UI scientists present ‘best papers’ in research



By Kasra Zarei

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Lung disease, cystic fibrosis, deafness, measles, and prenatal stress are conditions that plague hundreds of millions of people worldwide and are the focus of research conducted by scientists at the University of Iowa.

Presenting research is equally important as conducting science, a theme that was at the heart of the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute’s Best Paper Competition.

As part of the competition, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars submitted papers they had recently published, and the selected finalists gave five-minute “chalk-talk” presentations on whiteboards.

Students were judged by their peers and Professor Michael Welsh, the director of the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute and the Carver Chair in Biomedical Research.

“We want to assess presenters on their knowledge on the area by asking questions and assess them on their ability to engage an audience,” Welsh said.

UI graduate student Viral Shah, the first-place winner of the graduate-student competition, shared his work on the genetic disease cystic fibrosis.

Using his ability to communicate complicated research with a whiteboard, Shah explained how the disease affects humans, pigs, and most interestingly, mice.

“People with cystic fibrosis have chronic bacterial infections — to better understand this disease, animal models have been developed,” he said. “Surprisingly, cystic fibrosis mice do not develop lung disease or have bacterial infections.”

Researchers at the UI Cystic Fibrosis Research Center have developed a cystic fibrosis pig model that recapitulates the human condition, showing lung disease and bacterial infections at birth.

“Through our previous work we have learned about pathogenesis of cystic fibrosis — the host defense is impaired due to an abnormally acidic pH on the airway surface,” Shah said.

The airway surface in the lungs contains a protein called CFTR that secretes bicarbonate, a substance that plays a major role in maintaining the pH of the liquid surrounding the airway surface.

In cystic fibrosis, CFTR is defective, and bicarbonate release is impaired. As a result, the fluid near the airway surface becomes abnormally acidic, thus inhibiting host defense.

But the phenomenon observed in humans and pigs is different from what happens in mice.

“In mice, interestingly, pH is not different in cystic fibrosis, and host defense is not impaired,” Shah said. “We wanted to answer why is the pH non-acidic in cystic fibrosis mice?”

As he explained in his presentation, he sought to answer if acid secretion is different in his research.

“We identified one protein, ATP12A, that is a proton pump and is responsible for secreting acidic protons in humans and pigs but absent in mice,” he said.

Through his work, Shah demonstrated that when ATP12A is expressed in mice, the airway surface liquid layer becomes abnormally acidic, host defense is impaired, and mice spontaneously developed bacterial infections.

“It answered a 25-year-old question regarding why cystic fibrosis mice are protected from lung disease and has provided a novel therapeutic target for treating cystic fibrosis,” Shah said.

Cystic fibrosis wasn’t the only subject that captivated the audience. UI postdoctoral scholar Brajesh Singh discussed his research surrounding the spread of the measles virus in humans.

“The measles virus spreads rapidly and efficiently in human airway epithelial cells,” Singh said. “By understanding the mechanism by which the virus is spread, we can hopefully provide new therapeutic insights.”

While the presenters obtained invaluable experience presenting in front of a receptive audience, the event also brought benefit to the audience.

“When you listen to someone present, you have to think about things you liked and adopt them into your own presentations,” Welsh said. “You also have to ask yourself, what did that person do that I can do to make my presentations better, or what did they do that I do not like.”

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