Brews & Brains and the Science Policy Club at UCI Invite the Public into Scientific Discussion

Tech Events
March 21, 2017 By Wendy Wolfson

In this open-invitation joint fundraiser for the Science Policy Club at UCI and Brews and Brains at the Cove on March 21, 2017, UCI doctoral students presented TED-style research talks to the community. According to Justin Smith, a doctoral student in physics who founded the UCI Science Policy Club, it is crucial to communicate the importance of science to policymakers and their constituents. Autumn Holmes, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in molecular genetics and a coordinator of Brews and Brains, wants to create a cultural shift in which scientists can also learn from the general public. James Pratt, a doctoral student in the UCI Department of Criminology, Law & Society, wants to invite more social scientists into the mix.“As scientists, there are a lot more things that bring us together than that pull us apart,” Emma Flores, Ph.D., associate director of GPS-BioMed, says, “We are hardworking. We have limited time with a lot of demands. We are fair. We let our results guide our decisions. At tonight’s event, we are making our science accessible to more people.”

Over beers and dinner, UCI graduate students presented their work.

Slowing time to track movement

Alberto Soto, a Ph.D. researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, recounted that in the 1800s, Leland Stanford hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to prove that horses galloped with all four hooves off the ground. As a result, Muybridge developed the first technology to allow people to study animal locomotion in detail – by slowing down time.

Soto uses video to study how zebrafish prey on smaller fish. “I’m expanding time in order to understand the subtle movements that the fish use to capture their prey,” Soto says. Using data derived from a series of image processing techniques, Soto observed that zebrafish use intermittent locomotion, combining a tail beat and glide to effectively swivel and pounce on prey. The tail motion dictates how fast the fish is going and the change of direction. “The next step is determining what forces determine the motion of the tail,” Soto says. “We can use photographic techniques to play with time to understand animal locomotion.” Data from his studies could potentially influence biomimetic robots and vehicles.

A spoonful of sugar to treat Multiple Sclerosis

Christie Mortales, a graduate student in Dr. Michael Demetriou’s lab in the Department of Microbiology and Genetics, recounted her work in using N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc), a natural sugar, to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease. In MS, immune cell signaling gets disrupted, leading T cells to attack the neural system. “When networks break down, the immune cells go rogue,” Mortales says. MS affects 400,000 people in the U.S. and 2.5 million worldwide, with around 200 new cases diagnosed every single week. However, current drugs only help with slowing down disease progression.

Mortales’s lab found that feeding GLcNAc to mice that were bred to model symptoms of MS staves off disease progression. GlcNAc molecules attach to immune T-cell receptors, forming a lattice on the cell surface, and dampening activation of the Th1 immune cells that spur the autoimmune reaction.

GLcNAc is extracted from chitin, a polymer found in the shells of shrimp and sold as a dietary supplement. According to Mortales, this sugar cannot be broken down for energy but can help stabilize the neural network. Treatment is potentially 100% safe. Her group has now started a clinical trial dosing human MS patients with this special sugar. According to Mortales, it may be helpful in other diseases such as type 1 diabetes.

Gene-silencing nanoparticles to rehab old antibiotics

Julius Edson, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the UCI Department of Chemical Engineering in the laboratory of Dr. Young Jik Kwon, is creating a startup to overcome drug-resistant antibiotic infections like tuberculosis (TB). According to the World Health Organization, one in three people internationally are infected with TB, and an estimated five percent have drug-resistant strains. Antibiotic treatment regimens are expensive, harsh on the body, and take months to complete. For starters, six months of antibiotic treatment for TB costs about $17,000a patient. The cost and duration of treatment is much higher for multi-drug resistant strains. “Antibiotic development currently doesn’t keep up with resistance,” Edson says. Edson is developing a way to use gene silencing nanoparticles, called nanoantibiotics, to kill bacteria by physically disrupting key biological processes. The idea is to attach these nanoparticles to antibiotic molecules, so they can adapt to rapidly evolving disease strains. To avoid toxicity and antimicrobial pressure generated by other types of conventional antibiotics such as penicillin, Edson is currently working with a benign chitosan-based nanoparticle. (Chitosan, incidentally, is the polymer of GLcNAc.) Chitosan physically targets the bacterial surface and damages the cell membrane.

e-Cigarette addiction in adolescence

Candice Gellner, a Technology Transfer Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in the UCI Department of Pharmacology under the direction of Vice Provost and Graduate Dean Dr. Frances Leslie, is studying how to improve the preclinical model for tobacco dependence to increase the success rate of medications that help people quit smoking. In her research, Gellner compares traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes in adolescent mice, as there is little research on cigarette smoking and addiction in adolescence, when addiction often begins. “Until recently, nobody focused on studying adolescence,” Gellner notes. “If you start smoking e-cigarettes as an adolescent, it is just as addictive as conventional cigarettes.” “While cigarettes are on the decline, e-cigarettes are on the rise,” Gellner says. She trains rats to press a lever to get an infusion of drugs. She uses an extract of cigarette smoke versus an e-cigarette model of pure nicotine and examines whether the chemicals in the cigarettes affect use. Cigarettes contain 7000 chemicals, but e-cigarettes are not yet as well studied.

Tickling a rat’s whiskers could give insight into treating stroke

Ellen Wann, a Ph.D. candidate in neurobiology and behavior in Dr. Ron Frostig’s laboratory, studies brain stimulation in rat models of stroke to determine if impending stroke can be detected earlier. Strokes are the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. and a leading cause of disability.

Disrupted blood flow can result in cell death in the brain. Wann’s lab group studies blood flow blockage in the middle cerebral artery (MCA). The group found that sensory stimulation can protect against stroke damage in rats. “After the MCA blockage, brain activity becomes unusually coordinated,” Wann says. “Coordinated brain activity could enable us to predict when sensory stimulation could help prevent it.” Wann suggested that EMTs may someday be able to predict brain activity and lessen the impact of stroke by stimulating patients’ sensory systems through touch and noise.

Developing catalysts for biofuels

Bianca Ceballos, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry in Assistant Professor Jenny Y. Yang’s laboratory, takes a new look at sustainable chemistry. According to Ceballos, there were 7000 million metric tons of CO2 in US emission in 2014.

“Can we reduce our carbon dioxide emissions?” asks Ceballos. “Plants can do this. They are carbon capture machines. Can we do what plants do?”

Ceballos explores how to turn the chemistry of photosynthesis, light harvesting, water splitting, and energy storage of carbon dioxide into chemical fuels. “We can store much more energy in chemical fuels than batteries,” Ceballos says. She is developing catalysts that provide lower energy pathways to products. “We want something cheap to make, water soluble, and that has room temperature conversion,” Ceballos says.

Brews & Brains science fans meet every two weeks at the Fireside Tavern in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Costa Mesa.

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