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September 19, 2012

In Research

A tale of tainted tattoos

tattooing an arm

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine documents 19 cases in the Rochester area—the largest ever reported—of tattoos infected with a type of bacteria often found in tap water. Evidence points to a premixed gray ink, the type used in currently popular portrait or photography tattoos, as the culprit.

Mary Gail Mercurio, a dermatologist at the Medical Center, saw 18 of the 19 individuals infected. “I’ve seen people with tattoo-related issues over the years, but never this many: The volume of patients impacted makes this a real public health concern.

The investigation of the outbreak, which was also highlighted in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, started with a previously healthy 20-year-old man who had a history of multiple tattoos in the past without any issues. In October 2011, he received a new tattoo on his arm and subsequently developed a persistent, inflamed rash in that area. After learning of his case, the Monroe County Department of Public Health explored the issue and identified 18 other individuals who developed similar rashes after getting tattoos at the same parlor, from the same artist.

Tests conducted at the Medical Center revealed that a specific type of bacteria, Mycobacterium chelonae, was in the patients’ skin and led to the red, itchy bumps in their tattoos. Further testing found that a premixed gray ink, which the local artist had bought from a manufacturer in Arizona, contained the same bacteria and likely transmitted it to the skin.

Following the investigation, the CDC issued a nationwide alert about the outbreak and the manufacturer voluntarily recalled the ink. Betts evaluated and treated 16 of the 19 patients with standard antibiotics—azithromycin and doxycycline—and everyone improved, although at different speeds based on the extent of the infection.

Research identifies ‘switch’ that could stop spread of influenza

A team of researchers, led by scientists at Rochester, has identified a location in a gene of the influenza A virus that could be used as a “switch” for disrupting replication of the virus. If a way can be found to manipulate the switch in an organism, the researchers believe it would have important implications for stopping the spread of influenza.

The work was conducted by Professor of Chemistry Douglas Turner and scientists Walter Moss, Lumbini Dela-Moss, and Salvatore Priore at the University, and chemists Ryszard Kierzek and Elzbieta Kierzek at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznan. Their findings were recently published in the journal PLoS One.

The scientists singled out a messenger RNA (mRNA) in their research because it allows the production of two proteins needed for viral propagation. Production of the second protein requires the mRNA to undergo the process of splicing, in which two remote sites of the long molecule join together, while the intervening segment is discarded.

“We look at one of the splicing sites as a potential switch,” says Turner. “If we can inactivate the switch to prevent the two sites from coming together, we can stop the virus from spreading.”

Turner’s lab will now collaborate with Matthew Disney, associate professor of chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute, to explore the binding of known molecules to the influenza RNA. The hope is that the next phase of the research project will reveal important insights into the behavior of the virus, including how to stop the RNA splicing process.

Researchers find protein that helps DNA repair in aging cells

Scientists have long wondered why cells lose their ability to repair themselves as they age. New research by University scientists has uncovered two intriguing clues.
The work by biologists Andrei Seluanov, Vera Gorbunova, Zhiyong Mao, Xiao Tian, Michael Van Meter, and Zhonghe Ke, has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

DNA strands in human cells routinely break and repair themselves, Seluanov and Gorbunova say, but as cells age, the system for repair becomes less efficient and flaws in the process lead to a decline in the functionality of tissue and an increase in the incidence of tumors. Their team wanted to determine why this occurs, and establish whether the process could be slowed, or even reversed.

Seluanov and his colleagues found that the decline in a cell’s ability to repair DNA during aging coincided with a global reduction in the levels of proteins involved in the repair process. Seluanov’s group tried to reverse the age-related decline by restoring the proteins to their original levels and found only one protein, SIRT6, did the trick.

The next step for Seluanov and his team is to study the factors that regulate SIRT6, in an effort to learn more about the early stages of the DNA repair process. Seluanov said that multiple groups are trying to develop drugs that activate SIRT6, and he hopes that this research will one day lead to therapies that help extend a person’s lifespan and treat cancer.

Scientists discover previously unknown cleansing system in brain

Neuroscientists at the Medical Center have discovered a previously unrecognized system that drains waste from the brain at a rapid clip. The findings were published online Aug. 15 in Science Translational Medicine.

The highly organized system acts like a series of pipes that piggyback on the brain’s blood vessels, sort of a shadow plumbing system that seems to serve much the same function in the brain as the lymph system does in the rest of the body—to drain away waste products.

“Waste clearance is of central importance to every organ, and there have been long-standing questions about how the brain gets rid of its waste,” says Maiken Nedergaard, senior author of the paper and codirector of the University’s Center for Translational Neuromedicine. “This work shows that the brain is cleansing itself in a more organized way and on a much larger scale than has been realized previously.

“We’re hopeful that these findings have implications for many conditions that involve the brain, such as traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease,” she says.

Nedergaard’s team has dubbed the new system “the glymphatic system,” since it acts much like the lymphatic system but is managed by brain cells known as glial cells. The team made the findings in mice, whose brains are remarkably similar to the human brain.

Scientists have known that cerebrospinal fluid or CSF plays an important role cleansing brain tissue, carrying away waste products and carrying nutrients to brain tissue through a process known as diffusion. The newly discovered system circulates CSF to every corner of the brain much more efficiently, through what scientists call bulk flow or convection.

“Understanding how the brain copes with waste is critical. In every organ, waste clearance is as basic an issue as how nutrients are delivered. In the brain, it’s an especially interesting subject, because in essentially all neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, protein waste accumulates and eventually suffocates and kills the neuronal network of the brain,” says first author Jeffrey Iliff, a research assistant professor in the Nedergaard lab.

Campaign contributions influence public policy

Using a national analysis of state legislatures, Professor of Political Science Lynda Powell documents the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which money buys influence—from setting a party’s agenda, to keeping bills off the floor, to adding earmarks and crafting key language in legislation.

In her new book, The Influence of Campaign Contributions in State Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2012), Powell argues instead that the real power of money is exerted long before the roll call.

“The question is, what went into these laws,” says Powell. “The wording of just a sentence or two or the addition of an earmark makes all the difference to a special interest group. For other contributors, the goal may be to preserve the status quo and prevent a bill from coming to a vote at all.”

Through formal models and statistical analysis, Powell teases out the personal, institutional and political factors that make moneyed interests increasingly powerful in some states, but not others.

Powell also looks at the relationship between fundraising and lobbying. While some have argued there is little linkage between the two, Powell’s study documents that the access legislators give to lobbyists clearly is biased in favor of campaign donors.

By identifying the conditions that encourage lawmakers to be more beholden to donors, Powell provides insights into new ways to reduce corruption in the political process beyond contribution regulations.

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