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Students a key component of the SUNY Networks of Excellence

By Sara LaJeunesse

Improving outcomes for children with Krabbe’s disease. Increasing understanding of how trees respond to global warming. These two efforts vary widely in their goals, and yet they are similar because they both rely on multidisciplinary collaboration to create knowledge that makes the world a better place.

Nadav Weinstock and Scotty McAdoo have contributed significantly to these projects, which are funded by the SUNY Networks of Excellence, as part of their graduate research.

Fighting Diseases

Weinstock, a fourth-year M.D./Ph.D. student at the University at Buffalo (UB), is conducting research on Krabbe’s disease, which typically affects infants around six months old and rapidly progresses to death by two years of age.

“The only available treatment for Krabbe’s disease is hematopoietic stem cell transplantation [HSCT], which is efficacious only if delivered before symptoms manifest,” he said. “Unfortunately this provides a dilemma for clinicians, as there is an inconsistency between early indicators of disease and clinical manifestation of the disease. Secure pre-symptomatic diagnosis is necessary to maximize efficacy of HSCT, but also to avoid the serious complications and mortality that can arise from treating children unnecessarily with HSCT.” 

To get around this problem, Weinstock and his colleagues—which include his advisers Laura Feltri, professor of biochemistry at UB and the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute, and Lawrence Wrabetz, professor of neurology and biochemistry and director of the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute—are investigating the concurrent use of positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to accurately and reliably diagnose Krabbe’s disease and other similar diseases before symptoms appear.

“Combining these two imaging modalities should provide complementary data sets that have the potential to work synergistically in their ability to detect subtle changes in the development of Krabbe’s disease,” said Weinstock, who is using a mouse model to conduct the work. “By studying the biochemical and molecular processes of complex diseases, I hope to find interventions and treatments that can lessen the devastating burden on patient health and wellbeing.”

Weinstock said that his dissertation project and ultimately his future career as a physician-scientist in the field of pediatric neurology depend on collaboration with researchers in other fields. “By meeting with expert physicists from various institutions as well as clinicians and biomedical researchers, I have begun to grasp the synergy that occurs when experts in different fields come together to work on an important scientific and medical question,” he said.

The project represents a collaboration among Weinstock; Paul Vaska, professor of Biomedical Engineering at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory; Robert Zivadinov, professor of neurology and director of the Buffalo Neuroimaging Analysis Center at UB; and Randy Carter, professor of biostatistics and director of the Population Health Observatory at UB.

Building Biosensors

McAdoo, a 2015 graduate with a master’s degree in nanoscale engineering from SUNY Polytechnic Institute, also finds that working with people in other fields allows him to better achieve his goals. His work—with advisor James Castracane, professor and head of the Nanobioscience Constellation at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, and collaborator Andrei Lapenas, associate professor of climatology at the University at Albany—has involved building a sensor to directly measure changes in carbohydrates within trees in real time.

“Measuring changes in carbohydrates within trees will allow us to understand how trees will respond to global warming,” said McAdoo. Yet, he added, until now no instrument existed that was capable of directly measuring carbohydrate allocation in trees. “One of the reasons is that trees respond to instruments being inserted into their bark by sealing the wound to stop the flow of sap,” he said.

To solve this problem, McAdoo and his colleagues developed a sensor that mimics the behavior of aphids, sap-sucking insects that are able to bypass the defense response of trees by secreting a biomolecule in their saliva that suppresses the tree’s immune system. Once the team conceived the basic design for this aphid-mimicking device, McAdoo set to work to fabricate it.

“We started by building two types of micro sensors—amperometric and calorimetric—that contain an enzyme that is selective to the analyte—either sucrose, fructose, or glucose—that we are trying to detect in the tree,” said McAdoo. “The amperometric sensors measure the electric current generated by the enzymatic reaction that occurs when the sensor detects an analyte. The calorimetric sensors measure the heat emitted during the enzymatic reaction. We found that the calorimetric sensors were more cost effective.”

Now that he has graduated, McAdoo hopes to obtain work in an alternative-energy field. “My thesis project has given me the skills to do that,” he said. 

Tags Tags: Networks of Excellence , SUNY Polytechnic Institute , University at Buffalo

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