STAT Madness 2020

Two Texas A&M College of Medicine teams compete for a chance to win the fourth annual STAT Madness competition
March 3, 2020

STAT News selected two projects from the Texas A&M College of Medicine to participate in the annual STAT Madness competition. STAT Madness is a bracket-style contest that celebrates the best ideas in biomedical science published in the past year.

Much like the bracket for the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, this bracket is filled with match-ups of pioneering research projects from top research institutes and universities around the country. People can vote for their favorite, and the winner of the popular vote will advance to the next round. The two College of Medicine projects are on opposite sides of the bracket, so they are not in direct competition with each other. The first round of voting ends March 8.

Competing research: Disrupted body clocks

One of the 64 projects STAT News selected this year was a project led by David Earnest, PhD, professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, that was published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Circadian clocks in cells throughout the body regulate the 24-hour timing of important cellular processes like metabolism and inflammation, which are necessary for the body to function normally. In addition to light cues, the body’s circadian clock responds to signals from the body’s food intake. Eating foods with saturated fats—especially at certain times of the day—may disrupt this internal clock, which results in unregulated inflammation that can contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In this study, Earnest and his team determined which signals are responsible for disruptive effects on internal timekeeping, and found that the administration of several proinflammatory cytokines delayed body clocks in the same fashion as the saturated fat palmitate. Conversely, if these cytokines are blocked with drugs similar to those used in the treatment of inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, palmitate no longer resets the clock to a different time.

These findings are especially exciting because it lays the groundwork for new strategies using anti-inflammatory drugs at critical times of day to prevent shifts in our body clocks, thus managing inflammation-related diseases associated with high-fat diets. These findings are directly beneficial to people at risk for these related health conditions.

 Competing research: Gulf War illness

The second selected College of Medicine project is by Ashok Shetty, PhD, professor with the Department of Molecular Medicine and associate director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Shetty and his team found some promising hints of a possible treatment for the chronic neuroinflammation and resulting brain dysfunction associated with Gulf War illness. The findings were published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

When hundreds of thousands of American troops fought in the First Gulf War, they were exposed to a variety of chemicals. These chemicals, especially when coupled with war-related stress, seem to still be affecting nearly 200,000 Gulf War veterans—25 to 32 percent of those who served—nearly 39 years later. The constellation of the resulting symptoms has been termed Gulf War illness (GWI).

The wide variety of Gulf War illness symptoms makes finding a treatment difficult. Some of the most common indicators are cognitive dysfunction and mood problems, which are caused by chronic brain inflammation. The exact cause of this inflammation is unknown, which adds to the issue.

This study from the College of Medicine, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, offers a potential treatment for veterans with GWI. It used animal models of Gulf War illness to recreate how the illness occurs. In the models, they found elevated levels of HMBG1 (a protein called high mobility group box one), proinflammatory cytokines and complement activation in the cerebral cortex of the brain. Furthermore, the study identified a noninvasive way to measure these biomarkers. Presently, drugs exist that neutralize or reduce HMGB1 and inhibit complement activation, making them exciting potential treatments.

Vote to show your support

To help these College of Medicine teams advance through the bracket and win an opportunity at a STAT News feature and prize money, vote at this link by March 8.

— Mary Leigh Meyer