LabTV: Young Scientist Curious About How Cancer Cells Thrive

Craig RamirezThis week’s featured LabTV video takes us to New York City to see what’s going on in the world of Craig Ramirez, a young scientist who’s trying to find ways “to starve cancer cells.” Building on an interest in science that stretches back to first grade, this New Jersey native is busy working towards a Ph.D. in the lab of Dafna Bar-Sagi, an NIH-supported researcher at the NYU Langone Medical Center. (Oddly enough, Dr. Bar-Sagi and I actually collaborated more than 20 years ago when we were both junior professors on a project studying the genetic disease neurofibromatosis.)

Ramirez’s goal is to develop targeted approaches to disrupt the metabolism of cancer cells in ways that shrink or eliminate a patient’s tumor, while leaving healthy cells unharmed. He’s tackling this challenge by designing and conducting experiments on human cancer cell lines. But Ramirez isn’t working on this all alone. If he runs into an obstacle or needs to bounce an idea off someone, he just turns to his mentor or other colleagues in the friendly, fast-paced New York lab. By the way, it’s only natural that Ramirez would appreciate the value of strong teamwork—he was the starting shortstop on his high school baseball team!

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Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancers: Moving Toward More Precise Prevention

Homologous Hope sculpture

Caption: “Homologous Hope” sculpture at University of Pennsylvania depicting the part of the BRCA2 gene involved in DNA repair.
Credit: Dan Burke Photography/Penn Medicine

Inherited mutations in the BRCA1 gene and closely related BRCA2 gene account for about 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers and 15 percent of ovarian cancers [1]. For any given individual, the likelihood that one of these mutations is responsible goes up significantly in the presence of  a strong family history of developing such cancers at a relatively early age. Recently, actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she’d had her ovaries removed to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer—news that follows her courageous disclosure a couple of years ago that she’d undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy after learning she’d inherited a mutated version of BRCA1.

As life-saving as genetic testing and preventive surgery may be for certain individuals, it remains unclear exactly which women with BRCA1/2 mutations stand to benefit from these drastic measures. For example, it’s been estimated that about 65 percent of women born with a BRCA1 mutation will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lives—which means approximately 35 percent will not. How can women in this situation be provided with more precise, individualized guidance on cancer prevention? An international team, led by NIH-funded researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, recently took an important first step towards answering that complex question.

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Of Microbes, Molecules, and Maps

3D molecular topographical skin maps

Bouslimani et al., PNAS

These glow-in-the-dark images may look like a 60’s rock album cover, but they’re actually a reflection of some way cool science. Here are maps showing the diversity of bacteria (left) and “acquired” molecules (right) on the skin of a healthy man. Blue indicates areas of least diversity; green/yellow, medium; and orange/red, the greatest.

To create these maps, NIH-funded researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and their colleagues swabbed the skin of a male volunteer at roughly 400 spots to sample for bacteria. Then, they swabbed the same spots again to sample for chemicals and other types of molecules, natural or synthetic, that the man’s skin acquired over the course of his daily activities. Examples of such molecules include chemicals in shampoo and grooming products, polymers shed from clothing, and proteins released when skin cells are damaged or die.

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Repurposing an “Old” Drug for Alzheimer’s Disease

Senator Mikulski during her tour of NCATS

Caption: Here I am with Senator Barbara Mikulski (center) and NCATS Director Chris Austin (right). Credit: NIH

Alzheimer’s disease research is among the many areas of biomedical science that Senator Barbara Mikulski has championed during her nearly 40 years on Capitol Hill. And it’s easy to understand why the Senator is concerned: an estimated 5 million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, and those numbers are expected to rise exponentially as the U.S. population continues to age.

So, I was thrilled to have some encouraging progress to report last week when Senator Mikulski (D-MD) paid a visit to NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) in Gaithersburg, MD. After a whirlwind tour of the cutting-edge robotics facility for high throughput screening of small molecules, she joined me and NCATS Director Dr. Chris Austin in announcing that, thanks to an innovative public-private partnership, an experimental drug originally developed to fight cancer is now showing promise against Alzheimer’s disease.

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Snapshots of Life: Cell Skeleton on the Move

Keratinocyte

Credit: Torsten Wittmann, University of California, San Francisco

Cells are constantly on the move. They shift, grow, and migrate to new locations—for example, to heal a wound or to intercept an infectious agent as part of an immune response. But how do cells actually move?

In this image, Torsten Wittmann, an NIH-funded cell biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, reveals the usually-invisible cytoskeleton of a normal human skin cell that lends the cell its mobility. The cytoskeleton is made from protein structures called microtubules—the wispy threads surrounding the purple DNA-containing nucleus—and filaments of a protein called actin, seen here as the fine blue meshwork in the cell periphery. Both actin and microtubules are critical for growth and movement.

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