Research roundup

These 3 medical innovations are ones to watch in Houston

Houston researchers are hard at work in the lab to progress medical advancements at the bedside. Getty Images

Every day, important research is being completed under the roofs of Houston medical institutions. From immunotherapy to complex studies on how a memory is made, Houston researchers are discovering and analyzing important aspects of the future of medicine.

Here are three research projects currently being conducted around town.

University of Houston's potential solution to sickle cell disease

Vassiliy Lubchenko is a University of Houston associate professor of chemistry. Courtesy of UH

For the most part, sickle cells have been a mystery to scientists, but one University of Houston professor has recently reported a new finding on how sickle cells are formed — enlightening the medical community with hopes that better understanding the disease may lead to prevention.

Vassiliy Lubchenko, UH associate professor of chemistry, shared his new finding in Nature Communications. He reports that "droplets of liquid, enriched in hemoglobin, form clusters inside some red blood cells when two hemoglobin molecules form a bond — but only briefly, for one thousandth of a second or so," reads a release from UH.

In sickle cell disease, or anemia, red blood cells are crescent shaped and don't flow as easily through narrow blood vessels. The misshapen cells are caused by abnormal hemoglobin molecules that line up into stiff filaments inside red blood cells. Those filaments grow when the protein forms tiny droplets called mesoscopic.

"Though relatively small in number, the mesoscopic clusters pack a punch," says Lubchenko in the release. "They serve as essential nucleation, or growth, centers for things like sickle cell anemia fibers or protein crystals. The sickle cell fibers are the cause of a debilitating and painful disease, while making protein crystals remains to this day the most important tool for structural biologists."

Lubchenko conclusion is that the key to prevent sickle cell disease is to is to stop the formation of the initial clusters so fibers aren't able to grow out of them.

Baylor College of Medicine's immunotherapy research in breast cancer

science-Digital Composite Image Of Male Scientist Experimenting In Laboratory

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are looking into the complexities of immune cells in breast cancer. Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are leading an initiative to figure out the potential effect of immunotherapy on different types of breast cancers. Their report is featured in Nature Cell Biology.

The scientists zoned in on two types of immune cells — neutrophils and macrophages — and they found frequency differed in a way that indicated potential roles in immunotherapy.

"Focusing on neutrophils and macrophages, we investigated whether different tumors had the same immune cell composition and whether seemingly similar immune components played the same role in tumor growth. Importantly, we wanted to find out whether differences in immune cell composition contributed to the tumors' responses to immunotherapy," says Dr. Xiang 'Shawn' Zhang, professor at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center and member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in a news release.

Further exploring the discrepancies between the immune cells and the role they play in tumor growth will help better understand immunotherapy's potential in certain types of breast cancer.

"These findings are just the beginning. They highlight the need to investigate these two cellular types deeper. Under the name 'macrophages' there are many different cellular subtypes and the same stands for neutrophils," Zhang says. "We need to identify at single cell level which subtypes favor and which ones disrupt tumor growth taking also into consideration tumor heterogeneity as both are relevant to therapy."

Rice University, UTHeath, and UH's memory-making study

Researchers from all corners of Houston are diving into how memories are made. Courtesy of Rice University

When you make a memory, your brain cells structurally change. Through a multi-institutional study with researchers from UH, Rice University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, we now know more about the way memories are made.

When forming memories, three moving parts work together in the human brain — a binding protein, a structural protein and calcium — to allow for electrical signals to enter neural cells and change the molecular structures in cognition. The scientists compared notes on how on that binding protein works.

The team's study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Peter Wolynes, a theoretical physicist at Rice, UH physicist Margaret Cheung, and UTHealth neurobiologist Neal Waxham worked together to understand the complex process memories experience in the process of being made.

"This is one of the most interesting problems in neuroscience: How do short-term chemical changes lead to something long term, like memory?" Waxham says in a release from Rice. "I think one of the most interesting contributions we make is to capture how the system takes changes that happen in milliseconds to seconds and builds something that can outlive the initial signal."

Without trust, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down, according to this Rice University research. Pexels

While U.S. soldiers battled in Vietnam, inside the White House, President Lyndon Johnson grew increasingly suspicious of those closest to him. The legendary political dealmaker now believed that any opposition to the war was part of a conspiracy against him; aides who questioned his policy might be part of it. According to research using newly available interviews and telephone transcripts, Johnson's distrust may have been triggered by the very experience of being in power.

But how, exactly? In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman and a team of colleagues delve deeply into the interaction of power and trust, seeking answers about when and why wielding power degrades leaders' belief in those around them.

The question has deep implications not only in politics, but also in business. "Managers must trust employees' willingness to comply with instructions and keep the company's best interest in mind," Mooijman notes. Without that trust, past research shows, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down. Leaders who successfully craft trusting bonds with their coworkers and employees, on the other hand, are more effective than those who don't.

To learn why leaders might abandon that trust, Mooijman's team set up four studies. First, though, they had to establish a working definition of trust. Trust, they proposed, is the willingness to be vulnerable to another party's actions, based on the expectation that the other party will perform a specific action important to the truster — even without the truster's ability to monitor or control the activity. Essential to a trusting relationship: the expectation of the other party's goodwill, and the willingness to expose themselves to possible exploitation if that goodwill fails.

Whether you work in an indie coffee shop or a giant software company, most workers can name a leader who lacks that kind of trust. Many also have had the good luck of a leader who isn't lacking in that department. The difference between such managers, Mooijman's team found, may be the stability of their power.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to keep power, obviously. In relationships, power holders are able to disregard others' wishes and pursue their own. Within the individual, power boosts self-esteem and encourages behaviors such as expressing amusement and happiness. Less obvious, however, is the effect of fearing a loss of power. Leaders whose power feels unstable experience this physically, with changes in heart rate and blood pressure. They have a heightened awareness of colleagues they perceive as threats, and are more prone to divide coworkers and disrupt their alliances.

When power holders or leaders perceive their power to be unstable, it's that prospect of power loss that erodes their trust in those around them, even helpful and often unsuspecting colleagues. So strong is this effect that it occurs even when the loss of power comes with an economic benefit, Mooijman notes. "Unstable power decreases trust," the team found, "regardless of whether we provided participants with a justification of their unstable position."

To reach their conclusions, Mooijman's team first surveyed 206 participants assembled through Amazon's Mechanical Turk software. Each participant was randomly assigned a power ranking (high or low) and asked to imagine being a VP of sales at a mid-sized firm. Some were told that as part of a productivity initiative they would be reassigned to other divisions. The participants were then asked to rank their perception of their power at their firm and their perception of their job stability there. Regardless of whether their job reassignment was explained or not, the researchers found, the participants who perceived their jobs — that is, their power — to be unstable showed more mistrust of their coworkers.

A final study, a field experiment with real life managers and subordinates, reinforced these findings. Managers in positions of relatively high power who perceived their jobs were unstable were more prone to voice distrust about their subordinates.

While instability is built into political careers, Mooijman's findings have practical implications in other industries. For example, the common practice of moving workers between departments, meant to build insight and productivity, may backfire. Instead of strengthening team spirit, the strategy will likely foment distrust. Similarly, at high levels of power, emphasizing job instability with tactics such as high-stakes, winner-take-all performance metrics might be counterproductive.

Power doesn't always erode trust, the researchers found. Leaders who felt their power was secure didn't show the same level of suspicion as those who felt their roles were insecure. But when power seems fragile, the research revealed, even the most seasoned leaders are prone to abandon trust in their colleagues and see work as a battlefield.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor in the management department (organizational behavior division) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.