Creative Minds: Interrogating a Master of Disguise

Monica Mugnier

Monica Mugnier

When I volunteered several years ago as a physician in a small hospital in West Africa, one of the most frustrating and frightening diseases I saw was sleeping sickness. Now, an investigator supported by the NIH Common Fund aims to figure out how this disease pathogen manages to evade the human immune system.

Monica Mugnier’s fascination with parasites started in college when she picked up the book Parasite Rex, a riveting, firsthand account of how “sneaky” parasites can be. The next year, while studying abroad in England, Mugnier met a researcher who had studied one of the most devious of parasites—a protozoan, spread by blood-sucking tsetse flies, that causes sleeping sickness in humans and livestock across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Happy New Year: Looking Back at 2016 Research Highlights

Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2016Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.

Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support:

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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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Creative Minds: The Worm Tissue-ome Teaches Developmental Biology for Us All

C. elegans

Caption: An adult Caenorhabditis elegans, 5 days
Credit: Coleen Murphy, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

In the nearly 40 years since Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sydney Brenner proposed using a tiny, transparent soil worm called Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for biomedical research, C. elegans has become one of the most-studied organisms on the planet. Researchers have determined that C. elegans has exactly 959 cells, 302 of which are neurons. They have sequenced and annotated its genome, developed an impressive array of tools to study its DNA, and characterized the development of many of its tissues.

But what researchers still don’t know is exactly how all of these parts work together to coordinate this little worm’s response to changes in nutrition, environment, health status, and even the aging process. To learn more, 2015 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award winner Coleen Murphy of Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, has set out to analyze which genes are active, or transcribed, in each of the major tissues of adult C. elegans, building the framework for what’s been dubbed the C. elegans “tissue-ome.”

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