Medical Research and Innovation at Ohio State

Sandra Gurvis

Research is big business at Ohio State University, with medical funding currently exceeding a quarter of a billion dollars, according to Peter Mohler, vice dean for research at OSU’s College of Medicine. Ohio State gets grants from the National Institutes of Health and other sources such as other government agencies, nonprofit foundations and industry contracts.

Funding for OSU’s College of Medicine, alone, now includes some $268.5 million. What follows are some of the latest breakthroughs.

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An Anticancer Vaccine

A new anticancer vaccine, called B-Vaxx, is still in the early stages of being tested but initial studies are promising. The first-ever human trial at Ohio State led by researcher Pravin Kaumaya, a professor in the college of medicine’s department of obstetrics and gynecology, showed that patients with metastatic or recurrent solid tumors that overexpress the HER-2 protein had a stronger immune response than they did to current treatments.

This means that B-Vaxx may be more effective in killing tumor cells in many types of aggressive breast, gastroesophageal, endometrial, ovarian, colorectal and lung cancers. Although more research and clinical trials are needed, the bottom line on this first report is that scientists have concluded that the vaccine induced patient antibodies that showed potent antitumor activity.

Hope for Parkinson’s

Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz, a researcher specializing in neurodegenerative disorders, and Dr. Russell Lonser, chair of OSU’s department of neurological surgery, have been working with transformational gene therapy to develop cures for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

A one-step solution for Parkinson’s could be the insertion of a non-pathogenic virus that’s been modified to do only one thing: deliver the missing gene to a specific region of the brain.

The missing gene, if implemented, stops the progression of Parkinson’s. Administering it, however, is a complex procedure. An MRI scanner is used to directly implant it in the brain.

Six clinical trials regarding the gene therapy and its effects on neurodegenerative diseases—including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and more—are underway at Ohio State. In fact, the clinical trials for pediatric patients have been so successful that registration of the therapy has been fast-tracked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. There is hope that the drug will be approved this year for use in children.

Brain Stimulation

A small 2018 study at Ohio State implanted electrodes into the frontal cortex of Alzheimer’s patients and programmed a pacemaker to deliver deep brain stimulation. DBS has already proven to be helpful for patients with Parkinson’s, epilepsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And, it is currently being studied for addiction, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury and more.

“Two of three people… showed statistical improvement,” says Dr. Douglas Scharre, professor of neurology and clinical psychology at OSU’s Center for Cognitive and Memory Disorders and its Center for Neuromodulation. “One patient was able to plan an outing and handle money, make plans for an event and cook a simple meal. These may seem like minor improvements, but if the patient can’t do it, the caregiver has to.”

Atrial Fib: The Watchman

Among the 3,000 clinical trials at various stages at Ohio State in recent years has been a pilot study lead by Dr. Ahmet Kilic, former OSU associate professor of cardiac surgery, on the efficacy of the Watchman, a tiny parachute-like device which is implanted into the heart to regulate the heartbeat of those who suffer from atrial fibrillation. (Kilic is now director of heart transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

Along with reducing stroke risk, the Watchman allows for remote monitoring of heart function. Watchman patients also forgo the risk of excessive bleeding caused by long-term use of warfarin, such as Coumadin and other blood thinners. The implant—now in more than 100,000 people—can eliminate regular blood tests and food-and-drink restrictions that come with warfarin.

Expecting a Daughter?

Researchers at the Wexner Medical Center have found that that immune cell samples of women carrying girls produced more proteins called pro-inflammatory cytokines than those carrying boys, resulting in exacerbation of conditions such as asthma, and contributing to fatigue and achiness.

“Too many of these cytokines…can really be unhelpful for our bodies’ functioning,” explains Amanda Mitchell, lead author of the study while she was a postdoctoral researcher in the university’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. “Women carrying girls exhibited greater inflammatory responses when faced with some sort of immune challenge compared to women carrying boys.”

Exercising and doing relaxing activities, such as meditation, are recommended. Also, eating healthy foods, including leafy greens, will better support healthy immune responses. Mitchell is now an assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s department of counseling and human development.

More Sleep Equals Happier Marriages

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night, resulting in increased risk of stress-related inflammation and ensuing chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and others.

In a recent study at Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine, married couples were asked to supply blood samples and information regarding hours they slept the previous two nights. They were then asked to resolve a conflict, with blood samples taken after the discussion. Although people who had slept less initially had no more inflammation than usual, there was a greater inflammatory response after the conflict. Furthermore, if both partners got less than seven hours of sleep the previous two nights, they were more likely to become hostile.

Couples using unhealthy resolution tactics had an even greater inflammatory response. In a marriage, sleep patterns often track together, explains Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, the senior author of the study and director of OSU’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. “If one person is restless, or has chronic problems, that can impact the other’s sleep. If these problems persist over time, you can get this nasty reverberation within the couple.”

Less Stress, Better Health

Dining on a Greek salad may be great, but if you’re stressed, it may be no better for you than fish and chips, according to an Ohio State study published in Molecular Psychiatry. In the study, 58 women were given two different types of meals, one high in saturated fat, which has been linked to cardiovascular disease, and another with more heart-healthy, plant-based oil. The meals were similar in terms of calories and grams of fat. While inflammatory responses were predictably lower if the women were not stressed after the healthier meal, if a woman was stressed, it “looked like she was eating the saturated fat meal in terms of her [inflammatory] responses,” study author Kiecolt-Glaser told National Public Radio.

Even though the stressors were for everyday issues, such as dealing with a sick parent, the stress seemed to boost inflammation, increasing chances for disease and slowing the healing process. Still, more research needs to be done and there are plenty of ways to combat stress, including deep-breathing.

Immune Cells and Sex

An Ohio State study done on rats and reported in the Journal of Neuroscience found that immune mast cells, usually ignored by neuroscientists, appear to play an important role in determining the gender of an animal’s sexual behavior.

When researchers, led by Kathryn Lenz, assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience, silenced the mast cells in male fetal rats, they found that the adult males were far less interested in having sex with females. In fact, they acted almost like females, according the study.

Newborn female rats whose mast cells were activated with a stimulating chemical did the opposite, showing more traditionally males behaviors. Lenz theorizes that if human development mirrors what was seen in this study, even relatively minor influences—such as an allergic reaction, injury or inflammation during pregnancy—could possibly steer sexual behavior and development.

On the Move: It’s All Good

According to Bernadette Melnyk, chief wellness officer and dean of OSU’s College of Nursing, researchers at the American College of Sports Medicine have “confirmed that physical activity completed in any duration is associated with health benefits and count towards your recommended 150 minutes of weekly activity.”

Traditionally, physical activity recommendations have focused on accumulating moderate-to-vigorous physical activity either in a continuous manner, such as going for a 30-minute run, or in short bouts performed throughout the day, according to the ACSM. However, in 2018, thanks to the advent of digital and other activity trackers, the ACSM also “recognized that most daily activity is sporadic and is typically performed in bouts that are less than 10 minutes in duration.” Any such activity is now associated with favorable health-related outcomes.

“Take time each day to get moving, even if only for five minutes,” adds Melnyk.

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