Sex Differences in Asthma

Research Project

This summer, I was involved in research with Dr. Silveyra at Penn State College of Medicine. We looked at microRNAs, which are small pieces of RNA involved in various processes in the cell, including regulation of how much of a certain protein is made. MicroRNA-106a is a microRNA that influences asthma in mouse lung immune cells, which cause inflammation. miRNA-106a does so by preventing an anti-inflammatory protein, IL-10, from being made. Because we knew that more adult females have asthma than adult males, we hypothesized that miRNA-106a would also be expressed differently between males and females. To investigate this hypothesis, we allowed several mice to develop asthma by repeatedly exposing them to house dust mites for 5 weeks. We then exposed the mice, along with additional mice that did not develop asthma as a control, to either ozone or filtered air for 3 hours. After that, we harvested the lungs and extracted the RNA from the tissue. We separated out miRNA-106a from the total RNA and determined its relative amount compared to the amount of another RNA that is always present in cells. We discovered several differences in how much miRNA-106a was present between males and females within treatment groups. Along with other factors, these differences in miRNA-106a levels in mice may play a role in the differences seen in human asthma, which affects about 8% of all people in the US. It could even lead to a new treatment for asthma that is specific to men or women.

Realities of Research

Doing research full time in a lab was more enjoyable than I expected. Each day looked different for me in terms of the tasks I needed to complete. I learned several new techniques, including RNA extraction and real time PCR, and I used these techniques very frequently throughout the summer. During the experiments, we had to repeat our real time PCR plates several times due to a lot of random error, and we had to repeat the RNA extraction for several samples because we didn’t get the amount of RNA we wanted. It was a long process, with many setbacks, but we finally got results from our experiments. We did see differences in the amount of miRNA-106a between males and females, but we did not see the differences that we expected. Because of this, we understood that miRNA-106a may not be causing all the differences seen between men and women with asthma, but other factors may cause the differences as well.

Life of a Scientist

As said earlier, the part I most appreciated about my summer as a scientist was that each day brought new tasks. However, experiments can take a long time to complete, with several setbacks and problems that need to be addressed along the way. There is no instant gratification; I had to work for every bit of data I had. But it is still rewarding when one can publish or present research at a conference, and other scientists listen and ask questions. To be a scientist, one must know how to work as a team and communicate clearly so everyone understands what their role is in the lab. I felt that my team was very good at doing that, and our lab environment was better for it. My lab team was a huge help to me in teaching me techniques, assisting me in carrying them out, and helping me to make sense of my results. All in all, the life of a scientist, though with many obstacles, is rewarding, and I would encourage anyone to check it out.

Rachel Steckbeck is a junior at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. She is a 2018 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow (UGSRF), and worked in Dr. Silveyra’s lab at Penn State College of Medicine in the summer of 2018 for 10 weeks. UGSRF is funded by the American Physiological Society. In the future, Rachel hopes to attend medical school and work at a local hospital or practice.

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