. Scientific Frontline

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The brain’s cannabinoid system protects against addiction

Test participants’ emotional reactions are measured using electrodes that record tension in the small facial muscles. From left: Madeleine Jones and Irene Perini. 
Photo Credit: Thor Balkhed

High levels of the body’s own cannabinoid substances protect against developing addiction in individuals previously exposed to childhood maltreatment, according to a new study. Those who had not developed an addiction following childhood maltreatment seem to process emotion-related social signals better.

 Childhood maltreatment has long been suspected to increase the risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction later in life. Researchers at Linköping University have previously shown that this risk is three times higher if you have been exposed to childhood maltreatment compared with if you have not, even when accounting for confounds from genetics and other familial factors.

“There’s been a lot of focus on addiction as a disease driven by a search for pleasure effects and euphoria, but for many it has more to do with the drugs’ ability to suppress negative feelings, stress sensitivity, anxiety and low mood. Based on this, we and other researchers have had a theory that if affected in childhood, the function of the brain’s distress systems is altered, and that this may contribute to addiction risk in adulthood,” says Markus Heilig, professor and director of the Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience, CSAN, at Linköping University and consultant at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University Hospital in Linköping.

Researchers devise new system for turning seawater into hydrogen fuel

Researchers collect seawater in Half Moon Bay, California, in January 2023 for an experiment that turned the liquid into hydrogen fuel. From left: Joseph Perryman, a SLAC and Stanford postdoctoral researcher; Daniela Marin, a Stanford graduate student in chemical engineering and co-author; Adam Nielander, an associate staff scientist with the SUNCAT, a SLAC-Stanford joint institute; and Charline Rémy, a visiting scholar at SUNCAT.
Photo Credit: Adam Nielander/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The SLAC-Stanford team pulled hydrogen directly from ocean waters. Their work could help efforts to generate low-carbon fuel for electric grids, cars, boats and other infrastructure.

Seawater’s mix of hydrogen, oxygen, sodium and other elements makes it vital to life on Earth. But that same complex chemistry has made it difficult to extract hydrogen gas for clean energy uses. 

Now, researchers at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University with collaborators at the University of Oregon and Manchester Metropolitan University have found a way to tease hydrogen out of the ocean by funneling seawater through a double-membrane system and electricity. Their innovative design proved successful in generating hydrogen gas without producing large amounts of harmful byproducts. The results of their study, published in Joule, could help advance efforts to produce low-carbon fuels.

“Many water-to-hydrogen systems today try to use a monolayer or single-layer membrane. Our study brought two layers together,” said Adam Nielander, an associate staff scientist with the SUNCAT Center for Interface Science and Catalysis, a SLAC-Stanford joint institute. “These membrane architectures allowed us to control the way ions in seawater moved in our experiment.” 

Research reveals dual nature of beneficial bacteria UD1022

UD post-doctoral researcher Amanda Rosier is lead author on two papers reporting on the behavior of UD1022, a UD-patented beneficial bacteria that can help protect alfalfa from fungal pathogens.
Photo Credits: Evan Krape and courtesy of Amanda Rosie

Alfalfa, also known in Latin as Medicago sativa, is an agricultural crop that is part of the legume family. It is known as a protein-rich food source for dairy cattle that is easily digested and can lead to increased milk production. This is good news if you are a fan of ice cream or other dairy products. 

However, alfalfa can be susceptible to common fungal diseases, such as spring black stem or root rot, that can limit crop yields.

A recent paper published in Plants by University of Delaware plant biologist Harsh Bais and postdoctoral researcher Amanda Rosier has shown that UD1022, a UD-patented beneficial bacteria, can protect alfalfa plants from fungal pathogens that cause plant disease.

The UD-patented microbe UD1022 is a unique strain of Bacillus subtilis, a natural, beneficial bacterium that lives on the surface of roots and the surrounding soil, or rhizosphere. UD1022 is known as a growth promoter that can help plants flourish vigorously. It also is considered a plant protector for its ability to help plants wage a system-wide resistance when under attack by one of these microscopic disease agents.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Modified Botox gives long-term pain relief after nerve injury without side effects

A single injection of the elongated Botox could relieve pain for months without risk of paralysis or addiction
Photo Credit: Mufid Majnun

A modified form of Botox could give long-term pain relief to patients with chronic nerve injury pain, according to a new study.

A team of scientists from the Universities of Sheffield, Reading and University College London (UCL) and US-based biopharmaceutical company Neuresta have created a new, elongated botulinum neurotoxin which can alleviate chronic pain without risk of paralysis or addiction. 

Chronic pain is extremely difficult to manage, and currently available drugs are limited by dangerous side effects. Opioids like morphine and fentanyl are the gold standard for short-term pain relief but they cannot effectively treat chronic pain due to the risk of addition, abuse and overdose. 

Findings of the new study, published in the journal Life Science Alliance, show that a single injection of the precisely engineered botulinum neurotoxin provides long-lasting relief in mice models, without adverse effects.

The team, led by Professor Bazbek Davletov, Chair of Biomedical Science, and Research Associate Charlotte Leese from the University of Sheffield, developed a new way of rebuilding Botox by using elements of Clostridium botulinum and created a biopharmaceutical with new properties, without unwanted toxic effects. 

Neutrons for better vaccines against multidrug resistant germs

Dr. Jia-Jheng Kang prepares measurements for the vaccines at the KWS-2 sample site.
Photo Credit: Bernhard Ludewig, FRM II / TUM

Neutrons from the Research Neutron Source Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (FRM II) can be used to explore the structure of biomolecules. The most recent success: the precise analysis of a promising vaccine against multidrug resistant germs.

Bacteria which are resistant to all conventional antibiotics cause more than a million deaths each year. Consequently, researchers around the world are searching for new therapeutic approaches to combat these pathogens. Two years ago, an international team in Grenoble identified an active ingredient suitable for the production of a vaccine against multidrug resistant bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The vaccine has in the meantime been successfully tested on mice.

"As with many new vaccines, in this case the active ingredient is embedded in liposomes. The exact characterization and understanding of these nanoscopic biomolecules is a key factor in the development and optimization of future vaccines," says Dr. Marco Maccarini, biophysicist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Together with experts at the TIMC laboratory of the Université Grenoble Alpes (UGA) and at the FRM II he has successfully analyzed the structure of the candidate vaccine against Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

USF geoscientist discovers new phosphorus material after New Port Richey lightning strike

Matthew Pasek
Courtesy of University of South Florida

After lightning struck a tree in a New Port Richey neighborhood, a University of South Florida professor discovered the strike led to the formation of a new phosphorus material. It was found in a rock – the first time in solid form on Earth – and could represent a member of a new mineral group. 

“We have never seen this material occur naturally on Earth – minerals similar to it can be found in meteorites and space, but we've never seen this exact material anywhere,” said geoscientist Matthew Pasek. 

In a recent study published in Communications Earth & Environment, Pasek examines how high-energy events, such as lightning, can cause unique chemical reactions, and in this instance, result in a new material – one that is transitional between space minerals and minerals found on Earth. 

“When lightning strikes a tree, the ground typically explodes out and the surrounding grass dies, forming a scar and sending electric discharge through nearby rock, soil and sand, forming fulgurites, also known as ‘fossilized lightning’,” Pasek said. 

Scientists uncover a key chemical structure in pigment molecule

Photo Credit: NCI

After nearly a century of scientific inquiry, scientists have at last been able to characterize a key component in the substance responsible for giving countless living organisms their color. 

In the study, published online today in the journal Nature Chemistry, an international team of researchers isolated a key molecule involved in the synthesis of melanin, a substance in the human body that produces pigmentation in the hair and skin and protects the cells from being damaged by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The molecule they studied has many of the physical properties of eumelanin, a type of melanin that typically produces only black and brown pigments. 

Despite what researchers know about melanin, its chemical structure has remained elusive, said Bern Kohler, an Ohio Eminent Scholar and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The Ohio State University, one of three senior authors on the study.  

“Melanin is literally as plain as the nose on our face and we still don't know exactly what it's made of and how it works,” said Kohler. “It's thought to be a material made of large numbers of interacting components, and so what my collaborators and I are trying to get at is, what are melanin’s underlying chemical units and what are the interactions that give rise to its properties?”

Global study finds some women experience heavier menstrual flow after COVID-19 vaccination

Analyses showed a small increase in the percentage of participants who experienced greater total bleeding quantity following the first COVID-19 vaccine dose compared with an unvaccinated comparison group.
Photo Credit: Obi

A new international study finds that women vaccinated for COVID-19 have a slightly higher risk for a heavier period after vaccination.

The study, led by Oregon Health & Science University reproductive health services researcher Blair Darney, Ph.D., M.P.H., and physician-scientist Alison Edelman, M.D., M.P.H., published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. These findings build on prior work from the same research team that first identified an association between COVID-19 vaccines and menstrual cycle changes.

While there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that COVID-19 vaccination is associated with a small increase in cycle length, other disturbances such as bleeding quantity are less well known. This study aimed to estimate the effect of COVID-19 vaccination on menstrual bleeding quantity among individuals with normal menstrual cycles.

“Menstruation is a routine bodily function and a key indicator of overall health, so it’s crucial that we understand the scope of this issue among the global population,” said Edelman, one of the study’s lead authors. “The more we can understand about these reported changes, the more effectively we’re able to counsel individuals about what to expect with a COVID-19 vaccine and how to make an informed decision about getting vaccinated.”

Prior treatments influence immunotherapy response in advanced melanoma

Photo Credit: Ivan Samkov

Research led by scientists at UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center found that responses to a type of immunotherapy called PD-1 checkpoint blockade in patients with advanced melanoma depended on whether or not they had previously received another immunotherapy – CTLA-4 blockade – as well as other factors.

Their findings, based on analysis of seven data sets generated over the past decade, which included results of tumor biopsies from more than 500 patients, are published in Cancer Cell.

“In our large set of data, features that have been used to predict response to anti-PD-1 checkpoint blockade therapy – often called biomarkers –related to the presence of certain immune cell types in the tumor and the genetic profile of the tumors themselves were modified by a patient’s treatment history,” said lead author Katie Campbell, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in hematology/oncology at UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

When a patient is diagnosed with advanced melanoma, they usually are treated with immune therapies like anti-PD-1 blockade and anti-CTLA-4 blockade, in combination or alone. By blocking different proteins that diminish the effectiveness of T cells, these checkpoint inhibitors enhance the body’s immune response to cancer.  

From greenhouse gas to value-added product

Dogukan Apaydin, Dominik Eder, Hannah Rabl, electrochemical cell (from left)
Photo Credit: Dogukan Apaydin / TU Wien

If one converts CO2 into synthesis gas, a valuable starting material for the chemical industry can be obtained. Researchers at TU Wien show how this works even at room temperature and atmospheric pressure.

Thinking of CO2, terms like climate-damaging or waste product probably quickly come to mind. While CO2 has been that for a long time – a pure waste product – more and more processes are being developed with which the greenhouse gas can be converted into valuable raw materials. Researchers then speak of "value-added chemicals". A new material with which this is possible was developed at TU Wien and recently presented in the journal Communications Chemistry.

Researchers at Dominik Eder's group developed a new material that facilitates the conversion of CO2. These are MOCHAs – organometallic chalcogenolate compounds that serve as catalysts. The result of the electrochemical conversion is synthesis gas, or syngas for short, which is an important raw material for the chemical industry.

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