Of Genes and Mutation

DNA illustrationDoes DNA make it easier for some of us to reap the benefits of exercise? Thousands of UAB students will help answer this intriguing question and earn course credit as part of a five-year trial that is one of the first of its kind in the United States. The TIGER (Training Interventions & Genetics of Exercise Response) Study is examining the influence of variations in DNA sequences on fatness and fitness before and after a 35-week exercise program. A first phase of the study began in 2003; the second phase, which began in January, will enroll 3,500 students in UAB’s PE 131 aerobics classes. The goal is to evaluate the training protocol developed in the first phase and home in on specific gene patterns linked to exercise response and adherence, says Molly Bray, Ph.D., UAB professor of public health and principal investigator for the study. “If our makeup influences our behavior, knowing a person’s DNA sequence in genes related to exercise adherence may help the physician to select the type of program that is most likely to produce positive results for each individual,” she explains. Learn more in this article from the UAB Reporter.

Health Foods

Could a daily dose of broccoli, cauliflower, and green tea help you avoid cancer and other aging-related diseases? The evidence points that way, says UAB researcher Trygve Tollefsbol, Ph.D., D.O. Tollefsbol, a professor of biology, specializes in the booming field of epigenetics, which studies the interaction between genes and environmental factors, including diet. In an article published this spring in the journal Clinical Epigenetics, Tollefsbol and his UAB co-authors collected the results of epigenetics studies from around the world, including many conducted at UAB, that found specific disease-suppressing compounds in foods. In their article, the UAB researchers noted that consuming these superfoods regularly as part of an “epigenetics diet” could offer many health benefits, including reducing risk from diseases such as breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. “Your mother always told you to eat your vegetables, and she was right,” says Tollefsbol. “But now we better understand why she was right: Compounds in many of these foods suppress gene aberrations that over time cause fatal diseases." Tollefsbol explains more about the diet in this story and video from UAB News.


Recipe for Success

“The epigenetics diet can be adopted easily, because the concentrations of the compounds needed for a positive effect are readily achievable,” notes Syed Meeran, Ph.D., lead author on the Clinical Epigenetics paper. Some examples:


spring2011_tea-leavesGreen tea:
Key compound: Polyphenols
Health effect: Suppresses a gene that triggers breast cancer
Healthy dose: Experiments in animal models showed reversal of breast cancer in mice who consumed the human equivalent of three cups of green tea per day

spring2011_broccoliBroccoli sprouts:
Key compound: Sulforaphane
Health effect: Reduces risk of developing many can

Healthy dose: One cup per day

Key compound: Genistein
Health effect: Inhibits cancer cell growth through multiple pathways
Healthy dose: 20-50 mg per day of genistein (two to three soy servings per day)

Other “epigenetics diet” foods: cabbage, cauliflower, fava beans, kale, grapes, and the spice turmeric

Sand Men


It took four days and millions of grains of colored sand for the Tibetan monks of Drepung Loseling Monastery to “paint” a mandala—symbolizing the impermanence of life—at the Alys Stephens Center. During the weeklong Mystical Arts of Tibet event, the monks also performed traditional temple music, masked dances, and multiphonic songs, in which they simultaneously intone three notes of a chord. Watch a video of the monks assembling the mandala at www.uab.edu/uabmagazine/spring2011/webextras.

Road to Recovery

spring2011_parkinson-shortsScientists face a major roadblock in the search for a cure for Parkinson’s disease: They have been unable to identify a reliable biological signal—known as a biomarker—that can detect early signs of Parkinson’s in patients at risk and monitor progression and treatment response in those who already have the disease. Now, with funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, UAB experts are joining an international team of scientists to tackle the problem. The Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative will examine a variety of imaging techniques, fluid samples, and clinical tests. Identifying a valid biomarker would speed testing of promising new drugs and other therapies, says UAB neurologist David G. Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., UAB’s principal investigator for the initiative. “This is a lever that might help open the door to a potential cure for Parkinson’s.”

Talk of the Town

spring2011_story_corps_groupAfter collecting more than 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000-plus participants across America, StoryCorps came to Birmingham in January—and UAB was ready to help the traveling recording studio preserve the city’s stories. Students and faculty from UAB’s Digital Community Studies program worked with the StoryCorps crew to record interviews, and National Public Radio affiliate WBHM 90.3 helped gather stories and aired them locally. 

In the Lab

spring2011_Old-weightlifterSenior Strength: Adults can lose 25 percent of their muscle mass between the ages of 50 and 75—a decrease that can affect the risk of falls and fractures and the ability to live independently. UAB nutrition sciences researchers are testing a new way to help. They’re studying Juven, a supplement made by Abbott Laboratories, to see if it builds or preserves muscle mass and function in 65- to 89-year-old seniors. Participants will take Juven for six months and be tested on physical strength and function; imaging will show any changes in muscle mass.

  • Juven is a blend of two amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
  • Why amino acids? The elderly are unable to absorb or utilize amino acids from meats and dairy foods as well as younger people, researchers say.

spring2011_teen-textingTexting and Traffic: Teens who text and drive degrade their reaction times to that of a 70-year-old—and increase their risk of collision 23 times. Researchers in UAB’s TRIP Lab, an offshoot of the UAB University Transportation Center, are studying these and other effects of distracted driving on traffic congestion. Modern behaviors such as texting and driving are not only dangerous to the texter and surrounding motorists, but they also lead to traffic congestion, explains principal investigator Despina Stavrinos, Ph.D. The results of the UAB research could help transportation engineers enhance traffic simulations and disaster response scenarios by more accurately modeling real-world driver behavior.