UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
UAB Researchers Build the Nanoscale Future
By Suzanne Parker
Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration (CNMB), is leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers who are working toward synthesis and characterization of nanoscale materials and structures and subsequent integration of these nanomaterials and nanostructures into practical biomedical devices and technologies.The poet William Blake once imagined seeing “a world in a grain of sand,” but Yogesh Vohra, Ph.D., sees a world of possibilities on a much smaller scale. Vohra, a UAB physics professor and director of UAB’s
These scientists, engineers, and physicians are building and manipulating extremely tiny structures that could make a big impact on patient care, from improving drug delivery to developing better implants for joints and blood vessels—and even boosting the success of transplants. But they will never see their handiwork with their own eyes because they’re operating on the scale of atoms and molecules.
Nanoscale, nanotechnology, and nanoscience—all derive their meaning from the Greek word nanos, meaning “dwarf.” A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and nanoscale structures are constrained in at least one dimension to less than 100 nanometers. By comparison, a grain of sand is 500,000 nanometers, 10 times wider than a human hair, which is approximately 50,000 nanometers. A single red blood cell is approximately 9,000 nanometers.
But there is more to nanotechnology than size. Working at the nano level has forced researchers to redefine their understanding of matter itself. Nanomaterials possess novel physical, structural, chemical, and biological properties and behaviors. For instance, they have a much larger surface area in relation to their mass compared to bigger particles. That means they respond to electricity and magnetic fields, for example, in ways that are only beginning to be revealed as scientists delve into this miniature realm.
Shalev Leads Diabetes Center
By Tara Hulen
UAB’s approach to diabetes research and treatment drew renowned scientist Anath Shalev, M.D., to become director of the Comprehensive Diabetes Center. However, she is equally excited about what can be done outside the lab to combat—and prevent—the disease.
“More than 30 percent of people in Alabama are obese, and another 30 percent are overweight,” Shalev says. Because obesity is a leading cause of type 2 diabetes, UAB programs taken directly to people across the state could make meaningful and immediate differences in many lives, she explains.
Outreach is one aspect of Shalev’s expansive view of diabetes research and care. “It’s a complex disease that requires an interdisciplinary approach,” she says. Shalev comes to UAB from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she directed endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism research and conducted groundbreaking studies on cellular processes that lead to pancreatic beta cell death associated with diabetes. Now she heads a center with more than 150 faculty members dedicated to combining diabetes research, training, and clinical care—the result of collaborative efforts involving UAB, Children’s Hospital, and the Birmingham community. Shalev also has been appointed to the Nancy R. and Eugene C. Gwaltney Family Endowed Chair in Juvenile Diabetes Research.
Epigenetics Shapes the Future of Health
By Matt Windsor and Emily Delzell | Illustrations by Ron Gamble
Trygve Tollefsbol believes you can change your destiny—with broccoli. The UAB biologist, a pioneer in the booming field of epigenetics, has the data to make his case. In a widely publicized review paper published this spring in the journal Clinical Epigenetics, Tollefsbol and colleagues at UAB explained how a diet rich in broccoli, green tea, grapes, and other key ingredients can fight off cancer and other aging-related diseases.
UAB scientists are hardly the first experts to tout the health benefits of “superfoods” like leafy vegetables and wine. But epigeneticists like Tollefsbol explain how they help on a genetic level. Their investigations offer new insights on ways to slow the aging process, reduce cancer risk, and more.
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Tollefsbol, who holds doctorates in molecular biology and osteopathic medicine, has published eight books on epigenetics, with more on the way. He is a leader in a discipline that contains a heartening message of biochemical empowerment. Epigenetics is the study of factors that affect your genes without changing the underlying DNA code. To put it another way, epigeneticists try to understand how the genetic instructions contained in our DNA are carried out in the real world.
UAB Geologist Analyzes Alabama’s Faults
By Grant Martin
Scott Brande demonstrates how rock layers react under the stress created by movement of the earth's crust.
In January, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti. On March 11, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan—the most powerful in the nation’s recorded history—generated a massive tsunami that killed thousands and has triggered a nuclear crisis. And on August 23, 2011, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter in northern Virginia rattled houses and nerves from Florida to Maine, damaging the Washington Monument and other historic structures (see East Coast, West Coast).
These events, plus a host of other, less well-chronicled earthquakes in Chile, China, Pakistan, and Argentina, lead to two questions: Are we seeing an unusual pattern of major quakes? And could one hit home in Alabama?
Predicting the Mega-Quakes
The spate of earthquakes seen in the past two years doesn’t likely represent a trend so much as an unfortunate coincidence, says UAB geologist Scott Brande, Ph.D. “The number of earthquakes that occur in the world larger than about 6 to 6.5 on the magnitude scale is about 120 or 130 per year—and a magnitude 6 earthquake can do significant damage in a populated area,” Brande says. “The number of quakes larger than 7 might be 10 or 15, and the number larger than 8 might be one or two per year. So these larger quakes actually occur fairly often.”
New Views Inside the Eye
By Tyler Greer
Fifteen years ago, Yuhua Zhang, Ph.D., was learning to design cameras, telescopes, and microscopes in his native China. Then his mother-in-law developed sudden, severe bleeding in her left eye, and his focus changed. After learning that doctors did not have the equipment to produce high-resolution images of the retina, he devoted his career to ocular imaging. Now, Zhang, a UAB assistant professor of ophthalmology, has developed a high-resolution imaging instrument that provides an unequaled view of the human eye.
“This is, to our knowledge, the fastest practical adaptive optics for the living human eye,” Zhang says. “The development of this instrument has positioned UAB at the forefront of this emerging technology—available at only five other centers worldwide.”
Adaptive optics is technology that was originally created to help high-powered telescopes see clearly through the turbulent atmosphere in deep space. Applied to vision, adaptive optics enables retinal imaging systems to compensate for the optical defects of the human eye’s cornea and lens, offering the ability to visualize living cells within the eye.
UAB’s adaptive-optics scanning-laser ophthalmoscope (AOSLO) will help ophthalmologists detect age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma, allowing them to treat the diseases earlier and slow their progression.