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.”

A Drug-Making Enzyme in Motion

Mutated enzyme, LovD9. Credit: Silvia Osuna and Gonzalo Jiménez-Osés, University of California, Los Angeles.
The movement of this mutated enzyme, LovD9, facilitates rapid production of the cholesterol reducing-drug simvastatin. Credit: Silvia Osuna and Gonzalo Jiménez-Osés, University of California, Los Angeles.

LovD9, a mutated version of an enzyme extracted from mold growing in soil, produces the cholesterol-reducing drug simvastatin 1,000 times faster than its natural predecessor. But scientists didn’t understand why because the enzyme’s mutations are far from the active site, where the drug is actually made. Now they do.

Yi Tang of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in partnership with the pharmaceutical company Codexis, generated LovD9 by repeatedly inducing random mutations, each time selecting the mutated versions of the enzyme with the most promise for industrial simvastatin production.

Then, the team collaborated with UCLA colleagues Kendall Houk and Todd Yeates to unlock the secret of the enzyme’s speed. Using ANTON, a special-purpose supercomputer at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, they simulated how different parts of the enzyme rotate and twist when synthesizing the drug. The scientists discovered that as LovD9 moves, it forms shapes that facilitate simvastatin production more often than the natural enzyme does.

With their better understanding of how mutations far from an active site may affect an enzyme’s motion, the researchers hope to one day directly engineer enzymes with precise mutations that enhance drug production.

Learn more:
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Carbohydrates as Bacterial Camouflage: How Our Immune System Responds

bacteria
Although invisible to our immune system’s antibodies, strains of a pneumonia-causing bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa (orange), are easily detected by galectins. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When harmful strains of bacteria invade our bodies, our immune system produces antibodies that identify the intruders by the specific carbohydrate structures coating them. Some strains, however, have coatings that mimic the carbohydrate structures found on our own cells, and this disguise allows them to evade detection by antibodies.

A team of scientists led by Richard Cummings of Emory University found that galectins, a class of proteins naturally produced by our bodies, can identify and kill these concealed bacteria without damaging our own mimicked cells. To make this discovery, the team used glass slides covered with more than 300 different carbohydrates extracted from the surface of bacterial cells. After testing the ability of galectins and antibodies to bind to specific carbohydrates on these slides, the researchers observed that the galectins easily detected the mammalian-like carbohydrates that the antibodies failed to recognize.

These findings provide a clearer understanding of the complementary roles played by galectins and antibodies in protecting us from a broad range of infections.

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

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On the Trail of Drug-Defying Superbugs

Antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphlyococcus aureus bacteria (purple) have become the most common cause of skin infections seen in hospital emergency departments. Credit: NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphlyococcus aureus bacteria (purple) have become the most common cause of skin infections seen in hospital emergency departments. Credit: NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In the United States alone, at least 2 million people each year develop serious infections with bacteria that have become resistant to the antibiotics we use to combat them, and about 23,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic resistance can turn once-manageable infections into “superbug” diseases that are difficult—and sometimes impossible—to treat.

Scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health are studying many aspects of antibiotic resistance, including how it spreads. Read this Inside Life Science article for just a few research examples and how the work could aid efforts to curb the emergence of resistance.

Multitarget Drugs to Challenge Microbial Resistance

A group of purple, rod-shaped bacterial cells rendered by computer at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by Melissa Brower.
Computer-generated image of drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. Credit: Melissa Brower, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drugs that target a single essential protein in a microbial invader can be effective treatments. But the genomes of pathogens—including bacteria, fungi and parasites—mutate rapidly, and resistance can develop if a mutation changes a target protein’s structure. Molecules that interfere with multiple microbial proteins at once have the potential to overcome the growing problem of antimicrobial drug resistance.

Researchers led by Eric Oldfield exit icon of the University of Illinois recently explored whether an experimental drug called SQ109, developed to treat tuberculosis (TB), could be tweaked to attack multiple enzymes, as well as to kill different types of microbes. The scientists succeeded in creating several multitarget analogs of SQ109 that were more effective than the original drug at killing their target pathogens in laboratory experiments. These analogs included one compound that was five times more potent against the bacterium that causes TB while also being less toxic to a human cell line tested.

This work was also funded by the National Cancer Institute; the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the NIH Office of the Director.

Learn more:
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A Medicine’s Life Inside the Body

Heart
Most often, the bloodstream is the vehicle for carrying medicines throughout the body. Credit: Stock image.

Pharmacology is the scientific field that studies how the body reacts to medicines and how medicines affect the body. Scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health are interested in many aspects of pharmacology, including one called pharmacokinetics, which deals with understanding the entire cycle of a medicine’s life inside the body.

Knowing more about each of the four main stages of pharmacokinetics—absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion—aids the design of medicines that are more effective and that produce fewer side effects.

Read more about a medicine’s life inside the body in this Inside Life Science article.

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: Stock image.

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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Study Comparing Sepsis Treatment Methods Shows Equivalent Survival Rates

Doctors and a patient in a hospital
A 5-year, randomized clinical trial helped resolve a long-standing debate about how best to manage sepsis patients.

For years, doctors have debated the best ways to identify, predict and treat sepsis. The condition, which is usually triggered by infection, is marked by body-wide inflammation and can lead to a dangerous drop in blood pressure known as septic shock. Sepsis affects more than 800,000 people each year and kills about 20 to 30 percent of them. It’s the most expensive condition treated in U.S. hospitals, costing more than $20 billion a year.

Now, a nationwide, 5-year clinical trial that set out to compare three different treatment approaches has shown that survival of patients with septic shock was the same regardless of whether they received treatment based on structured, standardized medical plans (protocols) or the usual high-level standard of care. If patients were diagnosed shortly after the onset of sepsis and treated promptly with fluids and antibiotics, they did equally well whether they received treatment based on either of two specific protocols—one less invasive than the other—or got the usual, high-level care provided by the academic hospitals where the study was conducted.

According to the study’s leaders, the trial “helps resolve a long-standing clinical debate about how best to manage sepsis patients, particularly during the critical first few hours of treatment,” and shows that “there is not a mandated need for more invasive care in all patients.”

Learn more:
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Sepsis Fact Sheet

Nanoparticles Developed to Stick to Damaged Blood Vessels, Deliver Drugs

Artery with fat deposits and a formed clot. Credit: Stock image.
Artery with fat deposits and a formed clot. Credit: Stock image. View larger image

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One treatment challenge is developing non-invasive ways to direct medication to damaged or clogged arteries, which can block blood flow and increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. A team led by Naren Vyavahare Exit icon at Clemson University has engineered extremely tiny particles—nanoparticles—that offer a promising step forward.

Healthy arteries have elastic fibers that make the arteries flexible. But, in most cardiovascular diseases, the fibers get damaged. The new nanoparticles, which can deliver drugs, attach only to damaged fibers and could enable site-specific drug delivery to minimize off-target side effects. The nanoparticles also allow drugs to be released over longer periods of time, potentially increasing the drugs’ effectiveness. The new biomaterial was tested in rodent models for studying vascular disease, so it is still in the early stages of development.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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Anti-Clotting Drugs: The Next Generation

Form of heparin
Scientists created a tailor-made form of the anti-clotting drug heparin that offers several advantages.
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The low molecular weight (LMW) form of the drug heparin is commonly used to prevent unwanted blood clots that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. It’s usually derived from pig intestines and normally cleared from the human body by the kidneys. In individuals with impaired kidney function, the drug can build up in the circulation and cause excessive bleeding. Impurities and the risk of contamination are also concerns with pig-derived heparin.

Now, Robert Linhardt of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Jian Liu of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have created a synthetic, tailor-made form of LMW heparin that offers several advantages over the animal-derived version, including alleviating the risk of contamination from natural sources. Studies in the test tube and in mice showed that the activity of this customized heparin molecule is easily reversible in cases of overdose or uncontrolled bleeding. And, since it is cleared from the body by the liver rather than the kidneys, this form of heparin would be safer for people with impaired kidney function. Additional research, including testing in humans, will be needed before this new version of LMW heparin can be considered for medical use.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Learn more:

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