Top Research News of 2019

This year Columbia University Irving Medical Center was named the top health care institution for scientific research by the 2019 Nature Index Annual Tables.

Here's a look back at some of the research findings from CUIMC that captured the attention of Newsroom readers and the nation's journalists in 2019.

How Exercise May Protect Against Alzheimer's

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Exercise increases levels of a hormone called irisin in the brain that may improve memory and protect against Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study by researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Researchers found irisin levels in the brain are reduced in individuals with Alzheimer’s. Irisin prevented memory impairment in mice that swam nearly every day for five weeks, despite also getting infusions of beta amyloid, the neuron-clogging, memory-robbing protein implicated in Alzheimer’s. 

(See also The New York Times and Nature Medicine)


New Treatments for Opioid Use Disorders

white pills on table top

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Naltrexone is one of three medications approved by the FDA for treatment of opioid use disorders, but up to 50% of patients stop receiving monthly injections of the drug during the first six months of treatment, which for many is not a sufficiently long period to retain benefits long-term. 

CUIMC researchers are beginning to study a biodegradable implant that is inserted under the skin and gradually releases naltrexone over six months. By providing six months of naltrexone after a single administration, the implant circumvents the need for adherence to monthly injections and may reduce the risk of relapse.

(See also The New York Times)


Era of Open-Heart Surgery for Aortic Stenosis May Be Ending

Cardiologist performs TAVR at Columbia Center for Interventional Vascular Therapy

Cardiologist performs TAVR at Columbia Center for Interventional Vascular Therapy (Photo credit: John Abbott)

An estimated 5 million adults in the United States have aortic stenosis, a buildup of calcium in the aortic valve that can lead to heart failure. Patients previously had to undergo open-heart surgery to have the valve replaced.

For nearly a decade, new valves have been inserted less invasively via a catheter, but only in patients too sick for open-heart surgery. 

A multicenter clinical trial, led by researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, found that transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) also performed better than open-heart surgery in patients considered good candidates for surgery.

(See also The New York Times and New England Journal of Medicine)


New Evidence Points to Viral Culprit in Child Paralysis

Since 2014, acute flaccid myelitis has partially paralyzed more than 560 children in the United States. Research by scientists at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health points to enterovirus infection as a culprit.

enterovirus D68 virions

Virions of enterovirus D68. Image: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith and Yiting Zhang.

Physicians and scientists have long suspected that enteroviruses—a family of viruses responsible for polio, another paralyzing disease—are behind acute flaccid myelitis, but there had been little evidence to support this idea, the scientists said.

(See also The New York Times and mBio)


New Gene Editor Could Fix a Major Shortcoming of CRISPR

structure of the INTEGRATE gene editing complex

Structure of the INTEGRATE complex showing Cascade (dark blue), TniQ units (light blue), and guide RNA (red). Credit: Sternberg and Fernández Labs/Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Current tools for gene editing, like CRISPR, are great at cutting DNA. But changes to the genetic code are performed by the cell itself, which isn't always reliable.

VP&S researchers have discovered a more dependable system in bacteria. The system can directly insert a user-defined DNA sequence at a precise location in the genome, a capability that molecular biologists have sought for decades.

(See also The Economist and Nature)


States With Permissive Gun Laws Have Higher Mass Shooting Rates

Mailman researchers found that states with more permissive gun laws and greater gun ownership have higher rates of mass shootings (defined as events where four or more individuals are killed). 

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Their study found an overall shift toward permissiveness in gun ownership between 1998 and 2014. The data showed a 10 unit increase in state permissiveness was associated with an 11 percent higher mass shooting rate, and a 10 percent higher state firearm ownership rate was associated with a 35 percent higher rate of mass shootings.

(See also Wired and BMJ)


In City Teens, Undiagnosed Asthma More Common In Whites and Asians

Undiagnosed asthma may be nearly twice as prevalent as diagnosed asthma in urban adolescents, a study from researchers at the School of Nursing has found.

Surprisingly, whites and Asian American adolescents were more likely to report asthma symptoms but not a diagnosis of asthma. Latinos and African Americans were less likely to be undiagnosed. 

adolescent using an inhaler

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Given the known asthma disparities among Latino and African American youth, the researchers say health care providers may have been more likely to assess Latinos and African Americans adolescents for asthma, leading to fewer undiagnosed cases when compared with Asian Americans or whites.

(See also Healthline and Journal of Urban Health)


Pollutant Linked to Climate Change Accelerates Lung Disease

Long-term exposure to outdoor air pollutants, especially ozone, accelerates the development of emphysema and age-related decline in lung function, even among people who have never smoked, according to a study from VP&S researchers. The findings may help explain why emphysema, a chronic lung disease, is relatively common in nonsmokers.

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Ground-level ozone is on the rise and increases with fossil fuel emissions and heatwaves. It will likely continue to increase unless additional steps are taken to curb climate change, the researchers say.

(See also CNN and JAMA)


From the Heart's Perspective, Not All Sitting is Equal

Sitting has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and early death, but a study from VP&S researchers suggests that not all types of sitting are equally unhealthy. 

woman watching TV

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The study found that leisure-time sitting (while watching TV)—but not sitting at work—was associated with a greater risk of heart disease and death among the study’s more than 3,500 participants. The study also found that moderate-to-vigorous exercise may reduce or eliminate the harmful effects of sedentary television watching.

(See also NPR and Journal of the American Heart Association)


Hidden Consciousness Detectable with EEG Just Days after Brain Injury

For unconscious, brain-injured patients, there’s currently no way to accurately predict the chance of recovery.  A study from VP&S researchers suggests that EEG—a tool that’s readily available in most hospitals across the globe—has potential.

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The researchers' analysis of EEG data from 104 brain-injured ICU patients revealed that nearly one in seven showed evidence of hidden consciousness just days after injury. Patients with such signs were more likely to recover.

If the findings are confirmed in larger studies, the technique could help physicians better predict which patients will likely regain consciousness.

(See also The New York Times and New England Journal of Medicine)