Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Turning yucky mucus into a better barrier

Published in the Feb. 28, 2011, Raleigh News & Observer and the Feb. 28, 2011, Charlotte Observer


CHAPEL HILL — A North Carolina researcher is looking to turn the yucky, sticky quality of mucus into a positive force to fight disease.

Sam Lai, an infectious disease researcher at the UNC-Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy, recently received $100,000 from the Gates Foundation to study whether mucus that lines certain membranes and is the body’s initial defense against disease can be altered to trap virus particles and prevent illness.

“We know viruses cross through mucus to cause infection,” Lai said. “We know very little about how they do this, though, and trying to fight a virus once it’s infected the body is like trying to defend a castle from the inside after you’ve left the gate unlocked.”

Twice a year, the Gates Foundation awards grants for innovative research that will change approaches to global health.

Samuel Lai received $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study the relationship between viruses and mucus.

Successful projects can apply for an additional $1 million in funding.


Although viruses can spread through blood or damaged skin, most transmit through mucosal membranes in the lungs, stomach and reproductive tract. A mesh framework, similar to a 3D spider web, gives mucus its stretchy, stringy nature.

Lai will use the funding to try to tighten the mesh’s weave or make it stickier to prevent virus particles from passing through to the body. He said he hopes the research will reveal a new way to block the flu virus, as well as herpes and HIV.

“We’ll collect mucus secretion samples from human donors and place infected viruses in those secretions,” he said. “This way, we can look at the virus’s real-time mobility to see when the mucus becomes impenetrable.”

Richard Cone, a Johns Hopkins University biophysics professor working with Lai, said he is confident the research will succeed, but a big challenge to making mucus a solid barrier against infection is the ability of viruses to adapt and be modified.

“Viruses evolve, and this will be a particular hurdle as we look to block HIV,” Cone said. “Up until now, we’ve been fighting the HIV virus in its previous generation form. It’s a rapidly changing creature.”


To read the Raleigh News & Observer story online: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/02/28/1018706/turning-yucky-mucus-into-a-better.html

To read the Charlotte Observer story online: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/02/27/2097526/turning-yucky-mucus-into-a-better.html

February 28, 2011 Posted by | Science | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How spit could help improve health

Published in the May 24, 2010, Raleigh News & Observer and May 23, 2010, Charlotte Observer


CHAPEL HILL — Spit could be the next diagnostic tool in the fight against infectious diseases, if work by two N.C. scientists proves successful.

David Lawrence and Vyas Sharma, researchers at the UNC-Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy, received $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this month to investigate using genetically modified mustard seeds that change color when exposed to contagious diseases present in saliva, blood or urine.

Their work has indicated the seeds could be a simple, easy way to detect a contagious disease such as tuberculosis or malaria.

“You wouldn’t need any electricity or special equipment to test for diseases this way,” Lawrence said. “It would be ideal for resource-poor countries.”

The Gates Foundation funding is aimed at projects that will improve health in developing countries. Successful projects

David Lawrence (right) and Vyas Sharma (left), researchers at the UNC-Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy, are studying whether spit could be a diagnostic tool for infectious diseases in developing countries.

will be eligible for an additional $1 million in funding.

Lawrence and Sharma will use their grant to identify which modifications prompt seeds to recognize a bacterium or virus and respond to its presence. The seeds could be modified to respond in a variety of ways, Lawrence said. Change one strand of DNA, and the seed will glow blue when it touches a disease protein. Alter something else, and the same seed could turn fluorescent.

“I can see a potential application in a school setting that will produce a response before the school day is over,” Sharma said. “Every teacher would know how to conduct the test when students arrived in the morning.”

Ultimately, Lawrence said, he envisions a kit that includes seeds designed to detect the presence of several common infectious diseases simultaneously.

Inexpensive, simple diagnostic tests are coveted in the developing world, said Dr. John Bartlett, associate director of research at Duke University’s Global Health Institute. The trick, however, is making sure they work properly.

“Any test developed with this research must undergo rigorous evaluation to establish how sensitive it is to detecting a condition and how accurate it is,” Barlett said. “That information is crucial to determining the diagnostic value of the test.”
Read more: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/05/24/497173/how-spit-could-help-improve-health.html

or http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/05/23/1454239/how-spit-could-help-improve-health.html

May 24, 2010 Posted by | Healthcare, Science | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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