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From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2016

Gut bacteria may predict the risk of life-threatening blood infections following high-dose chemotherapy, according to a study coauthored by Dan Knights and Emmanuel Montassier of the University of Minnesota Department of Computer Science and Engineering and researchers at Nantes University Hospital in France. Each year, about 20,000 cancer patients receive high-dose chemotherapy in preparation for bone marrow or stem cell transplants. Twenty to 40 percent of them develop blood infections as a result, many of them fatal.

Currently there is no good way to predict which patients will get an infection. Researchers collected fecal samples from 28 patients with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma prior to treatment and sequenced the bacterial DNA to measure the health of the ecosystem in each person's gut. They found that 11 out of 28 patients who acquired a bloodstream infection following chemotherapy had significantly different mixtures of gut bacteria than patients who did not get infections.

Researchers then created an algorithm to help predict with around 85 percent accuracy whether a new patient will get an infection. "This method worked even better than we expected because we found a consistent difference between the gut bacteria in those who developed infections and those who did not," says Knights. The next step will be to validate their approach with a much larger group of patients.

The study was published in the April 28 issue of Genome Medicine.

People with chronic low back pain have higher odds of using illicit drugs and more commonly use prescription opioids than people without chronic low back pain, according to a study by researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

While addictive medications, such as opioids and benzodiazepines, are frequently prescribed to patients with chronic low back pain, little is known about illicit drug use in that population. For this study, researchers analyzed data from more than 5,000 adults between ages 20 and 69 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, about 13 percent of whom reported chronic low back pain. Fourteen percent of people in that group said they had used illicit drugs within the past 30 days, including cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. The study noted that further evaluation of illicit drug use as a predictor in longitudinal studies of chronic low back pain will enable a deeper understanding of the relationships between pain, illicit substance use, and prescription opioid administration and assist in the design of safe and sustainable interventions for patients with chronic pain.

"As we face a prescription opioid addiction epidemic, careful assessment of illicit drug use history may aid prescribing decisions," says lead author Dr. Anna Shmagel. The research was published online in the May 19 issue of Spine.

Investment in the restoration and preservation of ecosystems pays off, according to new study coauthored by Stephen Polasky, professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, and other researchers in China and the United States. Rapid economic development in China has taken a toll on the nation's environment, diminishing normal ecosystem functions such as storing carbon, filtering nutrients to clean water, preventing erosion, mitigating floods and sandstorms, and providing habitat.

So, China began investing in ecosystem restoration in 2000 as a way of increasing its "natural capital," spending more than $50 billion by 2009. Results indicate that six of seven ecosystem functions improved, and researchers believe China's restoration investments likely contributed significantly to four of those: carbon sequestration, soil and water retention, and sandstorm mitigation. Provision of habitat for biodiversity did not improve. Researchers say the Chinese experience shows that improving ecosystem services can coexist with economic growth. That lesson, they say, could be applied to other countries and be attractive to all political persuasions.

Polasky's involvement in the study grew out of his position as a cofounder of the Natural Capital Project (NatCap), a partnership between the University of Minnesota and Stanford University in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. NatCap works to ensure that important societal decisions around the world take into account their impact on nature and the consequent impact on human well-being.

The study was published in the June 17 issue of Science.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are more likely than heterosexuals to suffer psychological distress and chronic health conditions and drink and/or smoke heavily, according to a new study coauthored by Carrie Henning-Smith and Julia Przedworski of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

The study, one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind to examine differences in health and health behaviors by sexual orientation, analyzed data collected from more than 68,000 adults nationwide as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2013 and 2014 National Health Interview Surveys.

Questions focused on sexual orientation, chronic conditions, mental health, alcohol consumption, cigarette use, and overall health.

Researchers found substantial health disparities among gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the United States, potentially due to their status as minorities. Gay and bisexual men were more likely than heterosexual men to experience severe psychological distress and to drink and smoke heavily. Lesbians were more likely than heterosexual women to experience psychological distress, poor or fair health, and to drink and smoke heavily. Bisexual women were more likely to suffer multiple chronic conditions.

Causes of these health disparities are yet to be determined. Researchers hope the data will help inform and encourage clinicians to be more aware of and sensitive to the needs of gay, lesbian, and bisexual patients.

The study was published in the June issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.

A recent discovery that pinpoints how cells with faulty DNA reproduce may open doors to new strategies for combating cancer. Anja-Katrin Bielinsky, Yee Mon Thu, and colleagues in the University's Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics, wanted to understand how cells continue to divide despite DNA errors.

Normal cells don't replicate their DNA in the presence of mistakes, but cancer cells do. In fact, cancer cells' ability to tolerate problematic DNA is part of what allows them to continue changing and eluding the body's efforts to fight them. The researchers found that some cells do an end run on replication control, opening the door to developing new cancer-quashing treatments. "We think we found the pathway that enables cancer cells to get away with doing a poor job of replicating their DNA," Thu says. Further study is needed, but their finding could lead to the development of new anticancer therapies.

The study was published in April in Cell Reports.


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