UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
DISCO Helps Kids Catch the Rhythm of Writing
By Kathy Seale
UAB writing instructor Elizabeth Hughey, left, along with a group of volunteers such as UAB alum Lauren Mills, right, is exploring ways to bring creative writing opportunities to Birmingham-area kids.
For the moment, the Woodlawn headquarters of the Desert Island Supply Co. (DISCO) is gutted and, well, deserted. But that will change, probably sooner rather than later. The speed at which things move for the curiously named creative-writing program—co-founded by UAB writing instructor Elizabeth Hughey and her writer husband, Chip Brantley—is impressive.
In January, the couple (along with a core group of about 20 volunteers) began exploring ways to bring more creative-writing opportunities to Birmingham-area kids. “Whether you’re 10 or 50, it’s a barrier if you can’t write,” says volunteer Laurel Mills, who holds a master’s degree in English from UAB. “The sooner we encourage people to get involved with creative writing, the better.”
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.
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.
UAB Explores Innovative Stroke Therapies
By Jo Lynn Orr
UAB neurologists are using ultrasound to help break up clots in the brain (above) and testing other new treatments to improve stroke care.
In 1947, as tension between Russia and the United States threatened to erupt into nuclear war, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists added a new element to its cover: a stylized clock face with the hands set at seven minutes to midnight. For the past 63 years, the clock’s minute hand has moved back and forth to reflect the imminence of nuclear holocaust.
In the world of stroke care, the countdown to doomsday begins as soon as the brain’s oxygen supply is disrupted, either through a blood clot (ischemic stroke—the cause of 80 percent of strokes) or by bursting blood vessels (hemorrhagic stroke, which accounts for the other 20 percent of cases). Stroke kills more people worldwide than any other disease. It is the third leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of serious, long-term disability.
For years, the stroke clock was set at three hours. Patients receiving emergency treatment before that time stood a good chance of recovering significant function; after the three-hour window closed, there wasn’t much hope. But new advances in stroke treatment are steadily pushing open the treatment window and adding precious time back onto the clock. Neurologist Andrei Alexandrov, M.D., and his team at the UAB Comprehensive Stroke Research Center are contributing many of those breakthroughs, developing and testing revolutionary therapies that are effective several hours, days, and even weeks after stroke onset.
The Pitfalls and Promise of Home Genetic Tests
By Tara Hulen
If Walgreens had its way, crystal balls would now be for sale alongside the candy bars and cough medicine at the drugstore chain’s stores. In May, Walgreens announced that it would start selling home genetic testing kits for as little as $20, becoming the first physical store to offer the tests—although they are widely available online. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responding soon after the announcement, notified testing companies that they should have sought premarket approval, and Walgreens canceled the launch.
Although the FDA’s actions have led to calls for regulation of these direct-to-consumer tests, at the moment anybody wanting one won’t have much trouble finding them online from companies such as 23andMe. It’s a fairly simple process: Customers order a kit, mail in some saliva, and then receive a report with as much detail as they are willing to pay for. Options include ancestry tests, health screenings on several levels, and pre-pregnancy screening—which is a large market, says UAB Genetic Counseling Program Director R. Lynn Holt, M.S., CGC. The reports cover possible risks for various diseases, pharmacogenetics (a person’s sensitivity to prescription drugs such as blood thinners), or carrier status for diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs, which can be passed on to children.
The prospect offered by these tests is intriguing—the thrill of looking back into the past or catching a glimpse of the future—but Holt says geneticists and genetic counselors have several concerns.