In this Spotlight feature, we will take a look at some of the groundbreaking research being carried out at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and we speak with some of the scientists behind the big ideas.

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UIC’s medical research endeavors span all sectors.

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is Chicago’s only public research university, and their research covers a wide range of topics including – but not limited to – computer science, sustainability, bioengineering, health sciences, psychology, and education.

According to their website, UIC aims to “affect the way we live.”

In this article, however, we will focus our attention on medical advances, concentrating on just five of their recent projects. We also speak with some of the researchers responsible for these fresh ideas.

The role of gut bacteria in health and disease is a hot topic. Jun Sun, associate professor at UIC, and Tao Pan, from the University of Chicago, are investigating the role of gut bacteria in breast cancer.

Specifically, they are interested in a chemical called queuine. Queuine is produced by certain gut flora, absorbed through the intestine and circulated in the blood. Cells use queuine to modify transfer RNAs (tRNAs), which are adaptor molecules that link messenger RNA to the amino acid sequence of proteins. Queuine helps tRNAs to make proteins more accurately and efficiently.

Previous research has shown that abnormal levels of tRNA are linked to an increase in breast cancer risk. Because of this link, gut bacteria and queuine are under the spotlight for their potential role in breast cancer.

Medical News Today recently asked Sun what first excited her about gut bacteria. She said:

I was first excited about how bacteria interact with host and environment. I am impressed that they are so smart; they have existed for millions of years and have intelligence we do not know. It is very interesting to consider the microbiome as a newly discovered organ and understand its novel roles in health and disease.”

We also asked whether, if queuine is involved in breast cancer, it is possible that certain antibiotics might influence breast cancer risk. She replied:

“A previous study, published in JAMA in 2004, showed that ‘use of antibiotics is associated with increased risk of incident and fatal breast cancer.’ […] It is possible that antibiotic use changes the profile/function of bacteria. We need more evidence to support this hypothesis.”

Sun’s laboratory is currently looking at the role of the microbiome in a number of diseases, including inflammatory bowel diseases, infectious diseases, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

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The miniature, non-mydriatic camera.
Image credit: Mark Janowicz

Currently, to take an image of the back of the eye, it is necessary to use pupil-dilating drops. As anyone who has been to an optician will know, these drops can sting and often take up to 30 minutes to work.

Additionally, they can cause vision to be blurry for some time afterward, making driving and operating machinery a no-no.

Aside from the discomfort and inconvenience of these drops, there are times when patients cannot have their pupils dilated – neurosurgery patients, for instance.

Similarly, there are some occasions where it is not practical to take a patient to the outpatient eye clinic just to be photographed.

Dr. Bailey Shen from UIC, in conjunction with researchers from Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Harvard Medical School in Boston, have created a cost-effective solution to this problem – a portable camera that can photograph the retina without the need for those troublesome eye drops. Constructed from simple parts – most of which are available online – the camera costs just $185 to produce.

The camera is based on a cheap, single-board computer, “designed to teach children how to build and program computers.” The board links to a basic infrared camera, and a dual infrared- and white-light-emitting diode.

Normal retina cameras use white light that causes the pupil to constrict, which is why the pupil-constricting drops are necessary. With the new camera, infrared light is emitted first, which does not cause the iris to constrict. The infrared light is used to focus the camera on the retina before a brief pulse of white light is fired, and the picture is taken.

Cameras that use this technique are called non-mydriatic fundus cameras and are already in use, but they are bulky and expensive, costing thousands of dollars. Dr. Shen, and co-author Dr. Shizuo Mukai, recently published details about the camera and how to build it in the Journal of Ophthalmology.

MNT asked Dr. Shen whether he thinks that access to medical devices might improve thanks to the advances in personal technology. He said:

“I hope so. In the 1970s, personal computers used to be prohibitively expensive, but nowadays, most people own a smartphone capable of doing much more than those computers from the 1970s. Hopefully, medical devices will also become cheaper, more portable, and more accessible in the near future.”

He also told MNT that they are working to improve the camera: “We are trying to turn our prototype non-mydriatic camera into a smartphone dongle so that we can further reduce its cost and size.” They also hope to increase the field of view in the future.

Medical advances in the battle against cancer are always big news. With more than half a million deaths from cancer each year in the United States, this comes as no surprise.

Dr. Ajay Maker, associate professor of surgery at UIC, and his team are investigating ways in which the patient’s own immune system might be used to fight cancerous cells – specifically in colon cancer.

LIGHT is an immune-stimulating chemical messenger previously found to have low levels of expression in patients with colon cancer metastases. Maker and colleagues used a mouse model for colon cancer. Once tumors had developed substantially, the mice were put into two groups: one group had the cytokine LIGHT turned on in the tumors, and the other did not.

Tumors exposed to LIGHT showed an influx of T cells, and these immune warriors swiftly reduced the tumor’s size. This reduction continued even once the expression of LIGHT had ceased. This discovery could lead to novel approaches to fighting cancerous growths.

MNT asked Dr. Maker whether LIGHT might be useful in the fight against other types of cancer. He replied:

The advantage of our approach is that it works to support and activate anti-tumor immune mechanisms already stimulated by our natural immune response. Therefore, we believe our findings are translatable to other tumor types.”

We also asked whether he has any plans to investigate LIGHT in other animals: “We are already evaluating LIGHT in other animal models and human tumors with the goal of developing this into a clinical treatment strategy.”

The immune system and cytokine pathways are incredibly complex. Although medical science is only slowly unpicking their intricacies, there is much hope in this field. As Dr. Maker says: “We are only just beginning to understand and unlock the potential of many immuno-modulating substances in the tumor microenvironment.”

Their research is ongoing, and they are already evaluating “multiple avenues to stimulate anti-tumor immune responses in solid tumors, including combination immunotherapies, checkpoint blockade strategies, and novel stimulators of immunogenic cell death.”

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A normal cell compared with a glioblastoma cell.
Image credit: Vikas Berry

Over recent years, there are few materials that have received as much attention as graphene. It is composed of a single layer of carbon atoms, linked up in a chicken-wire pattern, and it is the thinnest known material.

Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, conducts heat and electricity, and it is transparent. It holds a great deal of promise in a range of products, from solar cells to smart windows, and from wearable devices to biological engineering.

Because the material has only been officially isolated and investigated relatively recently, its full potential has not yet been unlocked. However, one innovative and surprising use for graphene is being studied by UIC researchers. Their project is being led by Vikas Berry.

By fusing brain cells onto graphene, it is possible to differentiate a normal cell from a single hyperactive cancerous cell. This could potentially lead to the development of a simple, noninvasive tool for the early diagnosis of cancer.

As Berry explains: “The cell’s interface with graphene rearranges the charge distribution in graphene, which modifies the energy of atomic vibration as detected by Raman spectroscopy.” In other words, a cancerous cell produces subtly different atomic vibration energy to normal cells. Specifically, because of the cancer cell’s hyperactivity, it produces a higher negative charge on its surface, and more protons are released.

According to Berry, animal studies are currently under way, and human trials will soon follow. He hopes that, within 12 months, the technique may be used clinically. Berry and his team are still improving the process, he told MNT: “We are working on making the device more compact and more surgeon-friendly.”

Depression affects more than 15 million people in the U.S. Despite its prevalence and the reams of research surrounding it, figuring out which treatment will best suit each individual is still challenging.

Scott Langenecker and his team are trying to change this. They use functional MRI (fMRI) to gauge how successful drug treatment might be, even before the first dose is given.

During the fMRI scan, participants with major depressive disorder were asked to watch the letters X, Y, and Z flash across a screen. They were instructed to press a button when they saw a letter and not to press the button again if the letter reappeared.

They found that patients who showed more communication within certain brain networks when they made a mistake during this task were less likely to respond to antidepressant medication.

The particular networks in question are the error detection network and the interference processing network, which activates when an individual decides what information to focus attention on.

We believe that increased cross-talk within these networks may reflect a propensity to ruminate on negative occurrences, such as mistake, or a deficit in emotional regulation when faced with a mistake, and our medications may be less effective in helping these types of patients.”

Natalie Crane, psychiatry graduate at UIC

MNT caught up with Langenecker and asked him what first piqued his interest in mood disorders. He said:

“I wanted to study an illness where there was a tremendous opportunity to move the needle. It was clear at the time that there were not any major breakthroughs in major depression on the horizon, yet it affected 16 percent of the population.”

There is still much to learn about depression. MNT asked Langenecker whether stimulating or suppressing specific networks could help in the battle against the condition. He said:

“By studying these neural networks, we may also be able to understand these networks, which networks work in opposition, and how to tweak them. Deep brain stimulation is already a strategy that does this. Transcranial magnetic stimulation works on the same principal, and transcranial direct current stimulation is in the same ballpark. Some believe that is how ECT [electroconvulsive therapy] works, by resetting these networks. We have realistic expectations that we can modulate these networks.”

The real trick, he said, is figuring out which ones to tweak, when, and by how much. Then we will need to understand how long the effect lasts and which people it will be successful for.

Langenecker and team continue to make advances in the field, and he told us that they will “run several different studies to help us understand how we might be able to modulate these nodes and networks with traditional treatments […], how these change with treatment, and how stable any changes are.”

UIC is stretching the boundaries of research across the board, fighting a range of diseases and pushing technology further than ever. The future may well be bright – if UIC has anything to do with it.