Yale Daily News

Despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yale researchers have continued to push the frontiers of science, publishing hundreds of scientific articles and developing new treatments for disease. 

Over the past several years, many Yale researchers have devoted their attention to research concerning genetic markers for disease, the development of RNA vaccines, COVID-19 outcomes and new disease therapies. While some labs focused on targeting known diseases to develop vaccines or new therapies, others attempted to better understand the mechanisms that underlie human reactions to new or misunderstood ailments. 

“Since 1861, when Yale granted the first PhD in science awarded in North America to Arthur Williams Wright, Yale has been a leader in the sciences,” Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote to the News. “In the ensuing 160 years, Yale has remained at the forefront of American science, with field-defining contributions across the social, biological, physical and mathematical sciences, both theoretical and applied.”

In late April of 2022, Yale researchers published a study where they analyzed a data set of cancer cell genomes to link specific cancer types to patient outcomes. The study, led by Jason Sheltzer, a professor of surgery at the Yale School of Medicine, and Joan Smith, a software engineer at Google, classified different cancer cells based on their epigenetic and genetic traits. Then, through “big data analysis,” Smith was able to link certain characteristics to increased rates of patient mortality. The researchers hope that their study will be used to help guide physicians when making decisions about patient treatments in the future. 

In March 2022, another study concerning cancer cells found that certain genes within T cells can be amplified to increase the immune cells’ ability to target and kill cancer cells. In a healthy patient, T cells are responsible for identifying and destroying cells that exhibit signs of cancer, such as uncontrolled cell division. However, many cancer types can escape the immune system because they resemble normal, healthy cells. The researchers from the Yale School of Medicine detailed their experimental design and explained that certain genes within T cells, when amplified, can help increase T cell affinity for cancer cells, thereby providing a potential therapeutic avenue. 

In January of 2021, the Grief Lab at Yale also identified a specific gene that could be used to develop treatments for a heart defect called supravalvular aortic stenosis, or SVAS. SVAS is a result of a mutation within the elastin gene that causes muscle cells to divide at a faster rate and form more cell layers within the artery. Ultimately, patients suffering from SVAS have restricted blood flow through their hearts, which can lead to heart failure. The researchers found that deleting a gene called NOTCH3 or a ligand called JAGGED1 can help restore normal cell division rates.   

Yale researchers have also studied mental health and psychological markers for illness over the past several years. In a March 2021 study, the Yale School of Public Health released a paper detailing its findings about the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the mental health of healthcare workers. The pandemic placed immense pressure on healthcare workers, leading to increased rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD. The study proposed increasing social networks through peer-support systems and wellness checks to strengthen morale. 

The past two years have also witnessed the development of two major RNA vaccines in Yale labs: an mRNA Lyme disease vaccine in November 2021 and a RNA malaria vaccine in March 2021. 

The Lyme disease vaccine, developed by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine, triggers an immune response at the site of the tick bite, increasing the chances that the tick will be removed before it can cause a Lyme disease infection, and it provides partial protection against the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. 

“Lyme disease is the most common Tick–borne human illness in the United States, leaving an urgent need for either therapies or preventative strategies, such as a vaccine,” Jacqueline Mathias dos Santos, a co-first author on the paper and a postdoctoral associate at the School of Medicine, wrote in an email to the News. “Our vaccine is unique in that we don’t actually target the pathogen, we target the vector … instead.”

Yale researchers partnered with Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, to develop an RNA vaccine that protects against the malaria parasite. The vaccine is novel in that it uses self-amplifying RNA technology to increase the effectiveness of the vaccine, while limiting the amount of genetic material in the immunization itself. 

The pandemic was also a major source of scientific research. Yale researchers, in response to growing COVID-19 infection rates despite the widespread use of mRNA vaccines such as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna, began developing a nasal booster vaccine to help prevent COVID-19 infection. In a study published in late January 2022, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine introduced their intranasal COVID-19 vaccine that builds off the immunity provided by the mRNA vaccines to induce an immune response within the nasal passages. Their hope is to use this intranasal vaccine in addition to the mRNA vaccines to prevent infections rather than only prevent severe illness. 

The Iwasaki lab at Yale, which was at the forefront of COVID-19 research throughout the pandemic, also published a study explaining that the viral load detected in a saliva sample is a better predictor of patient outcome than the viral load in a nasopharyngeal test. 

“We found that patients who ultimately died from COVID had a high saliva viral load throughout the course of illness,” Julio Silva, a researcher in the Iwasaki Lab and the lead author of the study, told the News. “Patients who survived were able to successfully bring down their viral loads.” 

In addition to studying markers for disease and developing vaccines to prevent illness, Yale researchers have published studies outlining potential new treatments for disease and studying their efficacy.

Daniel Wiznia, an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the medical school, has been working on a stem cell treatment for patients with hip bone necrosis. He aims to harvest the stem cells of patients with early stage necrosis, use those stem cells to heal the bone and prevent a hip collapse. Many patients are unaware that they are suffering from osteonecrosis and only realize it when their hip collapses, at which point the only solution is a hip replacement. Wiznia hopes to use his stem cell treatment and increase screening for the early stages of osteonecrosis to help prevent hip replacement surgery in younger patients. 

“What has been done in the past is we’ve tried to get new blood vessels to grow in the region where the blood vessels have died by taking the core of the dead bone out of the hip,” Wiznia said. “This would cause injury and cause stem cells to travel to the site of injury and enter it for repair. What’s different is this technique to help guide the core decompression and stem cells.”

In collaboration with GE Research, Raimund Herzog, an assistant professor of endocrinology at the Yale School of Medicine, developed an ultrasound treatment for patients with Type II diabetes. The treatment uses ultrasound waves to target a specific pathway that is responsible for regulating glucose uptake and lower blood sugar levels. The treatment was successful in rats and is currently undergoing clinical trials in humans to determine if ultrasounds are a feasible alternative to current mitigation strategies.

Yale has over 1,200 laboratories working on research in STEM fields.

SELIN NALBANTOGLU
Selin Nalbantoglu covers breakthrough research for SciTech. She is a first-year in Saybrook College.