Michigan Findings and Facts for October 2023

Explore some of the most interesting discoveries related to Michigan and women’s health care for October 2023.
Stock photograph by Andrea Piacquadio via pexels.com

In our October 2023 issue, we shared some of the most interesting recent findings from Michigan researchers and explored some facts about women’s health care. Take a look at some of those findings here.

Study Breaks

Intriguing findings from researchers across Michigan for October 2023.

Scenic Sights Improve Classroom Behavior

It’s well known that being out in nature provides significant benefits for humans. But what about when people are indoors? A team of researchers from Michigan State University looked at one such case: children in elementary classrooms.

To examine how views of nature effect students, the researchers measured the amount of natural scenery first and second graders could see from their classroom windows. They found that children with greater exposure to nature, especially trees, exhibited fewer behavioral issues.

“Our findings suggest that it could be really beneficial for schools to consider what the views are from classroom windows,” says MSU professor Amber Pearson.

Moss is Boss

Moss could play an outsize role in mitigating climate change, according to research by ecologists from universities around the world, including the University of Michigan. This group has discovered evidence that mosses — despite their small size — can store enormous amounts of carbon in the soil beneath them. Indeed, in semiarid areas across the globe, moss stores up to 6.43 billion metric tons more carbon in the soil layer than bare soil does. Furthermore, the amount of carbon stored by mosses globally is six times the annual carbon emissions caused by activities such as deforestation, urbanization, and mining.

“These findings support the idea that we can use nature in a variety of ways to fight climate change,” says Peter Reich, a forest ecologist at U-M. “Mosses matter because they show that even tiny plants in harsh environments are capable of acquiring and storing carbon.”

Fighting the Good Fight (Against Bacteria)

Resistance of bacteria to antibiotics is a growing concern in the public health sphere,
and scientists are continually looking for new ways to fight bacteria that can evade currently available antibiotics. A new discovery from U-M researchers may help.

Using biochemistry, structural biology, and computational modeling, the researchers revealed precisely how the first step in generating proteins — a process called transcription — occurs in a bacterial cell. Bacterial transcription is regulated by RNA elements called riboswitches. They’re found almost exclusively in bacteria, which means they could be targeted by antibiotics to disrupt the creation of necessary proteins — without harming humans.

“Now, we understand the whole process of riboswitch regulation and can use that knowledge to specifically target these critical parts of bacterial life, hopefully averting the coming crisis of multidrug-resistant bacteria,” says U-M biochemist Nils Walter.

Not All Sleep is Created Equal

Some pregnant women have worse sleep experiences than others, and as explained in a Michigan cohort study published in the May 2023 issue of Women’s Health Reports, this isn’t necessarily random. This study, from researchers at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, sought to determine what factors influence sleep health and why sleep problems affect groups of women differently.

When tracking the sleep patterns of 458 women, the researchers recorded factors such
as age, marital status, smoking and alcohol habits, weight, education level, racial and ethnic background, and socioeconomic status. The goal was to see if these outside components contributed to pregnant women’s sleep health. The most prominent correlation researchers found had to do with age.

Women in the oldest quartile of the study participants — age 34 or older — reportedly slept less during their pregnancy than the youngest women, under 26. Other aspects of sleep health, such as the time of the midpoint of sleep, had small correlations with other factors, but few had statistical significance.

Those who experience poor sleep are more at risk for adverse effects later in their
pregnancy and while giving birth. Studies like this illuminate subtle indicators that give insight into sleep health during pregnancy.

An On/Off Switch for Ovarian Cancer

In order to slow the process of metastasis — the spread of cancer to other organs in the body — it is first crucial to understand why the cancer is spreading. Previously, it hadn’t been understood what drives the spread of ovarian cancer to other parts of the body. That is, until a March 2023 study conducted by researchers at Wayne State University’s C.S. Mott Center for Human Growth and Development discovered that the genetic protein MNRR1 is a driving force behind the spread.

MNRR1 is an activator protein, meaning that it serves as a metaphorical on/off switch
for certain genes. When it comes time for ovarian cancer to spread, MNRR1 turns the switch “on” and allows the cancer to metastasize, as the study showed. Understanding the root of the problem helps provide a jumping-off point for treatment of ovarian cancer in the future.

Knowing what protein encourages metastasis allows scientists to start developing treatment that limits MNRR1 expression, a type of treatment that has already proved effective on mice.

This discovery is a great step forward, giving researchers a clearer direction for future
ovarian cancer studies and treatments.

Artificial Placenta, Real Results

Time in the womb is crucial for a baby’s development, so babies born extremely premature face many risks. Various strategies have been employed to limit these risks, including a form of artificial placenta tested in an April 2023 study. Created by surgeons and researchers associated with the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, this new placenta substitute is an improvement over past attempts.

A major obstacle faced in previous trials was that the use of an artificial placenta increased the risk for internal bleeding within the infant’s skull. Researchers were able to offset this danger by applying a new, different kind of coating that releases nitric oxide. This in turn helps to prevent blood from clotting. Thanks to this crucial adjustment, the artificial placenta tested was able to support prematurely born lambs for up to a week without the major bleeding or clotting seen before.

Based on these results, similar methods can be used to create an artificial placenta that is safer and limits major risks, such as internal bleeding. This brings us one step closer to the ultimate goal in the treatment of extremely premature babies: to increase their survival rate.

AI Plays “I Spy” to Help Babies

The way a person’s body interprets their genes can be impacted and changed by their environment or behavior — the study of which is called epigenetics. For a pregnant mother, those epigenetically altered genes can get passed down from her to the baby. This carries some risks, in that certain epigenetically altered gene pathways can cause heart defects in the fetus. In order to identify this problem faster, researchers can analyze DNA in a pregnant woman’s blood. This helps them examine the fetus’s development and detect genetic issues before the baby is born.

In a 2022 study, researchers at Oakland University’s William Beaumont School of Medicine successfully used artificial intelligence to do just that. When given the proper instructions, the AI was able to identify gene pathways changed by epigenetics in the DNA of a pregnant woman’s blood. This allowed them to detect small indicators of heart defects in the fetuses. Since the method requires simply taking blood samples from the mother, it isn’t invasive and therefore has fewer risks to the mother and baby.

From here, researchers can use the data to create more targeted therapies for and
strategies for prevention of congenital heart defects.

This story is from the October 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.