Ideas and Innovations

Spamalot

The current election season has produced plenty of benchmarks, including this one: the first presidential campaign spam. After the initial Republican debate last October, e-mails with subjects such as "Ron Paul Wins GOP Debate!" and "Ron Paul Stops Iraq War" began to appear across the country. But anti-spam researchers at UAB quickly found that the messages, which purported to come from U.S. locations, were actually arriving from Italy, Korea, and elsewhere. This led Gary Warner, UAB's director of research in computer forensics, to suspect the work of a botnet, a network of computers electronically hijacked from their unsuspecting owners and generally used for criminal activities. News of Warner's findings drew wide attention on the Internet—and they were subsequently confirmed by other researchers, who discovered that a botnet of 3,000 computers was used to send more than 150 million copies of the "Ron Paul" spam messages. Warner notes that while the offending e-mails appeared to support Ron Paul, there is no reason to believe that they were actually endorsed by the candidate or his campaign.


Lying in Wait

strepGroup B streptococcus (GBS) lurks in the bloodstreams of up to 35 percent of healthy adults, causing serious infections in more than 15,000 people in the United States every year and threatening the lives of both neonates and the elderly. Scientists were not sure how the pathogen manages to take up residence in the human body, but a new UAB study has revealed the answer: tiny proteins that are the building blocks of filaments called pili, which GBS uses to stick to its host tissues. Collaborating with a colleague at the University of Connecticut, UAB researchers "initiated structural studies on the composition and assembly of GBS pili," says associate optometry professor Narayana Sthanam, Ph.D., the study's principal investigator. "Our findings enhance the knowledge of GBS and bring us a small step closer to inhibiting GBS infections."

  • Most adult carriers of Group B Streptococcus experience no symptoms.
  • GBS infection leads to sepsis, meningitis, and pneumonia.
  • GBS affects 8,000 infants a year in the United States, killing 10 percent and leaving 20 percent permanently disabled.

Life-Changing Prescription

Treating African Children with HIV

prescripCombination antiretroviral drug therapy is a life-saving intervention for African children infected with HIV. But just as important as the medication, according to a UAB study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the medical staff delivering the pills. Tracking the health of 4,975 children for three years, researchers found that antiretrovirals greatly improved "weight-for-age" scores and more than doubled the average CD4 count, a blood test that reflects the effect of HIV on the immune system. Significantly, they also found that the drug therapy could be effectively administered by nurses, clinical officers (equivalent to physician assistants in the United States), and other trained health-care workers when doctors are unavailable. "We know from work in the U.S. and Europe that children do well on antiretroviral drugs, but we were surprised in this study at just how high their CD4 counts went, and how quickly they went up," says Jeffrey Stringer, M.D., director of the UAB-led Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia. Study co-author Craig Wilson, M.D., notes that the Zambian government's permission to use nurses and clinical officers ensured "the broadest access to treatment and benefit" and allowed more lives to be saved.


Identifying Identity Thieves

thievesThe average identity thief is equally likely to come from a working-class or middle-class background, has a history of prior arrests, and feels there is little risk of arrest and punishment attached to the crime. This portrait emerged from interviews with 59 identity thieves in federal prisons conducted by UAB criminologist Heith Copes, Ph.D., and University of Texas at Dallas criminologist Lynne Vieraitis, Ph.D. The researchers found that subjects tended to be adept at justifying their crimes, skilled at manipulating social situations, and equipped with the technical knowledge to obtain personal information and turn it into cash.

To Catch a Criminal

Copes and Vieraitis suggest several ways to prevent identity theft:

  • Banks should watch for suspicious behaviors, not just suspicious people, and require passwords for cash withdrawals.
  • Stores should consistently check the identity cards of shoppers.
  • Convicted identity thieves should be required to attend cognitive-based programs designed to remove their excuses and justifications.

Cancer Answers

cancerWomen with recurrent ovarian cancer—cancer that has become resistant to multiple types of chemotherapy—used to have few options. Now a new drug offers hope for lengthening survival periods and improving quality of life. In phase-II clinical trials at UAB and several other institutions, the experimental drug pertuzu­mab has been shown to add weeks to the lives of stage III ovarian cancer patients. Pertuzumab is a member of a class of anticancer agents called monoclonal antibodies that are known to stop or slow tumor growth. Administered in combination with standard chemotherapy agents, the drug was well tolerated by patients and caused minimal side effects. "We wanted to know if pertuzumab would improve the effects of chemotherapy with cancer recurrence, and if it would improve patients' lives," says UAB gynecologic oncologist Sharmila Makhija, M.D. "It did. Now we want to see if it impacts overall survival." Researchers are planning a larger phase-III study of pertuzumab that will include hundreds of women across the country.


Two for 2

Unlocking a Diabetes Mystery

twoA pair of genes could hold the key to new advances in diabetes treatment. UAB researchers have discovered that proteins produced by the genes NR4A3 and NR4A1 help sensitize skeletal muscle to insulin, encouraging muscles to remove glucose from the bloodstream. When these proteins are in short supply, muscles do not respond well to insulin—a phenomenon known as insulin resistance that is a primary factor in type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. "In simple terms, the abundant presence of these proteins in the body is a positive factor for avoiding diabetes, while their absence is associated with increased incidence of the disease," says W. Timothy Garvey, M.D., chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences and lead investigator on the study. Garvey says his group is now searching for molecules that promote the presence of NR4A3 and NR4A1. "By better understanding the biologic underpinnings of the disease, we can begin to find novel therapeutic targets to decrease insulin resistance.

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