This Week in Research: Huntington’s Disease in a Dish; El Nino!

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Huntington’s is one of those diseases that keeps medical students up at night:  the fatal inherited disorder sets in during middle age, and affects patients with muscle twitches and general anger/anxiety progressing to loss of muscle control, dementia, and death. There’s no cure, and not even any treatments to slow its progression — which is why the news that Johns Hopkins researchers have managed to use stem cells to generate “Huntington’s disease in a dish” is all the more important.

“Having these cells will allow us to screen for therapeutics in a way we haven’t been able to before in Huntington’s disease,” says Johns Hopkins professor/doctor and lead researcher Christopher Ross. (Ross is also director of the Baltimore Huntington Disease Center.) “For the first time, we will be able to study how drugs work on human HD neurons and hopefully take those findings directly to the clinic.”

Until now, most HD research was done with mice. But now that they have their own human HD neurons to play around with, researchers are trying to find molecules that will block the relentless degeneration that makes HD such a devastating diagnosis. Once they find one (or some) that work, the work to develop new HD drugs begins.

“A lot of people said, ‘You’ll never be able to get a model in a dish of a human neurodegenerative disease like this,’” Ross recalls. “Now, we have them where we can really study and manipulate them, and try to cure them of this horrible disease. The fact that we are able to do this at all still amazes us.” Even better news:  the HD stem cell generation might help researchers working with other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

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El Nino, that pesky cyclical climate event that wreaks havoc on world weather systems, may have met its match in a University of Maryland scientist and his undergraduate mentee.

Raghu Murtugudde, professor of atmospheric and oceanic science, figured out a particular sign that can allow climatologists to predict El Nino a full 18 months in advance; that’s twice as early as current forecasting models allow. The crucial clue? The discharge of sub-surface warm water from equatorial western Pacific Ocean north of Australia. “During the time between two El Ninos warm waters accumulate below the surface at that point in the Pacific and then begin to discharge towards the west nearly 18 months before the December-January appearance of a new El Nino when surface warming occurs at the International Dateline,” Murtugudde says. Think of it as a kind of gestational period for the storm system.

“At face value, its paradoxical that to anticipate the rains (or lack thereof) in Texas, you have to look months earlier at temperatures 300 feet below the surface of the Pacific 10,000 miles away,” says Michael McPhaden, aka “Mr. El Nino.”  “Nature is that way though.”



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