Inspiration comes from unexpected places, a theme echoed throughout Vitae, a hallmark event recognizing research excellence across University of Utah Health presented by the Office of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Research Unit in collaboration with the Office of Academic Affairs and Faculty Development. This year’s symposium spotlighted six rising-star faculty who captivated an online audience with stories of their science, and how they got to where they are today.
Robert A. Campbell, PhD, Research Assistant Professor, Department of Internal Medicine
Individuals with inflammation due to infection are often at greater risk for developing blood clots, but the molecular reasons for this are unknown. My research has focused on understanding the specific pathways that drive thrombosis during inflammation and infection with the ultimate goal of translating these findings into new treatment strategies. At the University of Utah, I am surrounded by talented people who have helped my laboratory directly examine how tiny blood cells called platelets change during infection, causing blood clot formation.
We have recently focused on thrombotic complications associated with COVID-19, the global pandemic that has made life challenging in 2020. We hope our findings associated with changes in coagulation pathways in COVID-19 patients will lead to a better understanding of why blood clots are common in these patients.
Mingnan Chen, PhD, Associate Professor, College of Pharmacy
From Serendipity to Dedication: A Journey Toward Better Autoimmune Disease Therapeutics
Nearly one in six people worldwide suffers from an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases have no cure, and effective treatments can be hard to come by. I was struck by these sobering statistics soon after the failure of one of our cancer therapeutic ideas led to a new opportunity to improve autoimmune disease therapy. My current research focus is the development of solid therapeutics that can effectively stop
or reverse disease progression. After the news of the initial success of our therapeutic development was spread through our publication and news reports, I received emails from all around the world. Congratulations aside, all the senders expressed eagerness to see the therapeutics at their bedside. At that moment the sobering numbers of autoimmune diseases suddenly became real to me, and I thought of the actual people and families burdened by these diseases. It was then that the short joy raised from the scientific serendipity solidified into my long-term dedication to improve the lives of those patients and their families with the power of science.
Anna R. Docherty, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Identifying the Genetic Basics of Suicide
Each year, more than 48,000 Americans die by suicide. Genetic factors are known to play a significant role: suicide death tracks in families independent of the effects of a shared environment.
Identifying these genetic risk factors using molecular data could lead to better ways of predicting individual risk for suicide and prevent the worst from happening. To get a more comprehensive picture, we have leveraged new computational techniques to analyze millions of DNA variants in
Utah suicide death samples. We have validated a genetic risk score for suicide that predicts case-control status in the lab. While not yet used in clinical settings, it represents the first step to quantifying biological risk for suicide in individuals. This information allows us to study how the genetics of suicide overlap with genetic risk for hundreds of medical conditions and how genetic risk interacts with environment to further increase an individual’s risk. A key goal of this research includes reducing stigma and increasing education, so that families with elevated risk will be more likely to talk about suicide risk and protective factors, as they would for any other medical condition.
Mary C. Playdon, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor, College of Health
Your Diet Is In Your Blood and What That Says About Your Cancer Risk
Cancer patients—and the general public—have a strong interest in what dietary factors might prevent cancer or improve survival after cancer diagnosis. Many questions remain because dietary measurement is prone to errors that can make it difficult to detect diet- cancer signals. Using cutting-edge technologies, we have uncovered a
trove of objective dietary biomarkers from tiny drops of blood or urine that can be used to better measure diet. These biomarkers can tell us what a person ate, how that food might have been processed and prepared, and how their metabolism has responded to diet. In addition, many cancer survivors, particularly survivors of obesity-related cancers, are at high risk of developing comorbidities after cancer diagnosis, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We are exploring the metabolic factors that drive cardiometabolic diseases among cancer patients and identifying and testing dietary strategies that can improve their metabolic health.
Paul A. Sigala, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry
Tackling Malaria with Basic Science
Malaria, an ancient scourge of humanity, remains a pressing global health challenge, especially in tropical Africa where hundreds of thousands of children die from malaria annually. A potent vaccine remains elusive, and parasites have acquired resistance to nearly all current antimalarial drugs. Deeper understanding of basic parasite biology and the mechanisms of current drugs will guide their optimal use for malaria prevention and treatment and facilitate development of novel therapies to combat parasite drug resistance. I observed the devastating impacts of malaria first-hand while teaching high school chemistry as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana, West Africa, for two years after college. This experience catalyzed my interest in using basic science to tackle challenging biomedical problems. My lab is working to understand the basic cellular biochemistry of Plasmodium falciparum, the most virulent species of malaria-causing parasites. Our goals are to uncover the metabolic adaptations that equip this terrible pathogen to survive and proliferate in human red blood cells, define metabolic differences between parasites and humans, and use this understanding to develop new therapeutic strategies to eradicate malaria.
Moriel Zelikowsky, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy
The Socially Isolated Brain
Social isolation is at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days. With the COVID-19 pandemic at an all-time high, we are spending more and more time isolated from friends and family. How does this social isolation alter our behavior? How is it encoded by the brain?
While my research lab wrangles with these questions every day, I did not follow a traditional path to science. Born in Los Angeles to a family of artists who emigrated from Israel and Morocco, I had very little exposure to science as a child. Indeed, I began my academic career as a film major. However, after being exposed to analytical thought through philosophy courses, I fell in love with science and quickly became captivated by our mysterious brains. I became interested in how the brain encodes emotion, especially what happens to the brain and behavior following social isolation stress. Using novel molecular-genetic techniques, advanced behavioral testing, and computational analyses, my lab aims to uncover the neural circuits and mechanisms underlying social isolation and its effects on fear, anxiety, violence, and mating.