Focus on Research: Could cancer be a key?

Could cancer be a key?

Dr. Murray Blackmore believes a key to treating spinal cord injury could come from a seemingly unlikely source: cancer. He recently received a $415,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study gene therapy using cancer genes.

“The problem in treating spinal cord injury is a problem of growth,” says Blackmore, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Health Sciences. “We need the damaged spinal nerves to grow — and cancer, at its core, is unregulated cellular growth. The processes that go wrong in cancer are the same processes we need to happen to nerve cells in a spinal cord injury.”

When a person suffers a spinal cord injury, the nerves, called axons, are severed at the site of the injury. There currently is no method to regrow or regenerate these axons past the injury site. Blackmore hopes his research can change that. “We found that a majority of the genes that impact axon growth were being studied as cancer genes,” he says. “But a systematic analysis hasn’t been done. In our lab we can start with a list of genes that have been studied by cancer researchers but haven’t been studied in the nervous system.”

“We need the damaged spinal nerves to grow — and cancer, at its core, is unregulated cellular growth. “

This systematic analysis will let Blackmore discover new genes that could be important for axonal growth and repair. “There have already been enormous investments made in the study of cancer genes,” he says. “I believe it’s important to look at the knowledge base that’s already been built and then apply it where we can.” — JL

Older + stronger longer

Dr. Robert Fitts, professor of biological sciences in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, spent most of his professional life studying how human muscles atrophy in outer space zero gravity.

Working with NASA and international space organizations, Fitts helped combat the muscle wasting that was the astronaut’s occupational hazard. Now he has turned to a new question: Why do people fatigue so easily when they get older, and what can be done to prevent that?

Man doing push-upsIt’s a question colleague Dr. Sandra Hunter, professor of exercise science in the College of Health Sciences, has been considering as well. As an exercise scientist Hunter has worked with athletes, clinical populations and the general population while paying special attention to the exercise needs of elderly men and women.

Why do people fatigue so easily when they get older, and what can be done to prevent it?

Fitts and Hunter are principal investigators on a five-year project to explore if systematically encouraging older people to exercise — and, more important, to exercise in ways different from those of young people — can help them stay stronger longer. Funded by a $2.8 million NIH grant, the project will combine the everyday with the cutting edge. Two groups of people in their 70s and 80s will perform two types of strength training. The cutting-edge part will involve the use of high-tech tools to examine the muscle cells and nervous systems of both groups to learn what difference the workouts make. Fitts and Hunter think it is the muscles — learning how to match exercise routines to the changes in muscle physiology that come with age — that hold the key.

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Lightning Round

Highlighting some faculty research and scholarly honors.

  1. Woman working outRita Deering, D.P.T., doctoral student in clinical and rehabilitation sciences, and Dr. Sandra Hunter, professor of exercise science in the College of Health Sciences, awarded $50,000 from the Medical College of Wisconsin Women’s Health Research Program to study abdominal muscle function, pain perception and functional mobility in women after pregnancy.
  2. Dr. Brooke Mayer, assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, awarded $500,000 NSF CAREER grant for researching a system to remove phosphorus from polluted water and recycle it as fertilizer or for other uses.
  3. Dr. Marieke Gilmartin, assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Health Sciences, awarded $800,000 NSF grant in support of research on how brain areas interact on a second-by-second basis to create and retain memory.
  4. phosphorus-pentoxide-3d-balls_v1Dr. Robert J. Griffin, professor, named Diederich College of Communication 2016 Scholar of the Year for ongoing research developing a model of how people use information to develop judgments and behaviors related to health and environmental risks.
  5. Dr. Joan Whipp, associate professor and director of teacher education in the College of Education, received a Spencer Research Grant of $49,924 to co-direct a research project on long-term retention of teachers of color, with Dr. Felicia Saffold at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

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