Sharon Reynolds

About Sharon Reynolds

Sharon draws on her training in molecular biology and experience working in a lab to write articles for this blog and Inside Life Science.

The Inner Life of Nerve Cells

“Before this research, we didn’t even know that neurons had this special mechanism to control neuropeptide function. This is why we do basic research. This is why it’s important to understand how neurons work, down to the subcellular and molecular levels.”—Kenneth Miller

Nerve cells (neurons) in the brain use small molecules called neuropeptides to converse with each other. Disruption of this communication can lead to problems with learning, memory and other brain functions. Through genetic studies in a model organism, the tiny worm C. elegans, a team led by Kenneth Miller Exit icon of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation has uncovered a previously unknown mechanism that nerve cells use to package, move and release neuropeptides. The researchers found that a protein called CaM kinase II, which plays many roles in the brain, helps control this mechanism. Neuropeptides in worms lacking CaM kinase II spilled out from their packages before they reached their proper destinations. A more thorough understanding of how neurons work, provided by studies like this, may help researchers better target drugs to treat memory disorders and other neurological problems in humans.

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

Learn more:
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Using Model Organisms to Study Health and Disease Fact Sheet Exit icon

New Life for Toxic Antibiotics?

Pills and a bottle
Researchers found that the antibiotic trovafloxacin cuts off a channel for communication between cells and interferes with a cell-death process. Credit: iStockphoto.

Many compounds that show promise as new antibiotics for treating bacterial infections never make it to the clinic because they turn out to be toxic to humans as well as to bacteria. A research team led by Kodi Ravichandran Exit icon of the University of Virginia recently gained insights into why one such antibiotic, trovafloxacin, harms human cells. They found that the compound cuts off a channel for communication between cells, which in turn interferes with how dying cells are broken down and recycled by the body. Roughly 200 billion cells in the human body die and are replaced every day as part of a routine cleanup process, and interference in this process by trovafloxacin may have contributed to the serious liver damage seen in some patients in clinical trials of the drug. Understanding how trovafloxacin causes toxicity in people may help researchers re-engineer this and related compounds to make them safe and effective for use in fighting bacterial infections.

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Bleach vs. Bacteria

Screenshot of the video showing how chlorine affects a bacterial protein
Exposure to hypochlorous acid causes bacterial proteins to unfold and stick to one another, leading to cell death. Credit: Video segment courtesy of the American Chemistry Council. View video

Spring cleaning often involves chlorine bleach, which has been used as a disinfectant for hundreds of years. But our bodies have been using bleach’s active component, hypochlorous acid, to help clean house for millennia. As part of our natural response to infection, certain types of immune cells produce hypochlorous acid to help kill invading microbes, including bacteria.

Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have made strides in understanding exactly how bleach kills bacteria—and how bacteria’s own defenses can protect against the cellular stress caused by bleach. The insights gained may lead to the development of new drugs to breach these microbial defenses, helping our bodies fight disease.

Continue reading this new Inside Life Science article.

Learning More About Our Partners in Digestion

Bacteroides ovatus
Bacteroides ovatus. Credit: Eric Martens, University of Michigan Medical School.

After eating, we don’t do all the work of digestion on our own. Trillions of gut bacteria help us break food down into the simple building blocks our cells need to function. New research from an international team co-led by Eric Martens of the University of Michigan Medical School has uncovered how a strain of beneficial gut bacteria, Bacteroides ovatus, digests complex carbohydrates called xyloglucans that are found in fruits and vegetables. The researchers traced the microorganism’s digestive ability to a single piece of the genome. They also examined a publicly available set of genomic data, which included information from both humans and their resident bacteria, and found that more than 90 percent of 250 adults harbored at least one Bacteroides strain with xyloglucan-digesting capabilities. These results underscore the importance of the bacteria to human health and nutrition.

This work also was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Learn more:
University of Michigan News Release Exit icon
University of Michigan Host Microbiome Initiative Exit icon
Gut Reactions and Other Findings About Our Resident Microbes from Inside Life Science
Body Bacteria from Findings Magazine

Epilepsy Drug Improves Health in Animal Model of Obesity

Liver cells of obese mice treated with valproic acid (right) and untreated obese mice (left).
Liver cells (magenta) of obese mice treated with valproic acid (right) had much less fat accumulation (white) than those of untreated obese mice (left). Credit: Lindsay B. Avery and Namandjé N. Bumpus, Johns Hopkins University. View larger image

With more than 90 million Americans affected by obesity, developing medications to help combat weight gain and its associated diseases has become a priority. In a study using obese mice, a team led by Namandjé Bumpus of Johns Hopkins University recently showed that a commonly prescribed epilepsy drug, valproic acid, reduced fat accumulation in the liver and lowered elevated blood sugar levels like those associated with type 2 diabetes. Body weight also stabilized in mice given the drug, whereas untreated mice continued to gain weight. Additional experiments in mouse and human liver cells suggested that the byproducts of valproic acid produced as the body breaks down the drug, rather than valproic acid itself, were responsible for the observed effects. These byproducts achieved the same effects in cells at one-fortieth the concentration of valproic acid, making them promising candidates for further drug development.

Learn more:
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How Medicines Work Fact Sheet

An Experimental Contact Lens to Prevent Glaucoma-Induced Blindness

Contact lens. Credit: Peter Mallen, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Laboratory/Kohane Laboratory, Boston Children's Hospital.
An experimental contact lens design releases a glaucoma medicine at a steady rate for up to a month. Credit: Peter Mallen, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Laboratory/Kohane Laboratory, Boston Children’s Hospital.

Like a miniature donut stuffed inside a tiny pita pocket, a common glaucoma medicine held within a biomaterial ring is sandwiched inside this contact lens. In laboratory experiments, the lens, which can also correct vision, releases the eyesight-saving medication at a steady rate for up to a month. Its construction offers numerous potential clinical advantages over the standard glaucoma treatment and may have additional applications, such as delivering anti-inflammatory drugs or antibiotics to the eye. Led by Daniel Kohane and Joseph Ciolino at Harvard Medical School, the researchers who developed the lens are now gearing up to test its effectiveness in additional laboratory studies. They hope a Phase I clinical trial to evaluate the safety and ability of the lens to reduce pressure in the human eye could begin in about a year.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Eye Institute.

Learn more
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An Experimental Contact Lens to Prevent Glaucoma-Induced Blindness Article from Inside Life Science
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NEI Glaucoma Awareness Month Resources

Cool Images: Holiday Season Cells

Yeast cells deficient in zinc and the Tsa1 protein have protein tangles. Credit: Colin MacDiarmid and David Eide, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Yeast cells deficient in zinc and the Tsa1 protein have protein tangles. Credit: Colin MacDiarmid and David Eide, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Just in time for the holidays, we’ve wrapped up a few red and green cellular images from basic research studies. In this snapshot, we see a group of yeast cells that are deficient in zinc, a metal that plays a key role in creating and maintaining protein shape. The cells also lack a protein called Tsa1, which normally keeps proteins from sticking together. Green areas highlight protein tangles caused by the double deficiency. Red outlines the cells. Protein clumping plays a role in many human diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, so knowledge of why it happens—and what prevents it in healthy cells—could aid the development of treatments.

See more festive images!

Stop the (Biological) Clock

Molecular structure of the three proteins in blue-green algae’s circadian clock.  Credit: Johnson Lab, Vanderbilt University.
Molecular structure of the three proteins in blue-green algae’s circadian clock. Credit: Johnson Lab, Vanderbilt University.

Many microorganisms can sense whether it’s day or night and adjust their activity accordingly. In tiny blue-green algae, the “quartz-crystal” of the time-keeping circadian clock consists of only three proteins, making it the simplest clock found in nature. Researchers led by Carl Johnson of Vanderbilt University recently found that, by manipulating these clock proteins, they could lock the algae into continuously expressing its daytime genes, even during the nighttime.

Why would one want algae to act like it’s always daytime? The kind used in Johnson’s study is widely harnessed to produce commercial products, from drugs to biofuels. But even when grown in constant light, algae with a normal circadian clock typically decrease production of biomolecules when nighttime genes are expressed. When the researchers grew the algae with the daytime genes locked “on” in constant light, the microorganism’s output increased by as much as 700 percent. This proof of concept experiment may be applicable to improving the commercial production of compounds such as insulin and some anti-cancer drugs.

Learn more:

Vanderbilt University Press Release Exit icon
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Circadian Rhythms Fact Sheet
The Rhythms of Life Article from Inside Life Science

Meet Shanta Dhar

Shanta Dhar
Shanta Dhar
Fields: chemistry and cancer immunotherapy
Works at: University of Georgia, Athens
Born and raised in: Northern India
Studied at: Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.; and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
To unwind: she hits the gym
Credit: Frankie Wylie, Stylized Portraiture

The human body is, at its most basic level, a giant collection of chemicals. Finding ways to direct the actions of those chemicals can lead to new treatments for human diseases.

Shanta Dhar, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Georgia, Athens (UGA), saw this potential when she was exposed to the field of cancer immunotherapy as a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Broadly, cancer immunotherapy aims to direct the body’s natural immune response to kill cancer cells.) Dhar was fascinated by the idea and has pursued research in this area ever since. “I always wanted to use my chemistry for something that could be useful [in the clinic] down the line,” she said.

A major challenge in the field has been training the body’s immune system—specifically the T cells—to recognize and attack cancer cells. The process of training T cells to go after cancer is rather like training a rescue dog to find a lost person: First, you present the scent, then you command pursuit.

The type of immune cell chiefly responsible for training T cells to search for and destroy cancer is a called a dendritic cell. First, dendritic cells present T cells with the “scent” of cancer (proteins from a cancer cell). Then they activate the T cells using signaling molecules.

Dhar’s Findings

Dhar’s work focuses on creating the perfect trigger for cancer immunotherapy—one that would provide both the scent of cancer for T cells to recognize and a burst of immune signaling to activate the cells.

Using cells grown in the lab, Dhar’s team recently showed that they could kill most breast cancer cells using a new nanotechnology technique, then train T cells to eradicate the remaining cancer cells.

For the initial attack, the researchers used light-activated nanoparticles that target mitochondria in cancer cells. Mitochondria are the organelles that provide cellular energy. Their destruction sets off a signaling cascade that triggers dendritic cells to produce one of the proteins needed to activate T cells.

Because the strategy worked in laboratory cells, Dhar and her colleague Donald Harn of the UGA infectious diseases department are now testing it in a mouse model of breast cancer to see if it is similarly effective in a living organism.

For some reason, the approach works against breast cancer cells but not against cervical cancer cells. So the team is examining the nanoparticle technique to see if they can make it broadly applicable against other cancer types.

Someday, Dhar hopes to translate this work into a personalized cancer vaccine. To create such a vaccine, scientists would remove cancer cells from a patient’s body during surgery. Next, in a laboratory dish, they would train immune cells from the patient to kill the cancer cells, then inject the trained immune cells back into the patient’s body. If the strategy worked, the trained cells would alert and activate T cells to eliminate the cancer.

Mapping Approach Yields Insulin Secretion Pathway Insights

TMEM24 protein (green) and insulin (red) in pancreatic beta cells (yellow).  Credit: Balch Lab, the Scripps Research Institute.
The interactions of TMEM24 protein (green) and insulin (red) in pancreatic beta cells are shown in yellow. Credit: Balch Lab, the Scripps Research Institute.
View larger image

The identities of the proteins that drive insulin production and release from pancreatic beta cells have largely been a mystery. In new work from the lab of William Balch of the Scripps Research Institute, researchers isolated and then identified all the insulin-bound proteins from mouse beta cells. The results provided a roadmap of the protein interactions that lead to insulin production, storage and secretion. The researchers used the roadmap to identify a protein called TMEM24, which was abundant in beta cells and binds readily to insulin. Balch and his team uncovered that TMEM24, whose involvement in insulin secretion was previously unknown, effectively regulates slower insulin release and could have a key role in maintaining control of glucose levels in the blood. The scientists hope that this roadmap of insulin-interacting proteins will lead to the development of new, targeted approaches to treating type 2 diabetes and a similar insulin-related condition called metabolic syndrome.

Learn more:

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