UAB Magazine Online Features
Exploring a New Way to Combat Genetic Disease
By Troy Goodman
David Bedwell, left, and Steven Rowe are part of a team of UAB researchers studying cutting-edge treatments for cystic fibrosis.
The period in this sentence is not in the. right place Chances are, that didn’t throw you off too much. Human beings are remarkably tolerant of textual trouble; our brains can wrestle meaning out of a sentence in the face of all manner of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and dropped words. When it comes to reading life’s little instruction book, however, our bodies are as inflexible as a computer program. One little mistake can literally make the difference between life and death.
Errors in the body’s underlying genetic code are at the root of a host of diseases, including cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell disease, and many types of cancer. Even though scientists have become very good at tracking down the offending sections of code that cause these conditions, they have been far less successful at finding a way to repair the damage. That’s why an experimental drug being tested in the lab of UAB microbiologist David Bedwell, Ph.D., takes a different approach to tackle one devastating subset of genetic errors. It induces the body to skip over those errors—restoring enough function to make a big difference in patients’ lives.
Public Health Contest Seeks Powerful PSAs
By Caperton Gillett
Erin Wright's winning poster "Acid Rain" from KoronisFest 2010. Click on the image to see a larger version.
According to myth, Koronis was a Greek princess, consort to the god Apollo and mother of Asclepius, god of medicine, who begat Hygeia, goddess of hygiene. “It occurred to me—she is the grandmother of public health,” says UAB neurologist Steve Rudd, M.D., M.P.H. Rudd chose Koronis as the namesake for his own brainchild: a community competition focused on spreading the word about public health.
The inaugural KoronisFest, held in April 2010, offered awards for the best public service announcements (PSA) in three categories: live action, animation, and posters. The competition attracted submissions from UAB students and faculty, as well as filmmakers and artists in the larger Birmingham community. Entries covered topics from pollution to organ donation, with presentation ranging from the compelling to the entertaining to the bizarre. But they shared one common thread, says School of Public Health dean Max Michael, M.D.: “They’re funky.”
Inspiration for the competition came largely from a course called Narrative Public Health, team-taught by Rudd and Michael, which explores techniques to communicate public health messages to different audiences. The duo brought in Michele Forman, M.A., documentary filmmaker and ethnographic filmmaking instructor at UAB, to teach a session on the rudiments of film production for PSAs. Students responded enthusiastically, and many of their projects became entries in KoronisFest.
UAB Cardiologists Seek and Destroy Arrhythmias
By Tara Hulen
UAB specialists are focused on correcting heart arrhythmias as well as on preventing the most dangerous heart rhythm issues.
When the heart skips a beat, it may not be love. A little too much coffee, a just-missed fender bender, or a strange sound in the middle of the night can all cause a heart to flutter, race, and pound. But when those sensations are frequent, last more than a few seconds, or cause dizziness, fatigue, or fainting, it’s time to see an expert to find out why.
Cardiac arrhythmias—the term for abnormal heart rhythms—affect more than 14 million Americans, says Tom McElderry, M.D., a cardiologist in the electrophysiology program at the UAB Heart and Vascular Center.
Arrhythmias, in simple terms, are caused by faulty wiring. They occur when the electrical pathways that make each part of the heart beat in sequence develop short circuits or other irregularities, which can make the heart inefficient and reduce the amount of blood it pumps through the rest of the body.
The consequences are often relatively benign. “For most people who have not had heart attacks in the past and don’t have cardiomyopathy or a weak heart, palpitations are typically only a nuisance,” McElderry says. People with mild or infrequent symptoms might simply need to avoid caffeine, certain cold medicines, and similar triggers. Or they may benefit from starting medications such as beta blockers or calcium channel blockers.
But some heart rhythms—including atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia—can signal a greatly increased risk of stroke, heart failure, and death, McElderry says. At the Heart and Vascular Center, electrophysiologists specialize in finding and fixing the source of the trouble. Meanwhile, in UAB’s Cardiac Rhythm Management Laboratory (CRML), researchers are searching for better ways to treat and prevent the most dangerous heart rhythm issues—and to increase our understanding of what causes the problems in the first place.
See how UAB electrophysiologists repaired one patient's heart in this video. Story continues below video
Weighing Rights and Responsibilities in Medical Research
By Charles Buchanan
Henrietta Lacks was not a doctor. She was a poor African-American tobacco farmer and housewife from Virginia. But she has helped heal untold numbers of people around the world. And she is playing a crucial role in the development of new treatments for everything from cancer and AIDS to genetic diseases.
Before Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, scientists at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University took some of her tumor cells and cultured them; to their surprise, those cells kept growing and dividing, becoming the world’s first immortal cell line, known as “HeLa.” They’re still growing today in laboratories around the world—including UAB—and nearly every biomedical scientist has worked with them. Researchers have swapped HeLa genes, pelted them with radiation and viruses, and launched them into space—studies that have led to the development of common medicines and major breakthroughs including the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.
Lacks’s cells are one of the most important tools in biomedical science, but she never knew they were taken from her. The cells were removed without her consent, and her family wasn’t told about them for two decades. In the meantime, HeLa became part of a multimillion-dollar industry, yet none of her descendants received any profits; many still can’t afford health insurance. Lacks’s name and medical records also were released without permission, adding to the family’s confusion and mistrust.