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Medical Research: Florida scientists and researchers make inroads


» Caffeine Boost

Researchers at the University of South Florida’s Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute have found that the caffeine in coffee may help ward off Alzheimer’s disease. Their findings, recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, showed that the caffeine and an unknown component of the coffee interact to boost blood levels of a critical growth factor that appears to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Their research backs previous studies that found a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s among individuals who take up coffee drinking during middle age.


Traumatic Brain Injury

» Battle Scars

The University of South Florida has received $1.6 million from the Department of Defense to research traumatic brain injuries and other battlefield-related injuries and diseases. The grant involves four major projects, several of which will be conducted in collaboration with the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital next to the USF campus.


Macular Degeneration

» Dry Run

The Bascom Palmer Eye Institute of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine is conducting clinical trials of a treatment to stop the progression of the dry form of age-related macular degeneration and studies to discover ways to regenerate optic nerves.


Parkinson’s Disease

» Protein Attack

A study led by neuroscientists at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville has unveiled a gene mutation that causes Parkinson’s disease. Using advanced DNA sequencing technology, the researchers examined the DNA of a large Swiss family — 11 members suffered from Parkinson’s — and discovered mutations in a protein responsible for recycling other proteins within cells. Disruption of that process by mutatations of a specific gene may be responsible for the buildup of proteins in brains of people suffering from Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Phil LoGrasso
Phil LoGrasso
» ‘Junk’ Enzymes

Scientists at Scripps Florida have created a compound that successfully protected brain cells in rats and mice from Parkinson’s. The new small molecule, known as SR-3306, works by inhibiting a class of enzymes called c-jun-N-terminal kinases, so-called “junk” enzymes, which play an important role in nerve cell survival. Professor Phil LoGrasso, who led the study, says the compound isn’t a cure for Parkinson’s, but it does have the potential to halt the progression of the disease.

» Motor Functions

Envoy Therapeutics, a drug discovery company in Jupiter, received a grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to develop compounds targeting a motor circuit compromised in Parkinson’s disease via modulation of a receptor that Envoy recently identified.



» Tat Offensive

Jay McLaughlin
Jay McLaughlin
Researchers at Scripps and Torrey Pines are studying a viral protein known as Tat that could lead to new therapies to treat HIV. Dr. Jay McLaughlin won a five-year, $2.2-million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study how the HIV virus produces related neuropathology and mood disorders. McLaughlin believes that Tat, which is a potent activator of HIV gene expression, may be involved in that process and the protein could serve as a target for new treatments that block or reduce HIV-related neuropathology and mood disorders. Susana Valente, an assistant professor at Scripps Florida, received $3.4 million from the National Institutes of Health to investigate a Tat inhibitor that is extremely effective at reducing viral output from acutely and chronically infected cells in culture.

» Herpes Virus

Fanxiu Zhu
Fanxiu Zhu
Dr. Fanxiu Zhu, an assistant professor of biology at Florida State University, won $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health to continue his work on human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8), which causes a rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma in patients with HIV. Zhu’s research provides a target for potential new drug therapies to treat the AIDS-related disease.

» Therapeutics

Dr. Massimo Caputi, an associate professor of biomedical science at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, received $433,500 from NIH to further his research into identifying novel therapeutics for HIV.


Stem Cells

» ‘Humans on a Chip’

UCF chip
UCF researchers take a critical leap toward a ‘human-on-a-chip’ systems.

Using stem cells, researchers at the University of Central Florida were able to grow neuromuscular junctions between human muscle cells and human spinal cord cells — a scientific first that is a critical step in creating so-called “human-on-a-chip” systems. Such systems, which are essentially models that re-create how organs or organ systems function in the body, could play a key role in fast-tracking medical research and drug testing.


Susan Frost
Susan Frost
» Cancer pH D’s

Researchers at the University of Florida’s Shands Cancer Center have discovered that whether a tumor thrives or dies depends to some extent on the acidity, or pH level, of the environment in which it is growing. According to UF biochemist Susan Frost, tumors seem to flourish in a more acidic environment, and an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase IX appears to play a key role in maintaining an acidic environment. Thus, carbonic anhydrase IX’s role in tumor growth and survival makes the enzyme an important target for future anti-cancer drugs.

» Response Predictions

OvaGene Oncology in California has signed an agreement with Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for the exclusive rights to develop and commercialize a microRNA-based procedure that predicts drug response for currently used cancer drugs. The procedure was developed and validated at Moffitt under the leadership of Dr. Johnathan Lancaster, director of women’s oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Research at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa can help predict how effective cancer drugs will be on different patients.

» Personalized Medicine

Biovest International’s BiovaxID personalized cancer vaccine for treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is moving toward the final regulatory approval. The results of a long-term clinical trial of the vaccine, which was developed with the U.S. National Cancer Institute, showed an extended disease-free survival for patients who developed a strong immune response after receiving the vaccine. Biovest International is headquartered in Tampa and manufactures its vaccine in Minneapolis.


Juan Dominguez-Bendala
Juan Dominguez-Bendala
» Insulin Producers

Researchers at the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine have successfully transformed stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells that might potentially be used to treat of diabetes. The next phase of that research, which is being spearheaded by Dr. Juan Dominguez-Bendala, involves introducing “suicide genes” into the cells to get rid of non-insulin-producing beta cells and other proliferating cells that form tumors.

» Sugar Burner

Researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute have discovered a protein that can make muscles store and burn sugar faster. Meanwhile, Dr. Layton Smith, an assistant professor and director of drug discovery at Sanford-Burnham, recently received a $477,500 Novo Nordisk Diabetes Innovation Award to further his research into apelin, a compound that plays an important role in glucose uptake by cells and that could have potential as a protein-based therapy for treating type 2 diabetes.

Other key developments in diabetes research at Sanford-Burnham:

» Drug Reactions

Researchers have identified genetic variations that cause diabetics to respond differently to beta blockers, a class of drugs used to treat cardio- vascular disease.

» Fighting Fat

Scientists have isolated a hormone produced by the brain called orexin that activates calorie-burning brown fat in mice. Since an orexin deficiency is associated with obesity, orexin-based therapy could form the basis for a new class of fat-fighting drugs.