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A Northeastern PhD student has discovered a protein receptor that could vastly improve pharmacological treatment for a disease that affects an estimated 3 million Americans.
Katlynn Bugda Gwilt, who successfully defended her Pharmacology PhD in April, won both the Outstanding Graduate Research Award in Health Sciences and the Excellence in Research Award at RISE, Northeastern’s annual research, innovation, and scholarship expo. She was among 174 entries and four award winners from the Bouvé College of Health Science.
She discovered that the receptor attracts byproducts from microbes and food particles that, when combined, send out a signal that breaks down the intestinal lining in genetically predisposed patients.
“As nutrients and microbes float by, the receptor attracts them, and they combine to ‘flip the on switch’ that breaks apart parts of the intestinal lining,” said Gwilt.
The perforated lining allows microbes and toxins to pass into the body, causing Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), characterized by the so-called “leaky gut.” The result is a range of debilitating symptoms ranging from crippling intestinal problems to dramatic weight loss, and even malnutrition.
Gwilt emphases that while diet, stress, and environmental factors contribute to IBD, the “leaky gut” cannot develop unless the person is genetically predisposed to the disease.
“Healthy people have a protective mechanism that prevents receptors from activating the on-switch,” she said.
She has confirmed her findings in mice, and the next step is to test them in humans, which have a similar phenotype.
“We currently have no drugs that can stop the breakdown of the intestinal lining,” she said. “All the current medicines target the immune response. This receptor provides the first therapeutic target for stopping the attack on the intestinal lining. If this works, the treatments for inflammatory bowel disease will have fewer side effects such as autoimmune disease, infections, and cancer.”
In addition to Gwilt, three other Bouvé students won an award, including:
The incidences of strokes in young people have risen 44 percent in ten years, despite an overall decline among the general population.
Even more puzzling, many of those between the ages of 18 and 45 seem to recover fully—only to realize that they can’t perform simple tasks, such as making change or following a recipe, that require integration of several functions such as sight, cognition, and movement. Because these everyday tasks are multi-dimensional, they often remain hidden on one-dimensional post-stroke testing.
“The most frequent complaint among younger stroke sufferers is these hidden impairments,” said Bailey Uitz. “But There is almost no research on the younger stroke population.”
Uitz and her classmates, Leila Kiernan and Daniel Tsai, all DPT’20, teamed up with bioengineering student Zach Fagiani and health science student Nathaniel Pinkes to form an interdisciplinary team. Their goal was to develop a real-world test capable of identifying and quantifying hidden stroke impairments.
They numbered several cans and placed them in random order on two shelves, then filmed subjects as they grabbed the cans off the shelf in the proper order, and arranged them on the counter as if they were following a recipe. They used eye-tracking technology to record precisely what the subject was looking at—and for how long—while performing the task.
The first phase of the experiment, which was the focus for their RISE entry, created a baseline of healthy older and younger people. The younger people generally took a quick look at the can and then moved their eyes in search of the next can before they grabbed the first one. Sometimes their eyes were two steps ahead of the cans they were grabbing. In contrast, older people not only took longer to identify the proper can, but they also kept their eyes fixated on each can until they grasped it.
In the next phase of the experiment, the team expects to find that young people with stroke are similar to healthy older people, in that they show similar (or even more pronounced) compromises in their sight/motor integration.
Uitz said recruiting team member with varied expertise was a key element of the experiment’s success.
“As physical therapy students, we want to create a more interdisciplinary plan for treatment,” she said. “We want to pinpoint the impairments when they are still in the acute stage.”
The project has been funded through a grant from Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute to “maximize resilience among people living with physical disabilities. The grant was awarded to Bouvé professors Eugene Tunik, Holly Jimison, and Micha Pavel.
As a public health major focusing on public health, Lujane Barakat, BHS’21, believes that the way to improve health outcomes among disadvantaged populations is to improve the psychological underpinnings of health education. That’s why she joined a project led by psychology PhD student Emily Dahlgaard Thor. The project tests how an emphasis on intuitive thinking can improve high school health curriculums.
The team worked with a new health curriculum developed by Tufts New England Medical and tested in the Boston Public Schools, where 85 percent of the population is non-white and half speak a language other than English at home. The curriculum, which focused specifically on intuitive diseases, resulted in a dramatic increase in student understanding.
The Northeastern group compared the responses of students before and after studying the curriculum and found a dramatic increase in the use of the three main forms of intuitive reasoning (anthropic, essentialist, and teleological), such as ascribing human characteristics to animals and objects in order to understand their function.
Their conclusion is that while intuitive thinking may increase misconceptions at the college level, it appears to increase understanding of complex concepts among high school students.
“Knowing that intuitive thinking increases understanding could help reshape teaching of health issues,” she said. “Better understanding of health topics will lead to better health decisions throughout their life.”
Although women now outnumber men in the pharmacy field, they still lag far behind in leadership positions, according to research conducted by Joy Leonard and Sara Panahi, both PharmD’20.
“In fact, there is only one pharmacy dean in all of New England, even though this is a region that is dense with pharmacy schools,” said Leonard.
Meanwhile, of the four most prestigious pharmacy awards, men vastly outnumber women in all but one.
Women do, however, dominate the ranks of associate deans, but it’s not clear whether this indicates that women leadership is on the rise, or that they hit a wall before they reach the very top.
Aashka Shah wants to reduce the number of preventable falls among children 3 years old and younger.
“I chose falls because it’s the number one reason for non-fatal ER visits,” she said. “Most of these falls are also preventable on a systematic level, unlike shootings and traffic accidents.”
Shaw, a Health Sciences major with a pre-med focus, wants to combine her future medical degree with her passion for public health.
“I want to understand the social determinants of health and how that relates to policy and medicine,” she said.
While working for the last four years as an intern at Tufts New England Medical Center, Shah developed a study that categorized patients based on race/ethnicity, income, and level of schooling. She found that the rate of falls was much higher in underserved populations, largely because they were both unaware of preventive measures, such as stair gates, window protections, and helmets.
While 80 percent of the parents said they had the knowledge and resources to protect their child, that dropped to 55 percent among underserved populations.
Shah is now working on a plan to increase awareness among the doctors at Tufts Medical Center, and is slated to make a presentation to the medical staff later this spring.
“One conversation by a doctor with a parent can have a big impact,” she said. “They just need to start the conversation with people.”