Research Update

Wake Forest Baptist Lands $8 Million NIH Grant for Alcohol Addiction Research Center

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Wake Forest Baptist a grant worth an estimated $8 million over five years to establish of a new center for research into alcohol addiction.

Although the opioid crisis has captured headlines recently, alcohol abuse continues to be a major problem in this country. Over the past 15 years, an estimated 90,000 people a year have died from alcohol-related problems as compared to the roughly 59,000 people who died from opioid overdoses in 2016.

The Wake Forest Translational Alcohol Research Center will employ preclinical animal models and clinical research to study behavioral and neurobiological factors associated with vulnerability and resilience to alcohol use disorder. The new center builds on a highly productive translational alcohol research program at Wake Forest Baptist that was established with prior support from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“This will be the only center in the country to focus specifically on understanding why some people are more vulnerable to becoming addicted to alcohol than others,” said Jeff Weiner, PhD, professor of physiology and pharmacology and the center’s director.

New iPad App Could Improve Colon Cancer Screening Rates

If a cancer screening test was as easy as booking a hotel room online, would that improve screening rates? Doctors at Wake Forest Baptist found out by developing a specially designed iPad app with which patients could order a colon cancer screening test while waiting for their doctor.

In a randomized clinical trial, the app doubled the proportion of patients who underwent colon cancer screenings. Findings from the study were published online in the April issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

Previous research has shown that screening for colon cancer reduces mortality, yet more than one-third of age-eligible Americans go unscreened every year. Colon cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

“Many barriers contribute to low screening rates, including patients’ negative attitudes about the tests, lack of awareness of the need for screening and competing demands for busy doctors’ scarce time,” said the study’s lead author, David P. Miller, MD, professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest Baptist.

“In the ideal world, a doctor should discuss the need for screening with patients, inform them of the available options, help them make a decision and then order the test. All of this takes time, time doctors may not have if a patient has other concerns that need to be investigated.”


Polymer nanoparticle shows ability to locate and treat breast tumors

One major problem in treating cancer is identifying the location of small tumors and treating them before they metastasize.

In an effort to overcome that problem, Wake Forest Baptist researchers have developed a fluorescing nanoparticle capable of finding tumors, lighting up upon arrival and being activated with light to generate heat to destroy the cancer cells.

A study in which these nanoparticles—Hybrid Donor-Acceptor Polymer Particles, or H-DAPPs—successfully located and killed breast cancer cells in mice is published in the current issue of the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

“An unexpected result was how efficiently the nanoparticles localized to the tumors without any targeting agent,” said the study’s lead author, Nicole Levi-Polyachenko, PhD, associate professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery. “Achieving high enough levels of H-DAPPs within the tumor to allow it to be seen provides an advantage for knowing exactly where light should be applied to generate heat and kill the
cancer cells.”

Scientists Create Most Sophisticated Human Liver Model Yet

Scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have developed the most sophisticated mini-livers to date. These organoids can potentially help scientists better understand certain congenital liver diseases as well as speed up efforts to create liver tissue in the lab for transplantation into patients.

“This model better mimics fetal development and function of the human liver,” said Shay Soker, PhD, professor of regenerative medicine and the lead researcher on the study. “We expect these organoids to advance our understanding of how liver diseases—especially congenital diseases—start and progress so improved treatments can be developed.”

The study results were reported in Hepatology.

$9 Million Grant to Fund Study of Aggressive Brain Cancer

With a $9.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, scientists at Wake Forest Baptist will continue working to develop new, more effective treatments and delivery systems to attack glioblastoma, the most aggressive cancer that originates in the brain.

“One of the major obstacles to glioblastoma treatment is the accessibility of the tumors to drugs because of the blood-brain and blood-brain tumor barriers,” said the principal investigator of the study, Waldemar Debinski, MD, PhD, professor of cancer biology, radiation oncology and microbiology and immunology.

“In addition, a surgical approach is often hampered by the inability to fully visualize tumor cells that have migrated away from the tumor and remove them surgically without potentially damaging vital areas of the brain.”

Nanotechnology Helps to Detect Molecular Biomarker for Osteoarthritis

For the first time, scientists at Wake Forest Baptist have been able to measure a specific molecule indicative of osteoarthritis and a number of other inflammatory diseases using a newly developed technology.

This preclinical study used a solid-state nanopore sensor as a tool for the analysis of hyaluronic acid (HA). HA is a naturally occurring molecule that is involved in tissue hydration, inflammation and joint lubrication in the body. The abundance and size distribution of HA in biological fluids is recognized as an indicator of inflammation, leading to osteoarthritis and other chronic inflammatory diseases. It can also serve as an indicator of how far the disease has progressed.

“Our results established a new, quantitative method for the assessment of a significant molecular biomarker that bridges a gap in the conventional technology,” said lead author Adam R. Hall, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering & Science.

“The sensitivity, speed and small sample requirements of this approach make it attractive as the basis for a powerful analytic tool with distinct advantages over current assessment technologies.”

The study was published in Nature Communications.

Noninvasive Brainwave Technology Improved Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms in Military Personnel

A noninvasive brainwave mirroring technology significantly reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress in military personnel in a pilot study conducted at Wake Forest Baptist. The study was published online in December in the journal Military Medical Research.

“Ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, whether clinically diagnosed or not, are a pervasive problem in the military,” said Charles H. Tegeler, MD, professor of neurology and the study’s principal investigator.

“Medications are often used to help control specific symptoms but can produce side effects. Other treatments may not be well tolerated, and few show a benefit for the associated sleep disturbance. Additional noninvasive, non-drug therapies are needed.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans and 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan experience PTSD.

The study was supported in part through a grant from The Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation, Inc.