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Unraveling the mystery of a rare, virus-mediated neurological disease

From bench to bedside

Dr. Aron Lukacher portrait

Aron Lukacher, M.D., Ph.D.

Most adults in the United States are asymptomatic carriers of persistent viral infections, such as herpes simplex (cold sores) or varicella zoster (chicken pox). Exposed to such viruses at some point during childhood, our immune systems produced effective antibodies against the virus, which decreased viral titers and eliminated clinical signs of illness. Although persistent viruses remain in some tissues of our bodies, our immune systems keep the viruses in check, and we remain illness-free. For a small subset of people, however, their immune systems fail to control these latent viruses and they fall victim to disease.

Identifying people who are most vulnerable to viral re-activation is one of the major challenges facing physicians who treat patients with compromised immune systems.

Such patients include those with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), those treated with cancer chemotherapy, and those receiving agents to prevent rejection of transplanted organs and to control autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. According to Aron Lukacher, M.D., Ph.D., professor and new chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Penn State College of Medicine, in recent years, major strides have been made in researchers’ understanding of immune responses to persistent viruses and the diverse strategies viruses use to evade immune detection. Ongoing research by many groups seeks to understand and overcome such strategies, so that patients who are often the most desperately ill can avoid falling victim to these viruses. Lukacher’s research focuses on the immunological mechanisms that control persistent viral infections and defining the pathways by which a certain class of viruses called polyomaviruses escape immune control to cause serious disease. (more…)

August 16, 2012 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Medical center reaches milestone in fundraising campaign

The Medical Center surpassed the $200 million mark in its current $300 million fundraising initiative, For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Launched in January 2007 as part of a university-wide $2 billion fundraising effort, the Medical Center and College of Medicine campaign provides support for advancing patient care, ensuring that the best and brightest students can afford a world-class medical education, recruiting and retaining outstanding faculty, and funding novel research that leads to breakthroughs in diagnosis and treatment.

The campaign, which runs through June 30, 2014, has garnered landmark gifts to expand and improve facilities, including contributions for the Cancer Institute and the new, freestanding Children’s Hospital building, scheduled to open in the fall. Even as the economy faltered in recent years, the community continued to generously support the Medical Center and College of Medicine’s missions of patient care, education, research, and community service. Since 2007, more than 200,000 donors have made gifts to the campaign.

The campaign has generated tremendous support from a wide range of philanthropic partners. Gifts from corporations and foundations total nearly $30 million, and 17 donors have made individual contributions exceeding $1 million to various campaign priorities. Collectively, Medical Center and College faculty and staff have given $3 million during the campaign, underscoring a deep commitment to the institution’s missions.

“Reaching this tremendous milestone with just a little more than two years remaining in the campaign reflects the incredible generosity of our community members and exemplifies the dedication of our employees and volunteers,” said Dennis P. Brenckle, chair, For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Hershey Medical Center. “Each gift to the campaign affirms the vital role the Medical Center and College of Medicine play in improving public health.”

August 15, 2012 at 9:15 am Leave a comment

Physician lack of sleep: Can cognitive “overload” compromise care in a crisis?

Physician napping after a long shiftFor decades, lack of sleep and fatigue have been an unwelcome but accepted part of physician training and everyday medical practice. Medical students and residents are likely to work a full day and then be on call through the night, typically working a full 24-hour shift and getting very little uninterrupted sleep. Sleep researchers, however, have consistently shown that well-rested physicians commit fewer serious medical and diagnostic errors, compared to physicians working extended shifts (e.g., more than 24 hours). Increasing awareness of the negative impact and risks posed by physician sleep deprivation led the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in 2003 to place duty hour limits on resident physicians. Although the limits have been in place for nearly eight years, the debate about sleep deprivation, resident training, and hospital costs continues unabated.

A research study conducted by Jonathan Tomasko, M.D., research fellow in the Division of Minimally Invasive and Bariatric Surgery, along with Randy Haluck, M.D., ’91, R ’97, and Eric Pauli, ’04, M.D., Division of Minimally Invasive and Bariatric Surgery, sheds light on the duty limit debate. Tomasko explains, “We wanted to assess how sleep deprivation affects not only how well surgeons perform familiar techniques, but also their ability to learn something new and to deal with a mentally challenging task. It touches on clinical issues like dealing with errors, as well as the educational debate about duty hours.” (more…)

August 14, 2012 at 4:08 pm Leave a comment

Technology Transfer – Bringing Scientific Discoveries To Market

Graphic depicting medical research technology becoming a viable businessEvery day, researchers at Penn State College of Medicine work to discover new ways to improve human health and well-being. Through technology transfer—the process of commercializing those discoveries—people across the country and the world gain access to innovative drugs, medical devices, and therapeutics.

“Physician-scientists often gain their insights and inspiration from the patients they see,” says Daniel Notterman, M.D., vice dean for research and graduate studies at the College of Medicine, professor of pediatrics, biochemistry, and molecular biology, and associate vice president for health sciences research, Penn State. “There are often several motivations, and large among those is a desire to improve the care of people who have the condition that they’re studying.”

Technology transfer is a significant part of the research process because it brings patented ideas into the marketplace.

“If we were only able to conduct and present research in the form of scientific papers or presentations at conferences, that wouldn’t result in a product [because] the information becomes public,” says Keith Marmer, D.P.T., M.B.A., associate dean for research innovation and director of the Office of Technology Development. “Drug companies are typically not going to want to invest in excess of $1 billion to try to bring a drug to market if it is based on publicly available information as there is no competitive advantage to do so.”

In practice, it requires several players to make the commercialization of a scientific discovery successful. Each stakeholder, such as academics, venture capital investors, and economic development groups, helps make up a so-called “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in a particular geographic area. “[The ecosystem] also includes professional service organizations, such as the accounting firms and law firms that help support the entrepreneurial activity in the region,” Marmer says.

With more than $100 million in research taking place at the college every year, the institution’s vision is to serve as a leader and a catalyst for biomedical innovations in central Pennsylvania. “We want to be able to drive that research out into that entrepreneurial ecosystem but be fully engaged with all the ecosystem partners,” he says. “We also aim to be recognized as a leader nationally and globally.” (more…)

August 13, 2012 at 10:30 am 2 comments

John E. Morgan—A man of humble but generous means

Harry B. Loder, 76, passed away on May 16, 2012. The story below was written just before his passing.

If philanthropist and self-made industry leader John E. Morgan were alive today, he wouldn’t enjoy reading this article.

Morgan, whose financial support is helping to build the Pediatric Intermediate Care Unit (PIMCU) in the new Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, was an intensely private and humble man, even for projects that most people feel should be publicly celebrated.

“I think he’d like us to say that he used his money wisely,” says Harry B. Loder, a longtime employee and a friend of Morgan who now serves on the board of the John E. Morgan Foundation. “He liked to see people get an education and he also wanted to see them well taken care of.”

Morgan’s business aspirations began simply enough—in the mid-1940s, he and his wife Anna opened a small, storefront sewing shop in Hometown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Tamaqua. At that time, layering in heavy, uncomfortable wool was the only clothing option for staying warm in colder temperatures. Morgan soon developed and patented the waffle stitch, a precise method for knitting that gave rise to mass production of thermal fabrics used for long underwear and blankets. He is often credited with the invention of thermal underwear.

This led to incredible growth for the J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills, which eventually had sales in excess of $45 million and leased office space at the Empire State Building. At the time, the company was the largest employer in Schuylkill County, with a workforce of more than 1,000, and manufacturing plants in Tower City, Williamstown, and Gilbertsville. In 1984, Morgan sold the company to a Scottish-based textile company, although he remained as the board chairman. (more…)

August 10, 2012 at 10:30 am Leave a comment

Understanding addiction: Using Animal Models to Answer the “Why, How, and Who”

Addictive behavior graphic renderingOver the past decade, use of certain illicit drugs, including crack cocaine and methamphetamine, has shown sharp declines in the United States based on data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). But these encouraging data contradict other disturbing facts. Compared to 2002, use of marijuana and prescription pain relievers has jumped by approximately 20 percent and heroin use has shown an alarming 44 percent increase.

“Drug addiction persists as a major problem in the United States,” said Patricia Sue Grigson, Ph.D., professor, Department of Neural and Behavioral Sciences. “Drug use data does not reflect the devastating, long-term impact that drug addiction has on individuals and their families. This is why it is so important to continue to search for answers about why some people become addicted and others do not. Understanding and identifying risk factors for the development of addiction will lead to more effective prevention and treatment plans.”

Grigson uses an animal model to study the environmental, behavioral, and neurological underpinnings of addiction. “Humans and the rats in our studies have more in common than not,” she said. “For instance, about 17 percent of humans who try cocaine eventually become addicted; studies have shown the same percentage of rats that try cocaine also show addiction-like behavior.” (more…)

August 9, 2012 at 10:45 am Leave a comment

Today’s Research – Stems cells are potential source of cancer-fighting T cells

Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine are actively working in Hershey, with colleagues at Penn State, University Park and other Penn State campuses, and with colleagues at various institutions across the country to conduct groundbreaking research. Their discoveries continue to contribute to the advancement of health care on all levels.

Adult stem cells from mice converted to antigen-specific T cells—the immune cells that fight cancer tumor cells— show promise in cancer immunotherapy and may lead to a simpler, more efficient way to use the body’s immune system to fight cancer, according to College of Medicine researchers. Jianxsun Song, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and immunology said, “Tumors grow in part because patients lack the kind of antigen-specific T cells needed to kill the cancer. An approach called adoptive T cell immunotherapy generates the T cells outside the body, which are then used inside the body to target cancer cells.” It is complex and expensive to expand T cell lines in the lab, so researchers have been searching for ways to simplify the process. Song and his team found a way to use induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, adult cells that are genetically changed to be stem cells.

By inserting DNA, researchers change the mouse iPS cells into immune cells and inject them into mice with tumors. After 50 days, 100 percent of the mice in the study were still alive, compared to 55 percent of control mice, which received tumor-reactive immune cells isolated from donors. Researchers reported their results and were featured as the cover story in a recent issue of the journal Cancer Research. Researchers are now studying how to use the process in human cells.

This study was funded through the Pennsylvania Department of Health using Tobacco Settlement Funds, the W.W. Smith Charitable Trust, and the Melanoma Research Foundation.

Read more about T cell research >>

August 8, 2012 at 10:55 am Leave a comment

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