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Creative Minds

Deciphering Another Secret of Life

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Srivatsan Raman
Credit: Robin Davies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In 1953, Francis Crick famously told the surprised customers at the Eagle and Child pub in London that he and Jim Watson had discovered the secret of life. When NIH’s Marshall Nirenberg and his colleagues cracked the genetic code in 1961, it was called the solution to life’s greatest secret. Similarly, when the complete human genome sequence was revealed for the first time in 2003, commentators (including me) referred to this as the moment where the book of life for humans was revealed. But there are many more secrets of life that still need to be unlocked, including figuring out the biochemical rules of a protein shape-shifting phenomenon called allostery [1].

Among those taking on this ambitious challenge is a recipient of a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Srivatsan Raman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If successful, such efforts could revolutionize biology by helping us better understand how allosteric proteins reconfigure themselves in the right shapes at the right times to regulate cell signaling, metabolism, and many other important biological processes.

What exactly is an allosteric protein? Proteins have active, or orthosteric, sites that turn the proteins off or on when specific molecules bind to them. Some proteins also have less obvious regulatory, or allosteric, sites that indirectly affect the proteins’ activity when outside molecules bind to them. In many instances, allosteric binding triggers a change in the shape of the protein.

Allosteric proteins include oxygen-carrying hemoglobin and a variety of enzymes crucial to human health and development. In his work, Raman will start by studying a relatively simple bacterial protein, consisting of less than 200 amino acids, to understand the basics of how allostery works over time and space.

Raman, who is a synthetic biologist, got the idea for this project a few years ago while tinkering in the lab to modify an allosteric protein to bind new molecules. As part of the process, he and his team used a new technology called deep mutational scanning to study the functional consequences of removing individual amino acids from the protein [2].

The screen took them on a wild ride of unexpected functional changes, and a new research opportunity called out to him. He could combine this scanning technology with artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge imaging and computational tools to probe allosteric proteins more systematically in hopes of deciphering the basic molecular rules of allostery.

With the New Innovator Award, Raman’s group will first create a vast number of protein mutants to learn how best to determine the allosteric signaling pathway(s) within a protein. They want to dissect out the properties of each amino acid and determine which connect into a binding site and precisely how those linkages are formed. The researchers also want to know how the amino acids tend to configure into an inactive state and how that structure changes into an active state.

Based on these initial studies, the researchers will take the next step and use their dataset to predict where allosteric pathways are found in individual proteins. They will also try to figure out if allosteric signals are sent in one direction only or whether they can be bidirectional.

The experiments will be challenging, but Raman is confident that they will serve to build a more unified view of how allostery works. In fact, he hopes the data generated—and there will be a massive amount—will reveal novel sites to control or exploit allosteric signaling. Such information will not only expand fundamental biological understanding, but will accelerate efforts to discover new therapies for diseases, such as cancer, in which disruption of allosteric proteins plays a crucial role.

References:

[1] Allostery: an illustrated definition for the ‘second secret of life.’ Fenton AW. Trends Biochem Sci. 2008 Sep;33(9):420-425.

[2] Engineering an allosteric transcription factor to respond to new ligands. Taylor ND, Garruss AS, Moretti R, Chan S, Arbing MA, Cascio D, Rogers JK, Isaacs FJ, Kosuri S, Baker D, Fields S, Church GM, Raman S. Nat Methods. 2016 Feb;13(2):177-183.

Links:

Drug hunters explore allostery’s advantages. Jarvis LM, Chemical & Engineering News. 2019 March 10

Allostery: An Overview of Its History, Concepts, Methods, and Applications. Liu J, Nussinov R. PLoS Comput Biol. 2016 Jun 2;12(6):e1004966.

Srivatsan Raman (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Raman Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund


Looking for Answers to Epilepsy in a Blood Test

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Gemma Carvill and lab members
Gemma Carvill (second from right) with members of her lab. Courtesy of Gemma Carvill

Millions of people take medications each day for epilepsy, a diverse group of disorders characterized by seizures. But, for about a third of people with epilepsy, current drug treatments don’t work very well. What’s more, the medications are designed to treat symptoms of these disorders, basically by suppressing seizure activity. The medications don’t really change the underlying causes, which are wired deep within the brain.

Gemma Carvill, a researcher at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, wants to help change that in the years ahead. She’s dedicated her research career to discovering the genetic causes of epilepsy in hopes of one day designing treatments that can control or even cure some forms of the disorder [1].

It certainly won’t be easy. A recent paper put the number of known genes associated with epilepsy at close to 1,000 [2]. However, because some disease-causing genetic variants may arise during development, and therefore occur only within the brain, it’s possible that additional genetic causes of epilepsy are still waiting to be discovered within the billions of cells and their trillions of interconnections.

To find these new leads, Carvill won’t have to rely only on biopsies of brain tissue. She’s received a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award in search of answers hidden within “liquid biopsies”—tiny fragments of DNA that research in other forms of brain injury and neurological disease [3] suggests may spill into the bloodstream and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from dying neurons or other brain cells following a seizure.

Carvill and team will start with mouse models of epilepsy to test whether it’s possible to detect DNA fragments from the brain in bodily fluids after a seizure. They’ll also attempt to show DNA fragments carry telltale signatures indicating from which cells and tissues in the brain those molecules originate. The hope is these initial studies will also tell them the best time after a seizure to collect blood samples.

In people, Carvill’s team will collect the DNA fragments and begin searching for genetic alterations to explain the seizures, capitalizing on Carvill’s considerable expertise in the use of next generation DNA sequencing technology for ferreting out disease-causing variants. Importantly, if this innovative work in epilepsy pans out, it also can be applied to any other neurological condition in which DNA spills from dying brain cells, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

References:

[1] Unravelling the genetic architecture of autosomal recessive epilepsy in the genomic era. Calhoun JD, Carvill GL. J Neurogenet. 2018 Sep 24:1-18.

[2] Epilepsy-associated genes. Wang J, Lin ZJ, Liu L, Xu HQ, Shi YW, Yi YH, He N, Liao WP. Seizure. 2017 Jan;44:11-20.

[3] Identification of tissue-specific cell death using methylation patterns of circulating DNA. Lehmann-Werman R, Neiman D, Zemmour H, Moss J, Magenheim J, Vaknin-Dembinsky A, Rubertsson S, Nellgård B, Blennow K, Zetterberg H, Spalding K, Haller MJ, Wasserfall CH, Schatz DA, Greenbaum CJ, Dorrell C, Grompe M, Zick A, Hubert A, Maoz M, Fendrich V, Bartsch DK, Golan T, Ben Sasson SA, Zamir G, Razin A, Cedar H, Shapiro AM, Glaser B, Shemer R, Dor Y. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Mar 29;113(13):E1826-34.

Links:

Epilepsy Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Gemma Carvill Lab (Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago)

Carvill Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Skin Cells Can Be Reprogrammed In Vivo

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Daniel Gallego-Perez
Credit: The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus

Thousands of Americans are rushed to the hospital each day with traumatic injuries. Daniel Gallego-Perez hopes that small chips similar to the one that he’s touching with a metal stylus in this photo will one day be a part of their recovery process.

The chip, about one square centimeter in size, includes an array of tiny channels with the potential to regenerate damaged tissue in people. Gallego-Perez, a researcher at The Ohio State University Colleges of Medicine and Engineering, Columbus, has received a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to develop the chip to reprogram skin and other cells to become other types of tissue needed for healing. The reprogrammed cells then could regenerate and restore injured neural or vascular tissue right where it’s needed.

Gallego-Perez and his Ohio State colleagues wondered if it was possible to engineer a device placed on the skin that’s capable of delivering reprogramming factors directly into cells, eliminating the need for the viral delivery vectors now used in such work. While such a goal might sound futuristic, Gallego-Perez and colleagues offered proof-of-principle last year in Nature Nanotechnology that such a chip can reprogram skin cells in mice. [1]

Here’s how it works: First, the chip’s channels are loaded with specific reprogramming factors, including DNA or proteins, and then the chip is placed on the skin. A small electrical current zaps the chip’s channels, driving reprogramming factors through cell membranes and into cells. The process, called tissue nanotransfection (TNT), is finished in milliseconds.

To see if the chips could help heal injuries, researchers used them to reprogram skin cells into vascular cells in mice. Not only did the technology regenerate blood vessels and restore blood flow to injured legs, the animals regained use of those limbs within two weeks of treatment.

The researchers then went on to show that they could use the chips to reprogram mouse skin cells into neural tissue. When proteins secreted by those reprogrammed skin cells were injected into mice with brain injuries, it helped them recover.

In the newly funded work, Gallego-Perez wants to take the approach one step further. His team will use the chip to reprogram harder-to-reach tissues within the body, including peripheral nerves and the brain. The hope is that the device will reprogram cells surrounding an injury, even including scar tissue, and “repurpose” them to encourage nerve repair and regeneration. Such an approach may help people who’ve suffered a stroke or traumatic nerve injury.

If all goes well, this TNT method could one day fill an important niche in emergency medicine. Gallego-Perez’s work is also a fine example of just one of the many amazing ideas now being pursued in the emerging field of regenerative medicine.

Reference:

[1] Topical tissue nano-transfection mediates non-viral stroma reprogramming and rescue. Gallego-Perez D, Pal D, Ghatak S, Malkoc V, Higuita-Castro N, Gnyawali S, Chang L, Liao WC, Shi J, Sinha M, Singh K, Steen E, Sunyecz A, Stewart R, Moore J, Ziebro T, Northcutt RG, Homsy M, Bertani P, Lu W, Roy S, Khanna S, Rink C, Sundaresan VB, Otero JJ, Lee LJ, Sen CK. Nat Nanotechnol. 2017 Oct;12(10):974-979.

Links:

Stroke Information (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Burns and Traumatic Injury (NIH)

Peripheral Neuropathy (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Video: Breakthrough Device Heals Organs with a Single Touch (YouTube)

Gallego-Perez Lab (The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus)

Gallego-Perez Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Building Nanoparticles for Kidney Disease

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Eun Ji Chung
Photo courtesy of Eun Ji Chung

Great things sometimes come in small packages. That’s certainly true in the lab of Eun Ji Chung at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Chung and her team each day wrap their brains around bioengineering 3-D nanoparticles, molecular constructs that measure just a few billionths of a meter.

Chung recently received an NIH Director’s 2018 New Innovator Award to bring the precision of nanomedicine to autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD), a relatively common inherited disorder that affects about 600,000 Americans and 12 million people worldwide.

By age 60, about half of those battling ADPKD will have kidney failure, requiring dialysis or a kidney transplant to stay alive. For people with ADPKD, a dominantly inherited gene mutation causes clusters of fluid-filled cysts to form in the kidneys that grow larger over time. The cysts can grow very large and displace normal kidney tissue, progressively impairing function.

For Chung, the goal is to design nanoparticles of the right size and configuration to deliver therapeutics to the kidneys in safe, effective amounts. Our kidneys constantly filter blood, clearing out wastes that are removed via urine. So, Chung and her team will exploit the fact that most molecules in the bloodstream measuring less than 10 nanometers in diameter enter the kidneys, where they are gradually processed and eliminated from the body. This process will give nanoparticles time to bind there and release any therapeutic molecules they may be carrying directly to the cysts that cluster on the kidneys of people with ADPKD.

Chung’s research couldn’t be more timely. Though ADPKD isn’t curable right now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year approved Jynarque™ (tolvaptan), the first treatment in the United States to slow the decline in kidney function in ADPKD patients, based on tests of the rate of kidney filtration. Other approved drugs, such as metformin and rapamycin, have shown potential for repurposing to treat people with ADPKD. So, getting these and other potentially life-saving drugs directly to the kidneys, while minimizing the risk of serious side effects in the liver and elsewhere in the body, will be key.

Most FDA-approved nanoparticle therapies are administered intravenously, often for treatment of cancer. Because ADPKD is chronic and treatment can last for decades, Chung wants to develop an easy-to-take pill to get these nanoparticles into the kidneys.

But oral administration raises its own set of difficulties. The nanoparticles must get from the stomach and the rest of the gastrointestinal tract to the bloodstream. And then if nanoparticles exceed 10 nanometers in diameter, the body typically routes them to the liver for clearance, rather than the kidneys.

While Chung brainstorms strategies for oral administration, she’s also considering developing a smart bandage to allow the nanoparticles to pass readily through the skin and, eventually, into the bloodstream. It would be something similar to the wearable skin patch already featured on the blog.

In the meantime, Chung continues to optimize the size, shape, and surface charge of her nanoparticles. Right now, they have components to target the kidneys, provide a visual signal for tracking, enhance the nanoparticle’s lifespan, and carry a therapeutic molecule. Because positively charged molecules are preferentially attracted to the kidney, Chung has also spent untold hours adjusting the charge on her nanoparticles.

But through all the hard work, Chung and her team continue to prove that great things may one day come in very small packages. And that could ultimately prove to be a long-awaited gift for the millions of people living with ADPKD.

Links:

Polycystic Kidney Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Video: Faculty Profile – Eun Ji Chung (University of Southern California, Los Angeles)

Chung Laboratory (USC)

Chung Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


Can Childhood Stress Affect the Immune System?

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Katie Ehrlich

Katie Ehrlich
Credit: Alan Flurry, University of Georgia, Athens

Whether it’s growing up in gut-wrenching poverty, dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics, or coping with persistent bullying in school, extreme adversity can shatter a child’s sense of emotional well-being. But does it also place kids at higher of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions as adults?

Katherine Ehrlich, a researcher at University of Georgia, Athens, wants to take a closer look at this question. She recently received a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to study whether acute or chronic psychosocial stress during childhood might sensitize the body’s immune system to behave in ways that damage health, possibly over the course of a lifetime.


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