CWRU researchers make strides in 2015 medical breakthroughs

Case Western Reserve University is known for its research, and in 2015, the school made many steps forward.

Researchers from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine performed the first surgical treatment of coronary heart disease, the first genetic alteration of human cells in a laboratory and the creation of the first artificial human chromosome. The medical school is currently ranked number 24 in the nation for research, according to the U.S. News and World Report.

According to CWRU’s website, the university as a whole “consistently ranks in the top 20 private research institutions based on federal research/development expenditures,” and it receives over $310 million annually to fund more than 1,600 research projects.

In 2015 CWRU’s abundance of research continued, especially in the field of medicine. Here’s a roundup of some of the CWRU’s most significant medical breakthroughs from the past year.

Researchers discover further potential in already-known medicines

Two experimental drugs previously used to treat athlete’s foot and eczema may also have the potential to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), according to the findings of a scientific study
conducted at CWRU School of Medicine. The research team, led by Paul Tesar, associate professor in the Department of Genetics & Genome Sciences,found in April 2015 that the drugs miconazole and clobetasol were capable of repairing damage in mice to myelin cells destroyed by MS.

MS, the most common neurological disorder among young adults, is a devastating
disorder resulting from malfunctioning immune cells eliminating crucial myelin sheaths, which are essentially protective covers, around neurons in the brain and spinal cord.

Although much remains to be done before the drugs can actually be certified for human
treatment, the efforts of Tesar and colleagues mark the most promising results so far in
the fight against MS.

Ph.D. student recognized for groundbreaking research on bone fracture resistance

Mechanical and aerospace engineering doctoral student Mustafa Unal received the highly prestigious Baxter Young Investigator award in late August 2015 for his work on
how water is involved in the fracture resistance capability of bone. His research, which utilized
a new laser-based vibrational technique built on Raman spectroscopy, allows for much
more accurate estimations of bone fracture risk than had many previous methods.

Unal’s labor could have exciting potential for widespread and debilitating conditions such as osteoporosis.

Colon cancer specialist becomes Distinguished University Professor

On August 26, 2015, colon cancer researcher Sanford Markowitz, already a decorated scientist, was named a CWRU Distinguished Professor—one of the highest honors that the university has to offer—for his work on the genetic basis for colon cancer.

Markowitz had, over the past couple of decades, made some incredible contributions to his field, such as finding key colon cancer suppressor genes, creating a molecular inhibitor that promoted rapid regeneration of bone marrow and tissue, and serving as a leading member of the team that first sequenced the complete human cancer genome. His award at the beginning of this school year marks the latest triumph in a long career.

Biomedical engineer receives grant to construct highly precise brain tumor treatment

Efstathios Karathanasis, a researcher working at the Case School of Engineering, received a $2.82 million grant this October from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further develop a potentially revolutionary new brain cancer treatment. The treatment involves special nanoparticles that can carry chemotherapy drugs across the blood-brain barrier and “hurl” them at malignant tumors caused by an aggressive form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme.

Karathanasis and his team seem confident, based on successful trials with mice, that the magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles will also be able to destroy the majority of tumors caused in humans. This is due in part to the highly precise nature of the treatment: The nanoparticles attract one another through magnetism, linking together almost like a chain where chemotherapy medications then embed themselves.

The method is one of the most radical—but also most successful—treatments so far against brain cancer and could have huge implications if it is found that it works as well in humans.

Group of researchers awarded funding to develop digital technology to predict cancer

A team of researchers led by biomedical engineering professor Anant Madabhushi was given a $3.16 million grant in early November from the NIH to create a special analytic software capable of sorting, annotating and analyzing digital pathological data obtained from cancer cells. The software, called “pathology image informatics platform” by the team, will be used to create a database of very high resolution cancer cells, which will be analyzed by computerized algorithms to provide a precise picture of the overall aggressiveness and likely prognosis of various types of cancer.

The project, conducted in tandem with the National Cancer Institute, could free doctors and researchers from having to manually analyze cancer images under microscopes and ultimately result in a unified standardization of digital pathology imaging across the country, something which could potentially affect a significant increase in the efficiency and accuracy of cancer diagnoses.

Scientists make progress in development of new pain relief technique

This December medical researchers working at the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center at the School of Medicine received a federal grant of $2.4 million to further study the prospect of utilizing high-voltage electrical stimulation of the spinal cord to minimize chronic pain.

The research team, led by professor of orthopedics Kevin Kilgore, has been using a simple method of alleviating pain: increasing the intensity of electrical stimulation drastically. Such electrical treatment has been used for decades, but Kilgore’s team seems to have made progress by simply “upping the ante,” so to speak. The team has found no surprises in this method so far; voltage seems to be inversely proportional to amount of pain felt by patients.

If further results confirm this trend, then an extremely simple defense against chronic pain may have been found.

Medical School scientists discover method to reduce damage from spinal cord lesion

Scientists at the CWRU School of Medicine discovered in December that they can prevent the body from making matters worse in cases of spinal cord injury.

When the spinal cord is pierced by some external trauma, immune cells immediately initiate an inflammatory response to prevent infection. However the immune cells (macrophages) that cause the inflammation are rather imprecise, often destroying healthy spinal tissue as well as blood and foreign agents. This can result in significant loss of movement in the body.

The researchers, led by neuroscience professor Jerry Silver, found that special stem cells called multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs) have the ability to direct a more specific, less damaging immune response capable of sparing much of the healthy tissue that would be otherwise destroyed by macrophages. Preliminary tests with MAPCs in lab animals have been promising so far. If these results can be duplicated in human trials, spinal cord injuries could be potentially much less dangerous in the future.

Doctors discover genes that cause age-related macular degeneration

On Dec. 22, 2015, genetic scientists at the CWRU School of Medicine announced that they had identified 52 specific variations across the human genome responsible for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision impairment in people over 50.

The study, involving over 100 scientists and led by the CWRU School of Medicine professor of genetics Dr. Jonathan Haines, used extremely complex computerized statistical analysis of data obtained from over 30,000 participants, comprised of populations both with and without AMD, and representing over 12 million genetic variations. The results, which were published in a recent edition of Nature Genetics, may signal an effective general treatment to combat AMD.