Dengue vaccine could cause more severe infections in some settings.

Dengue (pron. DEN-gay) is one of the most common viral infections around the world, with widespread occurrence in Africa and Southeast Asia, and can lead to the life-threatening hemorrhagic fever. Although most people recover well, UF researchers have found the first approved dengue vaccine may increase the incidence of more severe disease if used in populations with low exposure or transmission of dengue.

Researchers at the University of Florida and other institutions have created models highlighting the risks associated with the vaccine, called CYD-TDV and trademarked Dengvaxia, and the regions where implementing it would prove most effective without producing undue disease burden. The research was published on Sept. 2, 2016 in the journal Science.

Dengue is a member of the flavivirus family, which has unique characteristics that may evade and confuse both the natural immune system and vaccine-given immunity. Although previous infections with a flavivirus contribute to a cumulative immunity against it, the immune system may be compromised for related viruses (including Zika, West Nile, and yellow fever). Previous research has shown that flaviviruses may block cell receptors that support the immune system. Even when the immune system “learns” the virus and produces antibodies, the strains of flaviviruses have wide genetic in how they enter cells. After first infection, the immune system still recognizes viral proteins upon second or related infection. Counterintuitively, antibodies cannot disable the virus; they imperfectly recognize it, creating a partially neutralized virus that is actually more likely to enter cells. Thus, in natural dengue infections, immunity induced by a prior infection is a major risk factor for severe illness. As such, individuals experiencing their second natural dengue infection have a higher risk of severe disease than those with their infection.

After two infections, however, the risk of severe infection decreases. Because the vaccine imitates a natural infection, it works best in areas where people have already been exposed to the virus.

“In places with high transmission intensity, most people have already been exposed to dengue at the time of vaccination and the vaccine has higher efficacy on average,” explains Derek Cummings, professor of biology at the University of Florida and an author of the study. “However, in places with lower transmission intensity, where individuals haven’t been previously exposed, the vaccine can place people at risk of severe disease and increase the number of hospitalized cases.”

Vaccine trials were conducted with over 30,000 participants from 10 countries across the globe and looked for evidence that vaccinated individuals could be placed at increased risk but found little evidence. However, an analysis of the publicly available trial data by a team of researchers at the University of Florida, Imperial College London and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health suggests that at both population and individual scales, the vaccine could increase dengue disease if used in the wrong settings.

Given the dangers associated with vaccinating someone who has never been exposed to dengue virus, the authors recommend a point of care screening tool that could identify those who have been infected in the past. The World Health Organization agrees, recommending that countries consider introduction of the dengue vaccine only in geographic settings where epidemiological data indicate a high burden of disease.

The vaccine, which was produced by Sanofi-Pasteur, has already been licensed by six countries. The manufacturers of the vaccine have acknowledged that it does not work as well in those who have not been naturally infected before vaccination. This is consistent with the finding that the vaccine also tends to be less effective in young kids who haven’t lived long enough to be infected.

The work was funded by the UK Medical Research Council, the UK National Institute of Health Research under the Health Protection Research Unit initiative, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIH) under the MIDAS initiative, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Benefits and risks of the Sanofi-Pasteur dengue vaccine: Modeling optimal deployment” by Neil M. Ferguson, Isabel Rodriguez-Barraquer, Ilaria Dorigatti, Luis Mier-y-Teran-Romero, Daniel J. Laydon and Derek A.T. Cummings is published in the journal Science.

– Rachel Wayne and Evan Barton

See more about Derek Cummings’ dengue research.

UF’s Barbara Mennel Awarded Prestigious German Fellowship to Study Women and Work in Film

Movies often are more telling of current social and economic issues than the news or research articles—gender issues especially so. The feminization of labor in the 21st century has been captured in film but not necessarily in scholarship. UF film studies professor Barbara Mennel seeks to fill that void with a new book project, Women and Work in Contemporary European Cinema, which recently received a boost from the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany. Mennel, who holds a joint appointment in the Department of English and the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, has been awarded a Marie Skłodowaska-Curie FCFP Senior Fellowship for her research project, which promises to result in the first book-length study on women in contemporary European film.

portrait of Barbara Mennel
Barbara Mennel Robert Landry

Filmmakers explain characteristics that are culturally considered feminine, such as service, care, flexibility, and mobility, through the films’ discourse: the story as told through dialogue, images, and symbols. Many 21st century films with female main characters reflect on the nature of work. “Since 2000, you see many films that capture the development from industrial to post-industrial labor and the rise of the service sector, which relies on skills traditionally associated with femininity,” says Mennel. “I ask, what do these films tell us about the changing nature of labor in the early 21st century?

Her project’s attention to gender and cinema will enhance theories about cultural representation of labor and economy in Europe. Mennel finds the filmmakers’ discourse to be “productive” despite prevailing attitudes that the feminization of labor “is a detrimental effect of neoliberal economies and post-Fordist labor regimes.” She’s referring, in a nutshell, to the belief that pumping capital into a highly efficient and specialized industrial system and its sociopolitical counterparts (developing rural areas for example) is the path towards progress. Yet the increasing participation of women in the workforce as well as an emphasis on the service sector may be counteracting that idea. “I argue that the current importance of women in European films about labor indicates a shift in our cultural understanding of the nature of work. I’m hoping to invigorate feminist theory, film studies, and European studies.”

Professor Mennel’s area of expertise is film studies with a research emphasis on contemporary European cinema and feminist theory. She is author of Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires, and Gay Cowboys (2012), Cities and Cinema (2008), and The Representation of Masochism and Queer Desire in Film and Literature (2007). She has co-edited Turkish German Cinema for the New Millennium: Sites, Sounds, and Screens (2014) and Spatial Turns: Space, Place, and Mobility in German Literature and Visual Culture (2010). This research project has also been supported by the Women in German Faculty Research Award in 2015 and a Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2013.

The American Chemical Society has just announced their 2016 Fellows, and UF Drago Chair of Chemistry George Christou is on the esteemed list. The ACS has named 57 chemists who have made significant contributions in their field in the July 18 issue of Chemical & Engineering News. Christou is one of only two Florida chemists named as a fellow.

Recently, Christou has been awarded the prestigious Nyholm Prize by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry, and was just named UF’s Teacher-Scholar of the Year for 2015-2016.

Christou says that being named that an ACS fellow is a testament to his “research success and my service to the ACS community through my conference organization and related activities.” Christou was also selected to 2014’s and 2015’s Highly Cited Researchers list, which includes only 200 chemists from around the world. Christou is “very proud to be one of them, since they represent the top 1% based on citations and thus scientific influence/impact.”

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With nearly 157,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals, and scientific conferences.

UF chemistry professor is first to use light to make gold crystal nanoparticles

A team of University of Florida researchers has figured out how gold can be used in crystals grown by light to create nanoparticles, a discovery that has major implications for industry and cancer treatment and could improve the function of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and solar panels.

Nanoparticles can be “grown” in crystal formations with special use of light, in a process called plasmon-driven synthesis. However, scientists have had limited control unless they used silver, but silver limits the uses for medical technology. The team is the first to successfully use gold, which works well within the human body, with this process.

“How does light actually play a role in the synthesis? [This knowledge] was not well developed,” said David Wei, an associate professor of chemistry who led the research team. “Gold was the model system to demonstrate this.”

Gold is highly desired for nanotechnology because it is malleable, does not react with oxygen and conducts heat well. Those properties make gold an ideal material for nanoparticles, especially those that will be placed in the body.

When polyvinylpyrrolidone, or PVP, a substance commonly found in pharmaceutical tablets, is used in the plasmon-driven synthesis, it enables scientists to better control the growth of crystals. In Wei’s research, PVP surprised the team by showing its potential to relay light-generated “hot” electrons to a gold surface to grow the crystals.

Wei standing in front of bookshelf
David Wei Rachel Wayne

“How does light actually play a role in the synthesis? Gold was the model system to demonstrate this.” – Wei David Wei

The research describes the first plasmonic synthesis strategy that can make high-yield gold nanoprisms. Even more exciting, the team has demonstrated that visible-range and low-power light can be used in the synthesis. Combined with nanoparticles being used in solar photovoltaic devices, this method can even harness solar energy for chemical synthesis, to make nanomaterials or for general applications in chemistry.

Wei has spent the last decade working in nanotechnology. He is intrigued by its applications in photochemistry and biomedicine, especially in targeted drug delivery and photothermal therapeutics, which is crucial to cancer treatment. His team includes collaborators from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where he has worked as a visiting scholar, and Brookhaven National Laboratory. In addition, the project has provided an educational opportunity for chemistry students: one high school student (through UF’s Student Science Training Program), two University scholars who also funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, five graduate students and two postdocs.

The research was supported by the Air Force Office of Science Research and National Science Foundation. The findings were published online on July 4 in Nature Materials.

See also on UF News.

UF Chemistry Professor Receives Award for Futuristic Polymer

Many people have experienced unpleasant side effects from medications – or just don’t like needles. One step to improving drug delivery for patients is to build “smart” proteins that can be released into the body as slowly and specifically as needed. Prof. Brent Sumerlin is doing just that, and has received the prestigious Hanwha-Total IUPAC Young Scientist Award for his work.

Polymer chemistry is the study and synthesis of macromolecules, which can be composed of thousands of atoms; the most commonly known examples are protein (an organic polymer) and plastic (an inorganic polymer). Sumerlin focuses on improving protein compounds that are used for vaccines and drugs, so that they can respond to the body’s feedback or be delivered without injection. He is also building self-healing polymers, such as plastic or cement that can retain their integrity despite damage.

An acclaimed teacher, Sumerlin runs the Sumerlin Research Group at UF, which is composed of 26 graduate, undergraduate, and postdoc researchers. Prof. Sumerlin has also received a Career Award from the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the Innovation Prize from the Journal of Polymer Science, and the Biomacromolecules / Macromolecules Young Inventor Award.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) is a comprehensive research and press federation that supports chemistry and related studies around the world. The Young Scientist Award is granted every two years at the IUPAC World Polymer Congress in Instanbul, Turkey.

UF English Professor Receives Guggenheim Fellowship

“She had to save face.” “He got under my skin.” These expressions may seem common now, but before the 19th century, people had a very different view of how humans lived in their bodies. UF English professor Pamela K. Gilbert is exploring the Victorian-era notions of skin as a reflection of people’s fundamental changes in worldview in this period of social upheaval. She has been awarded a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship to finish her book, Victorian Skin: Surface, Subjectivity, Affect.

Although skin is a focus of many contemporary issues, from race relations to self-image, skin wasn’t always the marker of one’s identity that it is today. Gilbert notes that it was in the Victorian era that people began to perceive the self as a surface phenomenon: anyone could scrutinize another’s appearance and know their identity and emotions, and yet their skin, a permeable membrane, might be insufficient to protect them or hold them together. In literature, this is shown through the realist mode: for example, a third-person novel that describes the characters’ appearances in great detail and focuses on the lives of “normal” people.

By studying works from writers such as Dickens, Carlyle, and Wilde, among many other authors who wrote about the French revolution, the Franklin expedition, and other tales of human morality and mortality, Gilbert has found that the Victorian era produced an emphasis on the surface of human bodies: the skin. This period of history also expanded scientific knowledge of human anatomy and DNA; surgery advanced in this period, as did psychology and dermatology. In portraying often-traumatic historical changes, Victorian literature often uses “narratives of flaying,” says Gilbert. An ancient form of execution that was rumored to have reemerged during the French Revolution, flaying also appeared in retellings of myths and, more literally, in the popularity of books bound in human flesh during this period.

portrait of Pamela Gilbert Pamela Gilbert

Gilbert has found that the Victorian era produced an emphasis on the surface of human bodies: the skin.

A self-described “archive rat,” Gilbert is the Albert Brick Professor in the Department of English. Her research interests include the Victorian novel, Victorian-era cultural and medical history, gender and the body, and medical humanities. She teaches courses in Victorian literature, types of feminism, gender and sexuality, and cultural studies. She notes that the dawn of mass literacy and affordable printing in the 19th century made the Victorian corpus of literature so large that no one can read all of it in their lifetime — a fascinating situation to Gilbert.

Gilbert’s work also examines the ideological changes in the Victorian era and the widening divide between science and philosophy. After the French revolution, science became associated with anarchy and individualism. A “safe science” had to be peddled to the thinkers and political leaders of Europe. Gilbert notes that the contemporary United States and Europe still have this problem. “All of those questions that we’re still trying to figure out are all bubbling up in this period,” she says.

The Guggenheim Fellowship program provides a six- to twelve-month grant for artists, scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and scientific researchers to have creative freedom. Awarded on the basis of exceptional contributions to their field, the 178 successful fellows were chosen from a group of nearly 3,000 applicants in the Guggenheim Foundation’s 92nd competition.

UF Professor of Chemistry Honored for Life’s Work

If you thought electronics couldn’t get any smaller or more powerful, you might be surprised to learn that physics research at UF is contributing to yet more advancements in nanotechnology. UF chemistry professor George Christou has received acclaim for his discovery of single-molecule magnets and metal-oxo clusters—microscopic, long-lasting substances with applications to medical, computing, and industrial technologies. The United Kingdom’s Royal Society of Chemistry awarded Christou the 2016 Nyholm Prize for Inorganic Chemistry for his pioneering work.

man holding molecular model sitting in front of bookshelf
George Christou in his office with a model of a single-molecule magnetRachel Wayne

Christou has also been appointed to the Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars, an honorary organization of exceptional professors and the advisory board to the Provost’s Office. The Academy offers policy guidance to encourage academic excellence through the confluence of teaching and research. Indeed, Christou was also UF’s Teacher-Scholar of the Year for 2015–2016.

Cyprus-born Christou is well versed in these complementary practices, having published over 560 articles and taught at several esteemed institutions in both the U.S. and the U.K. He is the Drago Chair of Chemistry at UF, and has won other awards from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Given his trans-Atlantic impact, knack for charismatic teaching, and his tremendous experience in the technology of metal, one might call him the Iron Man of UF.

The National Endowment for the Humanities announced its annual research fellowships on Dec. 14, 2015, and Professor Trysh Travis of the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research was on the list. She has received an NEH research fellowship for calendar year 2017 for a new book project, Reading Matters: Books, Bookmen, and the Creation of Mid-Century American Liberalism, 1930-1980.

At its most basic, Reading Matters is an institutional history examining the publishing industry’s efforts to modernize its rather Victorian business practices and align them with the new media and policy landscape taking shape at mid-century. Against this backdrop, the book explores the professional identity of the publishers who liked to call themselves “bookmen” and charts their struggles for cultural authority in an increasingly technocratic world. One way in which they bid for that authority was to cast themselves as stewards of democracy, using books and reading to safeguard the nation against the sinister illiberalisms of the period – fascism, communism, and “the mass mind.” The book also will explore the way publishers and publishing contributed to the distinctive liberal culture (and institutions) of the post-war United States.

Trysh Travis talks with three students in a classroom
Trysh Travis talks with students

Professor Travis is a literary and cultural historian of the 20th-century U.S., studying the gendered history of the book with a focus on reading communities and the publishing industry. Her first book, The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in fall 2009. Her writings on radical feminist publishing, contemporary spirituality, and popular culture have appeared in journals like Book History, American Quarterly, and Men and Masculinities, as well as in publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Bitch magazine.​​​​​​​

NSF DMREF awards 1.2 million to three UF Physics and Chemistry professors

Congratulations to Hai-Ping Cheng (Physics), George Christou (Chemistry) and Xiao-Guang Zhang (Physics), who have received a $1.2 million award from the NSF DMREF program. Inspired by the materials genome initiative, the focus of this joint theory/experiment, physics/chemistry project is the search for and design of novel, nano-structured, multifunctional molecular electronic materials.

From left: George Christou (Chemistry), Hai-Ping Cheng (Physics), and Xiao-Guang Zhang (Physics)
From left: George Christou (Chemistry), Hai-Ping Cheng (Physics), and Xiao-Guang Zhang (Physics)

University of Florida professors are studying how to make magnetic materials with some of the smallest dimensions possible. Magnetic materials are important for the electronics industry and the ongoing trend towards miniaturization of devices, has made the development of ever-smaller magnets essential. The team, led by Professor Cheng, is studying what are termed single-molecule magnets; these are individual molecules that function as magnets yet are smaller than those of traditional magnetic materials. The team is using advanced computational methods to predict which structures will yield the optimal magnetic properties and they are also studying ways to attach the single-molecule magnets to a surface to introduce certain effects crucial to the potential use of these materials in new technologies.

The project is providing multi-disciplinary training to the participating graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, research opportunities for high school students through the University of Florida’s Summer Student Training Program, and outreach to the general public through the including “Chemistry Day at the Mall” and “Physics Bus” activities. The team, has demonstrated from first-principles calculations that the quantum capacitance of a small molecule or nanocluster depends upon its magnetic or geometric configuration.

The research team now is focusing on synthesizing high nuclearity manganese carboxylate clusters with various ligands and correlating the structures with the self-capacitance of the clusters and the magnetic field needed for a low-spin state to a high-spin state transition. The group is using first-principles calculations to predict the effects of changing carboxylate ligands on the magnetic states of high nuclearity manganese clusters and the effects of support surfaces (e.g. BN) on the magnetic and electronic properties of these clusters. The team is synthesizing these systems and using various scanning tunneling microscopy, spectroscopic, and electrochemical studies to characterize the “charging” properties of the nanoclusters. By searching through the three basic “genes,” the molecule/cluster, the ligands, and the supporting substrate, the group is quantifying and characterizing how different combinations impact properties, and finding the best combination that produces the largest effect and is most suitable for applications.

Astronomers have long turned their telescopes, be they on satellites in space or observatories on Earth, to the wide swaths of interstellar medium to get a look at the formation and birth of stars. However, the images produced over the last 50 years look more like weather maps showing storm systems instead of glittering bursts of light that the untrained observer might expect of a “star map.” That is, until now.

Led by University of Florida astronomer Peter Barnes and Erik Muller at the National Astronomy Observatory of Japan, a team of international researchers has just released the most comprehensive images anyone has ever seen of the Milky Way’s cold interstellar gas clouds where new stars and solar systems are being born.

“These images tell us amazing new things about the Milky Way’s star-forming clouds,” said Peter Barnes. “For example, they show that we have probably underestimated the amount of material in these clouds by a factor of two or three. This has important consequences for how we measure the star formation activity, not only throughout the Milky Way, but also for all other galaxies beyond. Additionally, it gives us important new insights into the circumstances of the birth of our own solar system, such as the overall temperature, density and mass distribution in these clouds.”

The complexity of the images was made possible because of the telescope used for the study, the Mopra radio telescope located in Australia. The mapping survey itself is called “ThrUMMS,” which stands for the Three-mm Ultimate Mopra Milky Way Survey. The interstellar clouds that this survey targeted are so cold that they are made up molecules of hydrogen, rather than much warmer clouds where the hydrogen may be atomic or ionized.

“Only the molecular clouds are cold enough to allow gravity to collect material to form stars, but in fact, they are so cold that the hydrogen itself is undetectable by telescopes,” said Barnes.

The Mopra telescope was critical to the project’s success, because it can map several molecules at once, such as carbon monoxide and cyanogen, which act as tracers for the otherwise hard-to-see hydrogen. Simultaneously mapping multiple tracers allows astronomers to deduce the conditions in these clouds much more reliably and efficiently than if they had to map them separately.

The worldwide ThrUMMS team includes astronomers from the U.S., Japan, Australia, the U.K., Canada and several other countries. The survey is published in the Oct. 5, 2015 issue of Astrophysical Journal.

“We are working on several follow-up projects with the Mopra data,” said Barnes. “We continue to be enthused and inspired by these extraordinary images.”