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Innovating for Medicine
June 29, 2015   
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Several young Polish researchers working on innovations for use in medicine have won scholarships as part of the Doctorates for Mazovia scholarship program, which is run in Warsaw and across the central province of Mazovia.

Urszula Kędzierska, a doctoral student at the Faculty of Biology of the University of Warsaw, aims to help develop new therapeutic strategies to treat bone tissue depletion in patients suffering from conditions including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Chronic inflammatory conditions that accompany allergies, for example, often lead to a reduction in bone mineral density. This in turn causes osteoporosis. If scientists could gain more insight into the effect that pro-inflammatory cytokines have on bone tissue, they could block this pathological activity, says Kędzierska.

Proper bone mineral density depends on the activity of two types of cells: osteoblasts and osteoclasts. Osteoblasts form the mineral scaffolding of bones. Osteoclasts are responsible for bone resorption, the process by which osteoclasts break down bone and release the minerals, resulting in a transfer of calcium from bone fluid to the blood. The balance between the opposite effects of these two types of cells is regulated by hormones, neurotransmitters and cytokines. When there is an infection, the immune system becomes activated and produces pro-inflammatory cytokines. These carry information about a threat understandable for most cells in the body. As a result, a systemic inflammatory response develops in the body. The functions of other systems are disturbed and subordinated to one primary objective: survival.

“In pathological states when the immune system is overactive or is active too long, the consequences of dysfunction of other systems can be severe,” says Kędzierska. “As a result, the immune system destroys the body instead of protecting it. If we could block the effect of pro-inflammatory cytokines on the cell, then the immune system would not damage other systems.”

The main pro-inflammatory cytokine stimulates the activity of osteoclasts while inhibiting the activity of osteoblasts. That’s why a reduction in bone mineral density that leads to osteoporosis is a common condition that accompanies chronic inflammation.

Kędzierska is focusing on researching the PHEX gene, which regulates how phosphorus is metabolized in the body. A mutation in the gene is the cause of a bone disease called hypophosphatemic rickets.

The PHEX protein is produced mainly in bone cells: osteoblasts and osteocytes, or osteoblasts that have become trapped inside the bone matrix. When the former lack PHEX, they cannot mineralize properly. PHEX regulates the release by bone tissue of agents into the bloodstream that modulate the accumulation of phosphorus in the kidney and intestine. And phosphorus is indispensable for healthy bones. More than 80 percent of the entire amount of this element in the body is deposited in the bones.

Another Doctorates for Mazovia scholarship winner, Katarzyna Markowska, is investigating the antimicrobial activity of silver nanoparticles as part of her doctoral dissertation. Nanoparticles of precious metals, particularly silver, can help fight harmful bacteria. This is one of the new ways of battling pathogenic microorganisms that are becoming resistant to antibiotics.

Silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) range from 1 to 100 nm in size. They are a non-ionic pure form of silver. Although they are microscopic, they exhibit biological properties even at very low concentrations. Colloidal silver nanoparticles are used in industry, including in cosmetic formulations and household detergents.

A better understanding of how silver nanoparticles affect microorganisms could broaden the possibilities of using such colloids in the pharmaceutical industry and medicine, Markowska says. She is studying the effects of silver nanoparticles on cells of gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria to explain their antibacterial activity.

Meanwhile, Katarzyna Bocian is studying Helicobacter pylori, a gram-negative bacterium found in the stomach and the second-most common human pathogen. It causes inflammation, ulcers and cancer of the stomach and duodenum. Bocian’s experiments have made it possible to preliminarily characterize a protein called oxidoreductase. Scientists hope this protein will become the basis of a vaccine against Helicobacter pylori.

Jakub Czarnecki is investigating the molecular mechanisms underlying the functioning of toxic substances. He intends to produce modified strains of bacteria capable of neutralizing compounds harmful to humans and animals. These strains could be used to manufacture special biofilters for composting plants, sewage treatment plants, animal waste processing plants, piggeries and poultry farms. The use of such strains of bacteria would make it possible to improve air filtration systems and reduce the size of equipment for removing impurities, thus cutting assembly and maintenance costs.

Yet another scholarship winner, Emilia Joanna Orzechowska, is researching a new generation of protein drugs. She wants to contribute to the treatment of cancers, including prostate cancer. She is looking for new ways of stimulating the natural process of programmed cancer cell death. Prostate cancer is one of the most common malignant cancers among men. Identifying proteins that cause the growth of this type of cancer could in the future become the basis for developing therapeutic molecules with anti-cancer properties.

The Doctorates for Mazovia scholarship program aims to increase the transfer of knowledge from academia to business and to develop R&D ties between universities and companies in the central province of Mazovia. Scholarships are awarded to top doctoral students at the University of Warsaw in the fields of mathematics, natural sciences and socioeconomics. Their work is expected to contribute to the growth of scientific potential in areas of strategic importance to economic development.

K. Olszewska
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