A Texas A&M University Health Science Center research team has advanced to the fourth round of STAT Madness, a bracket-style contest to celebrate the best innovations in biomedical science and medicine published by STAT News in the last year. It’s like March Madness, but for pioneering research projects. People can vote for their favorite of each match-up among top research institutes and universities around the country.

Voting on the third round ends at midnight March 22, and winners will move on to the next round, starting March 23. STAT’s team of journalists selected 64 discoveries from almost 150 submissions for the tournament, and more than 50,000 people have already voted.

Brett Mitchell, PhD, at the College of Medicine, was chosen for his research on preeclampsia, a hypertensive disorder of pregnancy. A possible new treatment, a peptide, can calm down the inflammation enough to stop the cascade of effects. His research is competing against UC San Diego in this round.

 

 

It was already known that women with autoimmune disorders are at higher risk of developing preeclampsia. “Some expecting mothers’ immune systems are just hyperactive and see the pregnancy as something that’s not normal when in fact it may be,” Mitchell said.

Therefore, Mitchell and his team used a fake virus to activate the innate immune system of animals during pregnancy. “That’s enough to cause a preeclampsia-like syndrome with placental and kidney damage and high blood pressure—the main features of preeclampsia,” he said. Then Mitchell learned that another College of Medicine researcher, M. Karen Newell Rogers, PhD, had a peptide that had shown promise in stopping inflammation caused by traumatic brain injury. They decided to see if it had similar effects on preeclampsia.

“We started giving the peptide at the same time we gave the immune system activator, and it completely prevented the development of preeclampsia,” Mitchell said. “But that’s not clinically relevant—we would have to give the peptide to every pregnant woman.” So, next, they needed to find out if the peptide could treat animals who were already experiencing the features of preeclampsia. “Sure enough, everything—blood pressure, kidneys, blood vessels—went back to normal,” he said. These results were published in the journal Clinical Science.

They’ve already received a patent for the technology, but because there are even greater costs and time constraints involved in testing a drug that will be used in pregnant women, an approved therapy based on this technique is still several years away. “It’s a long road,” Mitchell said, “but we’re hopeful that this approach will eventually be able to help the millions of pregnant women who develop preeclampsia.”

— Katherine Hancock