USM Narratives - Biotechnology
Providing High-Tech Images for Industries
With one of the few transmission electron microscopy (TEM) laboratories in Maine, USM’s bioscience research staff are providing the region’s burgeoning biotech industry with a valuable resource for commercial ventures.
IDEXX Laboratories, the global leader in diagnostics and information technology solutions for animal health and water and milk quality, recently turned to USM when it needed to obtain images of microbes that can be detected using the company’s water microbiology test kits. USM’s electron microscopy laboratory was able to execute the necessary ultra-thin sectioning of specimens and to provide the high resolution images required by IDEXX using the TEM laboratory’s microscope capable of magnification up to 300,000 times.
USM regularly incorporates its high-end electron microscopy core resources into internal and external projects, educational, and commercial. For instance, the TEM facility is enhancing K-12 teacher professional development through USM’s signature Science Education Partnership Award from the National Center for Research Resources, a component of the National Institutes of Health, and is also, through National Science Foundation funding, contributing to project-based learning in molecular biology and virology in bioscience education in rural Maine high schools.
Learning More about Lupus
With funding from the Lupus Research Institute, USM’s Stephen Pelsue has identified a gene (Ttc7) that has caused flaky skin in mice, a condition that shares similar features with human autoimmunity and lupus—one of the most serious autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmunity occurs when the immune response attacks its own cells and tissues, rather than fighting off infections. Besides lupus, prominent examples among humans are celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Very difficult to diagnose, lupus arises more often in women than men and can affect many different body systems, including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart, and lungs. Estimates indicate that as many as1.5 million Americans have lupus, and there has been no FDA-approved therapeutic in 50 years.
The Pelsue Laboratory at USM, including undergraduates, master- and doctoral-level students, is participating in efforts to uncover the function of the gene and to find a specific pathway between it and the other genes with which it interacts. These studies could help gain significant insights into how lupus develops in its early stages. If so, the team ultimately hopes to contribute to earlier identification of the disease and possible ways to help modify it.
Testing Space Dust and Paper Particles
From particles on Earth to the moon, assistant research professor Hong Xie is evaluating the impact of human exposure to certain materials with a special emphasis on the links between cancer and heavy metals. Hong, who works in USM’s Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology, is one of USM’s first Ph.D. recipients through collaboration with the University of Maine.
In one project, Hong studied the toxicity of cellulose on human skin cells. About 33 percent of all plant matter is cellulose. For industrial use, cellulose is mainly obtained from wood pulp and cotton and is used to produce cardboard and paper. Because exposure is common, the research has wide-ranging application for a number of industries, including paper, agricultural, food, and pharmaceutical. Understanding the factors that can make cellulose less toxic and safer has the potential of increasing its commercial value.
In other projects, Hong is assisting in the design of a lunar station by characterizing the hazards of lunar dust so that exposure limits can be determined and controls integrated.
Hong plans to continue her research on the impact of environmental toxins on human health and hopes that someday her work will prove widely beneficial.
Researching Connection between Chromium and Cancer
John Wise, director of USM’s Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, has received a $1.6 million award given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund research on how chromium causes normal cells to develop into tumors.
The five-year grant, known as a Research Project Grant, or R01, is one of the oldest NIH grant programs and one of the more competitive, with are ported success rate of 5 percent. This R01 award is one of only six in the University of Maine System, and the second R01 received by Wise.
The grant makes it possible for Wise to continue his research into how chromium alters cell division, thereby causing normal cells to become tumor cells. Chromium is widely recognized as a carcinogen, but it remains a popular additive in industrial products such as road paint and anti- corrosives. Chromium is also used in boat paints, metal plating and fuel combustion. Wise’s research has shown even short-term exposure to chromium produces an abnormal number of chromosomes, yet it is still unknown how this results in cancer.
Focusing on Arsenic and the Developing Brain
Working with colleagues at the Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, Doug Currie, an assistant professor of biology at USM, has been awarded a 3-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to further his research into the effects of arsenic on humans.
Arsenic contamination of ground water is a significant issue in a number of New England states. In southern Maine, approximately 40% of the population gets water from private wells and an estimated 13% of these wells contain more than 10 micrograms of arsenic per liter, which is the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In previous studies, Currie and his team of USM students showed that arsenic disrupts neuron growth, complexity, and survival. This grant focuses specifically on neuron growth by looking at the low-dose exposure levels that affect growth, but have a minimal effect on survival. Currie hopes to determine the effects that low-level concentrations of arsenic have on the developing nervous system.
As a first step in understanding the potential consequences for the developing brain, Currie has initiated an analysis of the effects of arsenic on growth and the cytoskeleton in neurons developing in culture.