Coolest Science Stories of 2015

From bananas to brains, nanotechnology to stem cells, U-M medical researchers made incredible discoveries

Coolest Stories 2Lots of amazing medical care, and testing of new treatments and diagnostic tools, happens every day at our hospitals and clinics.

Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, our medical scientists quietly work on the research that could make life better for patients and their care teams tomorrow. In fact, some of those U-M scientists are also U-M doctors who treat patients — so they especially know what needs to improve.

This kind of “basic science”, as it’s called, has to happen in order for health care to move forward.

As 2015 ends, here’s a roundup of some of the most amazing discoveries and developments that came out of our Medical School’s labs this past year.

Stem cell success

Kendrick family hescsmA New Jersey couple wanted to avoid passing a deadly nerve disease that runs in the family to their child. So, they used in vitro fertilization and genetic testing to give them healthy embryos — and a healthy son.

But they also donated embryos with the deadly disease trait to our researchers. From that donation came stem cells that other scientists (at U-M and around the world) can use to study that very disease, and make discoveries that could help patients.

And what’s more, we’re already working to do the same for other diseases, using donations from other couples who want to help us move medicine forward.

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Michigan times three

lycera immune_suppression_1_2One: A few years ago, our researchers made a discovery that they realized could fight Crohn’s disease and other conditions.

Two: After developing it further, they started a company — and then found a home for that company at an innovative new research campus we’ve created.

Three: This year, they announced the drug will get its first test in patients – a huge milestone for any potential medicine, and a special one for U-M.

From idea, to company, to clinical trials – and all with a Michigan angle.

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Lungs in a dish

Organoid image viewed under microscopeOrganoid. Sounds like some sort of alien, right? But it’s actually a name for a collection of cells that do the work of one of our internal organs, in miniature.

Organoids can help scientists study how problems with those organs can make us sick, and even test new treatment ideas.

This year, U-M medical scientists reported that they’d made the first three-dimensional lung organoid out of stem cells – setting the stage for breath-taking (or maybe breath-saving) research.

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A new factor in depression

fgf9 NeuronssmDepression may seem like something that’s “all in your head” – but in fact it’s rooted in the very cells of the brain.

Our researchers made more progress in understanding depression at this very basic level this year — including this discovery that people with depression actually have more of a substance that makes brain cells grow. This goes against previous findings that depressed brains often have less of key components than non-depressed brains.

Their work could open up a whole new path to new antidepressant medicines. It also adds more fuel to the understanding that depression is a physical illness.

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Are you wearing your fat genes?

No, we’re not talking about the pants that have a little extra room in them for the post-holiday bulge.

This kind of “fat gene” is the kind that might make you more or less prone to packing on the pounds when you do drink too much eggnog. Our scientists, together with others around the world, scanned the DNA of more than half a million people of all shapes and sizes. They located more than 100 genes that play a role in obesity.

Obviously, calories and exercise matter too — so don’t blame just your genes when you can’t fit into your jeans. But the new knowledge could open doors to new ways of preventing and treating obesity, a disease that affects far too many of us and sets us up for more health problems down the line.

Watch this video to learn more:


Incredibly small & extremely cool 

Chem group Drupal_5If your heart skips beats — a condition called arrhythmia — new research by our scientists may make your heart beat faster. Out of hope, that is.

They’ve developed a way to kill the heart cells that cause arrhythmia, but leave healthy nearby cells alone, using an incredibly small tool they’ve developed.

How small? Well, let’s just say that more than 16,000 of these molecules could fit side-by-side on the width of a human hair. That small. When you’re working with things this small, it’s called nanotechnology, and the new approach could be tested in humans in the next five years. If it works, it could make arrhythmia treatment much safer and more effective.

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This science is just bananas. Or is it?

banana lectinsmWho knew that bananas could fight viruses like Spiderman fights crime? Or rather, that a substance found in bananas could be changed slightly to fight viruses? (With no radioactive spiders involved.)

Well, our scientists, that’s who. A few years ago, they discovered that a naturally occurring substance called banana lectin could kill viruses. This year, they succeeded in taking away banana lectin’s harmful properties, but leaving the virus-fighting properties. They did it by tweaking the gene that tells cells how to make banana lectin. This makes the molecule look and act just a little different when it attaches to sugar molecules on the surface of cells.

Next stop: testing the new form against more viruses in animals, and then in humans. Because viruses keep popping up like supervillains, and we need more superhero medicines to fight them.

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Laser brain cancer surgery

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There’s a reason people say “it’s not brain surgery” when they’re trying to say something’s not complicated. Brain surgery is really complicated. But a new tool developed by our researchers and their Harvard colleagues, and tested in our hospital for the first time this year, could make it a little less tricky.

How? Well, one of a brain surgeon’s biggest worries when taking out a brain tumor is the fact that they can’t see clearly where the cancer cells stop and the healthy brain cells start. This new tool uses lasers to make the difference crystal-clear, and guide the surgeon’s hand to take out as much cancer while leaving healthy brain alone.

If tests go well, tomorrow’s brain cancer patients may have less risk of having their cancer come back. And that’s a no-brainer.

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Placebo power

placebo packageHere’s a real mind-blower. (But it’s one that may make a lot of difference in how new medicines get tested.) Our brain scientists have studied the “placebo effect” for years, trying to figure out why some people get relief from a sugar pill and others don’t. It’s not just interesting — it turns out that it could help predict whether you respond to a real drug too.

They found this out through a brain-scanning experiment they did with the help of people who have depression. That’s a condition where many of the medicines on the market don’t perform a whole lot better than placebo in large tests, and where new options are badly needed. This could help that search – and also could aid the testing of many more kinds of medicines.

Mind. Blown.

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Kidneys on the fast track

kidney structuresKretzlersmWhen it comes to turning new medical knowledge into new medical treatments, it doesn’t get much faster than this.

This year, a drug company announced its new drug worked well at protecting the kidneys of people with diabetes from the damage that they often suffer. Thing is, that drug started out as an arthritis medicine.

How did it end up treating kidneys? A partnership between our scientists – who had expertise on the basic biological process behind diabetic kidney disease — and the company’s scientists. They worked together and the rest is history. And if the tests of the drug continue to go well, diabetes-damaged kidneys could also be history.

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Doing PSA tests one better

Microsoft PowerPoint - Tomlins Figures_Revised.pptxIf you’re a guy over a certain age, you’ve probably had a PSA test – a urine test to see if you might be at risk for prostate cancer. It’s been the gold standard for years — though there’s plenty of controversy among doctors about what to do when a guy’s PSA level tests high.

But U-M scientists have developed something that goes beyond PSA testing – and this year they came out with the results to prove it. It’s a new approach called the Mi-Prostate Score, which combines the test for PSA with tests for two other substances that, when found in urine, signal a higher prostate cancer risk. It’s especially good at finding those with the highest chance of aggressive high-risk cancers — and sparing others from the pain and risk of getting a bit of their prostate taken out to look for cancer.

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New drug for leukemia


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Fusion can be good — think jazz, or food, or welding — or it can be bad. In the case of blood cells, not so much. But a new drug developed by a U-M team may be able to fight an especially nasty form of blood cancer, or leukemia, that’s caused by the fusion of two molecules.

This year, they published results from animal studies showing they could block this dangerous fusion with a small drug they had developed and refined. The results were so promising that a company licensed the right to develop it further – and that company went public this year to raise money to pursue that and other projects.

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Stalking a wily foe

Cdifficile cellsmThere aren’t many bacteria nastier than Clostridium difficile — and its effect on hospital patients can be downright ugly. Or even deadly.

But despite the death toll this wee beastie leaves in its wake, scientists don’t fully understand how it turns from a hard little spore outside the body to a diarrhea-causing, gut-wrenching nasty actor in our intestines.

Until now. By staying up all night and tracking the course of this horrible little organism, our scientists think they’ve figured out some key conditions that make C. diff so dangerous. And that may help lead to a better ability to fight it – or prevent it.

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U-M Medical School logoSince graduating its first class of six students in 1851, the U-M Medical School has been a leader in preparing the physicians and scientists of the future, conducting pathbreaking research and working with the U-M Hospitals & Health Centers to deliver outstanding care of all kinds. With top-tier national and international rankings for education & research funding, more than 3,000 faculty and nearly 1,900 students and advanced trainees, the school is truly one of the nation’s leaders and best.