; Andrew Kleinhenz, research assistant; Dr. Fatimah Khalaf, second-year graduate student; Shungang Zhang, second-year graduate student; Dr. Paul M. Stemmer, associate professor and director of the Proteomics Facility at the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at Wayne State University; and Dr. Johnna A. Birbeck, ‎senior research scientist at Wayne State University.

Two years ago this month, the city of Toledo issued a Do Not Drink advisory for half a million water customers due to the level of microcystin detected in the drinking water.

The state awarded UT researchers a $45,000 grant, which is matched by the University, for the project to discover if a pre-existing liver disease makes a person more susceptible to damage from the toxin released by algal blooms.

The goal is to help inform local, state and international health organizations as they form guidelines for safe limits of exposure.

“By focusing on people who may be at risk, we feel we are doing something beneficial to protect them if, in fact, we detect a damaging connection where microcystin causes the liver disease to progress,” Haller said.

“A healthy animal wouldn’t produce symptoms of liver failure at this level of exposure,” Kennedy said.

Haller and Kennedy have enlisted the help of several UT students in their experiments that use a breed of mouse predisposed to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Second-year medical student Aaron Tipton helped develop the standards to measure liver function after injecting mice with low doses of microcystin through a tube in their stomachs over the course of a month.

“We developed that from scratch because a big issue that came to light during the water crisis is that the only validated way to measure microcystin is expensive and takes a long time,” Tipton said. “Our work is one of the many ways that University of Toledo researchers are attacking the water quality issue to protect our community.”

“I’m honored to be involved in water quality research that is so important for the health and safety of families not only in our community, but in other places across the world also affected by toxic algal blooms,” said Dalal Mahmoud, a UT junior majoring in biology. “It’s a great opportunity to expand my studies and what I want to do in the future.”

Mahmoud and Tipton were the inaugural beneficiaries of a recent philanthropic gift to the lab, the David and Helen Boone Research Award, which helped fund their summer research.

The toxicity project is expected to be completed next June, but Kennedy and Haller hope this is only the first phase.

“Over the long term, we want to come up with a better diagnostic test that patients can take at the emergency room or doctor’s office — such as a simple blood test — to measure the microcystin levels in the body, for example, if you get sick after swimming in the water during algal bloom season,” Haller said. “Even further, we want to find out if there is a preventative or therapeutic strategy where someone can be treated so they don’t keep going down the road of liver disease progression.”

UT research group contributes to international study on itch sensation

Researchers at The University of Toledo are investigating what makes us itch.

Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and his research group recently completed a collaborative, interdisciplinary study of the body’s itch response.



“While itchiness is not a life-threatening health concern, it is uncomfortable and can be a quality of life issue for some people,” Karunarathne said. “Our lab worked with researchers nationally and internationally to explore how the body interprets the itch sensation.”

Led by Dr. Zhou-Feng Chen in the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University School of Medicine, researchers explored the cell’s sensory neuron response to itch-inducing stimuli. Karunarathne’s research group was selected to participate due to its expertise in subcellular optogenetics, which is live cell imaging and signaling.

“Our lab designs and uses light-sensitive signaling proteins and precisely targeted light beams to control signaling in specific regions in single cells,” Karunarathne said. “This way, we can use light for both controlling and monitoring cellular activities and understanding pathologically important cell behaviors such as cancer cell migration.”

Imaging fluorescence biosensors help to capture activities in various cellular compartments. However, scientists do not have a precise way of controlling signaling activities in these subcellular locations.

In the body, a cell’s transient receptor potential (TRP) channels transmit the sensation of pain, itch, temperature and touch to the brain. One channel, named TRPV1, responds to histamine signals, and another channel, TRPA1, responds to the itch-inducing chemical chlorquine.

Using their confocal subcellular fluorescence resonance energy transfer techniques, Karunarathne and his colleagues at UT were able to extract data that helped the team to identify a third member of the TRP family that also plays a role in the body’s itch response.

“We examined the role TRPV4 plays in itch and tested the hypotheses that TRPV1 and TRPV4 cooperate to relay itch information in sensory neurons,” Karunarathne said. “The study suggested that TRPV4 is required for cells to form complexes that relay itch signals.”

This new discovery could lead to new pharmaceuticals that target TRPV4 to provide relief to chronic itch.

The team’s work was published in Science Signaling online last month.

UT researchers test new experimental drug to treat diabetes and increase bone mass

Researchers from The University of Toledo, in collaboration with chemists from the Scripps Research Institute, have discovered a compound that normalizes glucose levels while increasing the mass and quality of bone.

Body processes that regulate energy metabolism and bone mass are closely intertwined, and numerous studies have shown individuals with Type 2 diabetes are at increased risk for bone fractures. Additionally, some current anti-diabetic drugs work well to regulate insulin levels, but can cause further bone damage.

Dr. Beata Lecka-Czernik, right, posed for a photo with her team, from left, Shermel Sherman, Faiz Tausif, Amit Chougule, Lance Stechschulte, Matthew Mazur, Zachary Rotter and Ali Eltatawy.

Dr. Beata Lecka-Czernik, right, posed for a photo with her team, from left, Shermel Sherman, Faiz Tausif, Amit Chougule, Lance Stechschulte, Matthew Mazur, Zachary Rotter and Ali Eltatawy.

“Our data demonstrate the regulation of bone mass and energy metabolism share similar mechanisms,” said Dr. Beata Lecka-Czernik, professor in UT’s departments of Orthopaedic Surgery and Physiology and Pharmacology, and a member of the faculty in the Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Research. “This suggests a new pharmacologic agent could be developed to treat both diabetes and metabolic bone diseases.”

Targeting PPARγ, the protein in the body that regulates energy use and bone cell differentiation and function, Dr. Patrick Griffin and researchers from the Scripps Research Institute developed a series of new insulin sensitizers.

“Our multidisciplinary chemical biology team at Scripps Florida had spent many years developing precise structure activity relationships around many chemical scaffolds that alter the shape and behavior of PPARγ,” Griffin said. “These efforts were then combined with the bone biology expertise of Dr. Lecka-Czernik to explore whether we have compounds that maintain excellent insulin sensitization efficacy but are positive on bone health.”

Lecka-Czernik and her team at UT then tested these compounds for bone safety.

“During the course of our experiments, we discovered that a compound called SR10171 normalizes glucose levels in Type 2 diabetes, prevents associated weight gain, and increases the mass and quality of bone,” she said. “Remarkably, this experimental drug also maintains its positive effect on bone in non-diabetic conditions and acts as insulin sensitizer only on demand when normal glucose and insulin becomes imbalanced.”

SR10171 supports bone formation by directly regulating bone cells that work together to break down, build and protect bone.

The results also suggest the bone remodeling properties of this compound could be used to treat osteoporosis, Lecka-Czernik said.

The team’s findings, “PPARG Post-Translational Modifications Regulate Bone Formation and Bone Resorption,” was published in the August issue of EBioMedicine. This team science was funded in part on a collaborative grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

UT student helps Toledo Zoo secure grant money to restore sturgeon to Lake Erie

The Toledo Zoo secured approximately $90,000 in federal grant money to re-establish ancient lake sturgeon to Lake Erie with the help of a PhD student researcher at The University of Toledo.

The Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act Grants Program recently approved the funding proposal to build a sturgeon rearing facility at the Toledo Zoo along the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Erie.

UT graduate student Jessica Sherman held a lake sturgeon at the Black Lake Fish Hatchery near Onaway, Mich.

UT graduate student Jessica Sherman held a lake sturgeon at the Black Lake Fish Hatchery near Onaway, Mich.

Jessica Sherman, PhD student researcher in UT’s Department of Environmental Sciences, assisted the project by verifying that spawning and nursery habitat still exists in the Maumee River to sustain a population of the fish that can live to be 150 years old and grow up to 300 pounds and nine feet long.

“The new lake sturgeon rearing facility to be built at the Toledo Zoo will be a starting point for rebuilding the population that was once an important part of Lake Erie’s ecology,” Sherman said. “As a graduate student, it has been an incredible opportunity for me to work with partners at the zoo, as well as state and federal agencies to give these large and ancient fish a chance to thrive in Lake Erie once again. This is an instance when scientists and natural resource managers have the opportunity to improve the state of an ecosystem by restoring a species that belongs there and to learn a good lesson about our actions in the past.”

The addition of the grant brings the total funding for the project to $170,000.

Construction of the trailer-sized streamside fish hatchery is slated to begin next year. The goal is to release 3,000 juvenile fish into the Maumee River every year starting in 2018.

“The Toledo Zoo is proud to work with our partners: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Toledo, Ohio Department of Natural Resources-Division of Wildlife, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to re-introduce a historical fish back to our area waterways,” said Jeff Sailer, executive director of the Toledo Zoo. “This project fits well with the zoo’s mission of inspiring others to join us in caring for animals and conserving the natural world. Humans caused the demise of this species, and it is most appropriate that we work together to bring it back.”

Lake sturgeon, which existed with dinosaurs, are no longer in the Maumee River. They’re believed to exist in small numbers in Lake Erie.

According to the zoo’s conservation director, lake sturgeon were abundant in the Maumee River in the 1800s, but the demand for caviar and fuel, as well as commercial over-fishing, caused the population to decline and ultimately disappear.

“Ohio doesn’t have a current reproducing lake sturgeon population,” said Kent Bekker, director of conservation and research for the Toledo Zoo. “This facility is a huge step for the reintroduction of this species in our state and for the Lake Erie basin.”

Students search to understand the power of Pokémon Go

Researchers at The University of Toledo are working to be among the first to provide data on why so many Pokémon Go players are so dedicated to catching ’em all.

In a survey of players of the incredibly popular Nintendo augmented reality smart phone game, doctoral students in UT’s Health Education Program are working to add some quantitative data about those who spend hours and walk miles playing the game.

Pokemon“You see the snapshots in the news about the good and the bad stories about individual people playing the game, but it is so new we don’t have data on the players,” said Victoria Wagner-Greene, the UT doctoral student who came up with the research project. “We’re working to be among the first to share who is playing this game and how it is impacting their lives.” 

To play Pokémon Go, players create an avatar that searches for and catches Pokémon characters out in the community using GPS on their mobile devices. PokeStops are landmarks where you can find characters and equipment, such as the Poké Balls you use to catch them, that are in popular public locations, including several on UT’s campus, making it an ideal location to survey a large number of players.

It was seeing students on campus from the University of Michigan who had traveled to Toledo specifically to catch more characters that inspired Wagner-Greene, who plays the game herself, to create this research project to learn more about that dedication.

Because she studies public health, of particular interest is how has playing Pokémon Go impacted the player’s physical activity. As players catch more characters and earn more steps, they move up through the levels of the game. Data on the safety concerns and social aspects of the game also will be gathered.

The survey asks players questions about how many hours per day they play the game, has it increased their physical activity, have they trespassed or run into people or objects while playing, do they play after dark, and have they played with strangers. It also gathers demographic information, such as age, race, gender, marital status and education level.

“Right now the news about this game is anecdotal. We are working to get the data to back it up to be a reference for what is going on with Pokémon,” said Dr. Joseph Dake, professor and chair of the UT School of Population Health, who also is a Pokémon player with his family often going on “Poke walks” as a group to catch characters together. “By quantifying with data, recommendations can be made on how to engage more young people in physical activity through the game or ways to ensure the safety of the players who, as the headlines have shown, get too focused in the game and ignore their surroundings.”

Wagner-Greene and her colleagues Amy Wotring and Tom Castor, also UT doctoral students in the Health Education Program, began surveying players last month at UT and other area hot spots, including parks. They hope to get more than 500 players completing the paper survey and an additional insight from 1,000 more players contacted through online forums.

UT researcher receives nearly $2 million grant for Lyme disease study

A University of Toledo microbiologist will receive nearly $2 million in federal research funds to study Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, and develop new therapies for treating patients affected by the condition.

The National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded Dr. Mark Wooten, UT professor of medical microbiology and immunology, $1,948,415 over five years to identify the mechanisms that allow B. burgdorferi to evade immune clearance in skin and other host tissues.



“Traditionally, it has been difficult to study this bacterium since it can only survive within animals and not in artificial cultures,” Wooten said. “Our group has been able to develop advanced microscopy models that allow us to directly observe the bacteria within the skin of living mice over extended periods of time without harming the animal. We will use these methods to continuously monitor how the infection develops, which we believe will identify the key mechanisms that allow the bacteria to evade the host’s immune response.”

Wooten said data gathered from the study could be used to provide new targets for Lyme disease therapies.

“This is further national recognition for the important research being done at The University of Toledo,” Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said. “Lyme disease affects 300,000 Americans each year, a number far greater than previously thought, and 40 percent of whom end up with long-term, serious health concerns. There are no current tests available to definitively prove if the Lyme organism is eradicated or that the patient is cured. Research such as this will help us to know more about Lyme disease.” 

Undergraduate students to present summer research at symposium Aug. 4

More than 60 undergraduate students at The University of Toledo spent the past three months delving deep into research projects, including the effect of algal bloom toxins on the development of oysters, a mother’s influence on the accuracy of childhood memories, and the effect of nicotine on ovarian cancer cells.

Two of the students translated Korean plays for presentation to American audiences, and four students participated in the Toledo Internship Program with the city of Toledo.

Business Hlogo 1c BlackStudents will present their work at the End-of-Summer Research Symposium Thursday, Aug. 4, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Student Union. Oral presentations will be in Room 2582; poster presentations will be in Room 2584.

Dr. Andrew Hsu, UT’s new provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, will give opening remarks at 9 a.m. Dr. William Messer Jr., UT vice president for research, will address the crowd at 2:20 p.m.

“From molecular and cellular biology to history, these projects encompass a comprehensive mixture of natural sciences, human sciences, engineering, humanities and art,” Dr. Thomas Kvale, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and physics professor, said. “The summer research program is a great opportunity for undergraduate students to transcend the classroom and strengthen critical thinking skills with tremendous support from faculty members who serve as mentors.”

Most of the projects are funded through the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The symposium is free and open to the public.

For a full list of research projects, click here.

UT researcher receives three NIH grants to study how cancer spreads

The migration of cancer cells away from the primary tumor and their subsequent metastasis to distant organs is the leading cause of mortality among breast cancer patients.

Dr. Rafael Garcia-Mata, UT assistant professor of biological sciences, has received three grants from the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute to study how cancer cells spread in the body. His focus is on triple negative breast cancer.



“We use this type of cancer because it is highly invasive,” he said. “If we can identify how this type of cancer spreads, the data can be extrapolated to other types of cancers.”

Cancer cells invade other tissues and enter the bloodstream by forming actin-rich membrane protrusions called invadopodia, or “invading feet,” that degrade the extracellular matrix. Once in the bloodstream, the cancer cells can metastasize to form secondary tumors.

Garcia-Mata said it is his team’s goal to learn how these protrusions form and to identify the upstream regulators and downstream effectors of the formations. Their study is three-pronged:

• “Regulation of Invopodia Formation by RhoG Specific GEFs and GAPs” is funded by a three-year, $412,911 grant and seeks to identify what signals the protrusions to begin to form.

• A two-year, $330,544 grant supports the “RhoG Signaling in Invadopodia” project that explores the role of RhoG in invadopodia formation and cell invasion and identifies Rho-G-specific downstream effectors involved in their formation.

• “A Novel RhoG Protein Interaction Network in Invadopodia” seeks to learn more about 10 highly interconnected genes and their roles in the formation of these cancer-spreading pathways. The lab will receive $147,500 over two years for this portion of the research.

“Deregulation in Rho GTPase signaling has been associated with all stages of cancer, and once we understand the role these proteins play in how these invadopodia form, we can begin to research treatments to prevent or slow their progress,” Garcia-Mata said.