University Scientists Make Discover Magazine’s Top 100 List

January 12, 2007

Three University of Rochester achievements, including two by scientists and physicians at the Medical Center, have made Discover magazine’s Top 100 Science Stories of 2006. 

At Number 27 on the Discover magazine list is the approval of a vaccine for cervical cancer. Though the article doesn’t go into detail about the research behind the vaccine, the University was pivotal in the development of the vaccine. 

Research done more than a decade ago by a trio of University virologists – Richard Reichman, M.D., William Bonnez, M.D., and Robert Rose, Ph.D. – in the Infectious Diseases Division is integral to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. HPV causes 9,700 cases of cervical cancer in women in the United States annually, and about 3,900 women in the nation die of the disease every year. The toll is much worse in other parts of the world, where Pap smears to detect the disease in its earliest stages are not widely available. In some parts of the world, cervical cancer is the leading cause of death by cancer in women.

The key to the technology is VLPs, or virus-like particles, which have become VIPs in the world of infectious disease. Twenty years ago the team set out on a basic research study to look at how a person’s immune system fights HPV infection. The team soon focused on the actual viral particle that causes the disease, then produced similarly shaped VLPs and showed that they provoke an immune response that protects the body from infection. The technology was key to the vaccine approved last year and another vaccine currently in development.

At Number 44 is Steven Goldman, M.D., professor of Neurology, with his discovery that brain cells derived from human embryonic stem cells improved the condition of rats with Parkinson’s-like symptoms dramatically. 

In the experiment, Goldman and colleagues set out to grow brain cells called neurons that produce dopamine, a crucial brain chemical lacking in patients with Parkinson’s. They began by isolating human embryonic stem cells, then re-creating the natural environment of the developing brain as much as possible, so it would seem to the stem cells that they were developing in the part of the brain where dopamine neurons are normally made. The team did so by raising the cells together with brain cells known as astrocytes, which had come from the same brain region. These cells have long been known to play a crucial role nourishing neurons. 

The team then injected the cells into the brains of rats with Parkinson’s-like symptoms, and watched for 10 weeks. While rats with the disorder walked in circles when prompted to move, as if they were chasing their tails, rats transplanted with the new cells recovered normal function and eventually stopped walking in circles. By eight weeks after treatment, the tail-chasing behavior ended completely, and they were walking and running normally. 

While the treatment as described in Nature Medicine caused a significant problem, the appearance of brain tumors, scientists are already making progress solving that problem.

At Number 87 is Robert Boyd, Ph.D., M. Parker Givens Professor of Optics, who slowed light down so far it went backwards. 

A few years ago, Boyd showed how he can slow down a pulse of light to slower than an airplane, or speed it up faster than its breakneck pace, using exotic techniques and materials. But in the spring of 2006 he took what was once just a mathematical oddity – negative speed – and showed it working in the real world. 

Boyd sent a pulse through an optical fiber, and before its peak even entered the fiber, it was exiting the other end. Through experiments he was able to see that the pulse inside the fiber was actually moving backward, linking the input and output pulses.

I’ve had some of the world’s experts scratching their heads over this one,” says Boyd. “Theory predicted that we could send light backwards, but nobody knew if the theory would hold up or even if it could be observed in laboratory conditions. It’s weird stuff.”

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