2021 in Review: Research News

December 20, 2021

CUIMC researchers published hundreds of new research findings in 2021. Below are just some that were highlighted in CUIMC News and captured the attention of readers:

New Study Adds More Evidence for Omicron Immune Evasion

colorized SARS-CoV-2 viruses seen under electron microscope
National Institutes of Health

A new study from COVID researchers at VP&S and the University of Hong Kong adds more evidence that the omicron variant can evade the immune protection conferred by vaccines and natural infection. Antibodies from people double-vaccinated with any of the four most widely used vaccines—Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson—were significantly less effective at neutralizing the omicron variant compared to the ancestral virus. Antibodies from previously infected individuals were even less likely to neutralize omicron. Individuals who received a booster shot of either of the two mRNA vaccines are likely to be better protected, although even their antibodies exhibited diminished neutralizing activity against omicron. Read more.

It’s True: Stress Does Turn Hair Gray (and It’s Reversible)

gray hair
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Researchers at VP&S have found evidence that psychological stress is linked to graying hair in humans and that color can be restored when stress is eliminated. Their findings suggest that stress-induced changes in mitochondria may explain how stress turns hair gray. The mitochondrial explanation differs from results of a recent study of graying hair in mice, which found that stress-induced graying was caused by an irreversible loss of stem cells in the hair follicle. In the current study, the researchers noted that reducing stress in a 70-year-old who’s been gray for years is unlikely to darken their hair, nor will increasing stress turn a 10-year-old's hair gray. Read more.

Lung Maintains Long-Term Memory of COVID Infection

colorized chest xray
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A study by VP&S researchers found that after infection with SARS-CoV-2, the immune system stores the memory of the infection primarily in T and B cells in the lung and lymph nodes surrounding the lung. The researchers found evidence that the specialized “memory sites” were present in the lung-associated lymph nodes for up to six months after infection, even in elderly individuals. The findings suggest that to improve protection against the virus, vaccines should target the memory immune cells in the lung and its associated lymph nodes; this could be accomplished with nasal sprays of disabled viruses. Read more.

Intermittent Fasting Makes Fruit Flies Live Longer. Will It Work for People?

fruit flies on top of an orange slice
Getty Images

Intermittent fasting has become a trendy way to lose weight. A study by VP&S researchers of fruit flies, whose biological clock is similar to humans’, found that intermittent fasting also increases longevity. But timing was key: The longevity benefit depends on a cell-cleaning process called autophagy that only kicks when fasting occurs during the night. The flies’ fasting regimen also increased muscle and neuron function, reduced age-related protein aggregation, and delayed the onset of aging markers in muscles and intestinal tissue. The findings suggest the possibility of enhancing autophagy pharmacologically, specifically at night. Read more.

Are We Underestimating the Prevalence of Iron Deficiency?

blood samples in a centrifuge
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To estimate the body’s iron stores, physicians usually measure levels of ferritin, an iron protein in the blood. But current thresholds for detecting iron deficiency in women and children may be too low, according to a VP&S study. Under new thresholds proposed by the researchers, about 30% of women and children in the United States would be considered iron-deficient. Many with mild-to-moderate iron deficiency are not anemic but still have ill effects from lack of iron. Of particular concern are research findings that suggest that in children, even modest reductions in iron can impair brain development, possibly causing irreversible damage. Read more.

Lyme Disease Heightens Risk of Mental Disorders, Suicidality

tick crawling on person's skin
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A study by researchers at VP&S and the Copenhagen Research Centre for Mental Health found that patients who received a hospital diagnosis of Lyme disease—inpatient, outpatient, or in the ED—had a 28% higher rate of mental disorders and were twice as likely to have attempted suicide post-infection than individuals without the diagnosis. Those diagnosed with Lyme disease also had a 42% higher rate of affective disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, as well as a 75% higher rate of death by suicide. Read more.

Why Do Thoughts Take So Much Time?

Every thought involves multiple decisions. How does the brain juggle those decisions while accumulating evidence? In experiments by VP&S neuroscientists at the Zuckerman Institute, volunteers were shown blue and yellow dots moving on a screen. When asked to decide the color and direction of the dots simultaneously, they did so sequentially. The reason? The brain has a bottleneck. Though it can acquire information simultaneously from many sources such as the senses and memory, routing that information through the decision circuits requires taking turns. Simple decisions may feel instantaneous, but thinking is a surprisingly slow process. Read more.

Telomere Length, a Longevity Marker, May Be Determined Early in Life

telomeres on chromosomes
National Institutes of Health

Telomeres, the protective caps on DNA important to cellular health and aging, shorten as we grow older. Researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health have found that the initial setting of telomere length during prenatal development and in the first years of life may determine telomere length throughout childhood and potentially into adulthood or older age. They also found that telomere length usually decreases most rapidly from birth to age 3, followed by a period of maintenance into pre-puberty (though the telomeres of some children lengthened across the study period). The rapid telomere attrition between birth and age 3 may make telomeres particularly susceptible to environmental influences during this developmental window. Read more.

One in Five Brain Cancers Fueled by Overactive Mitochondria

medical images of brain tumor
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Up to 20% of glioblastomas—the most common, and most lethal, primary brain cancer in adults—are fueled by overactive mitochondria, VP&S researchers found. Mitochondria, which produce the energy that fuels all cells, are usually less efficient at producing energy in cancer. But tumor cells in this newly identified subtype of glioblastoma rely on the extra energy provided by overactive mitochondria to survive. Drugs that inhibit mitochondria—including a current drug and an experimental compound being tested in a clinical trial—have demonstrated a powerful anti-tumor effect on human brain cancer cells with overactive mitochondria. Read more.