JBPHH assists UH with Alzheimer’s, autism research

Sponges grow on the floating docks of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Rainbow Bay Marina April 25. Various types of sponges found in the marina are the subject of research for Dr. Harry Davis, associate clinical professor at John A. Burns School of Medicine at University of Hawaii. Photo by MC3 Jessica O. Blackwell

MC2 William J. Blees

Navy Public Affairs Detachment West, Det. Northwest

Dr. Harry Davis, a researcher at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Manoa is working with Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) to extract marine sponges from Rainbow Bay Marina to be used for Alzheimer’s and Autism research.

“The Navy is a strong advocate for education and technology. It’s amazing to learn that the sponges found in the waters of our own marina may help research on brain structure and development,” said Cmdr. Corey Hurd, JBPHH, chief staff officer.

Davis and his team have been studying sponges for more than a year. They were using sponges from floating docks at Hawaii Kai Marina until an ecological change produced algae blooms that killed the sponges. After searching for new healthy sponges, his team came across the ones on Rainbow Bay Marina. Due to the marina’s stable environment with deep and moving water, sponge growth is ideal because there is little fresh-water discharge.

The team primarily uses Blue Caribbean Sponges (Sigmadocia Caerulea).

“This particular type of sponge has a minimum amount of autofluorescence that can hinder the labs use of fluorescence microscopy,” Davis said.

The sponges can be difficult to find due to their ability to only colonize certain substrates such as plastic of floating docks or concrete.

Davis’ lab was granted permission to enter the dock and remove small amounts of sponge colonies for research.

His team separates single stem cell and monitors their development into “mini-sponges” as they form networks of fibro-blasts directed by the extracellular matrix. They then chemically manipulate the extracellular matrix and look at the effects on development.

“We believe that many neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum, involve the extracellular matrix,” Davis said. “We have evidence that the extracellular matrix actually binds and distributes signaling molecules such as growth factors and cytokines. The sponges are an ideal simple system since we can manipulate the matrix to see if they can still form mini sponges and other native growth forms.”

His team will be presenting posters at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Conference in San Diego from April 21-25. They are also in the process of publishing some of their work.

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Category: News