Spit for Science is a VCU-wide research project that aims to understand how genes and the environment come together to influence substance use and emotional health. The project works with a large number of undergraduate researchers each semester. Assistants help with recruitment and data collection, meet different faculty involved in the project and work in teams to develop research questions and analyze Spit for Science data.
Below are brief blog posts from current undergraduate researchers covering recent events and research relating to substance use and emotional health.
For more information about the project, and to learn how to apply for the Spring 2017 team, please visit spit4science.vcu.edu.
Smoking Leaves A Long Lasting Impact on DNA
by Neha Rampally
Researchers at the NIH working in the epidemiology branch found that DNA methylation patterns change because of smoking and that they could reveal smoking history which allows potential targets for new therapies. Methylation is a mechanism through which DNA can be regulated. Smokers that have stopped for awhile are still at risk of developing diseases like COPD, cancer, etc… Most of the significant methylations sites were in genes that are related to cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.
A study using mice as their animal model looked at methylation patterns in offspring whose parents were exposed to alcohol. This study wanted to know if adolescent binge-drinking could affect the genes in future generations. Researchers exposed male and female mice to alcohol that was comparable to 6 binge-drinking episodes and had a control-group that were not exposed to alcohol. They then allowed the mice to mate while sober to avoid fetal alcohol syndrome effects. Then, the researchers looked at genes that code for the hypothalamus that is responsible for reproduction, stress-response, and sleeping patterns.
Methylation patterns affect which genes turn off and on. This affects proteins which may affect behaviors and other traits, such as depression and anxiety. Researchers found that there were numerous gene changes in both the parents that consumed alcohol and the offspring that were born from them. Therefore, this research concludes that adolescent binge-drinking may affect the genes of their offspring in an important region of the brain (the hypothalamus).
Severe Mental Illness and Substance Abuse
by Deanna Pacitto
This article summarizes a study conducted that looked at people with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and examined substance use. According to this study, individuals with severe mental illnesses are more likely to have higher levels of substance abuse.
In addition, the authors note that protective factors in regards to substance abuse did not apply to the participants with severe mental illness. For instance, race and gender did not affect substance use levels for individuals with severe mental illness; however, these differences do exist in the general population.
Gene Editing Tool CRISPR-CAS9 Used in a Human for the First Time
by Keegan Edgar
According to a study published in Nature, a team from the West China Hospital have used CRISPR-Cas9 to treat a patient with aggressive breast cancer. CRISPR, short for clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic sequence, are easily editable DNA patterns. The Cas-9 protein is able to snip these CRISPR sequences, modifying the DNA itself. This is the first time this type of genetic modification has been used in humans.
I think it is fascinating that we are moving from a pharmaceutical-based approach to a genetic approach for treating cancer, especially since the article also states that among the chief concerns of the researchers is that this modification will also allow the immune system to attack normal body cells. It doesn’t seem that this method is especially tailored, so I wonder what advantages this has over more conventional treatment techniques.