Interview With a Scientist – Rommie Amaro: Computational and Theoretical Model Builder

Many researchers who search for anti-cancer drugs have labs filled with chemicals and tissue samples. Not Rommie Amaro Link to external web site. Her work uses computers to analyze the shape and behavior of a protein called p53. Defective versions of p53 are associated with more human cancers than any other malfunctioning protein.

The goal of Amaro’s work is to find ways to restore the function of defective p53 protein in cancer cells. Her research team at the University of California, San Diego, discovered how to do just    that—according to their computer models, at least—by fitting small molecules into a pocket in malfunctioning p53 proteins. Amaro founded a biotechnology company to bring this computational work closer to a real cure for cancer.

She also explained her research in the 2017 DeWitt Stetten Jr. Lecture titled Computing Cures: Discovery Through the Lens of a Computational Microscope.

NIGMS has supported Amaro’s work since 2006 under P41GM103426, U01GM111528, R25GM114821, and F32GM077729.

Americans Fighting the Opioid Crisis in Their Own Backyards

Heat maps of the U.S. for 2003 through 2014, showing overdose deaths per 100,000. The heat maps illustrate significant increase of deaths over the years, with deaths concentrated in western U.S. and parts of eastern U.S.

Credit: New York Times article, Jan. 19, 2016.

The United States is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. The rates of opioid addiction, babies born addicted to opioids, and overdoses have skyrocketed in the past decade. No population has been hit harder than rural communities. Many of these communities are in states with historically low levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIGMS’ Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program builds research capacities in these states by supporting basic, clinical, and translational research, as well as faculty development and infrastructure improvements. IDeA-funded programs in many states have begun prioritizing research focused on reducing the burden of opioid addiction. Below is a snapshot of three of these programs, and how they are working to help their communities:

Vermont Center on Behavior and HealthLink to external web site

Because there are generally fewer treatment resources in rural areas compared to larger cities, it can take longer for people addicted to opioids in rural settings to get the care they need. The Vermont Center on Behavior and Health works to address this need and its major implications.

“One very disconcerting trend we’re seeing with this recent crisis is that opioid-addicted individuals are being placed on wait lists lasting months to a year without any kind of treatment,” says Vermont Center on Behavior and Health director Stephen Higgins. “And it’s very unlikely that anyone who is opioid addicted is just going to abstain while they are on a wait list.”

In urban areas, buprenorphine—an approved medication for opioid addiction that can prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms—is generally dispensed by trained physicians at treatment clinics. Unfortunately, many rural communities don’t have enough physicians and clinics to serve patients in need. While waiting for treatment, patients are at risk of premature death, overdose, and contracting diseases such as HIV.

Stacey Sigmon, a faculty member in the Vermont Center on Behavior Health, has developed a method to help tackle this problem: a modified version of a tamper-proof device that delivers daily doses of buprenorphine. The advantage of using the modified device is that it makes each day’s dose available during a preprogrammed 3-hour window within the patient’s home, eliminating the need to visit a clinic.

During a study, participants in the treatment group received interim buprenorphine from the device. They also received daily calls to assess drug use, craving, and withdrawal. Participants in the control group didn’t receive buprenorphine. They remained on the waiting list of their local clinic and didn’t receive phone calls. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), indicate that the device works. Participants who received the interim buprenorphine treatment submitted a higher percentage of drug test specimens that were negative for opioids than those in the control group at 4 weeks (88 percent vs. 0 percent), 8 weeks (84 percent vs. 0 percent), and 12 weeks (68 percent vs. 0 percent). Sigmon and colleagues are currently testing the device with a much larger group of participants.

“This tool is now available to other rural states that are also being devastated by this crisis and are not so far along in beefing up treatment capacity,” says Higgins.

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Interview with a Scientist: Julius Lucks, Shape Seeker

While DNA acts as the hard drive of the cell, storing the instructions to make all of the proteins the cell needs to carry out its various duties, another type of genetic material, RNA, takes on a wide variety of tasks, including gene regulation, protein synthesis, and sensing of metals and metabolites. Each of these jobs is handled by a slightly different molecule of RNA. But what determines which job a certain RNA molecule is tasked with? Primarily its shape. Julius LucksLink to external web site, a biological and chemical engineer at Northwestern University, and his team study the many ways in which RNA can bend itself into new shapes and how those shapes dictate the jobs the RNA molecule can take on.

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Interview with a Scientist: Elhanan Borenstein, Metagenomics Systems Biology


Cataloging the human microbiome—the complete collection of bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses that live in and on our bodies—is an enormous task. Most estimates put the number of organisms who call us home on par with the number of our own cells. Imagine trying to figure out how the billions of critters influence each other and, ultimately, impact our health. Elhanan Borenstein,Link to external web site a computer scientist-cum-genomicist at the University of Washington, and his team are not only tackling this difficult challenge, they are also trying to obtain a systems-level understanding of the collective effect of all of the genes, proteins, and metabolites produced by the numerous species within the microbiome.

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Molecular Fireworks: How Microtubules Form Inside Cells

A video depicting red strands of various lengths exploding outward from a focal point at the left. The strands are tipped in neon green.
       Microtubules sprout from one another. Credit: Petry lab, Princeton University.

The red spray pictured here may look like fireworks erupting across the night sky on July 4th, but it’s actually a rare glimpse of tiny protein strands called microtubules sprouting and growing from one another in a lab. Microtubules are the largest of the molecules that form a cell’s skeleton. When a cell divides, microtubules help ensure that each daughter cell has a complete set of genetic information from the parent. They also help organize the cell’s interior and even act as miniature highways for certain proteins to travel along.

As their name suggests, microtubules are hollow tubes made of building blocks called tubulins. Scientists know that a protein called XMAP215 adds tubulin proteins to the ends of microtubules to make them grow, but until recently, the way that a new microtubule starts forming remained a mystery.

Sabine Petry Link to external web site and her colleagues at Princeton University developed a new imaging method for watching microtubules as they develop and found an important clue to the mystery. They adapted a technique called total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy, which lit up only a tiny sliver of a sample from frog egg (Xenopus) tissue. This allowed the scientists to focus clearly on a few of the thousands of microtubules in a normal cell. They could then see what happened when they added certain proteins to the sample.

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Interview With a Scientist: Andrew Goodman, Separating Causation and Correlation in the Microbiome

You’ve likely heard some variation of the statistic that there are at least as many microbial cells in our body as human cells. You may have also heard that the microscopic bugs that live in our guts, on our skins, and every crevice they can find, collectively referred to as the human microbiome, are implicated in human health. But do these bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses cause disease, or are the specific populations of microbes inside us a result of our state of health? That’s the question that drives the research in the lab of Andrew Goodman Link to external web site, associate professor of microbial pathogenesis at Yale University.

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Best Documentary: Cells Record Their Own Lives Using CRISPR

Suppose you were a police detective investigating a robbery. You’d appreciate having a stack of photographs of the crime in progress, but you’d be even happier if you had a detailed movie of the robbery. Then, you could see what happened and when. Research on cells is somewhat like this. Until recently, scientists could take snapshots of cells in action, but they had trouble recording what cells were doing over time. They were getting an incomplete picture of the events occurring in cells.

Researchers have started solving this problem by combining some old knowledge—that DNA is spectacularly good at storing information—with a popular new research tool called CRISPR. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is an immune system feature in bacteria that helps them to remember and destroy viruses that infect them. CRISPR can change DNA sequences in precise ways; and it’s programmable, meaning that researchers can tell CRISPR where to make a change on a DNA strand, and even what kind of change to make. By linking cellular events to CRISPR, researchers can make something like a movie that captures many pieces of information in the form of DNA changes that researchers can read back later. These pieces of information include timing, duration, and intensity of events, such as the turning on of a specific protein pathway or the exposure of the cell to pathogens (i.e. germs). Here, we look at some of the ways NIGMS-funded research teams and others are using CRISPR to capture these kinds of data within DNA sequences.

Left: Rectangle containing magnetic tape illustrated as a black strip wound on two spools. Closeup of the magnetic tape beneath as a blue strip with orange lines to indicate stored audio signals. Text reads: data in magnetic tape. Center: Four, white capsule-shaped bacteria, with three rows of connected shapes (black diamonds, blue and orange rectangles) beneath to illustrate stored biological signals in bacteria. Text reads: data in CRISPR tape in cells. Right: Numerous capsule-shaped bacteria in different colors, each containing a black strip wound on two spools

An audio recorder stores audio signals into a magnetic tape medium (left). Similarly, a microscopic data recorder stores biological signals into a CRISPR tape in bacteria (middle). An enormous amount of information can be stored across multiple bacterial cells (right). Credit: Wang Lab/Columbia University Medical Center.

Round and Round: mSCRIBE Creates a Continuous Recording Loop

A dark blue-green cell with textured surface containing a round, blue meter with a white dial. The dial reads a magenta ribbon of DNA and records over time the number of cellular events that occur. The cellular events are depicted by purple, green, and smaller magenta clusters moving through the cell.
MIT bioengineers, led by Timothy Lu, have devised a memory storage system illustrated here as a DNA-embedded meter that records the activity of a signaling pathway in a human cell. Credit: Timothy Lu lab, MIT.

CRISPR uses an enzyme called Cas9 like a surgical knife, to slice both strands of a cell’s DNA at precise points. A cut like this sends the cell scrambling to repair the damage. Often, the repair effort results in changes, or errors, in the repaired strand that pile up at a known rate. Timothy Lu Link to external web site and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to turn this cut-repair-error system into a way to record certain events inside a cell. They call their method mSCRIBE (mammalian synthetic cellular recorder integrating biological events).

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Teens Explore Science and Health through Game Design

Educators often struggle to teach teens about sexual and reproductive health. Hexacago Health Academy (HHA) Link to external web site, an education program from the University of Chicago, leverages the fun activity of gameplay to impart these lessons to young people from Chicago’s South Side community. Funded by the Student Education Partnership Award (SEPA), part of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), in 2015, HHA assists teachers in their goal of helping teen students gain awareness and control over their health and also learn about careers in STEM Link to external web site and health fields.

Woman in a black buisness suit with arms crossed standing against a wall and smiling
Melissa Gilliam, founder of Ci3. Credit: Anna Knott, Chicago Magazine.

Genesis of HHA

HHA was cofounded by Melissa Gilliam Link to external web site, a University of Chicago professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology and Pediatrics and founder of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry & Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3) Link to external web site. During a 2013 summer program with high school students, Gilliam and Patrick Jagoda Link to external web site, associate professor of English and Cinema & Media Studies, and cofounder of Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab Link to external web site, introduced the students to their STEM-based alternate reality game called The Source Link to external web site, in which a young woman crowdsources player help to solve a mystery that her father has created for her.

From their experience with The Source, Gilliam and Jagoda quickly learned that students not only wanted to play games but to design them too. What followed was the Game Changer Lab’s creation of the Hexacago game board, as well as the launch of HHA, a SEPA-funded project that the lab oversees.

Hexacago Game Board

At the core of HHA is the Hexacago game board Link to external web site, which displays the city of Chicago, along with Lake Michigan, a train line running through the city, and neighborhoods gridded into a hexagonal pattern.

HHA students not only play games designed from the Hexacago board template, but also design their own games from it that are intended to inspire behavior change in health-related situations and improve academic performance.

High school students seated at a table with a glossy, laminate test model of the Hexacago game and game pieces on top of it
Credit: Ci3 at the University of Chicago.

In this way, HHA is much more than just game design and play. “Students have no idea that what they’re doing is learning. In their minds, they’re really focused on designing games,” says Gilliam. “That’s the idea behind Hexacago Health Academy: helping people acquire deep knowledge of science and health issues by putting on the hat of a game designer.” Moreover, through the process of gameplay and design, students practice all the rich skills that result from teamwork, including collaborative learning, leadership, and communication.

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Interview with a Scientist: Michael Summers, Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to Study HIV

For more than 30 years, NIGMS has supported the structural characterization of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) enzymes and viral proteins. This support has been instrumental in the development of crucial drugs for antiretroviral therapy such as protease inhibitors. NIGMS continues to support further characterization of viral proteins as well as cellular and viral complexes. These complexes represent the fundamental interactions between the virus and its host target cell and, as such, represent potential new targets for therapeutic development.

In this third in a series of three video interviews with NIGMS-funded researchers probing the structure of HIV, Michael Summers,Link to external web site professor of biochemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, discusses his use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology to study HIV. Of recent interest to Summers has been using NMR to investigate how HIV’s RNA enables the virus to reproduce. His goals for this line of research are to develop treatments against HIV as well as learning how to best engineer viruses to deliver helpful therapies to individuals with a variety of diseases.

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Interview with a Scientist: Wes Sundquist, How the Host Immune System Fights HIV

For more than 30 years, NIGMS has supported the structural characterization of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) enzymes and viral proteins. This support has been instrumental in the development of crucial drugs for antiretroviral therapy such as protease inhibitors. NIGMS continues to support further characterization of viral proteins as well as cellular and viral complexes. These complexes represent the fundamental interactions between the virus and its host target cell and, as such, represent potential new targets for therapeutic development.

In this second in a series of three video interviews with NIGMS-funded researchers probing the structure of HIV, Wes Sundquist,Link to external web site professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, discusses his lab’s studies of how HIV uses factors in host cells to replicate itself. In particular, Sundquist focuses on the ESCORT pathway that enables HIV to leave infected cells and spread infection elsewhere.

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