UT Health Science Center

After Blue Bell ice cream’s recent recall because of listeria contaminations, the University Divi- sion of Housing and Food Services is looking to replenish the campus ice cream supply. DHFS is contacting interested vendors about expanding their ice cream brands across campus.
Photo Credit: Xintong Guo | Daily Texan Staff

The bacteria listeria caused one of the worst events on campus in 2015 — the removal of Blue Bell ice cream from UT shelves. However, not everyone is avoiding the bacteria. Researchers at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio are using listeria to make breakthroughs in colon cancer research.

Listeria monocytogenes is the species of bacteria found in the contaminated Blue Bell ice cream. Listeria monocytogenes triggers the foodborne illness listeriosis, which can lead to diarrhea and other stomach problems, and then fever and muscle aches. The most dangerous symptom of listeriosis is sepsis, an infection throughout the entire body, and meningitis, the swelling of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Pregnant women are about 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis. About a third of the babies who had mothers with listeriosis die. 

 But the presence of listeria in the intestines is not a death sentence. The symptoms of listeriosis only show if the immune system fails to stop the bacteria from reaching the blood and nervous system. About 70 percent of adults have listeria as part of their microbiome — the natural community of tiny organisms that live on and in the body. In the gut microbiome, there are trillions of bacteria with more than 3 million different genes.

Listeria flourishes in the gut, making it useful to researchers dealing with problems relating to the intestines. Tyrel Curiel and Peter Dube, researchers at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, received a grant to research how listeria could fight diseases such as colitis and colon cancer.

Curiel’s research focuses on B7 homologue 1 (B7-H1), a molecule that modulates, or influences, the microbiome. Curiel and his team were researching the effect of B7-H1 on mice tumors when they realized mice lacking B7-H1 were more likely to develop colon cancer. 

Dobe said when B7-H1 is not expressed in the human gut, patients suffer from an imbalance of the microorganisms that live there. This microbiome imbalance is
called dysbiosis.

“Gut bacteria affects your health generally,” Curiel said. “Good gut health could make you potentially age more slowly as well as help you fight Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

Curiel and Dobe have joined forces to create listeria, which carries genes that express molecules that interact with B7-H1 in order to maximize its effectiveness.

“The idea is to see whether we can improve gut health by modulating B7-H1 levels,” Dobe said. 

Scientists have devoted many resources to studying the human microbiome in recent years. In the Human Microbiome Project, a five-year initiative the U.S. National Institutes of Health launched in 2008, scientists tested how changes in the human microbiome relate to human health. 

Dobe said the modified listeria would not lead to listeriosis. Ironically, Curiel and Dobe plan to put the modified listeria in ice cream for easy and delicious patient consumption.

“These strains of listeria have proved safe in a variety of trials, so they would be safe to use on people,” Dobe said. 

Blue Bell removed its ice cream from shelves because listeriosis is a miserable and, at worst, deadly disease. With this research, there is hope that the same bacteria will someday help, rather than harm, the human body.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio’s School of Medicine will retain full accreditation following two years on probation, after the Liaison Committee on Medical Education voted this week. 

In October 2011, the committee placed the school on probation for failing to comply with 10 aspects of its accreditation standards, primarily related to the school’s curriculum, faculty supervision and lack of centralized clinical activities. 

In a press release, Dr. Francisco Gonzalez-Scarano, dean of the School of Medicine and vice president of medical affairs at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, said the school has since refocused its mission on curriculum design, management and evaluation.

 “This journey has been challenging and at the same time exhilarating,” Gonzalez-Scarano said. “The resultant analyses of our medical education program, the lines of authority and communication, the resources devoted to it, and processes for continuous curriculum design, management and evaluation have made us a better and stronger institution.”

The school was also allowed renewal of a grant from the National Institutes of Health worth $22.7 million for the next five years.

Researchers at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio made breakthrough progress toward discovering a contributing factor of Alzheimer’s disease. The research team discovered a new protein that interacts with another protein. The interaction leads to the expression of a gene that plays a role in the progression of the disease. “If communication with these two proteins is disrupted it could stop the degeneration of nerve cells,” said molecular medicine doctoral candidate Xuan Xu, who discovered the protein molecule and its role in the disease at the Health Science Center. The hope is that knowledge of the disease will eventually contribute to the development of new drugs that would inhibit the protein reaction and delay the progression of the disease, Xu said. “The discovery we found has the potential to identify a compound, or drugs, to lead to effective treatment for this disease,” Xu said. Although medication exists that can slow the onset of the disease, Xu said no treatment is currently available to stop the degeneration of nerve cells that results from Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists know little about the cause of the terminal disease, said Veronica Galvan, assistant professor for the center’s Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies. The irreversible condition, which typically affects people over 65, is marked by a decline in cognitive ability to access and form memories, reason and think clearly. “There are many aspects of the disease that we don’t understand,” Galvan said. “The way to get control of the situation is to understand it. Before we can try to find drugs, we should concentrate more on thoroughly understanding the biology, and then once we have the understanding, the opportunity about what to do about it will be obvious.” Many Alzheimer’s patients have plaques, lesions in the brain that have been thought to contribute to the disease, according to a press release. The disease affects an estimated 5.3 million people in the U.S. alone and is the leading cause of dementia among the elderly. EMBO Reports, a European molecular biology journal, published the finding in its Feb. 4 issue Friday. Xu made the discovery as part of her doctoral dissertation. She has been working on this project for five years in Thomas Boyer’s lab at the Health Science Center’s Institute of Biotechnology. Haiying Zhou — who already obtained her doctoral degree in Boyer’s laboratory and is now pursuing postdoctoral studies at University of California, Berkeley — co-authored the study.