Snapshots of Life: Healing Spinal Cord Injuries

Nerve cell on a nanofiber gel

Credit: Mark McClendon, Zaida Alvarez Pinto, Samuel I. Stupp, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

When someone suffers a fully severed spinal cord, it’s considered highly unlikely the injury will heal on its own. That’s because the spinal cord’s neural tissue is notorious for its inability to bridge large gaps and reconnect in ways that restore vital functions. But the image above is a hopeful sight that one day that could change.

Here, a mouse neural stem cell  (blue and green) sits in a lab dish, atop a special gel containing a mat of synthetic nanofibers (purple). The cell is growing and sending out spindly appendages, called axons (green), in an attempt to re-establish connections with other nearby nerve cells.

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Shattering News: How Chromothripsis Cured a Rare Disease

Karyotype

Caption: Karyotype of a woman spontaneously cured of WHIM syndrome. These chromosome pairings, which are from her white blood cells, show a normal chromosome 2 on the left, and a truncated chromosome 2 on the right.
Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases , NIH

The world of biomedical research is filled with surprises. Here’s a remarkable one published recently in the journal Cell [1]. A child born in the 1950s with a rare genetic immunodeficiency syndrome amazingly cured herself years later when part of one of her chromosomes spontaneously shattered into 18 pieces during replication of a blood stem cell. The damaged chromosome randomly reassembled, sort of like piecing together a broken vase, but it was still missing a shard of 164 genes—including the very gene that caused her condition.

Researchers say the chromosomal shattering probably took place in a cell in the bone marrow. The stem cell, now without the disease-causing gene, repopulated her immune system with healthy bone marrow-derived immune cells, resulting in cure of the syndrome.

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exRNA: Helping Cells Get Their Message Out

DNA helix surrounded by a bubble.

Caption: exRNA enveloped in a fatty bubble transmits messages between cells. Click here to view the video.
Source: NIH Common Fund

When your email is interrupted or blocked, it creates havoc. Messages remain undelivered, stalling interactions between you and your friends, family, and colleagues at work. Likewise when communication fails between your body’s cells, disease can result. Scientists recently discovered a new group of molecules called extracellular RNA (exRNA) that appears to travel between cells to help them communicate. Now, NIH is encouraging researchers to explore the potential of these newly discovered messengers.
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Why We’re So Excited About Stem Cells

Certainly – as you can see here – stem cells are spectacularly beautiful. But they also hold spectacular promise for medicine.  That’s why I immediately expressed my enthusiasm for Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that effectively enables NIH to continue conducting and funding responsible, scientifically worthy stem cell research.

There are many kinds of stem cells. This is a picture of induced pluripotent stem cells – or, iPS cells. Investigators have recently begun using iPS cells to model several neurological diseases – including Parkinson’s. The cells here have been treated with growth factors that coax them into becoming the dopamine producing (dopaminergic) neurons lost in Parkinson’s. The colorized markers indicate the presence of three proteins found within dopaminergic neurons: (1) the enzyme needed to produce dopamine (tyrosine hydroxylase, in blue), (2) a structural protein specific to neurons (Type III beta-tubulin, in green), and (3) a gene regulatory protein needed in dopaminergic neurons (FOXA2, in red). The color-mixing in some cells indicates that all three proteins are present – confirming that these cells are on their way to becoming dopaminergic neurons.

Today’s image is more than just a pretty picture. It’s a window into the ways that disease affects the body – and possibly the ways we might counter those affects. The NIH/NINDS web site has more information about how iPS cells are being used to study Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders.