Talking Music and Science with Yo-Yo Ma

It’s not every day that an amateur guitar picker gets to play a duet with an internationally renowned classical cellist. But that was my thrill this week as I joined Yo-Yo Ma in a creative interpretation of the traditional song, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Our short jam session capped off Mr. Ma’s appearance as this year’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture.

The event, which counts The Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, and Atul Gawande among its distinguished alumni, this year took the form of a conversation on the intersection of music and science—and earned a standing ovation from a packed house of researchers, patients, and staff here on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, MD.

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Precision Oncology: Epigenetic Patterns Predict Glioblastoma Outcomes

Brain scan analysis

Caption: Oncologists review a close-up image of a brain tumor (green dot).
Credit: National Cancer Institute

Scientists have spent much time and energy mapping the many DNA misspellings that can transform healthy cells into cancerous ones. But recently it has become increasingly clear that changes to the DNA sequence itself are not the only culprits. Cancer can also be driven by epigenetic changes to DNA—modifications to chemical marks on the genome don’t alter the sequence of the DNA molecule, but act to influence gene activity. A prime example of this can been seen in glioblastoma, a rare and deadly form of brain cancer that strikes about 12,000 Americans each year.

In fact, an NIH-funded research team recently published in Nature Communications the most complete portrait to date of the epigenetic patterns characteristic of the glioblastoma genome [1]. Among their findings were patterns associated with how long patients survived after the cancer was detected. While far more research is needed, the findings highlight the potential of epigenetic information to help doctors devise more precise ways of diagnosing, treating, and perhaps even preventing glioblastoma and many other forms of cancer.

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Snapshots of Life: Virus Hunting with Carbon Nanotubes

H5N2 trapped in carbon nanotubes

Credit: Penn State University

The purple pods that you see in this scanning electron micrograph are the H5N2 avian flu virus, a costly threat to the poultry and egg industry and, in very rare instances, a health risk for humans. However, these particular pods are unlikely to infect anything because they are trapped in a gray mesh of carbon nanotubes. Made by linking carbon atoms into a cylindrical pattern, such nanotubes are about 10,000 times smaller than width of a human hair.

The nanotubes above have been carefully aligned on a special type of silicon chip called a carbon-nanotube size-tunable-enrichment-microdevice (CNT-STEM). As described recently in Science Advances, this ultrasensitive device is designed to capture viruses rapidly based on their size, not their molecular characteristics [1]. This unique feature enables researchers to detect completely unknown viruses, even when they are present in extremely low numbers. In proof-of-principle studies, CNT-STEM made it possible to collect and detect viruses in a sample at concentrations 100 times lower than with other methods, suggesting the device and its new approach will be helpful in the ongoing hunt for new and emerging viruses, including those that infect people.

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Creative Minds: Modeling Neurobiological Disorders in Stem Cells

Feng Zhang

Feng Zhang

Most neurological and psychiatric disorders are profoundly complex, involving a variety of environmental and genetic factors. Researchers around the world have worked with patients and their families to identify hundreds of possible genetic leads to learn what goes wrong in autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions. The great challenge now is to begin examining this growing cache of information more systematically to understand the mechanism by which these gene variants contribute to disease risk—potentially providing important information that will someday lead to methods for diagnosis and treatment.

Meeting this profoundly difficult challenge will require a special set of laboratory tools. That’s where Feng Zhang comes into the picture. Zhang, a bioengineer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, has made significant contributions to a number of groundbreaking research technologies over the past decade, including optogenetics (using light to control brain cells), and CRISPR/Cas9, which researchers now routinely use to edit genomes in the lab [1,2].

Zhang has received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to develop new tools to study multiple gene variants that might be involved in a neurological or psychiatric disorder. Zhang draws his inspiration from nature, and the microscopic molecules that various organisms have developed through the millennia to survive. CRISPR/Cas9, for instance, is a naturally occurring bacterial defense system that Zhang and others have adapted into a gene-editing tool.

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Birth Year Predicts Bird Flu Risk

Incidence of Avian Flu vs. Year of Birth

Caption: Birth years of people in China who contracted H7N9 avian flu from 1997-2015 (left); birth years of people in Cambodia, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam who contracted H5N1 avian flu from 1997-2015 (right).
Source: Adapted from Science. 2016 Nov 11;354(6313):722-726.

You probably can’t remember the first time you came down with the flu as a kid. But new evidence indicates that the human immune system never forgets its first encounters with an influenza virus, possibly even using that immunological “memory” to protect against future infections by novel strains of avian influenza, or bird flu.

In a study that looked at cases of bird flu in six countries in Asia and the Middle East between 1997 and 2015, an NIH-supported research team found that people born before 1968 were at lower risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus than were those born afterwards [1]. Just the opposite was true of another emerging strain of bird flu. People born before 1968 were at greater risk of becoming seriously ill or dying of H7N9, while those born after that date were more often protected.

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