Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 16, 1996

In Brief:
Medical News

Progress made toward solving bone diseases

An apparently harmless mutation in a gene that helps control the level of calcium in the blood eventually may be used to identify people with an increased risk of osteoporosis and other hormone-related bone diseases.

Results of a Hopkins study, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health, will be presented Sept. 10, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research in Seattle.

Researchers tested the DNA in blood samples from 27 people with primary hyperparathyroidism and 71 healthy people and discovered a mutation in the gene that helps regulate calcium and thereby bone density and mass. Results showed that the mutation in the calcium-sensing receptor gene was not linked with an increased risk of primary hyperparathyroidism.

However, the mutation may have a role in osteoporosis, one of the most common bone diseases, and other bone diseases that occur when the body's calcium level is too high or too low, said Michael Levine, the study's senior author and a professor of medicine.

"Although the mutation itself does not directly cause a depletion or overabundance of calcium in the blood, its presence may be evidence of a more serious mutation in the same gene," Levine said.

This gene regulates calcium-sensing receptors on the surface of cells in the parathyroid gland. The gland produces parathyroid hormone, which helps control the calcium level in the blood. The mutation, or slight change in DNA base pairs, does not alter the structure of the protein manufactured by the gene. But it may alter the protein's ability to work, thereby interfering with production of parathyroid hormone.

The Hopkins scientists plan to begin a large screening program to determine the mutation's possible role in osteoporosis. Early identification and treatment of osteoporosis may reduce or prevent bone thinning.

In Brief:
Other News

Army enlists Hopkins to improve military products

U.S. Army scientists and engineers who fabricate rugged tanks, protective clothing and other equipment have forged a $5 million partnership with the university that will let military re-searchers study at Hopkins and give the university's students and faculty access to Army labs.

To kick off the collaboration, the Army Research Laboratory/Weapons and Materials Research Directorate has agreed to provide about $1 million annually to the university's Whiting School of Engineering, beginning this year.

The pact calls for a three-year partnership, with an Army option to extend it for two more years.

Under this program, Hopkins will be one of three institutions designated as the ARL's Materials Centers of Excellence. The others are the University of Delaware Center for Composite Materials and the Michigan Molecular Institute.

In this innovative partnership, instead of simply paying the university to conduct research, the Army will send its staff to work directly with scientists on campus. At the same time, it will make available its labs and equipment at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, about a 40-minute drive north of the university.

"Traditionally, federal funding agencies just award grants or contracts to university researchers," said James W. Wagner, chairman of the Whiting School's Department of Materials Science and Engineering. "This is a cooperative agreement. Its purpose is to establish strong collaborations between Army researchers and Hopkins researchers. There will be an exchange of personnel, sharing of equipment and facilities, and expanded educational opportunities."

The collaboration will allow the Army to draw on university scholars to complement its Aberdeen research staff in the wake of recent military restructuring. In return, Hopkins will have access to labs and equipment that are not available on campus, Wagner said.

Under the agreement, Army researchers will be able to take graduate engineering courses at Hopkins. Also, Army scientists will teach courses at the university's Homewood campus. During the fall semester, Army Research staff members are teaching graduate level classes on corrosion and X-ray diffraction of materials. In addition, three Army Research employees are pursuing advanced engineering degrees at Hopkins.

Hopkins was selected for the new partnership in part because of its strength in materials characterization research. This refers to the study of the relationship of chemistry, structure and defects to the properties of metals, ceramics, polymers and composites. By understanding these relationships, researchers say, materials can be optimized and designed for specific applications.

The Whiting School also operates the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, which uses high-tech tools such as X-rays, lasers and ultrasonics to test structures and materials without physically disturbing them.

Scientists from the Army and Hopkins will conduct joint research in four key areas: barrier materials (clothing that can protect against chemical and biological warfare agents), smart materials (flexible products that behave like biological models), advanced materials and processes (adjusting the manufacturing process to create parts or products that will perform best), and surface properties and characterization (treating surfaces to prevent corrosion and wear).

Within these four general areas, 10 research projects have been set up, involving 11 faculty members, six postdoctoral fellows and seven graduate students. The joint research efforts will be directed by Hopkins' Wagner and Jim McCauley, who recently joined the Army Research Laboratory after many years as dean of the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

Faculty members from the Whiting School's departments of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and its Center for Nondestructive Evaluation will participate in the research effort.

Homewood schedules fall blood drive for Sept. 18

The university's 1996-97 Red Cross Blood Drive begins on the Homewood campus from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 17, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at the Glass Pavilion in Levering Hall.

Organizers are making a compelling case for the university community's participation. In reminder cards, they recount the story of 2-year-old Elizabeth Murray, who was born prematurely and received eight blood transfusions by the time she was 3 months old.

Her father had been a regular donor before Elizabeth was born, never thinking that someone in his own family would need blood. Organizers of the drive urge everyone eligible to donate blood because "you never know when you may need the favor returned."

It is always preferable to make an appointment to donate, if you can. It helps the Red Cross schedule an appropriate number of technicians and speeds the donation process for donors.

To sign up for a donation time, call Peggy Jones at (410)516-8039.

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