Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

UA professor urges further research into animal cell study

For the last four years, Margaret Johnson, associate professor in the department of biological sciences, has led undergraduate students at The University of Alabama in cell research on inositol, an essential nutrient which plays a role in cell growth and regulation.

The research began when a former Ph.D. student from Jordan, Hana Dawood Ali Alebous, convinced Johnson that the mechanisms of inositol were worth seriously investigating.

Inositol has been used in therapy treatments for pregnant women and people with cancer, but Johnson’s research focuses on how the chemical affects birth defects like spina bifida. UAB hospital administers inositol to alleviate birth defect problems in premature babies. But despite its positive applications, Johnson said she believes the nutrient needs to be studied more.

“It’s a fantastic molecule, but we need to ask questions first,” Johnson said.

Over the summer, Johnson began teaching undergraduate students in her research lab to first understand the basics of inositol. In the process, they set out to determine how inositol affects two mutant phenotypes, one of which is involved in the expression of spina bifida.

“Even in the past few weeks, I’ve learned the importance of accuracy and having integrity in your research – you always have to keep yourself honest,” Lauren Loeb, a sophomore in Emerging Scholars, said.

Spina bifida is a defect in the neural tube of babies that can cause physical and sometimes mental damage. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every 2,500 births per year in the United States is affected by it, with even more in other countries.

Even though animal cell research is expensive, Alebous wrote to the Jackson Laboratory, a leading genetics research lab, and explained her hypothesis. They then sent her 77 mouse brains, each of which she dissected into three regions. Newborn, young and adult curly tail mice were tested, until they discovered that spina bifida only appeared in adults.

“We all thought that just because everything looked normal in the brain, it was normal, but that was not the case,” Johnson said.

They saw that of two mutant phenotypes in the mouse brain, one had the ability to regulate levels of inositol while the other did not and eventually developed spina bifida.

“That sent us on the hunt for the exact factor,” Johnson said.

In a computer program that predicts factors that will affect phenotypes, the factor HES-1 was predicted to regulate inositol. After Johnson received a gene plasma from a group in Canada, undergraduate students began testing whether the factor binds with different controls to regulate the nutrient.

“This semester I have fantastic undergraduates that are providing controls to see if the factor predicting the bind on the computer program is right,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s students are preparing a presentation for spring semester about what they’ve learned in the research labs. She said she plans to publish a paper about her findings as soon as they finish testing all the controls to determine if HES-1 is truly the factor that regulates inositol.

“You can have your hypothesis, but let the data speak for itself,” Shymeria Toombs, a postgraduate working with Johnson on undergraduate research, said.

Alebous is now studying a prominent outcrop of spina bifida in Jordan, but her interest in inositol stays with Johnson and her students. They hope to be able to better understand how the chemical works so that it can be safely administered and, hopefully, alleviate the effects of spina bifida.

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