A year of research advances at U.Va.

Major discoveries made in the fields of medicine, sports, archaeology and more

There have been several discoveries made at the University this past year, from the development of a program to reduce reincarceration rates to the discovery of a link between yogurt and mental health. These are a select few of the University’s most recent scientific advancements.

Purification of HOPS

Christopher Stroupe, assistant professor of molecular physiology and biological physics, purified human HOPS, a protein complex which plays a role in the recycling function of the lysosome and fusion of cellular material with the membrane-bound endosome. The purification of HOPS in human cells allows for more research into HOPS fusion-directed treatments for Ebola and cancer, as both of these diseases use this lysosomal function to spread.

Pathogens of diarrhea

Researchers from the University Health System also developed a better method of quantifying the pathogen-causing agents of diarrhea. The researchers used PCR — a method which amplifies small quantities of DNA— to recognize the six most prevalent pathogens. New treatments such as vaccines and antibiotics are being developed to address some of these pathogens, such as Shigella and adenovirus, which were not previously recognized as major contributors to diarrhea.

Zinc binding sites on albumin

Wladek Minor, professor of molecular physiology and biological physics, and his lab discovered multiple binding sites for zinc on albumin — a protein used for transporting biological molecules throughout the human body. Zinc acts as a catalyst in many processes including wound healing and regulating the immune system.

Improved football gear

The Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University has been working with the NFL to engineer position-specific gear and increase player safety. Jeff Crandall, director of the Center for Applied Biomechanics, investigated how gear can be improved so football players do not sustain short-term and long-term injuries. Initially, the Center’s research focused on designing better cleats for different turf fields. However, the focus of research has shifted to concussion prevention.

DNA testing for familial relationships

Archaeology Prof. Stephen Plog discovered a matrilineal line in New Mexico using DNA and mitochondrial testing. Pueblo Bonito — a burial site in Chaco Canyon— was found to hold generations of an elite family. This discovery indicated an upper class presided over society and oversaw the development of the large Pueblo houses. Furthermore, this study set a precedent, as it was the first to use DNA testing to establish familial relationships without any written records.

Yogurt and depression

A team of neuroscience labs in the Medical School discovered a link between yogurt and depression. In mice exhibiting symptoms of depression, researchers found reduced levels of lactobacillus, causing higher levels of kyneurenine — a metabolite associated with behaviors related to depression. These findings suggest the possibility of using diet as a means to treat depression, as yogurt contains the probiotic lactobacillus.

Hepcidin and pneumonia

Researchers found a link between hepcidin — a liver hormone — and treatment of pneumonia due to a bacterial infection. Pulmonary and critical care researcher Bona Mehrad and his lab found that hepcidin could block iron from entering the bloodstream and thereby prevent bacteria survival. The researchers are testing hepcidin in other animals to determine potential protection from infection.

Spy satellites show climate change

Environmental Science Prof. Howie Epstein conducted a study using spy satellite images from the Cold War to examine the change in shrubbery in the Siberian tundra. Epstein compared these declassified images to current high-resolution imagery and found 11 locations where shrubbery increased. According to Epstein, this increase is likely due to climate change but may also be due to fires and permafrost thawing. However, the arctic ecosystem is very dynamic and there were also regions showing a decrease in shrubs.

Module to decrease incarceration

Jennifer Doleac, assistant professor of public policy and economics, and Benjamin Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy in the Curry School, launched a tablet-based module to decrease reincarceration rates. Currently, two-thirds of people released from prison are rearrested within three years. The module asks inmates personal questions so they can receive better guidance during their transition from prison to the outside world.

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