Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Category: Faculty (Page 1 of 13)

HIV Can Be Treated, But Stigma Kills

Three decades ago, receiving an HIV diagnosis was comparable to being handed a death sentence. But today, this is no longer the case.

Advances in HIV research have led to treatments that can make the virus undetectable and untransmittable in less than six months, a fact that goes overlooked by many. Treatments today can make HIV entirely manageable for individuals.

However, thousands of Americans are still dying of HIV-related causes each year, regardless of the fact that HIV treatments are accessible and effective. So where is the disconnect coming from?

On the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke University hosted a series of events surrounding around this year’s international theme: “Know Your Status.”

One of these events was a panel discussion featuring three prominent HIV/AIDS treatment advocates on campus, Dr. Mehri McKellar, Dr. Carolyn McAllaster, and Dr. Kent Weinhold, who answered questions regarding local policy and current research at Duke.

From left to right: Kent Weinhold, Carolyn McAllaster, Mehri McKellar and moderator Jesse Mangold in Duke’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity

The reason HIV continues to spread and kill, Dr. McKellar explained, is less about accessibility, and more about stigma. Research has shown that stigma shame leads to poor health outcomes in HIV patients, and unfortunately, stigma shame is a huge problem in communities across the US.

Especially in the South, she said, there is very little funding for initiatives to reduce stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, and people are suffering as a result.

In 2016, the CDC reported that the South was responsible for 52 percent of all new HIV diagnoses and 47 percent of all HIV-related deaths in the US.

If people living with HIV don’t feel supported by their community and comfortable in their environment, it makes it very difficult for them to obtain proper treatment. Dr. McKellar’s patients have told her that they don’t feel comfortable getting their medications locally because they know the local pharmacist, and they’re ashamed to be picking up HIV medications from a familiar face.

 

HIV/AIDS Diagnoses and Deaths in the US 1981-2007 (photo from the CDC)

In North Carolina, the law previously required HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status and use a condom with sexual partners, even if they had received treatment and could no longer transmit the virus. Violating this law resulted in prosecution and a prison sentence for many individuals, which only enforced the negative stigma surrounding HIV. Earlier this year, Dr. McAllaster helped efforts to create and pass a new version of the law, which will make life a lot easier for people living with HIV in North Carolina.

So what is Duke doing to help the cause? Well, In 2005, Duke opened the Center for AIDS Research (also known as CFAR), which is now directed by Dr. Kent Weinhold. In the last decade, they have focused their efforts mainly on improving the efficacy of the HIV vaccine. The search for a successful vaccine has been long and frustrating for CFAR and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, but Dr. Weinhold is optimistic that they will be able to reach the realistic goal of 60 percent effectiveness in the future, although he shied away from predicting any sort of timeline for this outcome.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP (photo from NIAID)

Duke also opened a PrEP Clinic in 2016 to provide preventative treatment for individuals who might be at risk of getting HIV. PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, and it is a medication that is taken before exposure to HIV to prevent transmission of the virus. Put into widespread use, this treatment is another way to reduce negative HIV stigma.

The problem persists, however, that the people who most need PrEP aren’t getting it. The group that has the highest incidence of HIV is males who are young, black and gay. But the group most commonly receiving PrEP is older, white, gay men. Primary care doctors, especially in the South, often won’t prescribe PrEP either. Not because they can’t, but because they don’t support it, or don’t know enough about it.

And herein lies the problem, the panelists said: Discrimination and bias are often the results of inadequate education. The more educated people are about the truth of living with HIV, and the effectiveness of current treatments, the more empathetic they will be towards HIV-positive individuals.

There’s no reason for the toxic shame that exists nationwide, and attitudes need to change. It’s important for us to realize that in today’s world, HIV can be treated, but stigma kills.

Post by Anne Littlewood

The Importance of Evidence in Environmental Conservation

What counts as good evidence?

In medical research, a professional might answer this question as you would expect: evidence can be trusted if it is the result of a randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment, meaning the evidence is only as strong as the experiment design. And in medicine, it’s possible (and important) to procure this kind of strong evidence.

But when it comes to conservation, it’s a whole different story.

Dr. David Gill (photo from The Nicholas School)

The natural world is complicated, and far beyond our control. When studying the implications of conservation, it’s not so easy to design the kind of experiment that will produce “good” evidence.

David Gill, a professor in Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment, recently led a study featured in the journal Nature that needed to  define what constitutes good evidence in the realm of marine conservation. Last Wednesday, he made a guest appearance in my Bass Connections meeting to share his work and a perspective on the importance of quality evidence.

Gill’s research has been centered around evaluating the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas (or MPAs) as a way of protecting marine life. Seven percent of the world’s oceans are currently designated as MPAs, and by 2020, the goal is to increase this number to 10 percent. MPAs arguably have massive effects on ecosystem health and coastal community functioning, but where is the evidence for this claim?

Although past investigations have provided support for creating MPAs,  Gill and his team were concerned with the quality of this evidence, and the link between how MPAs are managed and how well they work. There have historically been acute gaps in study design when researching the effects of MPAs. Few experiments have included pre-MPA conditions or an attempt to control for other factors. Most of these studies have been done in hindsight, and have looked only at the ecological effects within the boundaries of MPAs, without any useful baseline data or control sites to compare them to.

As a result of these limitations, the evidence base is weak. Generating good evidence is a massive undertaking when you are attempting to validate a claim by counting several thousand moving fish.

Gill’s measure of ecosystem health includes counting fish. (Photo from Avoini)

So is there no way to understand the impacts of MPAs? Should conservation scientists just give up? The answer is no, absolutely not.

To produce better evidence, Gill and his team needed to design a study that would isolate the effects of MPAs. To do this, they needed to account for location biases and other confounding variables such as the biophysical conditions of the environment, the population density of nearby human communities, and the national regulations in each place.

The solution they came up with was to compare observations of current conditions within MPAs to “counterfactual” evidence, which is defined as what would have happened had the MPA not been there. Using statistical matching of MPAs to nearby non-MPA and pre-MPA sites, they were able to obtain high-quality results.

A happy sea turtle pictured in a marine protected area (photo from English Foreign and Commonwealth Office.)

The research showed that across 16,000 sampled sites, MPAs had positive ecological impacts on fish biomass in 71 percent of sites. They also discovered that MPAs with adequate staffing had far greater ecological impacts than those without, which is a pretty interesting piece of feedback when it comes to future development. It’s probably not worth it to create MPAs before there is sufficient funding in place to maintain them.

Gill doesn’t claim that his evidence is flawless; he fully admits to the shortcomings in this study, such as the fact that there is very little data on temperate, coldwater regions — mostly because there are few MPAs in these regions.

The field is ripe for improvement, and he suggests that future research look into the social impacts of MPAs and the implications of these interventions for different species. As the evidence continues to improve, it will be increasingly possible to maximize the win-wins when designing MPAs.

Conservation science isn’t perfect, but neither is medicine. We’ll get there.

Coding: A Piece of Cake

Image result for cake

Imagine a cake, your favorite cake. Has your interest been piqued?

“Start with Cake” has proved an effective teaching strategy for Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel in her introduction-level statistics classes. In her talk “Teaching Computing via Visualization,” she lays out her classroom approaches to helping students maintain an interest in coding despite its difficulty. Just like a cooking class, a taste of the final product can motivate students to master the process. Cetinkaya-Rundel, therefore, believes that instead of having students begin with the flour and sugar and milk, they should dive right into the sweet frosting. While bringing cake to the first day of class has a great success rate for increasing a class’s attention span (they’ll sugar crash in their next classes, no worries), what this statistics professor actually refers to is showing the final visualizations. By giving students large amounts of pre-written code and only one or two steps to complete during the first few class periods, they can immediately recognize coding’s potential. The possibilities become exciting and capture their attention so that fewer students attempt to vanish with the magic of drop/add period. For the student unsure about coding, immediately writing their own code can seem overwhelming and steal the joy of creating.

Example of a visualization Cetinkaya-Rundel uses in her classes

To accommodate students with less background in coding, Cetinkaya-Rundel believes that skipping the baby steps proves a better approach than slowing the pace. By jumping straight into larger projects, students can spend more time wrestling their code and discovering the best strategies rather than memorizing the definition of a histogram. The idea is to give the students everything on day one, and then slowly remove the pre-written coding until they are writing on their own. The traditional classroom approach involves teaching students line-by-line until they have enough to create the desired visualizations. While Cetinkaya-Rundel admits that her style may not suit every individual and creating the assignments does require more time, she stands by her eat-dessert-first perspective on teaching. Another way she helps students maintain their original curiosity is by cherishing day one through pre-installed packages which allow students to start playing with visualizations and altering code right away.

Not only does Cetinkaya-Rundel give mouth-watering cakes as the end results for her students but she also sometimes shows them burnt and crumbling desserts. “People like to critique,” she explains as she lays out how to motivate students to begin writing original code. When she gives her students a sloppy graph and tells them to fix it, they are more likely to find creative solutions and explore how to make the graph most appealing to them. As the scaffolding falls away and students begin diverging from the style guides, Cetinkaya-Rundel has found that they have a greater understanding of and passion for coding. A spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.  

    Post by Lydia Goff

Drug Homing Method Helps Rethink Parkinson’s

The brain is the body’s most complex organ, and consequently the least understood. In fact, researchers like Michael Tadross, MD, PhD, wonder if the current research methods employed by neuroscientists are telling us as much as we think.

Michael Tadross is using novel approaches to tease out the causes of neuropsychiatric diseases at a cellular level.

Current methods such as gene editing and pharmacology can reveal how certain genes and drugs affect the cells in a given area of the brain, but they’re limited in that they don’t account for differences among different cell types. With his research, Tadross has tried to target specific cell types to better understand mechanisms that cause neuropsychiatric disorders.

To do this, Tadross developed a method to ensure a drug injected into a region of the brain will only affect specific cell types. Tadross genetically engineered the cell type of interest so that a special receptor protein, called HaloTag, is expressed at the cell membrane. Additionally, the drug of interest is altered so that it is tethered to the molecule that binds with the HaloTag receptor. By connecting the drug to the Halo-Tag ligand, and engineering only the cell type of interest to express the specific Halo-Tag receptor, Tadross effectively limited the cells affected by the drug to just one type. He calls this method “Drugs Acutely Restricted by Tethering,” or DART.

Tadross has been using the DART method to better understand the mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a neurological disease that affects a region of the brain called the striatum, causing tremors, slow movement, and rigid muscles, among other motor deficits.

Only cells expressing the HaloTag receptor can bind to the AMPA-repressing drug, ensuring virtually perfect cell-type specificity.

Patients with Parkinson’s show decreased levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the striatum. Consequently, treatments that involve restoring dopamine levels improve symptoms. For these reasons, Parkinson’s has long been regarded as a disease caused by a deficit in dopamine.

With his technique, Tadross is challenging this assumption. In addition to death of dopaminergic neurons, Parkinson’s is associated with an increase of the strength of synapses, or connections, between neurons that express AMPA receptors, which are the most common excitatory receptors in the brain.

In order to simulate the effects of Parkinson’s, Tadross and his team induced the death of dopaminergic neurons in the striatum of mice. As expected, the mice displayed significant motor impairments consistent with Parkinson’s. However, in addition to inducing the death of these neurons, Tadross engineered the AMPA-expressing cells to produce the Halo-Tag protein.

Tadross then treated the mice striatum with a common AMPA receptor blocker tethered to the Halo-Tag ligand. Amazingly, blocking the activity of these AMPA-expressing neurons, even in the absence of the dopaminergic neurons, reversed the effects of Parkinson’s so that the previously affected mice moved normally.

Tadross’s findings with the Parkinson’s mice exemplifies how little we know about cause and effect in the brain. The key to designing effective treatments for neuropsychiatric diseases, and possibly other diseases outside the nervous system, may be in teasing out the relationship of specific types of cells to symptoms and targeting the disease that way.

The ingenious work of researchers like Tadross will undoubtedly help bring us closer to understanding how the brain truly works.

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin

 

Aging and Decision-Making

Who makes riskier decisions, the young or the old? And what matters more in our decisions as we age — friends, health or money? The answers might surprise you.

Kendra Seaman works at the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development and is interested in decision-making across the lifespan.

Duke postdoctoral fellow Kendra Seaman, Ph.D. uses mathematical models and brain imaging to understand how decision-making changes as we age. In a talk to a group of cognitive neuroscientists at Duke, Seamen explained that we have good reason to be concerned with how older people make decisions.

Statistically, older people in the U.S. have more money, and additionally more expenditures, specifically in healthcare. And by 2030, 20 percent of the US population will be over the age of 65.

One key component to decision-making is subjective value, which is a measure of the importance a reward or outcome has to a specific person at a specific point in time. Seaman used a reward of $20 as an example: it would have a much higher subjective value for a broke college student than for a wealthy retiree. Seaman discussed three factors that influence subjective value: reward, cost, and discount rate, or the determination of the value of future rewards.

Brain imaging research has found that subjective value is represented similarly in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) across all ages. Despite this common network, Seaman and her colleagues have found significant differences in decision-making in older individuals.

The first difference comes in the form of reward. Older individuals are likely to be more invested in the outcome of a task if the reward is social or health-related rather than monetary. Consequently, they are more likely to want these health and social rewards  sooner and with higher certainty than younger individuals are. Understanding the salience of these rewards is crucial to designing future experiments to identify decision-making differences in older adults.

A preference for positive skew becomes more pronounced with age.

Older individuals also differ in their preferences for something called “skewed risks.” In these tasks, positive skew means a high probability of a small loss and a low probability of a large gain, such as buying a lottery ticket. Negative skew means a low probability of a large loss and a high probability of a small gain, such as undergoing a common medical procedure that has a low chance of harmful complications.

Older people tend to prefer positive skew to a greater degree than younger people, and this bias toward positive skew becomes more pronounced with age.

Understanding these tendencies could be vital in understanding why older people fall victim to fraud and decide to undergo risky medical procedures, and additionally be better equipped to motivate an aging population to remain involved in physical and mental activities.

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin

Combatting the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic needs to be combatted in and out of the clinic.

In the U.S. 115 people die from opioids every day. The number of opioid overdoses increased fivefold from 1999 to 2016. While increased funding for resources like Narcan has helped — the opioid overdose-reversing drug now carried by emergency responders in cities throughout the country — changes to standard healthcare practices are still sorely needed.

Ashwin A Patkar, MD, medical director of the Duke Addictions Program, spoke to the Duke Center on Addiction and Behavior Change about how opioid addiction is treated.

The weaknesses of the current treatment standards first appear in diagnosis. Heroin and cocaine are currently being contaminated by distributors with fentanyl, an opioid that is 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin and cheaper than either of these drugs. Despite fentanyl’s prevalence in these street drugs, the standard form and interview for addiction patients does not include asking about or testing for the substance.

Patkar has found that 30 percent of opioid addiction patients have fentanyl in their urine and do not disclose it to the doctor. Rather than resulting from the patients’ dishonesty, Patkar believes, in most cases, patients are taking fentanyl without knowing that the drugs they are taking are contaminated.

Because of its potency, fentanyl causes overdoses that may require more Narcan than a standard heroin overdose. Understanding the prevalence of Narcan in patients is vital both for public health and educating patients so they can be adequately prepared.

Patkar also pointed out that, despite a lot of research supporting medication-assisted therapy, only 21 percent of addiction treatment facilities in the U.S. offer this type of treatment. Instead, most facilities rely on detoxification, which has high rates of relapse (greater than 85 percent within a year after detox) and comes with its own drawbacks. Detox lowers the patient’s tolerance to the drug, but care providers often neglect to tell the patients this, resulting in a rate of overdose that is three times higher than before detox.

Another common treatment for opioid addiction involves using methadone, a controlled substance that helps alleviate symptoms from opioid withdrawal. Because retention rate is high and cost of production is low, methadone poses a strong financial incentive. However, methadone itself is addictive, and overdose is possible.

Patkar points to a resource developed by Julie Bruneau as a reference for the Canadian standard of care for opioid abuse disorder. Rather than recommending detox or methadone as a first line of treatment, Bruneau and her team recommend buprenorphine , and naltrexone as a medication to support abstinence after treatment with buprenorphine.

Buprenorphine is a drug with a similar function as methadone, but with better and safer clinical outcomes. Buprenorphine does not create the same euphoric effect as methadone, and rates of overdose are six times less than in those prescribed methadone.

In addition to prescribing the right medicine, clinicians need to encourage patients to stick with treatment longer. Despite buprenorphine having good outcomes, patients who stop taking it after only 4 to 12 weeks, even with tapering directed by a doctor, exhibit only an 18 percent rate of successful abstinence.

Patkar closed his talk by reminding the audience that opioid addiction is a brain disease. In order to see a real change in the number of people dying from opioids, we need to focus on treating addiction as a disease; no one would question extended medication-based treatment of diseases like diabetes or heart disease, and the same should be said about addiction. Healthcare providers have a responsibility to treat addiction based on available research and best practices, and patients with opioid addiction deserve a standard of care the same as anyone else.

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin

Becoming the First: Nick Carnes

Editor’s Note: In the “Becoming the First” series,  first-generation college student and Rubenstein Scholar Lydia Goff explores the experiences of Duke researchers who were the first in their families to attend college.

A portrait of Duke Professor Nick Carnes

Nick Carnes

Should we care that we are governed by professionals and millionaires? This is one of the questions Nick Carnes, an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, seeks to answer with his research. He explores unequal social class representation in the political process and how it affects policy making. But do any real differences even exist between politicians from lower socioeconomic classes and those from the upper classes? Carnes believes they do, not only because of his research but also because of his personal experiences.

When Carnes entered Princeton University as a political science graduate student, he was the only member of his cohort who had done restaurant, construction or factory work. While obtaining his undergraduate degree from the University of Tulsa, he worked twenty hours a week and during the summer clocked in at sixty to seventy hours a week between two jobs. He considered himself and his classmates “similar on paper,” just like how politicians from a variety of socioeconomic classes can also appear comparable. However, Carnes noticed that he approached some problems differently than his classmates and wondered why. After attributing his distinct approach to his working class background, without the benefits of established college graduate family members (his mother did go to college while he was growing up), he began developing his current research interests.

Carnes considers “challenging the negative stereotypes about working class people” the most important aspect of his research. When he entered college, his first meeting with his advisor was filled with confusion as he tried to decipher what a syllabus was. While his working class status did restrict his knowledge of college norms, he overcame these limitations. He is now a researcher, writer, and professor who considers his job “the best in the world” and whose own story proves that working class individuals can conquer positions more often inhabited by the experienced. As Carnes states, “There’s no good reason to not have working class people in office.” His research seeks to reinforce that.

His biggest challenge is that the data he needs to analyze does not exist in a well-documented manner. Much of his research involves gathering data so that he can generate results. His published book, White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making, and his book coming out in September, The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office–and What We Can Do About It, contain the data and results he has produced. Presently, he is beginning a project on transnational governments because “cash ceilings exist in every advanced democracy.” Carnes’ research proves we should care that professionals and millionaires run our government. Through his story, he exemplifies that students who come from families without generations of college graduates can still succeed.    

 

Post by Lydia Goff

 

Becoming the First: Erika Weinthal

Editor’s Note: In the “Becoming the First” series,  first-generation college student and Rubenstein Scholar Lydia Goff explores the experiences of Duke researchers who were the first in their families to attend college.

A portrait of Erika Weinthal

Erika Weinthal

In her corner office with a wall of windows and stuffed bookshelves, Erika Weinthal keeps a photo of her father. He came to the United States from Germany in 1940. And for a German Jew, that was extremely late. According to the family stories, Weinthal’s father left on the second to last boat from Italy. It is no surprise that he was never a big traveler after his arrival to America. As Weinthal describes it, “America…was the country that saved him.” Not only did it protect him, but it also gave his children opportunities that he did not have, such as going to college.

Weinthal, Lee Hill Snowdon Professor of Environmental Policy in Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, took this opportunity to become the first in her family to attend college, launching her career researching environmental policy and water security in areas including the former Soviet Union, Middle East, East Africa, India and the United States.

In high school, Weinthal traveled as an exchange student to Germany, a country her relatives could never understand her desire to visit. “As a child of a refugee, you didn’t talk about the war,” she explains as she describes how this silence created her curiosity about what happened. That journey to Bremen marked only the first of many trips around the world. In the Middle East, she examines environmental policy between countries that share water. In India, she has researched the relationship between wildlife and humans near protected areas. “What do you do when protected wildlife destroys crops and threatens livelihoods?” she asks, proving that since her curiosity about the war, she has not stopped asking questions.

However, her specific interest in environmental science and policy came straight from a different war: the Cold War. She became obsessed with everything Russian partly thanks to a high school teacher who agreed to teach her Russian one-on-one. The teacher introduced Weinthal to Russian literature and poetry. While her parents, like many parents, would have loved for her to become a doctor or a lawyer, they still trusted her when she enrolled in Oberlin College intent on studying Soviet politics. A class on Soviet environment politics further increased her interest in water security.

Currently, her work contends that water should be viewed as a basic human need separate from the political conflicts in Palestine and Israel. She has studied how protracted conflict in the region has led to the deterioration of water quality in the Gaza Strip, creating a situation in which water is now unfit for human consumption. Weinthal argues that these regions should not view water as property to be secured but rather as a human right they should guarantee.

Erika Weinthal’s father in 1940

As a child of a refugee and a first-generation college student, Weinthal says “you grow up essentially so grateful for what others have sacrificed for you.” Her dad believed in giving back to the next generation. He accomplished that goal and, in the process, gave the world a researcher who’s invested in environmental policy and human rights.

Post by Lydia Goff

 

Stretchable, Twistable Wires for Wearable Electronics

A new conductive “felt” carries electricity even when twisted, bent and stretched. Credit: Matthew Catenacci

The exercise-tracking power of a Fitbit may soon jump from your wrist and into your clothing.

Researchers are seeking to embed electronics such as fitness trackers and health monitors into our shirts, hats, and shoes. But no one wants stiff copper wires or silicon transistors deforming their clothing or poking into their skin.

Scientists in Benjamin Wiley’s lab at Duke have created new conductive “felt” that can be easily patterned onto fabrics to create flexible wires. The felt, composed of silver-coated copper nanowires and silicon rubber, carries electricity even when bent, stretched and twisted, over and over again.

“We wanted to create wiring that is stretchable on the body,” said Matthew Catenacci, a graduate student in Wiley’s group.

The conductive felt is made of stacks of interwoven silver-coated copper nanotubes filled with a stretchable silicone rubber (left). When stretched, felt made from more pliable rubber is more resilient to small tears and holes than felts made of stiffer rubber (middle). These tears can be seen in small cavities in the felt (right). Credit: Matthew Catenacci

To create a flexible wire, the team first sucks a solution of copper nanowires and water through a stencil, creating a stack of interwoven nanowires in the desired shape. The material is similar to the interwoven fibers that comprise fabric felt, but on a much smaller scale, said Wiley, an associate professor of chemistry at Duke.

“The way I think about the wires are like tiny sticks of uncooked spaghetti,” Wiley said. “The water passes through, and then you end up with this pile of sticks with a high porosity.”

The interwoven nanowires are heated to 300 F to melt the contacts together, and then silicone rubber is added to fill in the gaps between the wires.

To show the pliability of their new material, Catenacci patterned the nanowire felt into a variety of squiggly, snaking patterns. Stretching and twisting the wires up to 300 times did not degrade the conductivity.

The material maintains its conductivity when twisted and stretched. Credit: Matthew Catenacci

“On a larger scale you could take a whole shirt, put it over a vacuum filter, and with a stencil you could create whatever wire pattern you want,” Catenacci said. “After you add the silicone, so you will just have a patch of fabric that is able to stretch.”

Their felt is not the first conductive material that displays the agility of a gymnast. Flexible wires made of silver microflakes also exhibit this unique set of properties. But the new material has the best performance of any other material so far, and at a much lower cost.

“This material retains its conductivity after stretching better than any other material with this high of an initial conductivity. That is what separates it,” Wiley said.

Stretchable Conductive Composites from Cu-Ag Nanowire Felt,” Matthew J. Catenacci, Christopher Reyes, Mutya A. Cruz and Benjamin J. Wiley. ACS Nano, March 14, 2018. DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.8b00887

Post by Kara Manke

MRI Tags Stick to Molecules with Chemical “Velcro®”

An extremely close-up view of Velcro

In the new technique, MRI chemical tags attach to a target molecule and nothing else – kind of like how Velcro only sticks to itself. Credit: tanakawho, via Flickr.

Imagine attaching a beacon to a drug molecule and following its journey through our winding innards, tracking just where and how it interacts with the chemicals in our bodies to help treat illnesses.

Duke scientists may be closer to doing just that. They have developed a chemical tag that can be attached to molecules to make them light up under magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

This tag or “lightbulb” changes its frequency when the molecule interacts with another molecule, potentially allowing researchers to both locate the molecule in the body and see how it is metabolized.

“MRI methods are very sensitive to small changes in the chemical structure, so you can actually use these tags to directly image chemical transformations,” said Thomas Theis, an assistant research professor in the chemistry department at Duke.

Chemical tags that light up under MRI are not new. In 2016, the Duke team of Warren S. Warren’s lab and Qiu Wang’s lab created molecular lightbulbs for MRI that burn brighter and longer than any previously discovered.

A photo of graduate students Junu Bae and Zijian Zhou in front of a bookshelf.

Junu Bae and Zijian Zhou, the co-first authors of the paper. Credit: Qiu Wang, Duke University.

In a study published March 9 in Science Advances, the researchers report a new method for attaching tags to molecules, allowing them to tag molecules indirectly to a broader scope of molecules than they could before.

“The tags are like lightbulbs covered in Velcro,” said Junu Bae, a graduate student in Qiu Wang’s lab at Duke. “We attach the other side of the Velcro to the target molecule, and once they find each other they stick.”

This reaction is what researchers call bioorthogonal, which means that the tag will only stick to the molecular target and won’t react with any other molecules.

And the reaction was designed with another important feature in mind — it generates a rare form of nitrogen gas that also lights up under MRI.

“One could dream up a lot of potential applications for the nitrogen gas, but one that we have been thinking about is lung imaging,” Theis said.

Currently the best way to image the lungs is with xenon gas, but this method has the downside of putting patients to sleep. “Nitrogen gas would be perfectly safe to inhale because it is what you inhale in the air anyways,” Theis said.

A stylized chemical diagram of the hyperpolarization process

In the new technique, a type of molecule called a tetrazine is hyperpolarized, making it “light up” under MRI (illustrated on the left). It is then tagged to a target molecule through a what is called a bioorthogonal reaction. The reaction also generates a rare form of nitrogen gas that can be spotted under MRI (illustrated on the right). Credit: Junu Bae and Seoyoung Cho, Duke University.

Other applications could include watching how air flows through porous materials or studying the nitrogen fixation process in plants.

One downside to the new tags is that they don’t shine as long or as brightly as other MRI molecular lightbulbs, said Zijian Zhou, a graduate student in  Warren’s lab at Duke.

The team is tinkering with the formula for polarizing, or lighting up, the molecule tags to increase their lifetime and brilliance, and to make them more compatible with chemical conditions in the human body.

“We are now developing new techniques and new procedures which may be helpful for driving the polarization levels even higher, so we can have even better signal for these applications,” Zhou said.

15N4-1,2,4,5-tetrazines as potential molecular tags: Integrating bioorthogonal chemistry with hyperpolarization and unearthing para-N2,” Junu Bae, Zijian Zhou, Thomas Theis, Warren S. Warren and Qiu Wang. Science Advances, March 9, 2018. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar2978

Post by Kara Manke

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