Take Note

The fight against antibiotic‑resistant bacteria

Research into new ways of fighting antibiotic‑resistant bacteria has received a $2 million boost from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, part of a $4 million commitment for six projects involving international collaboration with researchers at UBC, McMaster University and Université Laval.

Antibiotic‑resistant bacteria are becoming increasingly common. The problem has major health and economic implications and has been described by the World Health Organization as a “major global threat.”

Natalie Strynadka, a professor of biochemistry and the Canada Research Chair in Antibiotic Discovery and Medicine, uses advanced biophysical tools to zoom in on this big problem. Her team visualizes the individual atoms that make up critical proteins in antibiotic‑resistant bacteria, effectively creating a molecular blueprint that is considered central to unravelling their function in disease and drug resistance.

“The blueprint gives us an understanding, at the molecular level, of how bacteria infect and manipulate human cells and in turn become so virulent,” said Strynadka, who is part of an international research collaboration called the Joint Programming Initiative on Antimicrobial Resistance. “With this atomic three‑dimensional information we can design drugs to specifically block these actions and create new antibiotics to be used in clinical settings.”

The work of UBC researchers Raymond Andersen, Horacio Bach, Julian Davies, Urs Hafeli and Charles Thompson will also benefit from the new funding.


A promising treatment for Huntington’s

Huntington’s disease is caused by a mutation in the Huntington’s disease (HD) gene, but it has long been a mystery why some people with the mutation get the disease more severely and earlier than others.

Huntington’s disease affects the brain and gradually worsens, causing problems with coordination and movement, mental decline and psychiatric issues. While every person has two copies of each gene – one on each chromosome – a single mutation in one copy of the HD gene means the person will suffer from the disease.

The HD gene is controlled by surrounding regions of DNA that function to turn the gene on and off. Dr. Blair Leavitt, a professor in UBC’s Department of Medical Genetics, and his colleagues took a closer look at this part of the genetic code. They identified critical regions where proteins, called transcription factors, can bind to the DNA and control the function of the HD gene. Changes in these DNA regions can play both good and bad roles in the disease.

“The gene for Huntington’s was discovered over 20 years ago but there is very little known about how the expression of this important gene is controlled,” said Leavitt, who is also a scientist with the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics. “This study helps us understand how small genetic differences in the DNA surrounding the HD gene can both delay and accelerate the disease.”

Researchers found that when the DNA change is found on a normal chromosome with no HD mutation, it turns off the expression of the good gene and allows the mutant gene on the other chromosome to predominate, speeding up the onset of the disease. If the DNA change is found on a chromosome with the HD mutation, it turns off the bad gene and offers individuals some protection from the disease.

According to Leavitt, these findings provide critical evidence to support the development of new drugs that decrease the expression of the mutant HD gene, an approach called gene silencing. Leavitt is already involved in the testing of one gene silencing treatment that shows great promise, and will begin the first human trial of this therapy for HD later this year.


UBC partners with Chinese universities

UBC has signed an unprecedented number of partnership agreements with leading Chinese universities that are expected to pave the way for greater academic and cultural exchange between Canada and China.

Four agreements will establish joint degree programs between UBC and highly respected institutions, including Peking, Zhejiang, Fudan, and Southwest universities.

Two agreements will focus on promoting research collaboration. UBC and Chongqing University have agreed to set up a new materials laboratory that will study alloys, and Beijing University of Chemical Technology is partnering with UBC to establish a centre for clean energy research.

UBC also signed student mobility programs with Zhejiang University and Chongqing Municipal Education Commission that will establish two‑way educational exchanges between UBC and China.

The agreements were signed during UBC president Arvind Gupta’s recent mission in China, during which he met with key government and education officials and visited a research centre for Alzheimer’s disease and childhood development disorders at Chongqing Medical University, one of UBC’s largest and most successful joint projects in China.


Unique nerve structure discovered in whales

bungee cord with hooks on a white backgroundUBC researchers have discovered a unique nerve structure in the mouth and tongue of rorqual whales that can double in length and then recoil like a bungee cord.

The stretchy nerves explain how the massive whales are able to balloon an immense pocket between their body wall and overlying blubber to capture prey during feeding dives.

“This discovery was totally unexpected and unlike other nerve structures we’ve seen in vertebrates, which are of a more fixed length,” says Wayne Vogl of UBC’s Cellular and Physiological Sciences department. “The rorquals’ bulk feeding mechanism required major changes in anatomy of the tongue and mouth blubber to allow large deformation, and now we recognize that it also required major modifications in the nerves in these tissues so they could also withstand the deformation.”

In humans, stretching nerves usually damages them. In these whales, the nerve cells are packaged inside a central core in such a way that the individual nerve fibers are never really stretched, they simply unfold.

“Our next step is to get a better understanding of how the nerve core is folded to allow its rapid unpacking and re‑packing during the feeding process,” says UBC zoologist Robert Shadwick.

The researchers don’t know yet whether anything similar will turn up in other animals – the ballooning throats of frogs, for example, or the long and fast tongues of chameleons.

“This discovery underscores how little we know about even the basic anatomy of the largest animals alive in the oceans today,” says Nick Pyenson, a UBC postdoctoral fellow who is curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “Our findings add to the growing list of evolutionary solutions that whales evolved in response to new challenges faced in marine environments over millions of years.”

Rorquals are the largest group among baleen whales, and include blue whales and fin whales. Specimens the researchers studied were obtained at a commercial whaling station in Iceland.


UBC researchers study early formation of galaxies

A discovery by a team of astrophysicists including UBC researchers promises to have major implications for the understanding of how structures in the universe formed 10 billion years ago. Hidden within images of some of the oldest light in the universe, the team identified what they believe are galaxies clumping together into the larger galaxy clusters we know today.

Data for the study came from the observations of two European Space Telescope missions, Planck and Herschel. The Planck telescope catches light from the early days of the universe, known as the cosmic microwave background, while the Herschel telescope allowed researchers to zero in on some of the objects they saw in the Planck telescope data.

“The objects found by Planck appear to be clumps of young galaxies, seen early in the history of the universe,” said Douglas Scott, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “By studying them we may be able to learn how clusters of galaxies form and evolve.”

Scott and UBC graduate student Todd MacKenzie are now working to understand the Planck objects better by studying them at a range of other wavelengths. “What’s exciting is that we don’t know if we’re looking at something really bizarre or if these clumps are what would be expected. It will change our view of how these structures form,” said Scott.


Universal pharmacare could save Canada billions

Prescription Medication in Orange Pill BottlesNew research from UBC and the University of Toronto shows that universal public drug coverage, also known as universal pharmacare, is within reach for Canada even in times of government fiscal constraint.

“It’s a win‑win,” said Steve Morgan, lead author of the study and professor of health policy at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. “A universal pharmacare system would improve the quality and accessibility of health care, while saving the Canadian economy billions of dollars every year.”

The study modelled the cost of universal pharmacare based on data from $22 billion‑worth of prescription drug purchases in 2012‑2013. The study’s calculations included the cost of increased use of prescription drugs by Canadians who currently can’t afford to fill those prescriptions.

Researchers found that increasing the use of generic drugs and bringing Canadian drug prices in line with other countries where universal drug plans achieve better prices through bulk purchasing and negotiation, would add up to significant savings.

“For too long, policy makers have assumed that universal Pharmacare is an expensive policy for governments. That assumption turns out to be wrong,” said Dr. Danielle Martin, a co‑author of the study and a professor at the University of Toronto. “With the money saved from using generic medicines, bulk purchasing, and better approaches to pricing, we can afford to cover medically necessary drugs for all Canadians without increasing taxes.”

The study shows that the private sector, predominantly the employers and unions that sponsor work‑related drug benefits today, would save between $6.5 billion and $9.6 billion annually with comparatively little increase in costs to government. Under many plausible scenarios, total public spending on medicines would actually fall if Canada had a universal pharmacare system.

Government costs would be driven down by reducing the cost of medicines already paid for under public drug programs – which currently cost taxpayers almost $10 billion – and by reducing public spending on private insurance for public sector employees – which currently costs taxpayers more than $2 billion. Canada is the only developed country with a universal health care system that does not include prescription drug coverage.


Where are all the seagulls?

Seagull isolated on whiteThe number of seagulls in the Strait of Georgia is down by 50 per cent from the 1980s and UBC researchers say the decline reflects changes in the availability of marine food.

Researchers collected 100 years of data on population numbers of Glaucous‑winged Gulls, the most common seagull species found in the Lower Mainland, Victoria, Nanaimo and elsewhere in the region. They found that the population increased rapidly beginning in the early 1900s, but started to drop after the mid‑1980s, with their investigation pointing to diet as one factor in the decline of the bird’s health.

“These birds are the ultimate generalist – they can eat whatever’s around,” says the study’s lead author Louise Blight. “If they are experiencing a population decline, the gulls may be telling us that there have been some fairly profound changes to local marine ecosystems.”

Gulls historically relied on almost a purely marine diet, largely eating small fish and shellfish, but over time moved to a diet that incorporated more foods found on land, such as garbage and earthworms.

“They’re presumably turning to land‑based prey sources because the things they prefer to eat are less available,” says Blight, explaining that there are probably fewer forage fish in coastal waters, and less diversity among them, than was the case prior to industrial fishing – and that gulls need fish to breed successfully.

“Gulls are an indicator of our coastal marine ecosystems,” she says. “We need to be restoring ecosystems along the coast, and that includes restoring fish populations.”

Study co‑author Peter Arcese, FRBC chair of conservation biology in the Faculty of Forestry, says reductions in marine food abundance and quality help explain why the population of two other bird species in the region, Marbled Murrelets and Western Grebes, have declined by 90 per cent since the 1950s and 70s, respectively.

“Our studies of marine bird populations in the Salish Sea show that restoration and management plans for the region can be improved by incorporating historical information on the causes of ecosystem change,” he says.

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