Cool Image: Training Cells to Devour Dying Neighbors

A healthy cell that has ingested dying cells.
A healthy cell (green) that has ingested dying cells (purple). Credit: Toru Komatsu, University of Tokyo.

In this image, a healthy cell (green) has engulfed a number of dying cells (purple) just as a predator might ingest wounded or dying prey. A team of researchers is hoping to use this same strategy at the cellular level to help treat infection, neurodegenerative diseases or cancer.

Our bodies routinely use a process called phagocytosis to rid themselves of unhealthy cells. Takanari Inoue Exit icon at Johns Hopkins University and collaborators at the University of Tokyo set out to investigate the molecular underpinnings of phagocytosis. Their goal was to endow laboratory-grown human cells with phagocytotic skills, namely the ability to recognize, swallow and digest dying cells. The scientists tried to do this by inserting into the cells two molecules known to play a role in phagocytosis.

The engineered cells accomplished the first two tasks—they recognized and surrounded dying cells. But they didn’t digest what they’d engulfed. Now the researchers are looking for a molecular trigger to get the engineered cells to complete this last task.

Eventually, the scientific team aims to build artificial cells that are programmed to target and destroy abnormal cells, such as those ravaged by bacteria, cancer or other diseases.

Learn more:
Johns Hopkins News Release Exit icon
How Cells Take Out the Trash Article from Inside Life Science
Cellular Suicide: An Essential Part of Life Article from Inside Life Science

Say Cheese

Assorted cheeses
A biofilm of bacteria and fungi, commonly known as a rind, forms on the surface of traditionally aged cheeses. Credit: Elia Ben-Ari.

Biofilms—multispecies communities of microbes that live in and on us, and in the environment—are important for human health and the function of ecosystems. But studying these microbial metropolises can be challenging because many of the environments where they’re found are hard to replicate in the lab.

Enter cheese rinds. These biofilms of bacteria and fungi form on the surface of traditionally aged cheeses, and could serve as a system for understanding how microbial communities form and function. By sequencing DNA from the rinds of 137 artisan cheese varieties collected in 10 countries, Rachel Dutton and her colleagues at Harvard University identified three general types of microbial communities that live on their tasty study subjects. After individually culturing representatives of all the species found in the rind communities the scientists added them to a growth medium that included cheese curd. This approach allowed them to recreate the communities in the lab and use them to detect numerous bacterial-fungal interactions and patterns of community composition over time.

The scientists plan to use their lab-grown cheese rinds to study whether and how various microbes compete or cooperate as they form communities, as well as what molecules and mechanisms are involved. In addition to answering fundamental questions about microbial ecology, this cheesy research might ultimately yield insights that help fight infection-causing biofilms or lead to the discovery of new antibiotics.

Learn more:
Harvard University News Release Exit icon
Dutton Lab Exit icon

Restoring the Function of an Immune Receptor Involved in Crohn’s Disease

Gut bacteria
Receptor proteins bind to bacterial cell wall fragments, initiating an immune response to remove bad gut bacteria. Credit: S. Melanie Lee, Caltech; Zbigniew Mikulski and Klaus Ley, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology.

Our bodies depend on a set of immune receptors to remove harmful bacteria and control the growth of helpful bacteria in our guts. Genetic changes that alter the function of the receptors can have an adverse effect and result in chronic inflammatory diseases like Crohn’s disease. Catherine Leimkuhler Grimes and Vishnu Mohanan of the University of Delaware researched a Crohn’s-associated immune receptor, NOD2, to figure out how it can lose the ability to respond properly to bacteria. In the process, they identified the involvement of a protective protein called HSP70. Increasing HSP70 levels in kidney, colon and white blood cells appeared to restore NOD2 function. This work represents a first step toward developing drugs to treat Crohn’s disease.

This work was funded in part by an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) grant.

Anesthesia and Brain Cells: A Temporary Disruption?

Hippocampal neuron in culture.
Hippocampal neuron in culture. Dendrites are green, dendritic spines are red, and DNA in cell’s nucleus is blue. Credit: Shelley Halpain, University of California, San Diego.

Anesthetic drugs are vital to modern medicine, allowing patients to undergo even the longest and most invasive surgeries without consciousness or pain. Unfortunately, studies have raised the concern that exposing patients, particularly children and the elderly, to some anesthetics may increase risk of long-term cognitive and behavioral issues.

A scientific team led by Hugh Hemmings Exit icon of Weill Cornell Medical College and Shelley Halpain Exit icon of the University of California, San Diego, examined the effects of anesthesia on neurons isolated from juvenile rats. Given at doses and durations frequently used during surgery, the commonly administered general anesthetic isoflurane did in fact reduce the number and size of important structures within neurons called dendritic spines. Dendritic spines help pass information from neuron to neuron, and disruption of these structures can be associated with dysfunction in thinking and behavior.

Promisingly, the shrinkage observed by the researchers appeared to be temporary: After the researchers washed the anesthetic out of the cell cultures, the dendritic spines grew back. But because neurons in culture do not reproduce all aspects of intact neuronal networks, the scientists explain that the findings should be verified in more complex models. Other molecular mechanisms may also potentially contribute to late effects of anesthesia exposure.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health.

Learn more:
University of California, San Diego News Release Exit icon
Understanding Anesthesia from Inside Life Science

Intercepting Amyloid-Forming Proteins

Structure of a protein involved in disease-associated amyloid fibrils.
A molecule targets the intermediary structure of a protein involved in disease-associated amyloid fibrils. Credit: University of Washington.

Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes and many other illnesses are linked to the buildup of proteins whose structures have changed into shapes that enable the formation of cell-entangling threads called amyloid fibrils. About 10 years ago, researchers led by Valerie Daggett of the University of Washington used computer simulations to suggest that such proteins, on their way to creating fibrils, form an intermediary structure called an alpha sheet that’s even more toxic to cells than fibrils. Now Daggett’s team has experimentally investigated this possibility. The scientists made alpha sheet molecules expected to bind to amyloid-forming proteins in the computationally predicted intermediate state. When they tested the molecules on two amyloid disease-related proteins, they observed a substantial reduction in fibril formation. The work is still very preliminary, but it highlights a potential new avenue for treating a range of amyloid-related diseases.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Learn more:
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Monster Mash: Protein Folding Gone Wrong Article from Inside Life Science

Improving the Odds of Surviving Sepsis

Acupuncture
A form of acupuncture—or a drug that mimics its effect—may one day lead to an anti-inflammatory therapy for people with sepsis. Credit: Stock image.

A leading cause of death in U.S. intensive care units is sepsis, an overwhelming immune response to infection that triggers body-wide inflammation and can cause organ failure.

Sepsis is challenging to diagnose and treat. Many of its early signs, such as fever and difficulty breathing, are similar to those of other conditions. When doctors do not detect sepsis until a more advanced stage, they are often unable to stop its progression or prevent its complications.

“Sepsis is a complex problem,” says Sarah Dunsmore of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “We need more research at all levels—from the molecular to the patient—to improve sepsis diagnosis and treatment and to enhance the quality of life for sepsis survivors.”

NIH-funded scientists use a variety of tools, including blood tests and acupuncture, in their quest to detect sepsis early, treat it quickly and reduce its later effects.

Read more about sepsis research in this Inside Life Science article.

Meet Janet Iwasa

Janet Iwasa
Credit: Janet Iwasa
Janet Iwasa
Fields: Cell biology and molecular animation
Works at: University of Utah
Raised in: Indiana and Maryland
Studied at: University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School
When not in the lab she’s: Keeping up with her two preschool-aged sons
Something she’s proud of that she’ll never try again: Baking a multi-tiered wedding cake, complete with sugar flowers, for a friend’s wedding.

Janet Iwasa wouldn’t have described herself as an artistic child. She didn’t carry around a sketch pad, pencils or paintbrushes. But she remembers accompanying her father, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, to his lab on the weekends. She’d spend hours doodling in a drawing program on his old Macintosh computer while he worked on experiments.

“I always remember wanting to be a scientist, and that’s probably highly inspired by my dad,” says Iwasa. Her early affinity for art and technology set her on an unusual career path to become a molecular animator. A typical work day now finds her adapting computer programs originally designed to bring characters like Buzz Lightyear to life to help researchers probe complicated, dynamic interactions within cells.

Iwasa’s interest in animation was sparked when she was a graduate student in cell biology, studying a protein called actin, which helps cells to move and change shape. At the time, the only visual representations she had of actin networks were flat, two-dimensional drawings on paper. When she saw an animation of the dynamic movement of a molecule called kinesin, she thought, “Why are we relying on oversimplified, static illustrations [of molecules], when we can be doing something like this video?”

Within a year, she was taking an animation class at a local college. She quickly realized that she would need more intensive instruction to be able to animate complex biological processes. A few summers later, she flew to Hollywood for a 3-month training program in industry-standard animation technology.

The oldest student in that course—and the only woman—Iwasa immediately began thinking about how to adapt a standard animator’s toolkit to illustrate the inner life of cells. A technique used to create the effect of human hair blowing in the wind could also show the movement of an RNA molecule. A chunk of computer code used to make the facets of a soccer ball fall apart and come back together in a different order could be adapted to model virus assembly and disassembly.

Her Findings

Following her training, Iwasa spent 2 years as a National Science Foundation Discovery Corps fellow, producing the Exploring Life’s Origins Exit icon exhibit with the Boston Museum of Science and the Szostak Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. As part of the multi-media exhibit, she created animations to illustrate how the simplest living organisms may have evolved on early Earth.

Since then, Iwasa has helped researchers model such complex actions as how cells ingest materials, how proteins are transported across a cell membrane, and how the motor protein dynein helps cells divide.

Screenshot from the video that shows how a protein called clathrin forms a cage-like container that cells use to engulf and ingest materials
Iwasa developed this video to show how a protein called clathrin forms a cage-like container that cells use to engulf and ingest materials.

Iwasa calls her animations “visual hypotheses”: The end results may be beautiful, but the process of animation itself is what encapsulates, clarifies and communicates the science.

“It’s really building the animated model that brings insights,” she says. “When you’re creating an animation, you’re really grappling with a lot of issues that don’t necessarily come up by any other means. In some cases, it might raise more questions, and make people go back and do some more experiments when they realize there might be something missing” in their theory of how a molecular process works.

Now she’s working with an NIH-funded research team at the University of Utah to develop a detailed animation of how HIV enters and exits human immune cells.

Abbreviated CHEETAH Exit icon, the full name of the group is the Center for the Structural Biology of Cellular Host Elements in Egress, Trafficking, and Assembly of HIV.

“In the HIV life cycle, there are a number of events that aren’t really well understood, and people have different ideas of how things happen,” says Iwasa. She plans to animate the stages of viral infection in ways that reflect different proposals for how the process works, to give researchers a new way to visualize, communicate—and potentially harmonize—their hypotheses.

The full set of Iwasa’s HIV-related animations will be available online as they are completed, at http://scienceofhiv.org Exit icon, with the first set launching in the fall of 2014.

Learn more:
Janet Iwasa’s TED Talk: How animations can help scientists test a hypothesis Exit icon

A Data Bank Built for Discovery

Dynein, a motor protein. Credit: David S. Goodsell, The Scripps Research Institute and the RCSB PDB.
The PDB archive holds structural data for dynein, a motor protein, and more than 100,000 other molecules. Credit: David S. Goodsell, The Scripps Research Institute and the RCSB PDB. Click for larger image

Meet dynein, the August Molecule of the Month presented by the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics Protein Data Bank (RCSB PDB). This motor protein travels along the cables of our cellular skeleton, delivering cargo throughout the cell. The structure of dynein’s stalk enables it to bind to regular grooves along its path.

Dynein’s shape is just one of more than 100,000 structures that scientists have deposited in the PDB archive, a freely available digital repository. Because understanding a protein’s shape helps researchers better understand its function, the structural information in the PDB can lead to additional scientific advancements. For example, scientists use the structure of HIV protease, a protein that helps the virus replicate in the body, to develop drugs that fit snugly into the protein’s center, shutting it down. And they use the shape of RNA polymerase to learn how this protein fits together with smaller ones to read our genetic code.

The PDB has doubled in size over the last 6 years. As the collection continues to grow, so does our potential for drug discovery and our understanding of basic life processes.

Learn more:
Molecule of the Month Archive Exit icon from RCSB PDB Exit icon

How Heat-Loving Organisms Are Helping Advance Medicine

Hot spring. Credit: Stock image.
Icelandic hot springs are the natural habitat of Rhodothermus marinus, one of many species of thermophiles that the Gennis Lab studies to better understand membrane proteins. Credit: Stock image.

As the temperature climbs, most humans look for ways to cool down fast. But for some species of microorganisms, a midsummer heat wave isn’t nearly hot enough. These heat lovers, known as thermophiles, thrive at temperatures of 113°F or more. They’re often found in hot springs, geysers and even home water heaters.

Like humans and other organisms, thermophiles rely on proteins to maintain normal cell function. While our protein molecules break down under intense heat, a thermophile’s proteins actually work more efficiently. They also tend to be more stable at room temperature than our own. An NIH-funded research team is taking advantage of this property of thermophiles to better understand a group of human proteins commonly targeted by today’s medicines.

Read more about the team’s thermophile research in this Inside Life Science article.

The “Virtuous Cycle” of Technology and Science

A scientist looking through a  microscope. Credit: Stock image.
Whether it’s a microscope, computer program or lab technique, technology is at the heart of biomedical research. Credit: Stock image.

Whether it’s a microscope, computer program or lab technique, technology is at the heart of biomedical research. Its central role is particularly clear from this month’s posts.

Some show how different tools led to basic discoveries with important health applications. For instance, a supercomputer unlocked the secrets of a drug-making enzyme, a software tool identified disease-causing variations among family members and high-powered microscopy revealed a mechanism allowing microtubules—and a cancer drug that targets them—to work.

Another theme featured in several posts is novel uses for established technologies. The scientists behind the cool image put a new spin on a long-standing imaging technology to gain surprising insights into how some brain cells dispose of old parts. Similarly, the finding related to sepsis demonstrates yet another application of a standard lab technique called polymerase chain reaction: assessing the immune state of people with this serious medical condition.

“We need tools to answer questions,” says NIGMS’ Doug Sheeley, who oversees biomedical technology research resource grants. “When we find the answers, we ask new questions that then require new or improved tools. It’s a virtuous cycle that keeps science moving forward.”