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Fat found in olive oil may help normalize metabolism of failing hearts

E. Doug Lewandowski, director, UIC Cardiovascular Research Center. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services 

Oleate, a common dietary fat found in olive oil, restored proper metabolism of fuel in heart cells in an animal model of heart failure.

The findings are reported in the journal Circulation by researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine.

Heart failure affects nearly 5 million Americans, and more than half a million new cases are diagnosed each year. Heart failure is not the same as having a heart attack — it is a chronic disease state where the heart becomes enlarged, or hypertrophic, in response to chronic high blood pressure which requires it to work harder to pump blood. As the heart walls grow thick, the volume of blood pumped out diminishes and can no longer supply the body with enough nutrients.

Failing hearts are also unable to properly process or store the fats they use for fuel, which are contained within tiny droplets called lipid bodies in heart muscle cells. The inability to use fats, the heart’s primary fuel source, causes the muscle to become starved for energy. Fats failing hearts manage to metabolize break down into toxic intermediary by-products that further contribute to heart disease.

The UIC researchers looked at how healthy and failing hearts beating in rats reacted to being supplied with either oleate or palmitate, a fat associated with the Western diet and found in dairy products, animal fats and palm oil.

When the researchers perfused failing rat hearts with oleate, “we saw an immediate improvement in how the hearts contracted and pumped blood,” said E. Douglas Lewandowski, director of the UIC Center for Cardiovascular Research and senior and corresponding author on the study.

Lewandowski and colleagues tracked the location of fat molecules in the cells of the diseased hearts by tagging them with a nonradioactive heavy isotope of carbon, which is detected using magnetic resonance spectroscopy. This technology allows researchers to watch biochemical reactions, like metabolism, as they occur in real-time in functioning organs. Using this technique, Lewandowski noticed that the metabolism of fats within the cardiac cells of these hearts became normalized. In contrast, when the researchers perfused the diseased hearts with palmitate, fat metabolism was imbalanced, and cells struggled to access fuel. There was also a rise in toxic fatty byproducts — another consequence of dysregulated or impaired fat metabolism.

In addition to balancing fat metabolism and reducing toxic fat metabolites in hypertrophic hearts, Lewandowski said, oleate also increased the activation of several genes for enzymes that metabolize fat. “These genes are often suppressed in hypertrophic hearts,” he said. “So the fact that we can restore beneficial gene expression, as well as more balanced fat metabolism, plus reduce toxic fat metabolites, just by supplying hearts with oleate – a common dietary fat — is a very exciting finding.”

“This gives more proof to the idea that consuming healthy fats like oleate can have a significantly positive effect on cardiac health,” Lewandowski said – even after disease has begun. 

Clinician-scientist-science writer: A conversation with Dr. Jalees Rehman

Dr. Jalees Rehman is associate professor of cardiology and pharmacology in the UIC College of Medicine. In addition to being a stem cell researcher and practicing clinician, he also finds time to write about science for multiple blogs and popular media outlets.

Can you name the media outlets you are currently writing for?

Aeon Magazine, The Scientist, 3 Quarks Daily, The Next Regeneration    - that is my blog in the Scilogs network, and my own personal blog, Fragments of Truth Plus, I’ve also written blog posts or articles for The Guardian, Huffington Post, and Salon on an occasional basis and I was an invited blogger at the recent Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

I also write short stories and essays that I am trying to get published. The essays are mostly about growing up between cultures- that’s one of the major themes in my work. I have Pakistani roots, but I grew up mostly in Germany and I now live in the United States. I also spent part of my childhood in Africa, so I’ve grown up or been exposed to cultures from four very different places. When I write, my essays are usually about either the mixing of religious or political or social cultures, or about my work as a physician and a scientist, which also represent two distinct cultures.

Where did you live in Africa?

I lived in multiple cities in Nigeria, but in Lagos the longest.

How did your family wind up in Africa?

During the Biafra War in the late 1960s, when the part of Nigeria with a primarily Igbo population wanted to become independent, much of the electric power grid was destroyed in the southeastern parts of the country. Germany helped fund the reconstruction of the power grid and my father was sent there as an engineer to help. My parents liked Nigeria so much they kept coming back. My father would work there for certain periods of time, go back to Germany, and then take on additional assignments in Nigeria.

How did you get interested in writing about science?

Both my parents stressed the importance of writing when I was a kid. My mother used to write a lot in her own youth, and my father came from a family tradition in which poetry was highly valued. Both encouraged me to write even when I was in elementary school, so writing became a hobby of mine.

Towards the end of high school, I got really excited about science. I had bought a Spektrum der Wissenschaft (German translation of Scientific American) collection of articles about neuroscience and there was an essay by this brilliant Italian Nobel Laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini. She discovered nerve growth factor. When I read what she described about her research, not only did she become a hero of mine as a scientist, but I greatly admired her for secretly working during the fascist era. She was of Jewish background and had lost her university position under Mussolini. But she continued to work in her apartment and conducted her experiments in her living room. I was amazed by this person and how well she described her studies so that even I could understand it as a high school student.

I also read Bertrand Russell’s book about the theory of relativity and I again learned that there was a way to convey the excitement of complex science in a simple and straightforward manner. This idea of communicating the nature and excitement of science to people outside of the field is what got me excited about science writing.

When I started medical school I was looking for opportunities to do research and the one person who impressed me the most was somebody who was also a great writer. Till Roenneberg at the University of Munich. He became my mentor. He worked on internal clocks and biological rhythms. The way he spoke about science, his passion his interest and the way he wrote about science was so thrilling that I knew: this is where I want to be.

He started involving me in technical science writing but emphasized how every single word in a scientific article matters, and that well-chosen words and analogies can make a huge difference in terms of how well readers understand the science.

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Graphene flaws key to creating hypersensitive ‘electronic nose’

Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor, mechanical engineering. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Researchers have discovered a way to create a highly sensitive chemical sensor based on the crystalline flaws in graphene sheets. The imperfections have unique electronic properties that the researchers were able to exploit to increase sensitivity to absorbed gas molecules by 300 times.

The study is available online in advance of print in Nature Communications.

In many applications, grain boundaries are considered faults because they scatter electrons and may weaken the lattice. But Salehi-Khojin and his colleagues showed that these imperfections are important to the working of graphene-based gas sensors. Read more

Peregrine falcons, once an endangered species, have made a comeback in the Midwest. UIC, where the raptors have nested for many years, has played a big role in that success.

Q & A with retina expert David Pepperberg: Can reducing the buildup of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease in the eye help treat macular degeneration?

David Pepperberg, professor of ophthalmology in the UIC College of Medicine, together with Louis Hersh, professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at the University of Kentucky, have received a two-year, $120,000 grant from the BrightFocus Foundation to develop and test a new approach to the treatment of macular degeneration.  

The disease is a leading cause of vision loss in older individuals and has been estimated to affect approximately 15 million Americans. It causes damage to the light-sensitive photoreceptor cells of the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision, which lets us see objects that are straight ahead.

What causes macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration is not a disease that has a single cause – it is multi-factorial. It can progress to different extents, and has genetic associations. There are also environmental factors that have been linked to macular degeneration, including smoking. Heavy smokers have a decidedly increased risk of developing macular degeneration in their lifetimes. There is also some research that suggests that amyloid-beta, a neurotoxic protein that has been implicated as one of the main drivers of Alzheimer’s disease, may also play a role in macular degeneration.

What are the symptoms of macular degeneration?

Imagine if in the center of your field of vision, there were a sort of gray smudge covering the area that you’re looking at, and you can’t move your eye away, because the smudge moves too. This is an oversimplified way of describing the experience of people with macular degeneration. It’s so devastating because the center of your field of vision is what you use for facial recognition, driving and reading.

There are two forms of macular degeneration - dry and wet. Dry is the most common and occurs when the light-sensitive cells in the retina die. The wet form is more severe, and it includes the abnormal growth of tiny blood vessels in the back of the eye that leak blood and fluid into the eye which further diminishes visual perception. The wet form develops from the dry form.

Can you describe the research that the BrightFocus Foundation grant will help support?

My research, which is in collaboration with Louis Hersh at the University of Kentucky, focuses on a molecule called amyloid-beta. There is a huge amount of literature addressing the roles of amyloid-beta in the development in brain degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s.  There is a much smaller, but increasing literature and research effort in vision that is testing the possibility that amyloid-beta also may also have a role in the development of degenerative retinal disease like macular degeneration.

The thinking is that an excess buildup of amyloid-beta, due to either an abnormal overproduction or deficient clearance of it, is damaging in one or more respects to the neural tissue that makes up the retina.

We are developing technology that can hopefully reduce the excessive buildup of amyloid-beta in the eye tissues by introducing a type of enzyme that degrades amyloid-beta. We are investigating two ways to deliver the enzyme to the retinal tissue in mice.

The first is through intravitreous injection. The vitreous is the large fluid compartment that fills the globe of the eye and maintains its structure and serves multiple purposes. Intravitreous injection of drugs for eye disease is a widely used technique in ophthalmology.

We will look at different amounts and frequencies of injection of a fluid containing the enzyme and analyze the effects on amyloid-beta in the retina at defined times after treatment and assess changes in vision in the mice.

The second delivery mechanism introduces the enzyme to the eye using a gene therapy approach. A viral particle that has been rendered nontoxic is used to encapsulate the gene that makes the enzyme, and the viral particles that contain the gene are added to a small volume of fluid that is then intravitreously injected into the eye. The idea is that the virus reaches its target cells and delivers the gene, allowing the cell to express the enzyme itself.

The retina is our target, but right now, we don’t yet know to what extent it will be important to target a particular class of cells in the retina versus having a more general targeting. That’s one of the things we will be looking at.

Ideally, the gene therapy would be a one-time only procedure, but that remains to be seen. It’s not guaranteed that a single treatment will last forever because of cell turnover and other issues, but the concept is that you introduce the gene and it resides in its target cells from that time forward making its gene product, which is, in our case, the enzyme that degrades amyloid-beta. 

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Linda Skitka, UIC professor of psychology. Photo: Mark Schacht 
Religious and nonreligious people have more in common than generally thought when it comes to moral experiences in everyday life
“To our knowledge, it’s the first study that directly assesses how morality plays out in people’s everyday lived experience,” says Linda Skitka, UIC professor of psychology and study co-author. 
The study found that religious and nonreligious people differed in only one way: how moral and immoral deeds made them feel. Religious people responded with stronger emotions – more pride and gratitude for their moral deeds, and more guilt, embarrassment and disgust for their immoral deeds. The study found little evidence for a morality divide between political conservatives and liberals. Read more

Linda Skitka, UIC professor of psychology. Photo: Mark Schacht 

Religious and nonreligious people have more in common than generally thought when it comes to moral experiences in everyday life

“To our knowledge, it’s the first study that directly assesses how morality plays out in people’s everyday lived experience,” says Linda Skitka, UIC professor of psychology and study co-author. 

The study found that religious and nonreligious people differed in only one way: how moral and immoral deeds made them feel. Religious people responded with stronger emotions – more pride and gratitude for their moral deeds, and more guilt, embarrassment and disgust for their immoral deeds. The study found little evidence for a morality divide between political conservatives and liberals. Read more

Two new potential therapeutic targets for the treatment of pulmonary arterial hypertension, a deadly disease marked by high blood pressure in the lungs, have been identified by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Their findings are reported in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Early symptoms of pulmonary arterial hypertension include shortness of breath and exercise intolerance. As the disease progresses, patients may require oxygen supplementation and lung transplantation. Heart failure can develop and is a major cause of death in the disease.
Most cases of pulmonary hypertension are of unknown cause, though the condition often occurs in association with other diseases, including scleroderma, congenital heart disease and liver disease. One of the underlying factors driving the increased blood pressure in the lungs is a narrowing of the pulmonary blood vessels. This narrowing can be due to an abnormal proliferation of cells within the walls of the blood vessels, particularly in the smooth muscle cells of the pulmonary artery.
Jiwang Chen, research assistant professor of critical care medicine, sleep and allergy in the UIC College of Medicine, and his colleagues investigated the molecular mechanisms behind the abnormal proliferation of smooth muscle cells in the pulmonary artery and discovered two ways that the proliferation could be suppressed. Read more

Two new potential therapeutic targets for the treatment of pulmonary arterial hypertension, a deadly disease marked by high blood pressure in the lungs, have been identified by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Their findings are reported in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Early symptoms of pulmonary arterial hypertension include shortness of breath and exercise intolerance. As the disease progresses, patients may require oxygen supplementation and lung transplantation. Heart failure can develop and is a major cause of death in the disease.

Most cases of pulmonary hypertension are of unknown cause, though the condition often occurs in association with other diseases, including scleroderma, congenital heart disease and liver disease. One of the underlying factors driving the increased blood pressure in the lungs is a narrowing of the pulmonary blood vessels. This narrowing can be due to an abnormal proliferation of cells within the walls of the blood vessels, particularly in the smooth muscle cells of the pulmonary artery.

Jiwang Chen, research assistant professor of critical care medicine, sleep and allergy in the UIC College of Medicine, and his colleagues investigated the molecular mechanisms behind the abnormal proliferation of smooth muscle cells in the pulmonary artery and discovered two ways that the proliferation could be suppressed. Read more

Face the Future Foundation supports patient services at UIC’s Craniofacial Center

UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares accepted a donation on behalf of the University of Illinois at Chicago from Face the Future Foundation president Mike Judge to support patient services at UIC’s Craniofacial Center.

The Face the Future Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise funds to help expand access to medical care for children in the Chicagoland area with craniofacial conditions, has supported UIC’s Craniofacial Center for several years. The Center is dedicated to the evaluation and treatment of infants, children, adolescents and adults with craniofacial conditions.


“We are grateful for the continued support of the Face the Future Foundation, whose dedication and efforts have helped assure that all patients at UIC’s Craniofacial Center receive the highly-specialized treatment they need, regardless of ability to pay,” said Allen-Meares.

The funding will be used to provide patient care and treatments that are not covered or only partially covered by insurance.

“More than 75 percent of our patients have limited insurance coverage, and many of the services needed by our patients are not covered, or partially covered by insurance,” said Dr. Mimis Cohen, chief of plastic, reconstructive and cosmetic surgery in the UIC College of Medicine and director of the UIC Craniofacial Center. “The funds provided by the Face the Future Foundation over the years have allowed us to provide all our patients with the highest standard of care.”

The Craniofacial Center sees approximately 500 new patients each year and has more than 5,000 current, active patients.

The Face the Future Foundation also hosts an annual holiday party at UIC for patients of the Craniofacial Center and their families. Their fund raising events include an annual gala as well as other events that support treatment of patients with craniofacial issues, and for the purchase of equipment necessary for state-of-the-art patient care.

The UIC Craniofacial Center, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year, is one of the oldest and largest such centers in the world. Its comprehensive approach to caring for patients brings together the expertise of surgeons, dental specialists, psychologists, speech pathologists, ophthalmologists, audiologists, anaplastologists and other allied health care professionals in a single, patient-friendly environment.

In addition to evaluating and treating patients with craniofacial issues, the center also provides rehabilitation for those with head and neck cancer or who have suffered craniofacial trauma. The center employs advanced surgical planning technology that incorporates 3-dimensional visualization and modeling. Its anaplastology laboratory produces facial prosthesis and its audiology and speech laboratories have equipment for the evaluation and treatment of speech and hearing disorders common to patients with cleft lip and palate and other craniofacial conditions.

Rachel Jacobs, research assistant professor of psychiatry, and Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services 
Depression may be better predicted and understood now that University of Illinois at Chicago researchers have discovered that young adults who previously experienced the mental illness have hyper-connected emotional and cognitive networks in the brain.
UIC researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain connectivity of young adults ages 18 to 23 while they were in a resting state. Thirty unmedicated young adults who had previously experienced depression and 23 healthy controls were used in the study, which has been published online in the journal PLOS ONE.
“We wanted to see if the individuals who have had depression during their adolescence were different from their healthy peers,” said Rachel Jacobs, research assistant professor in psychiatry at UIC’s Institute for Juvenile Research, the lead author of the study.
The researchers found many regions that are “hyper-connected – or talking to each other a little too much – among those who have a history of depression,” Jacobs said. These hyper-connected brain networks were related to rumination, with individuals thinking about a problem over and over without actively trying to come up with a solution. “Rumination is not a very healthy way of processing emotion,” said Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at UIC and corresponding author of the study.  
“Rumination is a risk factor for depression and for reoccurrence of depression if you’ve had it in the past.” Read more

Rachel Jacobs, research assistant professor of psychiatry, and Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services 

Depression may be better predicted and understood now that University of Illinois at Chicago researchers have discovered that young adults who previously experienced the mental illness have hyper-connected emotional and cognitive networks in the brain.

UIC researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain connectivity of young adults ages 18 to 23 while they were in a resting state. Thirty unmedicated young adults who had previously experienced depression and 23 healthy controls were used in the study, which has been published online in the journal PLOS ONE.

“We wanted to see if the individuals who have had depression during their adolescence were different from their healthy peers,” said Rachel Jacobs, research assistant professor in psychiatry at UIC’s Institute for Juvenile Research, the lead author of the study.

The researchers found many regions that are “hyper-connected – or talking to each other a little too much – among those who have a history of depression,” Jacobs said. These hyper-connected brain networks were related to rumination, with individuals thinking about a problem over and over without actively trying to come up with a solution. “Rumination is not a very healthy way of processing emotion,” said Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at UIC and corresponding author of the study.  

“Rumination is a risk factor for depression and for reoccurrence of depression if you’ve had it in the past.” Read more