Research roundup

Insights & Outcomes: Schoelkopf on quantum council and a dopamine discovery

YaleNews’ monthly science column looks at dopamine’s role in heart failure, the “early burst” of evolution, how to build a better flu vaccine, and more.

(Illustration by Eri Griffin)

This month, Insights & Outcomes dives into some new dopamine research, looks at how to build a better flu vaccine, and celebrates Yale’s inclusion on a committee advising the federal government on quantum information science.

As always, you can find more science and medicine research news on YaleNews’ Science & Technology and Health & Medicine pages.

Schoelkopf named to national quantum council

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have named Robert J. Schoelkopf, Sterling Professor of Applied Physics and Physics, to the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee (NQIAC). The committee includes members representing industry, academia, national laboratories, and other federal agencies. NQIAC will counsel the White House on ways to ensure continued American leadership in quantum information science. In August, the White House and DOE announced that Schoelkopf and other prominent Yale researchers will be part of a quantum research hub at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. — one of five national quantum research hubs. 

Why dopamine causes heart failure complications

Dopamine is known as the feel-good neurotransmitter and plays a role in the sensation of pleasure, motivation, and learning. It was also once considered a promising treatment for heart failure and the accompanying heart irregularities called arrhythmias, which annually kill millions worldwide. However, clinical trials held during the 1990s that tested dopamine as a way to treat heart failure found that for some patients it actually made arrhythmias worse. Researchers from Yale and University of Tokyo set out to find out why dopamine was damaging to heart failure patients and in the process discovered a potential new drug target that can limit heart irregularities, they report in the journal Nature Communications. Using advanced sequencing and imaging technology, the team found that increased levels of dopamine receptor D1 can trigger deadly ventricular arrhythmias. Drugs that target this receptor, used in conjunction with beta blockers, may help reduce mortality from heart failure, the authors say. “Our finding opens the door for studying and discussing the unnoticed role for dopamine in the failing heart,” said Yale’s Tomokazu Sumida, assistant professor of neurology and co-first author of the study.

An ‘early burst’ goes bust

One of the most popular models of trait evolution — the “early burst” model — suggests that most of the morphological differences in a group of animals evolve rapidly in the early history of that group. Yet modern molecular studies have struggled to find evidence of these early bursts. In a new study, Yale paleontologists Christopher WhalenDerek Briggs, and Pincelli Hull looked for an early burst in the shell shapes of ammonoids, a group of ancient, marine mollusks. Ammonoids have an exceptionally strong fossil record, which reveals a notable “boom-and-bust” pattern of evolution through Earth’s six global extinction events. “Despite being ideal candidates for finding early bursts, we find no evidence of them at origination or in any of the six global extinction recoveries,” said first author Whalen, a former graduate student in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences who is now at the American Museum of Natural History. “This suggests that early bursts may not be as common in the fossil record as generally assumed.” The study appears in Science Advances.

Addressing health disparities in alcohol treatment

Yale researchers are completing a first-of-its-kind clinical trial to test an automated bilingual alcohol screening and intervention tool for use in emergency departments (EDs). The computerized tool is designed to address health disparities in the treatment of alcohol use disorders. The trial, led by emergency medicine professor Dr. Federico Vaca, recently concluded enrollment at a large, urban ED where Latinos make up 38% of city residents. Using a bilingual online health tool called AB-CASI (automated bilingual computerized alcohol screening and brief intervention), participants were prompted to share information about their drinking and any treatment they may be receiving. Via interview, patients were assisted in finding healthier coping strategies and advised on treatment options. Follow-up assessments were made by phone at one, six, and twelve months. To date, few studies of this kind have enrolled Spanish-speaking participants, and none have used an automated bilingual computerized approach, which is more likely to compel participants to share sensitive information, the researchers said. The brief intervention that is delivered is also automated, they noted, and tailored specifically for patients based on their responses to reflective questioning by AB-CASI. “It is our sincere hope that the findings of this large study will advance our understanding of how best to address the health disparities in alcohol use disorders, and the ED is an ideal setting,” Vaca said. Details of the trial appear in the journal Contemporary Clinical Trials.

Building a better flu vaccine

new study in Nature co-led by Julian Zhou, a recently graduated Yale Computational Biology & Bioinformatics (CBB) Ph.D. student in the lab of Steven Kleinstein, professor of pathology, shows just how the flu vaccine activates the body’s immune response. Kleinstein, along with colleagues at the University of Washington, sought to discover how the body’s immune cells, specifically B cells, respond when a person is inoculated with a new seasonal flu vaccine. Specifically, they wanted to understand whether the vaccine just activated memory B cells from prior exposures to flu antigens, or whether the vaccine could activate new immune cells, known as naïve B cells, which could confer long-lasting immunity against novel parts of this rapidly mutating virus. For the study, researchers sampled blood and lymph nodes from eight healthy, young volunteers before and after vaccination with a 2018-2019 quadrivalent vaccine, designed to protect against four strains of flu. Researchers extracted immune cells from participants at one, two, four, and nine weeks post-vaccination. They found that in three of the volunteers, both sets of immune cells — naïve B cells and memory B cells — were activated. According to Kleinstein: “This work demonstrates for the first time that the flu vaccine can induce a germinal center response in humans, with the potential of inducing long-lasting immunity against new virus strains. This has implications for the development of a universal flu vaccine.”

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