Creative Minds: Programming Cells to Write Their Own Memoirs

MEMOIR cells

Caption: MEMOIR cells variably activated (cyan). The recorded information is then read out to visualize certain RNA transcripts (red).
Credit: Elowitz and Cai Labs/Caltech

One of the most fascinating challenges in biology is understanding how a single cell divides and differentiates to form a complex, multicellular organism. Scientists can learn a lot about this process by tracking time-lapse images through a microscope. But gazing through a lens has its limitations, especially in the brain and other opaque and inaccessible tissues and organs.

With support from a 2017 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Program, a California Institute of Technology (Caltech) team now has a way around this problem. Rather than watching or digging information out of cells, the team has learned how to program cells to write their own molecular memoirs. These cells store the information right in their own genomic hard drives. Even better, that information is barcoded, allowing researchers to read it out of the cells without dissecting tissue. The programming can be performed in many different cell types, including stem or adult cells in tissues throughout the body.

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Basic Research: Building a Firm Foundation for Biomedicine

Benchtop Centrifuge

Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

A major part of NIH’s mission is to support basic research that generates fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems. Such knowledge serves as the foundation for the biomedical advances needed to protect and improve our health—and the health of generations to come.

Of course, it’s often hard to predict how this kind of basic research might benefit human populations, and the lag time between discovery and medical application (if that happens at all) can be quite long. Some might argue, therefore, that basic research is not a good use of funds, and all of NIH’s support should go to specific disease targets.

To counter that perception, I’m pleased to share some new findings that underscore the importance of publicly supported basic research. In an analysis of more than 28 million papers in the database, researchers found NIH contributed to published research that was associated with every single one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 2010 through 2016 [1]. More than 90 percent of that contributory research was basic—that is, related to the discovery of fundamental biological mechanisms, rather than actual development of the drugs themselves.

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Powerful Antibiotics Found in Dirt


Caption: Researchers found a new class of antibiotics in a collection of about 2,000 soil samples.
Credit: Sean Brady, The Rockefeller University, New York

Many of us think of soil as lifeless dirt. But, in fact, soil is teeming with a rich array of life: microbial life. And some of those tiny, dirt-dwelling microorganisms—bacteria that produce antibiotic compounds that are highly toxic to other bacteria—may provide us with valuable leads for developing the new drugs we so urgently need to fight antibiotic-resistant infections.

Recently, NIH-funded researchers discovered a new class of antibiotics, called malacidins, by analyzing the DNA of the bacteria living in more than 2,000 soil samples, including many sent by citizen scientists living all across the United States [1]. While more work is needed before malacidins can be tried in humans, the compounds successfully killed several types of multidrug-resistant bacteria in laboratory tests. Most impressive was the ability of malacadins to wipe out methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) skin infections in rats. Often referred to as a “super bug,” MRSA threatens the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year [2].

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Sequencing Human Genome with Pocket-Sized “Nanopore” Device

MinION sequencing device

Caption: MinION sequencing device plugged into a laptop/Oxford Nanopore Technologies

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost 15 years since we successfully completed the Human Genome Project, ahead of schedule and under budget. I was proud to stand with my international colleagues in a celebration at the Library of Congress on April 14, 2003 (which happens to be my birthday), to announce that we had stitched together the very first reference sequence of the human genome at a total cost of about $400 million. As remarkable as that achievement was, it was just the beginning of our ongoing effort to understand the human genome, and to use that understanding to improve human health.

That first reference human genome was sequenced using automated machines that were the size of small phone booths. Since then, breathtaking progress has been made in developing innovative technologies that have made DNA sequencing far easier, faster, and more affordable. Now, a report in Nature Biotechnology highlights the latest advance: the sequencing and assembly of a human genome using a pocket-sized device [1]. It was generated using several “nanopore” devices that can be purchased online with a “starter kit” for just $1,000. In fact, this new genome sequence—completed in a matter of weeks—includes some notoriously hard-to-sequence stretches of DNA, filling several key gaps in our original reference genome.

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New ‘Liquid Biopsy’ Shows Early Promise in Detecting Cancer

Liquid Biopsy Schematic

Caption: Liquid biopsy. Tumor cells shed protein and DNA into bloodstream for laboratory analysis and early cancer detection.

Early detection usually offers the best chance to beat cancer. Unfortunately, many tumors aren’t caught until they’ve grown relatively large and spread to other parts of the body. That’s why researchers have worked so tirelessly to develop new and more effective ways of screening for cancer as early as possible. One innovative approach, called “liquid biopsy,” screens for specific molecules that tumors release into the bloodstream.

Recently, an NIH-funded research team reported some encouraging results using a “universal” liquid biopsy called CancerSEEK [1]. By analyzing samples of a person’s blood for eight proteins and segments of 16 genes, CancerSEEK was able to detect most cases of eight different kinds of cancer, including some highly lethal forms—such as pancreatic, ovarian, and liver—that currently lack screening tests.

In a study of 1,005 people known to have one of eight early-stage tumor types, CancerSEEK detected the cancer in blood about 70 percent of the time, which is among the best performances to date for a blood test. Importantly, when CancerSEEK was performed on 812 healthy people without cancer, the test rarely delivered a false-positive result. The test can also be run relatively cheaply, at an estimated cost of less than $500.

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