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WSU Research Treating Disease

The uncompromising pursuit of healthier people and communities

Addressing health disparities and preventing disease

American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities experience elevated rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. These communities are historically underserved when it comes to health care. Little research has been conducted to better understand and address their health care needs.

Dr. Dedra Buchwald of the WSU Health Sciences Spokane campus hopes to equip these communities with powerful tools to improve blood pressure control, and ultimately cardiovascular disease and stroke. With a $10 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Dr. Buchwald will work with a Southwest tribe, an Alaska Native health care organization, and three Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community-based organizations to reduce health risks related to high blood pressure.

Taking aim at chronic disease

The grant is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Transdisciplinary Collaborative Centers for Health Disparities Research Program (TCC), which focuses on priority areas in minority health and health disparities. Dr. Buchwald will create one of two TCC centers that target chronic disease prevention. The other center will be based at Michigan State University.

A community partnership

Dr. Buchwald and fellow Principal Investigator, Dr. Spero Manson of the University of Colorado Denver, plan to engage community members in all aspects of the research process. The leaders of the Center’s three intervention projects are all American Indian or Alaska Native, and all are former mentees. The Center also includes teams of personnel who represent the spectrum of National Institute of Minority Health and Health

Disparities staff, academic institutions, and health care systems and agencies that play a role in serving minority communities. In addition, Drs. Buchwald and Manson will foster new scientific collaborations with local and regional partners. Scientifically rigorous and culturally informed, their investigations will respond to community needs while honoring community values.

Predicting the Progression of Cancers

Grant Trobridge

Pharmacy research paves way for genetic tests

Physicians may soon have another diagnostic tool to help treat cancer patients, thanks to a new partnership between WSU and a genetic testing company based in India. Under a recently signed licensing agreement, Datar Genetics Ltd. will use a set of genes identified by College of Pharmacy researchers to develop tests to predict prostate cancer recurrence and breast cancer survival. The partnership was facilitated by the WSU Office of Commercialization, which is looking for additional licensing partners in other countries.

The research that led to the identification of the 20 genes was conducted in the lab of Grant Trobridge, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences. In work funded by the National Cancer Institute, Postdoctoral Research Associate Arun Nalla used a virus to create genetic mutations in human prostate cancer cells to understand how tumors become independent of androgen, a male hormone. Androgen-independent tumors don’t need testosterone to grow and thus no longer respond to hormone therapy, making them much harder to treat. The virus Nalla used can insert its DNA into the genome of a human cell, which made it possible to pinpoint which genes got altered and led to androgen independence. Using a similar approach, doctoral student Victor Bii looked for genes that caused breast cancer to spread to other parts of the body.

Trobridge said their work is a small but critical step on the way to their long-term goal of developing targeted cancer therapies. “Ultimately, we’d like to be able to predict which treatments are more likely to work based on patients’ genetic profiles.”

Ion mobility spectrometry

Investigating one of society’s most powerful workhorses

On a cool evening last April, at exactly 8:01 p.m., the International Space Station traced a bright silver arc over Pullman. Inside, a small sensor scanned the air for hazardous vapors and relayed the data to flight controllers in Houston.

Meanwhile, 200 miles below in the Syrian desert, soldiers searched through rubble carrying a handheld device that sounds an alarm in the presence of chemical warfare agents. At airport security gates and customs stations all over the world, similar devices sniff out explosives and narcotics.

The technology behind those detectors is called ion mobility spectrometry or IMS. While it may be unfamiliar, IMS is emerging as one of society’s most powerful workhorses, able to detect and identify an extensive range of potentially harmful materials.

For the last 40 years, Washington State University chemistry professor Herbert Hill has led the development and expansion of ion mobility. Today IMS is poised to revolutionize the medical field as an ultrasensitive diagnostic tool. It is also the key component in a prototype breathalyzer able to detect marijuana and other drugs.

Read the rest of the story in Washington State Magazine.

Finding treatment for genetic disorders

Experimental drug could help children with a rare inherited condition

A rare inherited disorder that afflicts children, succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase deficiency (SSADHD) is a defect in GABA metabolism that mimics autism and epilepsy. It triggers seizures, low muscle tone, developmental delays, and a host of neurological problems. There is no treatment beyond simply managing seizures and other symptoms.

SSADHD is caused by a mutation in a single gene that leaves a critical enzyme in short supply. K. Michael Gibson, a board-certified clinical biochemical geneticist and director of the Experimental and Systems Pharmacology Unit in the College of Pharmacy, discovered the enzyme defect during his doctoral studies. Now, he is searching for ways to treat it.

With more than $1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Gibson and his collaborators are testing the effectiveness of an experimental drug to treat SSADHD. Positive results would not only deliver relief to sufferers of SSADHD, but could accelerate development of effective treatments for other inherited disorders as well, including Down syndrome.

Preventing sensory loss

Study explores ways to safeguard fragile cells in the inner ear

It doesn’t take much to damage the delicate sensory cells of the inner ear—loud noises, a toxin, or even a life-saving antibiotic can damage or kill the minuscule hair cells that convert acoustic signals to electrochemical signals in the nervous system. If too many of these fragile cells die, hearing dies with them.

WSU researcher Allison Coffin, of the University’s Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, wants to make sure this doesn’t happen.

With funding from the National Institute of Health and the Action on Hearing Loss Foundation, Dr. Coffin is exploring ways to protect the inner ear’s stereocilia, and the cells that support them, from damage caused by ototoxic, or ear-damaging, antibiotics. Her research involves what may seem to be an unlikely participant: fish.

Several species of fish have sensory cells that are evolutionary related to the hair cells in human ears—but these cells are part of external sensory organs, not hidden inside the inner ear. By studying the easily accessible cells of these fish, Dr. Coffin hopes to find out how to prevent and repair damage to the analogous cells in humans.

The initial data indicate that caffeine may have a significant protective effect against ototoxic medicines. Dr. Coffin‘s lab plans further research to identify the mechanism behind caffeine’s protective effect.

Another promising shield against ototoxins is MM-201, a new neuroprotective drug developed by WSU scientist Joseph Harding and Leen Kawas, CEO of M3 Biotechnology Inc. Ongoing work in the lab seeks to understand how these compounds protect hair cells. The researchers are also seeking other ways to prevent ototoxicity.

In time, it may no longer be necessary for someone who needs one of these damaging yet life-saving antibiotics to choose between life and living without hearing.

Washington State University