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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

Rama Kamesh Bikkavilli was named a 2014 A Breath of Hope Research Fellow. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services
Rama Kamesh Bikkavilli, assistant professor in pulmonary, critical care, sleep and allergy in the UIC College of Medicine, has received a $150,000 fellowship award from the A Breath of Hope Foundation to support his search for biomarkers associated with lung cancer. Read more

Rama Kamesh Bikkavilli was named a 2014 A Breath of Hope Research Fellow. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services

Rama Kamesh Bikkavilli, assistant professor in pulmonary, critical care, sleep and allergy in the UIC College of Medicine, has received a $150,000 fellowship award from the A Breath of Hope Foundation to support his search for biomarkers associated with lung cancer. Read more

Ebola virus. Photo: Cynthia Goldsmith/Centers for Disease Control
"There’s a quote I like to use in relation to this Ebola outbreak: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’,” says Lijun Rong, associate professor of microbiology and immunology.
“The thing that makes Ebola scary is that it’s an unknown — we don’t know what it’s going to do or where it will show up next.”
Rong has been following the outbreak in West Africa closely, and news coverage of the Americans who seemed to respond positively to an experimental treatment for Ebola makes him uneasy.
“These two people may have been already on their way to getting better when they got the treatment, which was nine days after they started developing symptoms,” Rong says. “It is too early to know if this treatment is effective with just two cases.”
Rong and his colleagues at UIC are working on identifying small drug molecules that can prevent some of the most dangerous viruses — including Ebola, Marburg and MERS — from infecting cells. They use a high-throughput screening facility to screen and identify drugs and agents for their virus-blocking potential.
So far, they have identified a few lead molecules that show promise against Ebola. Mice given one of these compounds had an 80 percent survival rate when exposed to the Ebola virus in the lab, compared to zero percent for the mice that didn’t get the compound.
Since experiments that use infectious Ebola virus require a level 4 biohazard facility, this phase of Rong’s research is conducted at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland.
For the drug screening, conducted in campus labs, Rong uses hybrid viruses made up of a virus with low potential for infecting humans that carries the Ebola glycoprotein that lets it bind to human cells — the first step in infection.
“We are looking for small molecules that interfere with the Ebola glycoprotein in some way and prevent it from binding to host cells,” Rong says.
While he is not as concerned about Ebola as he is about the flu virus, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, Rong believes that developing treatments for emerging viruses is important work.
“We need to prepare for new viruses to not only save lives, but to reduce some of the uncertainty and fear that they cause.”

Ebola virus. Photo: Cynthia Goldsmith/Centers for Disease Control

"There’s a quote I like to use in relation to this Ebola outbreak: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’,” says Lijun Rong, associate professor of microbiology and immunology.

“The thing that makes Ebola scary is that it’s an unknown — we don’t know what it’s going to do or where it will show up next.”

Rong has been following the outbreak in West Africa closely, and news coverage of the Americans who seemed to respond positively to an experimental treatment for Ebola makes him uneasy.

“These two people may have been already on their way to getting better when they got the treatment, which was nine days after they started developing symptoms,” Rong says. “It is too early to know if this treatment is effective with just two cases.”

Rong and his colleagues at UIC are working on identifying small drug molecules that can prevent some of the most dangerous viruses — including Ebola, Marburg and MERS — from infecting cells. They use a high-throughput screening facility to screen and identify drugs and agents for their virus-blocking potential.

So far, they have identified a few lead molecules that show promise against Ebola. Mice given one of these compounds had an 80 percent survival rate when exposed to the Ebola virus in the lab, compared to zero percent for the mice that didn’t get the compound.

Since experiments that use infectious Ebola virus require a level 4 biohazard facility, this phase of Rong’s research is conducted at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland.

For the drug screening, conducted in campus labs, Rong uses hybrid viruses made up of a virus with low potential for infecting humans that carries the Ebola glycoprotein that lets it bind to human cells — the first step in infection.

“We are looking for small molecules that interfere with the Ebola glycoprotein in some way and prevent it from binding to host cells,” Rong says.

While he is not as concerned about Ebola as he is about the flu virus, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, Rong believes that developing treatments for emerging viruses is important work.

“We need to prepare for new viruses to not only save lives, but to reduce some of the uncertainty and fear that they cause.”

Small-scale attempts to improve students’ diet could backfire

Banning vending machines from schools can actually increase soda and fast food consumption among students if it’s the only school food policy change implemented, according to research conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The study, published online in the journal PLOS ONE, looked exclusively at regular soda consumption – not diet soda or other sugar sweetened beverages – and fast food.

The study included 8,245 high school students in 27 states. The study linked student data from the National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study with state-level data on soda taxes, restaurant taxes, and laws governing the sale of soda in schools in 2010.

The researchers found that 23 percent of students reported drinking at least one soda per day if they had access to vending machines in schools, compared to 28 percent of students who did not have access. However, these differences were only observed in states where soda was taxed less or students were able to buy soda from the school cafeteria or the school store.

The study also found that students eat more fast food when vending machines are removed, particularly when state sales tax rates for restaurant foods are lower, according to the authors. Read more

UIC, other universities urge lawmakers to close innovation deficit

The University of Illinois joins a coalition of university, scientific and business organizations today urging Congress and President Obama to ensure that the U.S. remains a leader in innovation by increasing federal investments in research.

The innovation deficit — the widening gap between actual and needed federal investments in research and higher education — continues to increase in the U.S., while other nations such as China, India and Singapore dramatically boost research funding to develop technological and medical breakthroughs to move their economies forward.

One year ago today, UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares added her name to an open letter to President Obama and Congress signed by more than 200 university officials, urging them to take action against the innovation deficit. Progress has been made, the coalition says, but more needs to be done. Read more