Research Roundup: rural road fatalities and 3D stem cell research

In the top five areas of death, rural communities are more greatly affected than urban areas.

Nikki Pederson

University of Minnesota researchers published studies this past month ranging in topic from motor vehicles to stem cells. Here’s a look at some of them:

Motor vehicle fatalities in rural and urban areas

A study published late last month from the University’s Rural Health Research Center found that motor vehicle fatalities occur more often in rural counties than in urban ones. 

The study, published in the Health Equity journal, found that for every 100,000 people, rural counties experienced eight more motor vehicle deaths per year than urban counties.

Carrie Henning-Smith, the lead investigator on the study, said the number is significant, even if it might not seem like much at first. 

“When you think of the 300 million people in the country, that adds up,” Henning-Smith said.

While the study didn’t look at the specific reasons for the large difference, Henning-Smith said there are several possibilities. 

“The demographics of who is on the road are a little different in rural and urban areas,“ she said. 

People in rural areas usually have to drive more often and for longer distances and don’t have access to alternative transportation like public buses, taxis or ride-sharing apps, she added. 

Motor vehicle fatalities, when grouped with within unintentional injury deaths, are one of the five leading causes of death in the U.S., according to the study. Even though the overall rate of vehicle related deaths is declining, it’s still one of the leading causes of death for younger age groups.

Bacteria in drinking water pipes

A study released last week looked at the effects of chloramine and pipe material on microorganisms that grow on the inside of drinking water pipelines.

The majority of bacteria in drinking water distribution systems reside in biofilms on the interior walls of water mains. However, studying these mains and the resulting water quality can be difficult since access to the water mains is limited, according to the study’s abstract.

“It’s exceptionally expensive,” said Timothy LaPara, a project investigator and professor in the University’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering.“You’ve [got to] shut down the street, dig it up, take it out and put it back together.” 

LaPara and other researchers, including lead investigator Raymond Hozalski, set up a lab simulation for observation. 

“It gave us the flexibility and ability to change conditions,” LaPara said, something which cannot be done on an actual water main. 

Water mains are the larger pipes in a water distribution system, with individual service pipes attached that go out to homes, businesses and residences. The study looked at the effects of chloramines — chemical compounds that contain chlorine and ammonia — on the biofilm that resides inside those pipes. 

Minneapolis is currently undergoing a water main cleaning and lining project. Of the 1060 miles of water main pipes in Minneapolis, 760 miles are constructed of unlined cast iron, which was the standard until the 1970s. 

With time, unlined cast iron mains build up mineral deposits that restrict the flow of water and can result in discolored water. Rusty water meets all regulatory requirements but is aesthetically displeasing, according to the City’s website. 

Combining technology with science to study stem cells

Using 3D technology, researchers at the University Medical School were able to study the relatively unknown topic of muscle stem cells to better understand them, according to an article published earlier this month. 

Satellite cells, which are a type of muscle stem cell, are an important part of muscle regeneration, particularly after an injury or disease. However, not much has been studied or discovered about them in the past. Researchers used 3D technology to view the stem cells and blood vessels, which is the first time technology of this kind has been used in this way. 

Fluorescence microscopy — imaging that looks deep into tissue — allowed the researchers to light up the features of the sample and observe them as if they were emitting light on their own. 

“It’s the same phenomena as when you have a white t-shirt and then you shine UV light on it,” said Thomas Pengo, a co-author on the study and associate director of the University’s Informatics Institute. “The neat trick is that you can use specific fluorescent proteins that are already found in nature … and you can put it into cells or proteins or anything you want to see in a fluorescent microscope.”