Fall 2011
Basic scientists marching toward new discoveries

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Baker and Cremo in lab

Baker and Cremo are investigating myosin light chain kinase, which controls the rate of smooth muscle contraction.

Nevada’s first-ever Gates Foundation Grand Challenges grant. A new blood test to prevent AIDS deaths in Africa. Further studies in smooth muscle contraction.

By Anne McMillin, APR. Mike Wolterbeek and Jennifer Beal contributed to this story.

Basic scientists at the School of Medicine continue their quest toward new discoveries in the prevention and treatment of diseases ranging from HIV to infertility through successful grant applications and laboratory findings.

Pre-term birth

The School of Medicine is Nevada's first Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Iain Buxton, pharmacology professor, will pursue a global health and development research project on pre-venting preterm delivery.

Grand Challenges Explorations funds researchers worldwide to explore ideas that break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges.

Preterm labor and delivery of an underdeveloped fetus affects approximately 13 million births worldwide each year. The number of babies who die annually due solely to their prematurity ranges from 20,000 in the U.S. to 336,000 of the 1.2 million newborn deaths, or 28 percent, in sub-Sahara Africa.

"Those babies who survive their prematurity often have numerous chronic health disabilities that constitute a major human tragedy, are enormously costly to societies and cripple third world development," said Buxton.

"Advanced medical care makes it possible for premature fetuses, some as early as 22 weeks, to survive, but at a huge cost, often resulting in life-long disabilities. Prematurity, whether due to infection or occurring spontaneously, threatens global health." -Ian Buxton

AIDS

The Food and Drug Administration has cleared a new diagnostic test that will help save the lives of hundreds of thousands of AIDS patients stricken with cryptococcosis, a fungal meningitis.

The test was developed through a collaboration between Tom Kozel, professor of microbiology at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, and Sean Bauman, president and CEO of Immuno-Mycologics of Oklahoma.

The new, rapid blood test known as the CrAg Lateral Flow Assay leads to early diagnosis of cryptococcosis, a leading cause of AIDS-related deaths in developing countries. Using an anti-body developed by Kozel, the point-of-care product is a simple dipstick test requiring no equipment.

"With the CrAg Lateral Flow Assay, a health-care provider can give the test, observe the results, and administer the first dose of oral medication, all within a few minutes-resulting in a life that has truly been changed for the better," said Bauman.

Current diagnostic tests for cryptococcosis are effective, but are not suitable for resource-limited countries that lack reliable electricity and proper infrastructure.

Kozel, who has been conducting AIDS research for more than 25 years, said studies have shown that early identification and treatment is essential to beat the disease.

The United States' Center for Disease Control and Prevention has established a "call to action" goal of having half of all AIDS clinics in Africa and Asia equipped by 2015 to do this testing and treatment. They estimate 50,000 to 100,000 lives will be saved every year.

Infertility

Studies at the School of Medicine indicate that caffeine reduces muscle activity in the fallopian tubes, which carry eggs from a woman's ovaries to her womb.

"Our experiments were conducted in mice, but this finding goes a long way towards explaining why drinking caffeinated drinks can reduce a woman's chance of becoming pregnant," said Sean Ward, professor of physiology and cell biology, who conducted the study published last spring in the British Journal of Pharmacology.

Human eggs are microscopically small, but need to travel to a woman's womb if she is going to have a successful pregnancy. It was generally assumed that tiny hair-like projections, called cilia, waft eggs along assisted by muscle contractions.

By studying tubes from mice, Ward and his team discovered that caffeine stops the actions of specialized pacemaker cells. These cells coordinate tube contractions so that when these contractions are inhibited, eggs can't move down the tube.

"This provides an intriguing explanation as to why women with high caffeine consumption often take longer to conceive than women who do not consume caffeine," said Ward.

"As well as potentially helping women who are finding it difficult to get pregnant, a better understanding of the way fallopian tubes work will help doctors treat pelvic inflammation and sexually-transmitted diseases more successfully."

Smooth muscle contraction

Christine Cremo and Josh Baker, in the biochemistry and molecular biology department, were awarded a joint four-year grant for more than $2 million from the National Heart Lung Blood Institute to study key contractile proteins of smooth muscle.

"This research is about an important enzyme, myosin light chain kinase, which controls the rate of contraction and forces generation of smooth muscles," said Cremo.

"Without this enzyme, almost every muscle in your body that contracts without you thinking about it would be too relaxed to function properly. These include muscles found in the airway, bladder, blood vessels, uterus and intestine."