Chris Palmer

About Chris Palmer

Chris, a former neuroscientist, enjoys communicating about new research discoveries and trends in science through articles, videos, and infographics.

Interview With a Scientist: Namandjé Bumpus, Drug Metabolism Maven

Medications are designed to treat diseases and make us healthier. But our bodies don’t know that. To them, medications are merely foreign molecules that need to be removed.

Before our bodies can get rid of these drug molecules, enzymes in the liver do the chemical work of preparing the molecules for removal. There are hundreds of different versions of these drug-processing enzymes. Some versions work quickly, others work slowly. In some cases, the versions you have determine how well a medication works for you, and whether you experience side effects from it.

Namandjé Bumpus Exit icon, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is interested in how human bodies respond to HIV medications. She studies the enzymes that process these drugs. Her research team discovered that a genetic variant of a liver enzyme impacts the way some people handle a particular HIV drug. This variant is found in around 80 percent of people of European descent. She describes her work in this video.

Bumpus recently presented her research to a more scientifically advanced audience at an Early Career Investigator Lecture at the National Institutes of Health. Watch her talk titled Drug Metabolism, Pharmacogenetics and the Quest to Personalize HIV Treatment and Prevention.

Dr. Bumpus’ work is supported in part by NIGMS grant R01GM103853.

Online Virus Tracking Tool Nextstrain Wins Inaugural Open Science Prize

Nextstrain’s analysis of the genomes from Zika virus obtained in 25 countries over the past few years.

Credit: Trevor Bedford and Richard Neher, nextstrain.org.

Over the past decade, scientists and clinicians have eagerly deposited their burgeoning biomedical data into publicly accessible databases. However, a lack of computational tools for sharing and synthesizing the data has prevented this wealth of information from being fully utilized.

In an attempt to unleash the power of open-access data, the National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Britain’s Wellcome Trust, launched the Open Science Prize Exit icon. Last week, after a multi-stage public voting process, the inaugural award was announced. The winner of the grand prize—and $230,000—is a prototype computational tool called nextstrain Exit icon that tracks the spread of emerging viruses such as Ebola and Zika. This tool could be especially valuable in revealing the transmission patterns and geographic spread of new outbreaks before vaccines are available, such as during the 2013-2016 Ebola epidemic and the current Zika epidemic.

An international team of scientists—led by NIGMS grantee Trevor Bedford Exit icon of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, and Richard Neher Exit icon of Biozentrum at the University of Basel, Switzerland—developed nextstrain as an open-access system capable of sharing and analyzing viral genomes. The system mines viral genome sequence data that researchers have made publicly available online. nextstrain then rapidly determines the evolutionary relationships among all the viruses in its database and displays the results of its analyses on an interactive public website.

The image here shows nextstrain’s analysis of the genomes from Zika virus obtained in 25 countries over the past few years. Plotting the relatedness of these viral strains on a timeline provides investigators a sense of how the virus has spread and evolved, and which strains are genetically similar. Researchers can upload genome sequences of newly discovered viral strains—in this case Zika—and find out in short order how their new strain relates to previously discovered strains, which could potentially impact treatment decisions.

Nearly 100 interdisciplinary teams comprising 450 innovators from 45 nations competed for the Open Science Prize. More than 3,500 people from six continents voted online for the winner. Other finalists for the prize focused on brain maps Exit icon, gene discovery Exit icon, air-quality monitoring Exit icon, neuroimaging Exit icon and drug discovery Exit icon.

nextstrain was funded in part by NIH under grant U54GM111274.

Interview With a Scientist: Thomas O’Halloran, Metal Maestro

Inside our bodies is a surprising amount of metal. Not enough to set off the scanners at the airport or make us rich, but enough to fill each of our cells with billions of metal ions, including calcium, iron, copper and zinc. These ions facilitate critical biological functions.

However, too much of any metal can be toxic, while too little can cause disease. Our cells carefully monitor and control their metal content using a whole series of proteins that bind, sense and transport metal ions.

Keeping tabs on why and how metals flow into and out of our cells is a passion of Thomas O’Halloran Exit icon, professor of chemistry and molecular biosciences at Northwestern University in Illinois. For the past three decades, O’Halloran has investigated how fluctuations in the amount of metal ions inside cells influence gene expression, cell growth and other vital functions. Using a variety of approaches, he has uncovered new types of proteins that bind metal ions and investigated the role that imbalances in these ions play in a number of disease-related physiological processes.

One recent focus of his studies has been how zinc regulates oocyte (egg cell) maturation and fertilization. Ultimately, his work could help us better understand infertility, cancer and certain bacterial infections.

There’s an “Ome” for That

In the 13 years since the sequencing of the human genome, the list of “omes” has proliferated. Drop us a comment with your favorite ome—we may feature it in a follow-up post next month.

Have you ever collected coins, cards, toy trains, stuffed animals? Did you feel the need to complete the set? If so, then you may be a completist. A completist will go to great lengths to acquire a complete set of something.

Scientists can also be completists who are inspired to identify and catalog every object in a particular field to further our understanding of it. For example, a comprehensive parts list of the human body—and of other organisms that are important in biomedical research—could aid in the development of novel treatments for diseases in the same way that a parts list for a car enables auto mechanics to build or repair a vehicle.

More than 15 years ago, scientists figured out how to catalog every gene in the human body. In the years since, rapid advances in technology and computational tools have allowed researchers to begin to categorize numerous aspects of the biological world. There’s actually a special way to name these collections: Add “ome” to the end of the class of objects being compiled. So, the complete set of genes in the body is called the “genome,” and the complete set of proteins is called the “proteome.”

Below are three -omes that NIH-funded scientists work with to understand human health.

Genome

Illustration of the entire outer shell of the bacteriophage MS2. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Naranson.

The genome is the original -ome. In 1976, Belgium scientists identified all 3,569 DNA bases—the As, Cs, Gs and Ts that make up DNA’s code—in the genes of bacteriophage MS2, immortalizing this bacteria-infecting virus as possessing the first fully sequenced genome.

Over the next two decades, a small handful of additional genomes from other microorganisms followed. The first animal genome was completed in 1998. Just 5 years later, scientists identified all 3.2 billion DNA bases in the human genome, representing the work of more than 1,000 researchers from six countries over a period of 13 years. Continue reading

Our Complicated Relationship With Viruses

Illustration of Influenza Virus H1N1. Swine Flu.
Nearly 10 percent of the human genome is derived from the genes of viruses. Credit: Stock image.

When viruses infect us, they can embed small chunks of their genetic material in our DNA. Although infrequent, the incorporation of this material into the human genome has been occurring for millions of years. As a result of this ongoing process, viral genetic material comprises nearly 10 percent of the modern human genome. Over time, the vast majority of viral invaders populating our genome have mutated to the point that they no longer lead to active infections. But they are not entirely dormant.

Sometimes, these stowaway sequences of viral genes, called “endogenous retroviruses” (ERVs), can contribute to the onset of diseases such as cancer. They can also make their hosts susceptible to infections from other viruses. However, scientists have identified numerous cases of viral hitchhikers bestowing crucial benefits to their human hosts—from protection against disease to shaping important aspects of human evolution, such as the ability to digest starch.

Protecting Against Disease

Geneticists Cedric Feschotte Exit icon, Edward Chuong Exit icon and Nels Elde Exit icon at the University of Utah have discovered that ERVs lodged in the human genome can jump start the immune system.

For a virus to successfully make copies of itself inside a host cell, it needs molecular tools similar to the ones its host normally uses to translate genes into proteins. As a result, viruses have tools meticulously shaped by evolution to commandeer the protein-producing machinery of human cells. Continue reading

Metals in Medicine

An exhibit called “Minerals in Medicine” opened at the NIH Clinical Center last month (see slideshow). The display features a fascinating overview of how dozens of minerals are used to create drugs and medical instruments useful in treating disease and maintaining health. The minerals ranged from commonplace ones like quartz, which is used to make medical instruments, to more exotic ones like huebnerite, a source of the metal tungsten, which is used in radiation shielding.

Inspired by this collection, which is co-sponsored by NIH and the Smithsonian Institution, we highlight here examples of “Metals in Medicine.”

Copper and Fat Metabolism

Fluorescent imaging of copper in white fat cells from mice.

Fluorescent imaging of copper in white fat cells from mice. The left panel shows fat cells with normal levels of copper, and the right panel shows fat cells deficient in copper. Credit: Lakshmi Krishnamoorthy and Joseph Cotruvo Jr., University of California, Berkeley.

What does a metal like copper have to do with our ability to breakdown fat? Researchers explored this question by observing mice with Wilson’s disease—a rare, inherited condition that causes copper to accumulate in the liver, brain and other vital organs. The mice with the condition usually have larger deposits of fat compared to healthy mice. To confirm that fat metabolism is somehow compromised in these mice, the researchers treated them with a drug that induces the breakdown of fat. And indeed they found that less fat was metabolized in mice with the disease.

In an effort to investigate what role copper may be playing in fat metabolism, the researchers examined adipose tissue, or fat, cells under a microscope to track the metal’s interactions with various proteins in the cell. They discovered that copper inhibits an enzyme called PDE3. This enzyme usually prevents another enzyme called cAMP from helping to break down fat. The researchers concluded that copper actually promotes fat metabolism. This work shows that transition metal nutrients can play signaling roles, which has been previously thought to be restricted to alkali and alkaline earth metals like sodium, potassium and calcium. Continue reading

Exploring the Evolution of Spider Venom to Improve Human Health

Brown recluse

Female brown recluse spider. Credit Matt Bertone, North Carolina State University.

This Halloween, you’re not likely to see many trick-or-treaters dressed as spiders. Google Trends pegs “Spider” as the 87th most searched-for Halloween costume, right between “Hippie” and “The Renaissance.” But don’t let your guard down. Spiders are everywhere.

“I grew up on a farm in Indiana and had the luxury of exploring and turning over rocks and being curious. Any feelings of being grossed out by spiders were rapidly replaced by my feelings of awe for how amazing and diverse these creatures are.”– Greta Binford”

More than 46,000 species of spiders creepy crawl across the globe, on every continent except Antarctica. Each species produces a venom composed of an average of 500 distinct toxins, putting the conservative estimate of unique venom compounds at more than 22 million. This staggering diversity of venoms, collectively referred to as the venome, has only begun to be explored. Continue reading

Interview With a Scientist: Laura Kiessling, Carbohydrate Scientist

The outside of every cell on Earth—from the cells in your body to single-celled microorganisms—is blanketed with a coat of carbohydrates, or sugar molecules, that extend from the cell surface, branching off and bending as they interface with the extra-cellular space. The specific patterns in which these carbohydrates are arranged serve as an ID code that help cells recognize each other. For example, human liver cells have one pattern, while human red blood cells another. Certain diseases can even alter the pattern of surface carbohydrates, which is one way the body can recognize damaged cells. On foreign cells, including invading bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, the carbohydrate coat is even more distinct.

Laura Kiessling Exit icon, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, studies how carbohydrate coats are assembled and how cells use these coats to tell friend from foe. The implications of her research suggest strategies for targeting tumors, fighting diseases of inflammation and, as she discusses in this video, developing new classes of antibiotics.

The Science of Size: Rebecca Heald Explores Size Control in Amphibians

Rebecca Heald
Credit: Mark Hanson.
Rebecca Heald
Grew up in: Greenville, Pennsylvania
Studied at: Hamilton College, Rice University, Harvard Medical School
Job site: University of California, Berkeley
Favorite hobby: Cycling

A 50-pound frog isn’t some freak of nature or a creepy Halloween prank. It’s a thought experiment conceived by Rebecca Heald, a cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley Exit icon, who is studying the factors that control size in animals.

Heald’s “50-pound frog project” speaks to the power of evolution and to scientists’ ability to modify the physical characteristics of an organism by altering its genome. The project also incorporates many of Heald’s fascinating discoveries studying amphibian eggs and embryos.

In amphibians, unlike in mammals, there are striking correlations among the size of the animals’ genomes (an organism’s complete set of genes) and several aspects of the animals’ size. For example, amphibians with large genomes tend to be bigger than those with smaller genomes. Larger genomes also correspond to larger cells and larger organelles (specialized cellular structures such as the nucleus). Heald has also demonstrated that these seemingly fixed parameters can be tweaked in the lab. Continue reading

Interview With a Scientist: Janet Iwasa, Molecular Animator

The world beneath our skin is full of movement. Hemoglobin in our blood grabs oxygen and delivers it throughout the body. Molecular motors in cells chug along tiny tubes, hauling cargo with them. Biological invaders like viruses enter our bodies, hijack our cells and reproduce wildly before bursting out to infect other cells.

To make sense of the subcutaneous world, Janet Iwasa, a molecular animator at the University of Utah, creates “visual hypotheses”—detailed animations that convey the latest thinking of how biological molecules interact.

“It’s really building the animated model that brings insights,” Iwasa told Biomedical Beat in 2014. “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.”

Iwasa has collaborated with numerous scientists to develop animations of a range of biological processes and structures Exit icon. Recently, she’s undertaken an ambitious, multi-year project to animate HIV reproduction Exit icon.