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These stories describe NIGMS-funded medical research projects. Although only the lead scientists are named, they work together in teams to do this research.

The Bad Side of a Good Drug

Understanding genetic links to anesthetic response could make the drugs safer.

Understanding genetic links to anesthetic response could make the drugs safer.

Anesthesiologists use powerful medicines to "put people to sleep" before surgery. They have a difficult job because they know people can react unpredictably to these drugs, mostly since scientists still do not completely understand how anesthetics work in the body.

The death last year of pop star Michael Jackson was traced, in part, to the ill effects of the anesthetic medicine propofol. This drug is known to lower blood pressure and decrease breathing, so it requires careful monitoring by a doctor.

Anesthesiologist Thomas Stekiel and his co-workers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee are trying to figure out how anesthetics work and what puts certain people at greater risk from them. By studying rats that have been bred to be especially susceptible to propofol, Stekiel discovered a small group of genes associated with sensitivity to the drug.

Stekiel is doing more experiments to determine how propofol affects the circulatory system and brain. The goal is to understand whether there is a genetic predictor for how individuals respond to anesthetics like propofol.
—Alison Davis

Contact Medicine

Drug-filled contact lenses may deliver medicines more efficiently than eye drops.

Drug-filled contact lenses may deliver medicines more efficiently than eye drops.

Ever had itchy, swollen and painful pink eye?

Then you know the hassle of treating it: Tilt your head back, gently pull your eyelid down and plunk a few antibiotic or steroid drops into your eye.

Repeat twice a day for a few days to a week.

What if, instead, you could simply insert a disposable contact lens into your affected eye and have the medicine slowly drip out by itself?

That day may come sooner than later, thanks to clever new technology invented by pediatrician Daniel Kohane of Children's Hospital Boston. The inside layer of his prototype lens is made of a biodegradable substance that slowly releases a medicine into the eye for weeks to months.

Although other researchers have tried to make drug-filled lenses, none has been able to deliver a specific dose in a predictable way over very long periods of time.

Also, previous studies say that as little as 1 to 7 percent of an eye drop-administered dose actually makes it into the eye. If proven to work better than that in humans, Kohane's lens would be a big step forward. —A.D.

Naturally Curly

Scientists have found that just three genes account for coat texture in all dogs. Courtesy: Steven Dostie

Scientists have found that just three genes account for coat texture in all dogs. Courtesy: Steven Dostie

The only girl on Charlie Brown's baseball team not to wear a cap was Frieda, who claimed defiantly that the hat would mess up her "naturally curly hair."

Although no one has come up with a single gene to explain Frieda's hair, scientists have now discovered such a thing in dogs, like the Obama family's curly-haired pooch, Bo.

For many years, a team effort between pet owners, veterinarians and researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and the National Institutes of Health has been studying dog DNA. The project aims to uncover links between genes, physical attributes like coat color and texture, and certain diseases common to both dogs and people.

After scanning the entire genomes of more than 1,000 in dividual dogs of various breeds, the scientists were surprised to learn that coat texture in all dogs results from the influences of just three genes.

The results are good for people, too, since they suggest that finding definitive links between genes and some disease in humans may not be as difficult as scientists had thought. —A.D.

Facebook Tracks Swine Flu Reaction

Facebook.  Social media may help scientists understand how the flu spreads.

Social media may help scientists understand how the flu spreads.

"What's on your mind?"

This question stares us in the face every time we visit Facebook to connect with the people we know.

The answers to it tell us who is eating Cheetos, who is watching TV...and who is really sick of solving algebraic equations.

Because of the way social media allow us to communicate 24/7/365, they can be a useful vehicle to find out how people make decisions.

Take the H1N1, or "swine" flu.

In late April 2009, just days after fears of the new virus swept across the country, scientists Alison Galvani of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Lauren Ancel Meyers of the University of Texas in Austin posted a swine flu survey on Facebook.

Their quick, informal survey wasn't a formal experiment, but it did give them important tips about how people were learning about the emerging epidemic—and what they were doing about it.

Galvani and Meyers think knowing how and when people make decisions—whether to get a vaccine or stay home, for instance—can help them better track the flu's spread. —A.D.

This page last reviewed on May 18, 2011