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UToledo Develops Experimental Rheumatoid Arthritis Vaccine

Researchers at The University of Toledo have developed an experimental vaccine that shows significant promise in preventing rheumatoid arthritis, a painful autoimmune disease that cannot currently be cured.

The findings, detailed in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represent a major breakthrough in the study of rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune diseases in general.

One of the most common autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and breaks down healthy tissue — most notably the lining of joints in the hands, wrists, ankles and knees.

Dr. Ritu Chakravarti sits behind a microscope

Dr. Ritu Chakravarti

Some estimates suggest rheumatoid arthritis affects as much as 1% of the global population.

“In spite of its high prevalence, there is no cure and we don’t entirely know what brings it on. This is true of nearly all autoimmune diseases, which makes treating or preventing them so difficult,” said Dr. Ritu Chakravarti, an assistant professor in the UToledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences and the paper’s lead author. “If we can successfully get this vaccine into the clinic, it would be revolutionary.”

Chakravarti has for years studied a protein called 14-3-3 zeta and its role in immune pathologies, including aortic aneurysms and interleukin-17— a cytokine associated with autoimmune diseases. Based on their prior work, the research group was focused on the protein as a potential trigger for rheumatoid arthritis.

Instead, they found the opposite.

Rather than preventing rheumatoid arthritis, researchers discovered that removing the protein through gene-editing technology caused severe early onset arthritis in animal models.

Working under a new theory that the 14-3-3 zeta protein protects against rheumatoid arthritis, the team developed a protein-based vaccine using purified 14-3-3 zeta protein grown in a bacterial cell.

They found the vaccine promoted a strong and immediate — but long-lasting — response from the body’s innate immune system, providing protection against the disease.

“Much to our happy surprise, the rheumatoid arthritis totally disappeared in animals that received a vaccine,” Chakravarti said. “Sometimes there is no better way than serendipity. We happened to hit a wrong result, but it turned out to be the best result. Those kinds of scientific discoveries are very important in this field.”

In addition to suppressing the development of arthritis, the vaccine also significantly improved bone quality — a finding that suggests there should be long-term benefits following immunization.

Currently, rheumatoid arthritis is treated primarily with corticosteroids, broad scale immunosuppressive drugs or newer, more targeted biologics that target a specific inflammatory process.

While those therapeutics can alleviate pain and slow the progression of the disease, they also can make patients more vulnerable to infection and, in the case of biologics, can be costly.

“We have not made any really big discoveries toward treating or preventing rheumatoid arthritis in many years,” Chakravarti said. “Our approach is completely different. This is a vaccine-based strategy based on a novel target that we hope can treat or prevent rheumatoid arthritis. The potential here is huge.”

Researchers have filed for a patent on their discovery and are seeking pharmaceutical industry partners to support safety and toxicity studies in hopes of establishing a preclinical trial.


UToledo to Host Virtual Cosmetic Formulation Camp for High School Students

The University of Toledo, home to the nation’s only undergraduate program in cosmetic science and formulation design, will host a virtual summer camp for high school students who wish to learn how makeup and personal care products are made.

The two-day camp is scheduled for Wednesday, June 23, and Thursday, June 24. Registration is open until Friday, June 4.

Created and led by Dr. Gabriella Baki, director of the Cosmetic Science and Formulation Design Program and associate professor of pharmaceutics in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the camp will offer interactive sessions and hands-on activities in which participants will learn the science behind their own health and beauty products.

The camp also will provide an overview of both the industry and UToledo’s unique baccalaureate program.

Established in 2013, the Cosmetic Science and Formulation Design Program teaches students how to design, produce, test and market cosmetics and personal care products.

“Our program is truly a mixture of science, art and business. We really focus on preparing our students for a wide variety of jobs within the industry,” Baki said. “This virtual camp is a great way to introduce high school students to the many opportunities this field provides.”

The camp also will feature presentations and virtual facility tours from several nationally known brands and major industry players, including Bath and Body Works, Estée Lauder, Wacker and Elevation Labs, as well the Society of Cosmetic Chemists.

“Since the camp is virtual, we are recruiting high school students from all states of the U.S,” Baki said. “This allows the college and the cosmetic science program to cast our net wider and spark students’ interest in chemistry, specifically cosmetic chemistry, from a broader region.”

Camp activities will include a virtual scavenger hunt and a panel of alumni of the Cosmetic Science and Formulation Design Program who will share their academic and professional experiences.

Each participant will receive a camp box that will include supplies and samples used in interactive and hands-on sessions and a camp T-shirt.

The camp registration fee is $100 per camper, with financial assistance available.

For more information about and to register for the 2021 Cosmetic Science and Formulation Design Virtual Summer Camp, visit the camp’s website.


UTMC Among First Hospitals Participating in National COVID-19 Drug Study

The University of Toledo Medical Center is one of the first sites in the country to enroll patients in a National Institutes of Health study aimed at identifying promising COVID-19 treatments worthy of larger, more in-depth clinical trials.

The proof-of-concept study is intended to quickly screen out ineffective experimental treatments while rapidly advancing deployment of therapeutics that show significant benefit to hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

“This is a very important project,” said Dr. Michael Ellis, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at UTMC. “Right now, we have two primary treatments for COVID-19, the antiviral drug remdesivir and the steroid dexamethasone, but we critically need additional therapeutics. The purpose of this study is to quickly identify agents that could have a big impact in keeping patients off a ventilator, getting them out of the hospital sooner and reducing fatal infections.”

Dr. Michael Ellis

The trial will enroll patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who require oxygen or mechanical ventilation who consent to participate. In the initial portion of the trial, UTMC will be treating patients selected for the clinical trial with either risankizumab or lenzilumab, which are monoclonal antibodies directed at different parts of the inflammatory response that are being investigated as potential treatments for COVID-19.

Both experimental drugs in the study will be paired with remdesivir, which has shown benefit to patients with severe COVID-19 infections.

Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made proteins based on the natural antibodies our immune system produces to fight off disease. Risankizumab was approved in 2019 for the treatment of severe plaque psoriasis. Lenzilumab is in late-stage development as a treatment for leukemia.

“As we treat COVID, our objectives are to stay safe, provide state-of-the-art care and participate in the public health response,” Ellis said. “In this study, we’re participating in a way beyond just Toledo.”

The Phase 2, adaptive, randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial will examine both the safety and efficacy of the monoclonal antibodies compared to remdisivir alone.

Up to 40 U.S. sites will be involved in the study. Currently, UTMC is one of nine facilities recruiting participants.


UToledo Infectious Disease, Virology Experts to Discuss COVID-19 at Virtual Town Hall

Faculty from The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences will participate in a virtual town hall discussion, “UToledo Experts Address COVID-19: Updates and Vaccine Information,” from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 17, via Webex.

The event hosted by the University of Toledo Foundation is free and open to the public, though registration is required.

Presenters include:

• Saurabh Chattopadhyay, assistant professor of medical microbiology and immunology;

• Joan Duggan, infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine;

• Jennifer Hanrahan, infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine;

• Jason F. Huntley, associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology; and

• R. Travis Taylor, assistant professor of medical microbiology and immunology.

Dr. Christopher Cooper, dean of the College of Medicine and Life Sciences and executive vice president for clinical affairs, will lead the discussion.


UTMC Offers New Precision Treatment for Prostate Cancer

The University of Toledo Medical Center is offering an innovative new outpatient treatment for prostate cancer that uses ultrasound waves to precisely target and destroy cancerous areas while leaving nearby healthy tissue untouched.

Prostate cancer is the second most common form of cancer in men, affecting roughly one out of nine American men during their lifetimes.

Because prostate cancer is often slow-growing, many patients diagnosed with localized cancer take a wait-and-see approach in which the cancer is closely monitored but not immediately treated.

Patients who do elect treatment have traditionally had two options — radiation therapy or surgical removal of the prostate. Those aggressive treatments are effective but often bring serious side effects, including incontinence and sexual dysfunction.

By focusing ultrasound waves on areas as small as a grain of rice, physicians at UTMC can now destroy tumors while minimizing the potential for harming important structures such as nerves responsible for erections, the urinary sphincter, glands responsible for producing semen and non-cancerous prostate tissue.

Dr. Puneet Sindhwani

Dr. Puneet Sindhwani

“In very few cancers do we take out the whole organ rather than removing the cancer itself,” said Dr. Puneet Sindhwani, a board-certified urologist at UTMC and chair and Kenneth Kropp Endowed Professor of Urology at The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “Combining more precise biopsy techniques with high-intensity focused ultrasound provides us an opportunity to treat only the area where we found the cancer and spare the rest of the prostate, reducing the risk of side effects.”

High-intensity focused ultrasound, commonly known as HIFU, has been available in Europe for nearly two decades but is relatively new in the United States.

UTMC is the first and only medical facility in the Toledo region using the state-of-the-art Sonablate device to treat prostate cancer.

“Unlike radical surgery of the prostate where patients may need to be admitted to the hospital, or radiation treatment which requires repeated visits for treatment, another advantage of HIFU is that it can be done in an outpatient setting in one visit,” Sindhwani said. “It is very important in the face of COVID-19 that we minimize patient exposure and also save important care resources for patients who need admission with life-threatening conditions.”

While the technology is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for destruction of prostate tissue, approval specifically for treating prostate cancer is pending U.S. trials. At this time, Medicare covers only part of the treatment and most private insurance providers don’t cover the treatment expenses. Individuals should check with their insurance provider.

To help make the treatment available in Toledo, the University received a generous grant for urologic innovation from Dr. Ashok Kar, a California-based urologist who completed his surgery and urology training at the former Medical College of Ohio.


UToledo Awarded $1.1 Million Federal Grant to Advance Clean Water Technology

Searching for new ways to address the growing threat to drinking water in northwest Ohio and across the globe, Dr. Jason Huntley discovered that native freshwater bacteria can destroy toxins produced during harmful algal blooms.

The University of Toledo scientist has now received a $1.1 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to advance that research into real-world solutions.

Huntley, an associate professor in the UToledo Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, has already shown in lab experiments that biofilters using those Lake Erie bacteria can remove microcystin at levels exponentially above current exposure guidelines established by the World Health Organization.

“This grant will enable us to extend our research to the next level,” Huntley said. “We did this successfully in the lab. Now we want to scale it up and put the bacteria to work in the water treatment plant.”

Huntley

The three-year research project will take a multifaceted approach to translate Huntley’s earlier finding into technologies that safeguard the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people.

“One of our big pushes here at UToledo is to not just do science for science’s sake, but to ask questions about how it can improve human health,” Huntley said. “This isn’t just a Toledo problem. There are harmful algal blooms all across the country and all across the world. This is a solution to a global health problem.”

Water treatment plants primarily use activated carbon to capture the microcystin toxins released during some harmful algal blooms. While effective, there are drawbacks. It can be expensive, there’s a limit to how much toxin can be removed from the water and the process generates microcystin-laden waste products that have to be dealt with.

Huntley and his research team believe their bacteria could help address those issues. Biofilters could be used to treat drinking water before it reaches the tap, and the bacteria could be added to the treatment plant byproducts to degrade the lingering toxins.

It’s also an inexpensive solution.

“It’s not free, but it’s really cheap to grow these bacteria that chew up and degrade the toxins. We grow them in water, that’s it. We think we can use them to treat water coming into the treatment plant as well as eliminating toxins in the water treatment byproducts, eliminating the need to incinerate these waste products or send them to a landfill,” Huntley said.

Prior to large-scale testing at the Toledo wastewater treatment plant, researchers will work to further develop and test the biofilters in a range of conditions, such as different water pressures and temperatures.

The research team also will work to isolate and identify the bacterial enzymes that break down microcystin, with a goal of being able to produce them on an industrial scale. Some of that work will be done in collaboration with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — a connection that was made during 2019’s National Lab Day at UToledo. The long-term goal is to develop water treatment tablets or droplet bottles that could be used to quickly detoxify water while boating, at family cabins or while hiking.

Huntley’s early work on this issue was funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative and the Ohio Sea Grant. The success of that research helped UToledo earn the NOAA grant.

“This is turning taxpayer money here in Ohio to federally funded grants that bring big money back to Ohio,” Huntley said.


UToledo Launches Dashboard to Report Positive COVID-19 Cases On Campus

The University of Toledo has launched a public dashboard to provide transparent information about the prevalence of COVID-19 within the UToledo community.

The dashboard, which will be updated weekly, provides information about the number of positive cases among faculty, staff and students across the University. It also includes a snapshot of the University’s current cleaning and disinfectant supplies, as well as enhanced cleaning procedures.

“As the University continues to navigate this pandemic, we want to share what we know about the prevalence of COVID-19 within our campus community,” UToledo Interim President Gregory Postel said. “By building this dashboard, we’re also giving ourselves a better understanding of how cases on campus compare to the community around us, and what data-driven adjustments we may need to make to protect the health of our entire community.”

UToledo’s dashboard is part of a refreshed coronavirus website that details the University’s response to the pandemic.

The positive cases are reported using data from a variety of sources, including tests conducted by The University of Toledo Medical Center on behalf of the University, self-reported cases, and the voluntary surveillance testing of asymptomatic faculty, staff and students.

Recognizing that employees and students may have sought testing through their own healthcare provider, UToledo is closely working with the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department and other public health agencies to receive updated reports of all cases connected to the University.

UToledo has COVID-19 testing available on both Main Campus and Health Science campus through UTMC for all symptomatic employees and students, with test results available in as little as 24 hours. Through a partnership with Azova, the University began voluntary random surveillance testing of asymptomatic faculty, staff and students on Aug. 19.

Additionally, the University is testing all student-athletes upon their return to campus. Surveillance testing of student-athletes will continue throughout the fall semester.

The University is encouraging faculty, staff and students to self-report positive cases in order for the University to more quickly provide appropriate resources and take precautions to keep campus safe.

Should a student require self-isolation due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, UToledo has set aside alternative housing to protect the health and safety of all students.

UToledo Interim President Gregory Postel, M.D., explains the dashboard data.

UToledo Interim President Gregory Postel, M.D., explains the dashboard data and how this information is being used by University leadership to make decisions to keep our campus community safe and healthy.


UToledo Adjusts Fall Semester Calendar in Response to COVID-19 Concerns

The University of Toledo is adjusting its fall semester calendar as an additional measure to protect the campus community during this COVID-19 pandemic.

UToledo will begin the fall 2020 semester on Monday, Aug. 17 — one week before the planned first day of class — and is making additional adjustments to the fall academic calendar so that students will end the on-campus portion of their studies by the Thanksgiving holiday.

In adjusting the semester, UToledo also is eliminating fall break, which was planned for Oct. 22 and 23. All final exams will be completed remotely the week of Nov. 30 – Dec. 4. These changes to the academic calendar will not impact the number of weeks in the semester as students will still be on campus for the regularly scheduled 15 weeks.

“Adjusting the fall semester in this way provides our students a great on-campus learning experience while also reducing the potential risk of exposure with students, faculty and staff traveling during the Thanksgiving holiday. We want to avoid, as much as possible, the potential for a member of our campus community to contract and spread the virus when returning to campus,” said Dr. Karen Bjorkman, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs.

With the change in the academic calendar, students will have the opportunity to move-in to the residence halls beginning Aug. 2 and continuing through Aug. 15. More information on the move-in process and scheduling will be sent to residential students in the coming weeks. Students graduating in December will be able to move out of the residence halls after their final examination(s).

“There are a number of uncertainties about COVID-19, but our public health and infectious disease experts have been working closely with local and state health officials to implement proactive strategies to mitigate risk while ensuring our students’ academic success,” said Dr. Amy Thompson, UToledo vice provost and public health scholar. “In the event that a ‘second wave’ of this virus in late fall becomes a reality, this strategy is one of many preventative measures UToledo can take now to protect our students and our campus community.”

UToledo continues to finalize its Rocket Restart plan to put measures in place to promote a safe return to on-campus operations. Additional details will be released in early July.


Altered sense of taste present in half of COVID-19 cases

Nearly half of individuals who contract COVID-19 experience changes in their sense of taste, a new analysis led by a University of Toledo researcher has found.

The systematic review, published in the journal Gastroenterology, could provide yet another diagnostic hint for clinicians who suspect their patients might have the disease.

“Earlier studies didn’t note this symptom, and that was probably because of the severity of other symptoms like cough, fever and trouble breathing,” said Dr. Muhammad Aziz, chief internal medicine resident at UToledo and the paper’s lead author. “We were beginning to note that altered or lost sense of taste were also present, not just here and there, but in a significant proportion.”

Aziz and his research collaborators analyzed data from five studies conducted between mid-January and the end of March. Of the 817 patients studied, 49.8% experienced changes to their sense of taste. Researchers suspect the true prevalence could be even higher because some of the studies were based on reviews of patient charts, which may not have noted every symptom.

“We propose that this symptom should be one of the screening symptoms in addition to the fever, shortness of breath and productive cough. Not just for suspected COIVD patients, but also for the general population to identify healthy carriers of the virus,” Aziz said.

Prior research has found that a significant number of people who have COVID-19 don’t know they’ve been infected and may be spreading the virus.

Aziz and his research collaborators suspect an altered sense of taste is more prevalent in patients with minor symptoms, though more studies are needed to validate that suspicion. Even so, changes in an individual’s sense of taste could be a valuable way to identify carriers who are otherwise mostly asymptomatic.

Taste disorders are tied to a variety of viral illnesses. The review did not attempt to identify the reason that COVID-19 is causing changes in patients’ sense of taste; however, researchers theorize it could be COVID-19’s ability to bind to what’s known as the ACE-2 receptor, which is expressed in epithelial cells on the tongue and mouth.

Because the novel coronavirus was unknown prior to its emergence in January, scientists have been moving rapidly to learn more about both the virus and the disease it causes.

Aziz said the drip of new information shows the need for more scientists to dig into the impacts of COVID-19.

“A lot of things are being missed, which is why I think researchers from every field should try to look into this and see if it’s affecting their specialty in one way or another,” he said. “Who knows what systems this virus is affecting. If we can catch it earlier in the disease course, we can prevent the spread of the virus and potentially have ways of managing it.”


UToledo med, nursing students get option to graduate early

In response to the unprecedented public health crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, The University of Toledo is allowing more than 275 medical and nursing students the option of graduating early.

Students in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences and College of Nursing who have completed all course work, met their degree requirements and been approved for early graduation are eligible to receive their diploma starting as soon as April 17.

Students not graduating early will receive their diploma at UToledo’s previously scheduled virtual commencement ceremonies, which are May 9 for the College of Nursing and May 15 for the College of Medicine and Life Sciences.

The option for early graduation was approved Monday by The University of Toledo Board of Trustees with the support of President Sharon L. Gaber and Provost Karen Bjorkman.

“The College of Medicine and Life Sciences is committed to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Christopher Cooper, dean of the UToledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “We are proud of our graduating medical students that will be joining residency programs in our region and across our nation. These soon-to-be young doctors will play an important role in meeting people’s healthcare needs.”

In order for a fourth-year medical student to graduate early, they must also enter their residency program early. After receiving their diploma, they must apply for and receive a medical license in the state in which they will be practicing.

Nearly half of UToledo’s fourth-year medical students matched with residency programs in Ohio. Students also matched in some of the hardest hit states, including New York, Michigan and California.

Nursing graduates also have the ability to quickly begin practicing. The state of Ohio recently updated its regulations to allow newly graduated nurses to receive a temporary license before taking the national standardized licensure examination which has been delayed due to the pandemic. The state of Michigan has taken similar steps.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created a huge need for nurses, both in our region and across the country,” said Dr. Linda Lewandowski, dean of the College of Nursing. “Many of our students have expressed interest in getting out into the field ahead of the predicted surge to help relieve the strain on our healthcare system. These students are ready to practice now, and we’re proud of their eagerness to make a difference.”