A Research Blog

New study discovers pervasive RNA changes in the epileptic brain

Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder afflicting over 60 million people worldwide. The disorder is characterised by a tendency to have recurring, unprovoked seizures, and can cause other health problems. While seizures can be in part controlled by medication, there is currently no effective cure for epilepsy.  More fundamental research is needed to better understand the disorder and to identify treatment targets.

DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth and function of all living organisms, while RNA is a molecule that, amongst other functions, is essential for the transmission and use of these genetic instructions. Both DNA and RNA are essential for all known forms of life.

Currently, most of the research in epilepsy is focused on mutations and variations in the DNA. However, other types of variations might occur specifically in the RNA, which is a process called RNA  editing. Hence, it may be important to examine both DNA and RNA variations in epilepsy. This new research shifts the focus from solely analysing DNA, to analysing RNA editing in the epileptic brain.

In a study published in Genome Research, Duke-NUS Medical School’s (Duke-NUS) Associate Professor Enrico Petretto examined the role of RNA editing in the brain and discovered a new disease mechanism for epilepsy. The study’s findings breathe new life into the field of RNA editing research and therapy development for epilepsy.

Colour my heart red

 Stem cell-derived human muscle fibers in an infarcted mouse heart are shown in this colourful image. Human cells are marked in green and the heart muscle is marked in red. The blue colour that can be seen is the cell nucleus.

Image by Chong Li Yen, a Research Associate in the laboratory of Professor Karl Tryggvason, 
Tanoto Foundation Professor of Diabetes Research
Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders Programme
Duke-NUS Medical School


Dr Adlina Maulod with Mdm Tan Swan Eng (front), aged 102, at the 2016 Centenarian Conference organised by Duke-NUS' Centre for Ageing Research and EducationResearch Fellow Dr Adlina Maulod recently joined Duke-NUS Medical School’s Centre for Ageing Research and Education (CARE), bringing a fresh perspective and lens to the research that CARE does. Today we talk to her about her background and role in CARE.

1. Tell us about your academic background.

I have always been interested in issues about power, identity and the body. I earned my PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Purdue University, specializing in gender and sexuality studies, to explore these issues.

 For my dissertation in Purdue, I explored how female same-sex couples become a family and navigate various reproductive, cultural and economic barriers in their desire to raise children. My work addresses the need to pay attention to stratified forms of reproduction, in which the privilege to bear and nurture children are unequally distributed as it is based on one’s marital status, race/ ethnicity, class, gendered sexuality and able-bodiedness. 

2. How does your academic background contribute to the work that you do now?

Touted as the most common cause of liver failure worldwide, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) manifests as inflammation and increased lipotoxicity in liver cells. Accumulation of fat in the liver has been cited as the cause of NASH. Specifically, the accumulation of saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid, in liver cells triggers inflammation, and results in oxidative stress and tissue damage. However, not everyone with fat accumulation in the liver develops NASH. Why is that?

Group photo

Pictured, from left to right: Dr. Jin Zhou, Prof Paul Yen and Asst Prof Rohit Sinha

In their second post, Drs Justin Ng and Chionh Yok Teng from the Bat Pack tell us more setting up the first bat colony for research in Singapore.

First author Dr Mohammad Talaei and co-senior authors Prof Koh Woon-Puay and Prof Yuan Jian Min

A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition had an interesting finding; Chinese elderly who had consumed milk were less likely than their counterparts to be diagnosed with hypertension. 

Globally, high blood pressure, or hypertension, is the leading risk factor for death associated with cardiovascular disease. A proven, effective way to prevent high blood pressure is adhering to DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which includes the consumption of fruits, vegetables, low- or non-fat dairy foods, whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry, nuts and beans.

The consumption of dairy products is believed to be a key factor in DASH that prevents high blood pressure. This belief has been substantiated by studies in populations that traditionally consume high levels of dairy. What’s interesting about the study, led by NUS’ Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH) PhD student Dr Mohammad Talaei and his supervisor Professor Koh Woon-Puay from Duke-NUS Medical School and SSHSPH, is that it is the first to show the same positive effect of dairy on high blood pressure, in a Asian population that traditionally has a relatively low consumption of dairy products.

In our final Research Story of 2016, we shift our attention to neuroscience and ask Associate Professor Wang Hongyan, Interim Director of the Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders Programme at Duke-NUS, for what she thinks is the biggest research story of 2016 to impact neuroscience research. Her pick, a home-grown story literally, is that of the midbrain organoid developed in Singapore by a team from Duke-NUS, A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore and the National Neuroscience Institute.

Making Mini-brains

NBD 2016How does your brain interface so seamlessly with the world? …retain memories? …learn? …determine your personality? And, where does it all go so wrong with neuropsychological disorders? Due to the complexities of the brain and difficulties in accessing human brain tissue for research, these questions have eluded scientists for a long time. Now, researchers are a step closer to answering these questions, by growing brain organoids in the lab. Brain organoids are essentially mini-brains grown in a petri dish, and show remarkable similarity to human brains with the same neural cell populations, 3D architecture and connectivity.

This week, we hear directly from the Health Services and Systems Research (HSSR) Programme at Duke-NUS about their pick for the biggest research story in 2016 to influence health services research. Director of the programme, Professor David Matchar, and Deputy Director, Amina Mahmood Islam, tell us more about non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and how NCDs impact future health services research.

The HSSR Programme considers the increase in chronic, NCDs globally, regionally and in Singapore, the key health services challenge we currently face.

Last time, we looked at Zika and microcephaly. As we continue our series on the top research stories of 2016, we asked Prof Stuart Cook, Director of the Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders (CVMD) Programme at Duke-NUS, for what he thought was the biggest research story of 2016 to impact CVMD research. His pick: the Exome Aggregation Consortium (ExAC). In today’s post, we find out more about ExAC and why it is such a big deal.

What ExACtly is the exome?

Our genome stores all the information necessary for life, it is like the body’s instruction manual on how to function. Each cell refers to this manual to determine which genes to express into proteins, thereby dictating a cell’s behaviour within a tissue, organ and system. The portions of the genome that directly code for these proteins make up the exome.

Variation within the exome exists due to the accumulation of mutations in the genome. Some of these variants have no effect on the proteins they code, while others render the protein useless and contributes to the development of disease. The question now is which variants contribute to disease, and which are noise?

What ExACtly is ExAC?

In this week’s Research Story of 2016, we turned to Prof Wang Linfa, Director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme at Duke-NUS, for his pick: the association of Zika infection during pregnancy with microcephaly births. Zika took centre stage in 2016, and will certainly continue to be a main character in research on emerging infectious diseases.

The Zika EmergencyBaby and Mozzie

On 1 February 2016, the world woke up to a new public health emergency: Zika. From then, Zika news hogged the headlines for months, with news agencies charting the spread of infection globally and tracking Zika research.   In the past year, this research has established the association of Zika infection during pregnancy with microcephaly births, while reinforcing the link of Zika infection to increased risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.



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