Caption: A mix of cells collected from an abdominal cancer. The cancer cells (green) are positive for a cell surface cancer marker called EpCAM. The red cell is a normal mesothelial cell. The nuclei of all the cells are stained blue. Each of the five rows in the red, orange, and yellow “heat map” in the corner represents one cell, and the intensity of the color in each of the ~30 narrow columns reflects the abundance of a particular protein. It is apparent that there is a lot of heterogeneity in this collection of cancer cells. Credit: Ralph Weissleder, Center for Systems Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston
The proteins speckling the surface of a cancer cell reveal critical clues—the type of cancer cell and a menu of possible mutations that may have triggered the malignancy. Since these proteins are exposed on the outside of the cell, they are also ideal targets for so-called precision cancer therapies (especially monoclonal antibodies), optimized for the particular individual. But in the past, to analyze and identify these different proteins, large samples of tissue have been needed. Typically, these are derived from surgical biopsies. But biopsies are expensive and invasive. Furthermore, they aren’t a practical option if you want to monitor the effects of a drug in a patient closely over time.
Using a minimally invasive method of cell sampling called fine needle aspiration, physicians can collect miniscule cell samples frequently, cheaply, and safely. But, until now, these tiny samples only provided enough material to analyze a handful of cell surface proteins. So, it comes as particularly good news that NIH-funded researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have developed a new technology that quickly identifies hundreds of these proteins simultaneously, using just a few of the patient’s cells . The key to this new method is a clever adaptation of the familiar barcode.
Caption: A neuron (red) in the auditory cortex of a mouse brain receives input from axons projecting from the thalamus (green). Also shown are the nuclei (blue) of other cells. Credit: Emily Petrus, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
Many people with vision loss—including such gifted musicians as the late Doc Watson (my favorite guitar picker), Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli, and the Blind Boys of Alabama—are thought to have supersensitive hearing. They are often much better at discriminating pitch, locating the origin of sounds, and hearing softer tones than people who can see. Now, a new animal study suggests that even a relatively brief period of simulated blindness may have the power to enhance hearing among those with normal vision.
In the study, NIH-funded researchers at the University of Maryland in College Park, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, found that when they kept adult mice in complete darkness for one week, the animals’ ability to hear significantly improved . What’s more, when they examined the animals’ brains, the researchers detected changes in the connections among neurons in the part of the brain where sound is processed, the auditory cortex.
Caption: Micrograph of laboratory-grown rat heart muscle cells. Fluorescent labeling shows mitochondria (red), cytoskeleton (green), and nuclei (blue). Credit: Credit: Douglas B. Cowan and James D. McCully, Harvard Medical School, Boston
This may not look like your average Valentine’s Day card, but it’s an image sure to warm the hearts of many doctors and patients. Why? This micrograph, a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2013 BioArt Competition, shows cells that have been specially engineered to repair the damage done by heart attacks—which strike more than 700,000 Americans every year.
Working with rat heart muscle cells grown in a lab dish, NIH-supported bioengineers at Harvard Medical School used transplant techniques to boost the number of tiny powerhouses, called mitochondria, within the cells. If you look closely at the image above, you’ll see the heart muscle cells are tagged in green, their nuclei in blue, and their mitochondria in red.
Credit: Jane Ades, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH
Just this year, we’ve reached the point where we can sequence an entire human genome for less than $1,000. That’s great news—and rather astounding, since the first human genome sequence (finished in 2003) cost an estimated $400,000,000! Does that mean we’ll be able to use each person’s unique genetic blueprint to guide his or her health care from cradle to grave? Maybe eventually, but it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.
Before we can use your genome to develop more personalized strategies for detecting, treating, and preventing disease, we need to be able to interpret the many variations that make your genome distinct from everybody else’s. While most of these variations are neither bad nor good, some raise the risk of particular diseases, and others serve to lower the risk. How do we figure out which is which?
Jay Shendure, an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, has an audacious plan to figure this out, which is why he is among the 2013 recipients of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award.
Caption: A new type of stem cells, called STAPs. Credit: Haruko Obokata, RIKEN Ctr. for Dev. Biol., Kobe, Japan
Taking a 30-minute soak in a bath of acid might not sound like a good thing. But it happens to be the latest—and the most shockingly simple—strategy for creating stem cells.
The powerful appeal of stem cells for science and medicine lies in the fact that they are both self-renewing and pluripotent, which means they can develop into almost any type of cell in the body. Stem cell technology offers an essentially limitless supply of specialized cells to researchers for exploring the fundamentals of biology, screening for new drugs, and developing new ways to regenerate damaged tissue and repair diseased organs.