MCG researcher meets Nobel Prize winner

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Melissa Laird got the rare honor of meeting the original source of her current research. And she also got to hear why good science must involve more than just tinkering in a lab.

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Medical College of Georgia graduate student Melissa Laird takes a closer look at astrocyte brain cells using a microscope.  Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Medical College of Georgia graduate student Melissa Laird takes a closer look at astrocyte brain cells using a microscope.

The fourth-year Ph.D. student from Medical College of Georgia was one of about 600 students worldwide invited to an annual educational meeting of Nobel Prize laureates. She had dinner with Peter Agre, who won the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Dr. Agre, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, discovered aquaporins, proteins that act as channels in the cell for water. Those aquaporins are implicated in Ms. Laird's research on traumatic brain injury, which Dr. Agre told her is an exciting field to be in now, she said. The war in Iraq is producing a lot of attention to brain injuries, and the Department of Defense is starting to put more money into research on those injuries and treatments, Ms. Laird said.

"A number of stroke laboratories have now kind of shifted focus and started looking and seeing if some of the pathways and the therapies they've looked at in stroke have any indications in traumatic brain injury," she said.

Though there are key differences, some of the same mechanisms in stroke damage also occur in traumatic brain injuries, said David Hess, a stroke researcher and chairman of the Department of Neurology at MCG.

"Aquaporin is important in brain swelling and TBI," he said.

Ms. Laird is focusing on ways to reduce that brain swelling by potentially inhibiting what might be starting the cascade that leads to more aquaporin and more swelling. While there are surgical interventions to reduce that swelling, "no current medical therapies really work," she said.

Her lab is focusing on high mobility group box protein 1, or HMGB-1. Normally it helps to regulate DNA transcription within the cell, but when it is released by damaged or dying neurons after injury it can promote inflammation that leads to the swelling, Ms. Laird said. Researchers are looking in the cerebrospinal fluid of patients with neurological trauma to see whether levels of the protein correlate with worse outcomes, she said.

"So perhaps HMGB-1 could be a good diagnostic tool for the level of injury in these patients," said Ms. Laird, who is working on a doctoral degree in neuroscience and works within the Department of Neurosurgery.

More importantly, if it or similar mechanisms can be inhibited, that could lead to drug treatments, she said.

The lab is also studying curcumin, a derivative of the spice turmeric, which is a known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Curcumin is being studied in spinal-cord and brain-injury models and is in clinical trials for Alzheimer's disease and other diseases, Ms. Laird said. So far, curcumin just hasn't proven potent enough, but the lab is working with chemists to see whether they can come up with a form that could work.

"If we can essentially find off-target effects of already-FDA-approved drugs or natural compounds such as curcumin, then they can go immediately into a clinical trial," she said.

The conference with the Nobel laureates in Germany was inspirational for Ms. Laird.

"I did appreciate the global aspect to the talks because nobody talks about that stuff," she said. "Everyone gets hung up on their niche and why their research is more important than another area of research. They really did give you a sense of why it is important to give back."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

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