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Urao lab
Urao Lab

Urao Lab

Upstate researcher’s work may lead to better healing for diabetics

As a physician in his native Japan, Norifumi Urao, MD, PhD, got to see the effects basic science research could have on patient’s lives. In time, that led him to become a researcher himself, focusing on the mechanisms of tissue regeneration and wound healing.

At his lab at Upstate Medical University, Urao has been moving toward uncovering what causes a loss of healing ability and has shown that the process can be slowed or even reversed with treatment.

While Urao’s work has been done on mice, he sees a time coming when research on human cells could lead to effective treatments for those who suffer from a poor ability to heal, such as those with diabetes and the obese.

Healing involves stem cells properly responding to injury and Urao’s research has shown that those stem cells can be “reprogrammed” by environmental factors. “Environment changes how the genes are expressed,” he explains, “that causes new mechanisms.”

Those new mechanisms alter stem cells and “they start generating bad cells.”

Supported by the NIH and other grants, Urao’s research has discovered specific markers in mouse cells that indicate the healing mechanism have been compromised. Being able to identify such cells in humans could help clinicians recognize those at risk for poor outcomes.

More, Urao’s lab has found that certain medications can actually reverse the “reprogramming.”

Chronic nonhealing wounds are a major problem for diabetics. A recent study estimated that diabetic foot ulcers alone required more than $6 billion in annual spending by Medicare and patients.

Urao is hopeful his lab, where he is joined by a graduate student, a post-doc and a research scientist, will be able to begin work on human cells and replicate what they found in the lab’s mice cells.

As his research moves forward, Urao said Upstate’s new flow cytometry cell analyzer and sequencing machine will help characterize cells, identifying the sub-populations of the cell.

Upstate’s resources as a research institution, including cutting edge tools like the flow cytometric equipment as well as supporting staff skilled in the operation of such equipment, are two of the reasons Urao chose to come to Upstate in 2019.

Along with his work, Urao has found he enjoys the outdoor activity that the region offers, noting that it is a lot like Kyoto, where he earned his MD and PhD degrees. He and his family – wife and three school-age children – have come to enjoy hiking and camping in the Adirondacks. “It’s a little bit colder here,” he notes, “but both places have a beautiful fall.”