September 28 Research Roundup: Growing an Esophagus, Bacteria and Parkinson’s, and a Soft Caterpillar-like Robot to Deliver Drugs

science research

There are plenty of great scientific research stories out this week. Here’s a look at just a few of them.

Growing a Human Esophagus in the Lab

Researchers at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center grew a human esophagus in the laboratory from pluripotent stem cells. Their research was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell. The researchers are part of Cincinnati Children’s Center for Stem Cell and Organoid Medicine (CuSTOM), which is working on new ways to study birth defects and disease that affect people with gastrointestinal disorders.

“Disorders of the esophagus and trachea are prevalent enough in people that organoid models of human esophagus could be greatly beneficial,” stated Jim Wells, chief scientific officer at CuSTOM and study lead investigator. “In addition to being a new model to study birth defects like esophageal atresia, the organoids can be used to study diseases like eosinophilic esophagitis and Barrett’s metaplasia, or to bioengineer genetically matched esophageal tissue for individual patients.”

The fully formed human esophageal organoids grew to a length of about 300 to 800 micrometers in about two months. They were then compared to esophageal tissues from patient biopsies and were shown to have very similar biochemical makeup.

H. pilori Infections Implicated in Parkinson’s Disease

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) a type of bacteria, has been linked to gastric ulcers for several decades. But new research published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease believes the bacteria may play a role in Parkinson’s Disease.

Researchers at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-Shreveport analyzed existing research to find testable pathways between the bacterial infection and Parkinson’s. “This is an in-depth and comprehensive review that summarizes all the major papers in the medical literature on Parkinson’s disease and H. pylori, the common stomach bacterium that causes gastritis, ulcers and stomach cancer,” stated lead investigator David J. McGee, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the LSU Health Sciences Center. “Our conclusion is that there is a strong enough link between the H. pylori and Parkinson’s disease that additional studies are warranted to determine the possible causal relationship.”

There were four potential explanations for the association. Toxins produced by the bacterium might damage neurons. The infection might trigger a massive inflammatory response that leads to brain damage. H. pylori may disrupt the normal gut microbiome. The bacteria might interfere with the absorption of levodopa, the medication used to treat Parkinson’s symptoms.

Is a Leaky Blood-Brain Barrier a Biomarker for Early Alzheimer’s Detection?

Researchers with the University of Southern California published a review in the journal Nature Neuroscience that recommended the blood-brain barrier (BB) be evaluated as an important biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease. Early detection is believed to improve any possibilities of stopping or slowing the disease.

“Cognitive impairment, and accumulation in the brain of the abnormal proteins amyloid and tau, are what we currently rely upon to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, but blood-brain barrier breakdown and cerebral blood flow changes can be seen much earlier,” stated Berislav Zlokovic, the Mary Hayley and Selim Zikha Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease Research at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. “This shows why healthy blood vessels are so important for normal brain functioning.”

There is evidence that a leaky BBB may allow amyloid into the brain, where it then attaches to neurons. This triggers more accumulation, which leads to the brain damage seen in Alzheimer’s. BBB leaks are also observed in Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis (MS). The leaks can be detected with an intravenously administered contrast substance and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

New Drug Blocks Pancreatic Cancer Cells in Mice

A compound developed by scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles have developed a drug that blocks pancreatic cancer cell growth in mice. The work was published in the journal Gastroenterology. The drug, Metavert, blocked drug resistance and increased the positive effects of radiation and two chemotherapeutic agents. In one of the studies conducted on mice, the drug increased survival rate by about 50 percent.

“This is an exciting step toward improving survival rates in pancreatic cancer patients,” stated Mouad Edderkaoui, assistant professor of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai and lead author of the research. “If the results are confirmed in humans, we could have a drug with the potential to significantly extend the lives of patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), which is very difficult to treat.”

PDAC is responsible for about 95 percent of pancreatic cancers and is notoriously difficult to treat. The cancer cells cause healthy cells in the pancreas called stellate cells to form scar tissue. It is difficult for chemotherapy drugs and blood to enter the pancreas through the scar tissue.

Most Appendicitis Can Be Treated with Antibiotics

About three years ago, Finnish scientists published research in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showing that most uncomplicated acute appendicitis cases could be treated with antibiotics instead of surgery. The research only followed patients for a year, which led to a fair amount of skepticism by the medical community. Three years later, the team from Turku University Hospital in Turku, Finland, published a five-year follow-up in JAMA. In 257 patients treated with antibiotics, the incidence of recurrent appendicitis was 27.3 percent at one year, 34 percent at two years, 35.2 percent at three years, 37.1 percent at four years, and 39.1 percent at five years.

“In this new era of appendicitis treatment in which the diagnosis can be made nearly error-free with [computed tomography] imaging, most cases of uncomplicated appendicitis can be successfully treated with antibiotics,” wrote Edward Livingston, a surgeon and deputy editor of JAMA, in an accompanying editorial. “Patients presenting with acute, noncomplicated, CT-proven appendicitis should be given an opportunity for shared decision making, understanding that there is a high probability that they can be successfully treated with antibiotics or undergo appendectomy if they do not want to worry about the chance for recurrence.”

Soft Robot Caterpillar Can Deliver Drugs

The image is a little freaky—what looks like a tiny piece of walking Velcro. Engineers at City University of Hong Kong have developed a tiny, soft robot with caterpillar-like legs that can carry heavy loads or be adapted to hostile environments. It could also be adapted to deliver drugs in the body.

The robot has hundreds of pointed legs that are less than 1 millimeter in length. The body’s thickness is approximately 0.15 mm, with each conical leg 0.65 mm long and the gap between the legs about 0.5 mm. It is made of a silicon material called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) embedded with magnetic particles that allows it to be remote-controlled. “Both the materials and the multi-leg design greatly improve the robot’s hydrophobic property,” stated Wang Zuankai, who led the research. He is with the City University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The robot is able to carry a load 100 times heavier than itself, comparable to that of an ant, or the equivalent of a human being lifting a 26-seat bus. The plan is to develop a biodegradable robot that would decompose after it delivers drugs to its target. The research was published in Nature Communications.

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