Monthly Archives: March 2013

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This is the second part of a two-part series on four Stony Brook University researchers who recently received an NSF Career Award. Designed to give researchers in the early part of their careers a financial boost before they compete against established scientists for the same dollars, the award funds projects, allows the scientists to expand their educational goals and offers recognition.

Last week, the Times Beacon Record Newspapers featured questions and answers with Radu Laza and Jonathan Rudick. This week, the paper will have insights from Alex Orlov and Emre Salman.

 

Alex Orlov

TBR: Are you excited to win this award?

Orlov: This was absolutely delightful news. Receiving this award, especially just before significant budget cuts to science, is even more amazing.

TBR: What will these funds enable you to do? Will you hire anyone new? Will you do more teaching?

Orlov: These funds will have a huge impact on my research focused on sustainable energy. It will also allow us to start new collaborations with Brookhaven National Lab and with other groups outside Stony Brook (University). I expect to hire several undergraduate and graduate students, who will be working on this project. There will be also a very significant impact on undergraduate and graduate teaching here.

Almost 80 graduate and undergraduate students are taking my courses and this project will allow me to introduce several innovative case studies based on this funded project into the classroom. We are also planning to develop new teaching techniques for engineering courses to help students (high school and university ones) to educate them on designing better consumer products while protecting the environment.

TBR: Is there anything new in your lab since we spoke? [The Times Beacon Record profiled Orlov on Dec. 18.]

Orlov: [He was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in Britain in February.] The fellowship is something very exciting. There are also several interesting projects I am doing in collaboration with my colleagues (I am the principal investigator, but a significant player), such as developing a new computer game to educate students on environmental topics. There is a paper which was just accepted where we found a better way to get hydrogen fuel from water.

 

Emre Salman

TBR: How would you characterize the scope of your research?

Salman: Our research activities focus on high performance and energy efficient integrated circuits. We develop design techniques for next generation microprocessors, mobile computing devices as well as communication chips. We also investigate emerging integrated circuit technologies to overcome the fundamental limitations of current electronic systems such as high power consumption. At the NanoCAS Lab, our workstations are equipped with the latest electronic design automation software that allow us to verify our algorithms, models and design techniques.

Our ultimate objective is to develop future integrated circuits that are more portable, can interact with the environment, consume low power, yet still offer significant computing capability.

TBR: How will you use the funds from the award?

Salman: The NSF Career funds will support between one and two Ph.D. students in my research group (NanoCAS Lab) for five years. Part of the funds will be used to fabricate and test a three-dimensional integrated circuit to demonstrate and validate our methodologies. Furthermore, a scholarship will be available to an undergraduate student each year. Our objective is to provide undergraduate students with real research experience in our lab. These research activities will be integrated with multiple educational initiatives such as developing new course modules and outreach events for high school students within Long Island.

TBR: What would you tell those who are considering a career in research?

Salman: I would encourage them. It is fascinating to spend time on something that is not yet known by anybody. The hard part is to ask the right questions. If the questions are right, I believe the answers are likely to come, even though it may take some time. It is also very rewarding to share these experiences through teaching.

TBR: Where do you live?

Salman: I have been on Long Island since September 2010 and currently live in Sound Beach. I grew up in a small town on the Mediterranean coast in Turkey, so I enjoy being close to water. I like the nature of Long Island, hiking trails and its close proximity to New York City.

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Although rare, between 3 percent and 5 percent of the MS population had symptoms before age 18

Children were falling through the cracks. A decade ago, when a child developed signs of a problem that primarily affects adults, their pediatricians generally had little or no experience, while the medical care workers who did hadn’t worked with children.

It was a problem Lauren Krupp decided needed action. A professor in clinical neurology and a practicing physician at Stony Brook University, Krupp founded the National Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Center, which was recently renamed the Lourie Center for Pediatric MS.

“We saw parents who were frightened and who were told that multiple sclerosis can’t occur in children, which is obviously not true, or they were told, ‘Yes, it is multiple sclerosis, but I’m an adult neurologist,’” Krupp recalled. “It makes a real difference to parents if they can take their child somewhere where there’s experience with something that’s rare.”

About 3 percent to 5 percent of the MS population has a disease that begins before age 18. Among children, MS occurs once for about every 100,000 people, Krupp estimated.

Krupp has been working with some of the other facilities designated as Regional Centers of Excellence by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to develop a better understanding of the way MS progresses in children. Recently, she joined with several other researchers to publish research about the potential cognitive effects of the disease.

“This was the first time a uniform approach to looking at kids and their cognitive functioning was taken across the country,” she said. “We also included children at a very early stage of the disease.”

Children who had only one attack had an 18 percent frequency of cognitive problems. In children with more than one attack, the cognitive problems rise to about 33 percent.

As an example, she cited the case of a teenager who loved playing in her school band. All of a sudden, she was getting failing grades in music. The problem had nothing to do with music — she couldn’t remember her locker combination.

Some children with MS don’t need additional services (and may need a locker with a key instead of a combination lock), while others could need anything from having someone take notes in class, to getting extra time for tests, Krupp suggested.

“Cognition needs to be considered,” she explained. “We’re very eager to come up with interventions” to improve treatment.

She’s exploring the possibility of developing strategies that don’t necessarily involve medication.

“There’s a lot of promise in innovative computer-based training programs,” she said. She hopes to study some of these models in the next several months.

Krupp has also organized a camp called Teen Adventure, where children from 13 to 18 with multiple sclerosis can “go out there and do stuff and be like other kids.”

The camp enables networking among the children. Krupp says she doesn’t attend because she doesn’t want to “medicalize” the experience, although there is a team of experts, including nurse practitioners and recreational therapists, on site.

Krupp believes her efforts, as well as those of others in her field, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, have helped the medical community become aware of pediatric multiple sclerosis.

In people who have MS, the immune system attacks the myelin, or protective sheath around the axons of the brain and spinal cord, potentially leading to neurological, physical and cognitive problems.

The cause of MS, a disease in which the symptoms can include weakness, visual problems, numbness and trouble speaking, involves an interaction between a genetic predisposition and environmental factors.

Some studies have shown that the farther away people live from the equator, the higher the incidence of MS. Indeed, children born near the equator who move before the age of 15 develop MS at the same rate as those who have lived all their lives farther from the equator.

“We think the reason for this has to do with higher prevalence of sunlight exposure,” offered Krupp.

Sunlight is among the biggest sources of vitamin D. Doctors have different approaches to vitamin D. Many think the best strategy is to maintain a normal to high vitamin D level in the blood and use vitamin D doses as needed, she said.

Krupp and her partner live in Setauket. They have twin daughters, Gina and Alexa, who are on their respective sailing teams in college.

People who are interested in finding out more about the camp, Krupp’s research efforts, or ways to help can visit www.pediatricmscenter.org.

Krupp’s professional goal is simple: “To be put out of business. I would like to see the disease ended.”

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Sugar consumption may increase diabetes prevalence

What causes type 2 diabetes? It would seem like an obvious answer: obesity, right?

Well, obesity is a contributing factor, but not necessarily the only factor. This is important, because diabetes prevalence is at epidemic levels in the United States, and it continues to grow. The latest statistics show that about 8 percent of the U.S. population has type 2 diabetes. For those 65 and older, the prevalence is considerably higher, at 26.9 percent (http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov).

Not only may obesity play a role, but sugar by itself, sedentary lifestyle and visceral (abdominal) fat may also contribute to the pandemic. These factors may not be mutually exclusive, of course.

We need to differentiate among sugars, because form is important. Sugar and fruit are not the same with respect to their effect on diabetes, as the research will help clarify. Sugar, processed foods and sugary drinks, such as fruit juices and soda, have a similar effect, but fresh fruit does not.

 

Sugar’s impact

Sugar may be sweet, but it also may be a bitter pill to swallow when comes to its effect on diabetes’ prevalence. In an epidemiological (population-based) study published in the journal PLoS One in February, the results show that sugar may increase the prevalence of type 2 diabetes by 1.1 percent worldwide (PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e57873). This seems like a small percentage, however, we are talking about the overall prevalence, which is around 8 percent in the U.S., as noted in the introduction.

Also, the amount of sugar needed to create this result is surprisingly low. It takes about 150 calories, or one 12 ounce can of soda per day, to potentially cause this rise in diabetes. This is looking at sugar on its own merit, irrespective of obesity, lack of physical activity or overconsumption of calories. The longer people were consuming sugary foods, the higher the incidence of diabetes. So the relationship was a dose-dependent curve. Interestingly, the opposite was true as well: As sugar was less available in some countries, the risk of diabetes diminished to almost the same extent that it increased in countries where it was overconsumed.

In fact, the study highlights that certain countries, such as France, Romania and the Philippines, are struggling with the diabetes pandemic, even though they don’t have significant obesity issues. The study evaluated demographics from 175 countries, looking at 10 years’ worth of data. This may give more bite to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s drive to limit the availability of sugary drinks. Even steps like these may not be enough, though. Before we can draw definitive conclusion from the study, however, there need to be prospective (forward-looking) studies.

 

The effect of fruit

The prevailing thought has been that fruit should only be consumed in very modest amounts in patients with — or at risk for — type 2 diabetes. A new study challenges this theory. In a randomized controlled trial, newly diagnosed diabetes patients who were given either more than two pieces of fresh fruit or fewer than two pieces had the same improvement in glucose (sugar) levels (Nutr J. published online March 5, 2013). Yes, you read this correctly: There was a benefit, regardless of whether the participants ate more fruit or less fruit.

This was a small trial with 63 patients over a 12-week period. The average patient was 58 and obese, with a BMI of 32 (less than 25 is normal). The researchers monitored hemoglobin A1C (HbA1C), which provides a three-month mean percentage of sugar levels.

It is very important to emphasize that fruit juice and dried fruit were avoided. Both groups also lost a significant amount of weight while eating fruit. The authors, therefore, recommended that fresh fruit not be restricted in diabetes patients.

 

What about cinnamon?

It turns out that cinnamon, a spice many people love, may help to prevent, improve and reduce sugars in diabetes. In a review article, the authors discuss the importance of cinnamon as an insulin sensitizer (making the body more responsive to insulin) in animal models that have type 2 diabetes (Am J Lifestyle Med. 2013;7(1):23-26).

Cinnamon may work much the same way as some medications used to treat type 2 diabetes, such as GLP-1 agonists. In a study with healthy volunteers, cinnamon raised the level of GLP-1 (Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1552–1556). Also, in a RCT with 100 participants, 1 gram of cassia cinnamon reduced sugars significantly more than medication alone (J Am Board Fam Med. 2009;22:507–512). The data is far too preliminary to make any comparison with FDA-approved medications. However it would not hurt, and may even be beneficial, to consume cinnamon on a regular basis.

 

Sedentary lifestyle

What impact does lying down or sitting have on diabetes? Here, the risks of a sedentary lifestyle may outweigh the benefits of even vigorous exercise. In fact, in a recent study, the authors emphasize that the two are not mutually exclusive in that people, especially those at high risk for the disease, should be active throughout the day as well as exercise (Diabetologia online March 1, 2013).

So in other words, the couch is “the worst deep-fried food,” as I once heard it said, but sitting at your desk all day and lying down also have negative effects. This coincides with my Jan. 31 article on exercise and weight loss, where I noted that people who moderately exercise and also move around much of the day are likely to lose the greatest amount of weight.

Thus, diabetes is mostly likely a disease caused by a multitude of factors, including obesity, sedentary lifestyle and visceral fat. The good news is that many of these factors are modifiable. Cinnamon and fruit seem to be two factors that help decrease this risk, as does exercise, of course.

As a medical community, it is imperative that we reduce the trend of increasing prevalence by educating the population, but the onus is also on the community at large to make at least some lifestyle modifications. So America, take an active role and get off your butt.

 

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to www.medicalcompassmd.com and/or consult your personal physician.

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Finding out why cancer cells become drug resistant should help patients recover

Back when she was in Boston, Raffaella Sordella was a part of an incredible discovery. Some patients with non-small cell lung cancer had mutations that made their tumors sensitive to drugs such as Tarceva and Iressa.

When the patients took the medicine twice a day, “the tumor was shrinking,” recalled Sordella. “Within a couple of weeks, the patient could resume a normal life, more or less.”

To top it off, the drug didn’t have all the side effects of conventional chemotherapy.

“This was a turning point in my career,” explained Sordella, who is originally from Turin, Italy, and was conducting her research at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The promising therapy for these patients, however, wasn’t as effective as researchers, clinicians and patients had hoped. Within a year, the tumors in even these patients had developed a resistance to the drugs.

Undeterred, Sordella decided she would search for reasons for the change. Now an associate professor at Cold Spring Harbor, Sordella is pursuing several possible explanations which she hopes one day will extend the effectiveness of drugs.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the world. It was responsible for 160,340 deaths in the United States in 2012, according to the American Cancer Society. More than 226,000 cases were diagnosed last year.

Tarceva and Iressa were sometimes effective initially on the tumors that harbor specific mutations because they blocked the epidermal growth factor receptors (or EGFR). Without signals from the EGFR sites, the tumors either stopped growing or began shrinking.

As Sordella and others have observed, however, these drugs became less effective over time. One possible explanation was that the cancers were changing, developing a secondary mutation that altered the way the tumor grew or developed. That likely accounted for about half of the cases. In the rest, scientists now know that resistance can develop through other mechanisms, such as the expression of other genes.

“If we understand the mechanism, we can slow down the process,” she explained. Scientists may not find a cure in the short term, but they may be able to extend the period when the tumors are sensitive to the drug out from one year.

Sordella discovered that the interleukin-6 protein, which was produced during inflammation, was responsible for decreasing the sensitivity of the tumor to the drugs.

Resistance was increased “by factors secreted during inflammation,” Sordella observed.

By turning off or blocking interleukin-6, researchers may be able to create a combination of drugs that blocks the growth and spread of tumors.

This, Sordella offered, would be considerably easier than trying to anticipate and stop the next cancerous mutation.

When she first started exploring the ways tumors might develop drug resistance, the most obvious, and medically most challenging possibility was that the tumor was heterogeneous, which means that it had a mix of cells with different genetic codes that kept it several steps ahead of the available drugs.

Sordella feels a scientific urgency to continue with her research, in the hopes of helping those suffering with cancer.

“What we are doing is not just for us,” she said. “It can make a difference to patients.”

Sordella and her husband Manuel Barriola, a theoretical physicist who works as a consultant, live on campus at Cold Spring Harbor. They have two daughters, Victoria, who is in second grade and Alicia, who is in kindergarten.

Sordella and her husband, who is from Spain, miss their connection to Europe. She explained that the Italian culture she grew up with is considerably different from that for third-generation Italian Americans.

“When I was in Boston, there was this old guy that learned I was Italian,” she recalled. “He spoke to me in what he thought was Italian.” Sordella suspected that he was speaking a dialect from Sicily and wasn’t able to understand a single word.

Sordella enjoys going to Manhattan to people watch. She said she doesn’t think about her research when she’s in the city, even though she knows cancer is so prevalent that any medical breakthrough could make a difference for everyone.

 

African violets

Continued from page B16

Any number of small insect pests, including aphids and spider mites as well as mealybugs, can attack African violets. I find that the yellow sticky traps are very helpful in dealing with insect pests in the house in general. If that doesn’t work, you may have to resort to using a pesticide. Make sure that the one you select can be used on houseplants and that you follow directions carefully.

Prevention is the best route to take. Check any new acquisitions carefully before bringing them into the house. You may also want to quarantine them for a few weeks so that if there is a problem it won’t affect your entire houseplant collection.

For more information, the African Violet Society of America can be reached at www.avsa.org.

 

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener Program, call 727-7850.

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