Margaret Allen

Research: Gamers join researchers in the fight against cancer

John Wise, Pia Vogel and Corey Clark

SMU researchers (l-r) John Wise, Pia Vogel and Corey Clark are tapping the power of an online gaming community to fight cancer. Photo: Hillsman S. Jackson

The massive computational power of an online gaming community has even more clout than supercomputers in the fight against cancer, according to SMU biochemical researchers and video game developers. The two groups are partnering with the world’s vast network of gamers in hopes of discovering a new cancer-fighting drug.

Biochemistry professors Pia Vogel and John Wise in the Department of Biological Sciences and Corey Clark, deputy director of research at SMU Guildhall, are leading the University’s assault on cancer in partnership with fans of the best-selling video game Minecraft.

With 122 million copies of the game sold worldwide and more than 55 million active players each month as of February 2017, Vogel and Wise expect deep inroads in their quest to narrow the search for chemical compounds that improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs.

“Crowdsourcing as well as computational power may help us narrow down our search and give us better chances at selecting a drug that will be successful,” said Vogel. “And gamers can take pride in knowing they’ve helped find answers to an important medical problem.”

Up to now, Wise and Vogel have tapped the high-performance computing power of SMU’s Maneframe, one of the most powerful academic supercomputers in the nation. With ManeFrame, Wise and Vogel have sorted through millions of compounds that have the potential to work. Now, the biochemists say, it’s time to take that research to the next level — crowdsourced computing.

A network of gamers can crunch massive amounts of data during routine gameplay by pairing two powerful weapons: the best of human intuition combined with the massive computing power of networked gaming machine processors.

Taking their research to the gaming community will more than double the amount of machine processing power attacking their research problem.

“With the distributed computing of the actual game clients, we can theoretically have much more computing power than even the supercomputer here at SMU,” said Clark, who is also an adjunct research associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. In March, SMU Guildhall was named No. 1 among the world’s Top 25 Graduate Schools for Video Game Design by The Princeton Review.

“If we take a small percentage of the computing power from 25,000 gamers playing our mod we can match ManeFrame’s 120 teraflops of processing power,” Clark said. “Integrating with the Minecraft community should allow us to double the computing power of that supercomputer.”

Even more importantly, the gaming community adds another important component — human intuition.

Wise believes there’s a lot of brainpower eager to be tapped in the gaming community. And human brains, when tackling a problem or faced with a challenge, can make creative and intuitive leaps that machines can’t.

“What if we learn things that we never would have learned any other way? And even if it doesn’t work it’s still a good idea and the kids will still get their endorphin kicks playing the game,” Wise said. “It also raises awareness of the research. Gamers will be saying ‘Mom, don’t tell me to go to bed, I’m doing scientific research.’”

The Vogel and Wise research labs are part of the Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery (CD4) in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. The center’s mission is a novel multi-disciplinary focus for scientific research targeting medically important problems in human health. Their research is funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.

— Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Research: SMU study finds helicopter parenting harms boys and girls in different ways

Students Studying in Fondren Library CenterSMU researchers have found surprising gender differences in how college students react to misguided parenting. Their findings on the impact of helicopter parenting and fostering independence have been reported in a new article, “Helicopter Parenting, Autonomy Support, and College Students’ Mental Health and Well-being: The Moderating Role of Sex and Ethnicity,” in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Measuring both helicopter parenting as well as autonomy support — fostering independence — was important for the researchers to study, said family dynamics expert Chrystyna Kouros, SMU assistant professor of psychology and an author on the study.

“Just because mom and dad aren’t helicopter parents doesn’t necessarily mean they are supporting their young adult in making his or her own choices,” Kouros said. “The parent may be uninvolved, so we also wanted to know if parents are actually encouraging their student to be independent and make their own choices.”

The researchers found that young women are negatively affected by helicopter parenting, while young men suffer when parents don’t encourage independence.

“The sex difference was surprising,” said Kouros, an expert in adolescent depression. “In Western culture in particular, boys are socialized more to be independent, assertive and take charge, while girls are more socialized toward relationships, caring for others, and being expressive and compliant. Our findings showed that a lack of autonomy support — failure to encourage independence — was more problematic for males, but didn’t affect the well-being of females. Conversely, helicopter parenting — parents who are overinvolved — proved problematic for girls, but not boys.”

The study is unique in measuring the well-being of college students, said Kouros, director of SMU’s Family Health and Development Lab. The tendency in research on parenting has been to focus on the mental health of younger children.

“When researchers do focus on college students they tend to ask about academic performance, and whether students are engaged in school. But there haven’t been as many studies that look at mental health or well-being in relation to helicopter parenting,” she said.

Unlike children subjected to psychological control, in which parents try to instill guilt in their child, children of helicopter parents report a very close bond with their parents. Helicopter parents “hover” out of concern for their child, not from malicious intent, she said.

What helicopter parents don’t realize is that despite their good intentions to help their child, it actually does harm, said Naomi Ekas, a co-author on the study and assistant professor of psychology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

“They’re not allowing their child to become independent or learn problem-solving on their own, nor to test out and develop effective coping strategies,” Ekas said.

Young men that reported more autonomy support, measured stronger well-being in the form of less social anxiety and fewer depressive symptoms.

For young women, helicopter parenting predicted lower psychological well-being. They were less optimistic, felt less satisfaction with accomplishments, and were not looking forward to things with enjoyment, nor feeling hopeful. In contrast, lacking autonomy support wasn’t related to negative outcomes in females.

“The take-away is we have to adjust our parenting as our kids get older,” said Kouros. “Being involved with our child is really important. But we have to adapt how we are involved as they are growing up, particularly going off to college.”

Other co-authors on the study are Romilyn Kiriaki and Megan Sunderland, SMU Department of Psychology, and Megan M. Pruitt, Texas Christian University. The study was funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at UT-Austin.

— Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Research: Hunting down cancer-causing viruses that hide from the immune system

Robert L. Harrod, Biology Lab ResearchSMU virologist and cancer researcher Robert L. Harrod has been awarded a $436,500 grant from the National Cancer Institute to further his lab’s research into how certain viruses cause cancers in humans.

Under two previous NCI grants, Harrod’s lab discovered that the human T-cell leukemia virus type-1, HTLV-1, and high-risk subtype human papillomaviruses, HPVs, share a common mechanism that plays a key role in allowing cancers to develop. Now the lab will search for the biological mechanism — a molecular target — to intervene to block establishment and progression of virus-induced cancers. The hope is to ultimately develop a chemotherapy drug to block the growth of those tumor cells in patients.

“The general theme of our lab is understanding the key molecular events involved in how the viruses allow cancer to develop,” said Harrod, an associate professor in SMU’s Department of Biological Sciences whose research focuses on understanding the molecular basis of viral initiation of cancer formation.

While HTLV-1 and HPV are unrelated transforming viruses and lead to very different types of cancers, they’ve evolved a similar mechanism to cooperate with genes that cause cancer in different cell types. The lab discovered that the two viruses tap a common protein that cooperates with cellular genes to help the viruses hide from the immune system.

That common protein, the p30 protein of HTLV-1, binds to a different protein in the cell, p53, which normally has the job of suppressing cancerous growth or tumor development. Instead, however, p30 manages to subvert p53’s tumor suppressor functions, which in turn activates pro-survival pathways for the virus.

From there, the virus can hide inside the infected cell for two to three decades while evading host immune-surveillance pathways. As the cell divides, the virus divides and replicates. Then ultimately the deregulation of gene expression by viral encoded products causes cancer to develop.

“They are essentially using a similar mechanism, p30, to deregulate those pathways from their normal tumor-suppressing function,” Harrod said.

— Margaret Allen

> Read more about Rob Harrod’s research at SMUResearch.com

Research: Computer model of key protein helps predict how cancer drugs will work

Drugs important in the battle against cancer behaved according to predictions when tested in a computer-generated model of P-glycoprotein, one of the cell’s key molecular pumps.

The new model allows researchers to dock nearly any drug in the P-gp protein and see how it will actually behave in P-gp’s pump, said Associate Professor John G. Wise, lead author on the journal article announcing the advancement and a faculty member in SMU’s Department of Biological Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

SMU biologists developed the computer generated model to overcome the problem of relying on only static images for the structure of P-gp. The protein is the cellular pump that protects cells by pumping out toxins.

But that’s a problem when P-gp targets chemotherapy drugs as toxic, preventing chemo from killing cancer cells. Scientists are searching for ways to inhibit P-gp’s pumping action.

“The value of this fundamental research is that it generates dynamic mechanisms that let us understand something in biochemistry, in biology,” Wise said. “And by understanding P-gp in such detail, we can now think of ways to better and more specifically inhibit it.”

The SMU researchers tested Tariquidar, a new P-gp inhibitor still in clinical trials. Inhibitors offer hope for stopping P-gp’s rejection of chemotherapeutics by stalling the protein’s pumping action. Pharmacology researchers disagree, however, on where exactly Tariquidar binds in P-gp.

When run through the SMU model, Tariquidar behaved as expected: It wasn’t effectively pumped from the cell and the researchers observed that it prefers to bind high in the protein.

“Now we have more details on how Tariquidar inhibits P-gp, where it inhibits and what it’s actually binding to,” Wise said.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Research: The speed secrets of super sprinters

The world’s fastest sprinters have unique gait features that account for their ability to achieve fast speeds, according to two new studies from SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

The new findings indicate that the secret to elite sprinting speeds lies in the distinct limb dynamics sprinters use to elevate ground forces upon foot-ground impact.

“Our new studies show that these elite sprinters don’t use their legs to just bounce off the ground as most other runners do,” said human biomechanics expert Ken Clark, a researcher in the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory and lead author on the studies. “The top sprinters have developed a wind-up and delivery mechanism to augment impact forces. Other runners do not do so.”

The new findings address a major performance question that has remained unanswered for more than a decade. Previous studies had established that faster runners attain faster speeds by hitting the ground more forcefully than other runners do in relation to their body weight. However, how faster runners are able to do this was fully unknown. That sparked considerable debate and uncertainty about the best strategies for athletes to enhance ground-force application and speed.

“Elite speed athletes have a running pattern that is distinct,” Clark said. “Our data indicate the fastest sprinters each have identified the same solution for maximizing speed, which strongly implies that when you put the physics and the biology together, there’s only one way to sprint really fast.”

The critical and distinctive gait features identified by the study’s authors occur as the lower limb approaches and impacts the ground, said study co-author and running mechanics expert Peter Weyand, director of the Locomotor Performance Lab.

“We found that the fastest athletes all do the same thing to apply the greater forces needed to attain faster speeds,” Weyand said. “They cock the knee high before driving the foot into the ground, while maintaining a stiff ankle. These actions elevate ground forces by stopping the lower leg abruptly upon impact.”

The new research indicates that the fastest runners decelerate their foot and ankle in just over two-hundredths of a second after initial contact with the ground.

The findings are reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology in the article, “Are running speeds maximized with simple-spring stance mechanics?” It appears online at Physiology.org in advance of appearing in the print journal.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

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