Research Roundup: hope for long-term amputees, a call to arms for the study of Parkinson’s disease and more!

Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • Monkeys trained to move robotic limbs give hope to long-term amputees. Researchers showed that both sides of the brain can create new connections to learn how to control a robotic arm, even if it has been several years since an amputation. Three monkeys were involved, who each had an amputated arm due to injuries that occurred between 4 and 10 years before the study began. The monkeys were trained, using positive reinforcement, to grasp a ball with their new robotic arm. Observations revealed that not only did new connections form on the side of the brain that previously showed sparse connections, but the side of brain that controlled the intact arm also reacted by shedding old connections and creating new ones. The senior author of the study, Dr. Hatsopoulos, hopes to work with other groups to, “… create truly responsive neuroprosthetic limbs, when people can both move it and get natural sensations through the brain machine interface.” This study was published in Nature Communications.
  • Origin of SARS virus probed in bats. The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic broke in China in 2002, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people in many countries. However, the details about why the outbreak occurred have remained unclear – until now. To understand this better, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, spent 5 years studying the SARS virus in different species of horseshoe bats living in a single cave. They identified 11 news strains of the SARS virus, and by genetic sequencing, identified the essential genetic building blocks of the human SARS coronavirus. Based on these data they postulate that genetic recombination between viral strains in bats led to human SARS coronavirus outbreak. This research was published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.
This is the side face of a Chinese horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus sinicus).
Credit: Dr. Libiao Zhang from Guangdong Institute of Applied Biological Resource, China; CCAL
  • Promising target for treating brain tumors in children. Atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT) and medulloblastoma are two deadly brain cancers that affect infants and children. Dr. Simone Sredni, a researcher at the Falk Brain Tumor Center​ at Lurie Children’s Hospital, and his colleagues have shown that an experimental drug that inhibits this type of tumor growth in cell culture, also provided the same action in mice. The drug specifically targeted a protein, polo-like kinase 4 (PLK4), that promotes cell growth in the tumor. Sredni says,“We expect that targeting PLK4 will prove to be an effective and less toxic treatment approach for these children, and we hope to move to a clinical trial soon.” This study was published in Oncotarget.
  • Parkinson’s disease pandemic imminent, warns experts. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a debilitating disorder that affects 1% of individuals over 60. Approximately 1 million Americans live with Parkinson’s and approximately 60,000 Americans are newly diagnosed each year. In a call to action,these researchers argue for (i) developing a better understand the environmental, genetic, and behavioral causes and risk factors for Parkinson’s to help prevent its onset; (ii) increasing access to care — an estimated 40% of people with the disease in both the U.S. and Europe do not see a neurologist and the number is far greater in developing nations; (iii) advocating for increases in research funding for the disease; (iv) and lowering the cost of treatments — many patients in low-income countries do not have access to drugs that are both lifesaving and improve quality of life. Animal research, and in particular that with non-human primates (and more recently dolphins) are essential for combating this emerging pandemic. This was viewpoint was published in the journal JAMA Neurology.
Estimated and Projected Number of Individuals With Parkinson Disease, 1990-2040. Sources: Global Burden of Disease Study (1990 and 2015) and projections based on published and public sources.
  • Birds with bright feathers reveal disease-fighting genes. Female birds typically choose mates with strong physical features such as brightly colored feathers, a long tail, and a prominent crest. The female birds know that these traits reflect strong immune systems, which will better equip their offspring to resist parasites and disease-carrying pathogens. Researchers are determining which genes cause genetic immune variation in tree swallows and common yellowthroats, who display this variation through their physical traits. As immune genes play a vital role in disease resistance in humans, sequencing the genes responsible for strong physical traits in male birds could inform drug development.