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Houston research: Why you should ditch one-size-fits-all protocols

Lab safety isn't always standard. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Safety protocols are only as good as the Principal Investigators who enforce them and the students who adopt them. Operating a lab is no easy feat. It takes patience, consistency and teamwork. In an attempt to learn more about how PIs create a culture of safety, I reached to a few across our university campus to get some tips and tricks for creating effective safety procedures.

A PI’s guide to safety protocols

“My protocol is very clear, and students know the proper attire, but I had one student who arrived at the lab with shorts on. Apparently, he came from the gym … I guess he thought it was OK, but it’s definitely not,” said Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering.

Orman’s research work aims to explore and analyze why some bacterial cells are stubborn to certain therapies. Currently, he uses E. Coli as a model organism to conduct his experiments. His research has the potential to uncover the best methods for combating drug resistant bacteria (aka “super bugs”) which is a seen by many researchers and health organizations as a global crisis.

With such important work, Orman must run a tight ship in his lab. When I spoke to him, he provided his best practices for lab safety.

1. Signage is key

Hazard communication is critical in the lab. “Signage is VERY important. we’ve had students leave Bunsen burners on, which is extremely hazardous. I have signs up everywhere reminding students to turn off the flame.”

2. Remind and repeat

The rule of thumb: you need to hear something 5-7 times for it to sink in. “My lab is new, and my students are young and still learning how to conduct themselves safely. I have to remind them of the protocol religiously, but I’d rather repeat something a million times than have an unfortunate incident occur.”

3. Tailor safety protocols to suit your lab

One size does not fit all when it comes to lab safety. “UH has wonderful, baseline safety protocol and resources for me to use, but every lab is different. I take the foundational information provided by the university and tailor it to fit the needs of my work.”

4. Take baby steps

Throwing students into the experimental deep end can be a big risk when it comes to safety. “Because I am a new researcher at UH and my students are new, I decided to take baby steps with my experiments. My work is about studying drug resistant bacteria, so I decided to begin my scientific exploration with E. coli, a less dangerous organism.” – No pseudomonas aeruginosa just yet.

5. Note to all students: Don’t be shy

“Over time, many of the students become friends. This becomes awkward if they witness their friend violating a safety rule. I encourage the students to speak up (even if it’s their friend), if they see something that threatens everyone’s safety. Everyone wins in the end.”

Safety is a part of the scientific process

Rachel Redfern, O.D., Ph.D., FAAO, is a UH faculty member and an active researcher. Her work focuses on ocular surface inflammation and the impact of contact lenses on normal and diseased eyes. With such sensitive work, safety in the lab is incredibly important to Redfern. She believes keeping her students safe begins at the top but depends on everyone in the lab.

“When students enter my lab, it’s my responsibility to create a safe space where they can perform experiments to answer their growing scientific questions,” said Redfern. “We work as a team to put safety first, but we’re all aware that everyone has different levels of lab safety experience – Every question (regarding safety) is a good one and the questions never asked are the dangerous ones.”

When asked how her students internalize a culture of safety, Redfern praised the education resources of the university.

“At UH, we have access to excellent training to promote a safe culture (shout out to Joe and the UH Environmental Health and Life Safety team!) and training is non-negotiable,” said Redfern. “Also, I often pair new students with seasoned students because setting a good example (among peers) is the best way to encourage students to follow safety practices during routine lab work.”

Eye on safety

When Redfern was a youngster in the lab, she learned that safety was critical to research.

“I was trained by scientists (and worked with peers) who view safety as an element of the scientific process,” said Redfern. “Fortunately, I haven’t been exposed to a ton of outrageous safety violations in my career; however, I have witnessed researchers smoking with latex gloves on and even eating in their dirty lab coats.”

At the end of the day, Redfern just wants to learn more about the complexities of the human eye and Orman wants to study super bugs and how to address a significant health issue. In order to do that, they must conduct experiments with the help of students in a safe environment. This takes team work, group and individual accountability, and everyone’s eye on safety.

When asked about his overall message to PIs and lab safety, Orman simply said, “We’re here for a purpose. We all must have each other’s back to stay safe and conduct meaningful research. It’s just how it is.”

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Ciandra Jackson, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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A Rice research team is tapping into materials science to better understand Alzheimer’s disease, a UH professor is developing a treatment for hereditary vision loss, and a BCM researcher is looking at stress and brain cancer. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on life-saving health care research thanks to new technologies.

Rice University scientists' groundbreaking alzheimer's study

Angel Martí (right) and his co-authors (from left) Utana Umezaki and Zhi Mei Sonia He have published their latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S. by 2060. A group of scientists from Rice University are looking into a peptide associated with the disease, and their study was published in Chemical Science.

Angel Martí — a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, and materials science and nanoengineering and faculty director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program — and his team have developed a new approach using time-resolved spectroscopy and computational chemistry, according to a news release from Rice. The scientists "found experimental evidence of an alternative binding site on amyloid-beta aggregates, opening the door to the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with amyloid deposits."

Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a main feature of Alzheimer’s, per Rice.

“Amyloid-beta is a peptide that aggregates in the brains of people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, forming these supramolecular nanoscale fibers, or fibrils” says Martí in the release. “Once they grow sufficiently, these fibrils precipitate and form what we call amyloid plaques.

“Understanding how molecules in general bind to amyloid-beta is particularly important not only for developing drugs that will bind with better affinity to its aggregates, but also for figuring out who the other players are that contribute to cerebral tissue toxicity,” he adds.

The National Science Foundation and the family of the late Professor Donald DuPré, a Houston-born Rice alumnus and former professor of chemistry at the University of Louisville, supported the research, which is explained more thoroughly on Rice's website.

University of Houston professor granted $1.6M for gene therapy treatment for rare eye disease

Muna Naash, a professor at UH, is hoping her research can result in treatment for a rare genetic disease that causes vision loss. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston researcher is working on a way to restore sight to those suffering from a rare genetic eye disease.

Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is expanding a method of gene therapy to potentially treat vision loss in patients with Usher Syndrome Type 2A, or USH2A, a rare genetic disease.

Naash has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Eye Institute to support her work. Mutations of the USH2A gene can include hearing loss from birth and progressive loss of vision, according to a news release from UH. Naash's work is looking at applying gene therapy — the introduction of a normal gene into cells to correct genetic disorders — to treat this genetic disease. There is not currently another treatment for USH2A.

“Our goal is to advance our current intravitreal gene therapy platform consisting of DNA nanoparticles/hyaluronic acid nanospheres to deliver large genes in order to develop safe and effective therapies for visual loss in Usher Syndrome Type 2A,” says Naash. “Developing an effective treatment for USH2A has been challenging due to its large coding sequence (15.8 kb) that has precluded its delivery using standard approaches and the presence of multiple isoforms with functions that are not fully understood."

BCM researcher on the impact of stress

This Baylor researcher is looking at the relationship between stress and brain cancer thanks to a new grant. Photo via Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Stress can impact the human body in a number of ways — from high blood pressure to hair loss — but one Houston scientist is looking into what happens to bodies in the long term, from age-related neurodegeneration to cancer.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems is assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His lab is located at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and he also is a part of the Therapeutic Innovation Center, the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Recently, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, awarded Boeynaems a grant to continue his work studying how cells and organisms respond to stress.

“Any cell, in nature or in our bodies, during its existence, will have to deal with some conditions that deviate from its ideal environment,” Boeynaems says in a BCM press release. “The key issue that all cells face in such conditions is that they can no longer properly fold their proteins, and that leads to the abnormal clumping of proteins into aggregates. We have seen such aggregates occur in many species and under a variety of stress-related conditions, whether it is in a plant dealing with drought or in a human patient with aging-related Alzheimer’s disease."

Now, thanks to the CPRIT funding, he says his lab will now also venture into studying the role of cellular stress in brain cancer.

“A tumor is a very stressful environment for cells, and cancer cells need to continuously adapt to this stress to survive and/or metastasize,” he says in the release.

“Moreover, the same principles of toxic protein aggregation and protection through protein droplets seem to be at play here as well,” he continues. “We have studied protein droplets not only in humans but also in stress-tolerant organisms such as plants and bacteria for years now. We propose to build and leverage on that knowledge to come up with innovative new treatments for cancer patients.”

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