The University Record, May 9, 1994

RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS

Editor’s Note: These summaries of research projects were presented to the Regents at their April meeting by Homer A. Neal, vice president for research. The material here was prepared for the Record by the staff of ResearchNews, a publication of the Division of Research Development and Administration.

Prevention of substance abuse through worksite wellness

Employers, like the rest of society, are looking for effective ways to deal with problems of alcohol and other drug use within their workforce. Employee assistance programs for identifying and working with employees who are in trouble due to alcohol and drug use find their time fully occupied by clients with abuse problems, leaving little room for prevention services among workers at risk but without abuse problems. However, worksite wellness programs already address employee health risks, including lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Andrea Foote, research scientist, Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, will evaluate whether wellness programs can be expanded to include risks from consumption of alcohol or other drug problems. She will compare the effectiveness of two programs aimed at prevention of substance abuse among employees. One program will feature short-term wellness classes and seminars about healthy lifestyles, including information on alcohol and other drug use as well as other lifestyle factors. The second program will involve periodic counseling with each participant. About 1,900 employees from a manufacturing plant will participate in the study.

This study is funded by a five-year, $1,808,201 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services-National Institute on Drug Abuse.

How do didemnins inhibit protein biosynthesis?

From a Caribbean species of sea squirt, Trididemnun solidum, scientists have isolated natural products called didemnins that are being tested in humans as potential drugs against cancer. They are also potent anti-viral compounds. Peter Toogood, assistant professor of chemistry, is using biochemical studies and organic synthesis to learn more about the mechanism of action of didemnins and related compounds.

Preliminary data suggest didemnins’ useful medical effects are associated with the ability of these compounds to inhibit protein biosynthesis. Toogood has already found that didemnins can prevent protein synthesis in vitro. Toogood is detailing the mechanism of inhibition. He is also trying to identify and characterize the site of action of the didemnins within the cell that mediates the inhibition of protein biosynthesis. The relationships between the structure and function of didemnins that are pertinent to the inhibition of protein biosynthesis are also goals of Toogood’s research.

Toogood and his research team also will synthesize organic compounds in the laboratory that are similar to the didemnins to discover new compounds that inhibit protein biosynthesis via the same mechanisms.

This five-year project is supported by $511,258 from the National Institutes of Health and $128,440 from the U-M.

Genetic control of mesoderm differentiation

To understand how biological systems malfunction in such diseases as muscular dystrophy where something has gone wrong during development, scientists need a thorough knowledge of the normal process of development. Rolf Andre Bodmer, assistant professor of biology, is searching for an understanding of how muscle develops using Drosophila fruit flies as a model.

Bodmer is focusing on how embryonic development leads to muscle tissue. The specification of a set of cells as mesoderm is the first developmental decision, which leads ultimately to the formation of muscle tissue. Bodmer is trying to determine the identity and interaction of the genes leading to the determination of mesoderm and differentiation into muscles. He has already established that one gene, tinman, is essential for subdividing early mesoderm into the precursors for visceral (internal organ) muscle and somatic (body wall) muscles. Bodmer will examine the regulation of this gene.

This work is supported by a grant from the Muscular Dystrophy Association for $141,863 and $16,831 from the U-M.

Also of interest to Bodmer are the genes that control the development of the heart. With a grant from the American Heart Association, he is researching the process of heart development in Drosophila from cardiac precursor cells to the differentiated heart and identifying genes involved in heart development.