Scientists studying how genetics impact brain disease have long sought a better experimental model. Cultures of genetically-modified cell lines can reveal some clues to how certain genes influence the development of psychiatric disorders and brain cancers. But such models cannot offer the true-to-form look at brain function that can be provided by genetically-modified mice.
Even then, carefully breeding mice to study how genes impact the brain has several drawbacks. The breeding cycles are lengthy and costly, and the desired gene specificity can only be verified — but not guaranteed — when mouse pups are born.
In today’s Nature, scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital and UC San Francisco describe a new way to create customized mouse models for studying the brain. …
Malaria parasite infection, which affects our red blood cells, can be fatal. Currently, there are about 200 million malaria infections in the world each year and more than 400,000 people, mostly children, die of malaria each year.
Now, studying blood samples from patients treated for malaria at a clinical field station in Brazil’s Amazon jungle, a team of Brazilian and American researchers has made a surprising discovery that could open the door to a new vaccine.
“I noticed that white blood cells called killer T cells were activated in response to malaria parasite infection of immature red blood cells,” says Caroline Junqueira, PhD, a visiting scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (HMS).
Digging deeper, Junqueira, Lieberman and collaborators have found a completely unexpected immune response to malaria parasites that infect immature blood cells called reticulocytes. The revelation could help to design a new vaccine that might be capable of preventing malaria.
Their findings, published today in Nature Medicine, uncover special cellular mechanisms and properties specific to “teenaged” reticulocytes and a strain of malaria called Plasmodium vivax that enable our T cells to recognize and destroy both the infected reticulocytes and the parasites inside them. …
A new discovery about the spatial orientation and physical interactions of our genes provides a promising step forward in our ability to design custom antibodies. This, in turn, could revolutionize the fields of vaccine development and infection control.
Recent years of research by Alt and others in the field of molecular biology have revealed that it’s not just our genes themselves that determine health and disease states. It’s also the three-dimensional arrangement of our genes that plays a role in keeping genetic harmony. Failure of these structures may trigger genetic mutations or genome rearrangements leading to catastrophe.
The importance of genetic loops
Crammed inside the nucleus, chromatin, the chains of DNA and proteins that make up our chromosomes, is arranged in extensive loop arrangements. These loop configurations physically confine segments of genes that ought to work together in a close proximity to one another, increasingly their ability to work in tandem.
“All the genes contained inside one loop have a greater than random chance of coming together,” says Suvi Jain, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in Alt’s lab and a co-first author on the study.
Meanwhile, genes that ought to stay apart remain blocked from reaching each other, held physically apart inside our chromosomes by the loop structures of our chromatin.
But while many chromatin loops are hardwired into certain formations throughout all our cells, it turns out that some types of cells, such as certain immune cells, are more prone to re-arrangement of these loops. …
Astronomers developed a “guide star” adaptive optics technique to obtain the most crystal-clear and precise telescopic images of distant galaxies, stars and planets. Now a team of scientists, led by Nobel laureate Eric Betzig, PhD, are borrowing the very same trick. They’ve combined it with lattice light-sheet to create a new microscope that’s able to capture real-time, incredibly detailed and accurate images, along with three-dimensional videos of biology on the cellular and sub-cellular level.
The work — a collaboration between researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School — is detailed in a new paper just published in Science.
“Every time we’ve done an experiment with this microscope, we’ve observed something novel — and generated new ideas and hypotheses to test,” Kirchhausen said in a news story by HMS. “It can be used to study almost any problem in a biological system or organism I can think of.” …
Ribonucleic acid, or RNA, has long been underappreciated for its role in gene expression. Until recent years, RNA has been thought of merely as a messenger, shuttling DNA’s instructions to the genetic machinery that synthesizes proteins.
But new discoveries of RNA functions, modifications and its ability to transcribe sections of the genome that were previously considered “junk DNA” has led to the discovery of a huge number of new druggable targets.
These new insights into RNA’s complex purposes have largely been uncovered through ever-increasingly sensitive and affordable sequencing methods. As a result, RNA-based drugs now stand to greatly extend our ability to treat diseases beyond the scope of what’s possible with small molecules and biologics.
Lieberman, who has helped pioneer the RNA-based drug revolution herself, was the first scientist to show in an animal disease model that small, double-stranded RNAs could be used as drugs and leveraged to knock down genes in cells.
Cells throughout the human body are constantly being damaged as a part of natural life, normal cellular processes, UV and chemical exposure and environmental factors — resulting in what are called DNA double-strand breaks. Thankfully, to prevent the accumulation of DNA damage that could eventually lead to cell dysfunction, cancer or death, the healthy human body has developed ways of locating and repairing the damage.
Unfortunately, these DNA repair mechanisms themselves are not impervious to genetic errors. Genetic mutations that disrupt DNA repair can contribute to devastating disease.
Across the early-stage progenitor cells that give rise to the human brain’s 80 billion neuronal cells, genomic alterations impacting DNA repair processes have been linked to neuropsychiatric disorders and the childhood brain cancer medulloblastoma. But until now, it was not known exactly which disruptions in DNA repair were involved.
The human body’s innate immune system employs a variety of “sensors” for identifying foreign invaders such as viruses. One such viral sensor is a receptor called MDA5, found in every cell of the body.
Inside each cell, MDA5 constantly scans genetic material, checking if it’s native to the body or not. As soon as MDA5 identifies the genetic signature of a viral invader, it trips a system-wide alarm, triggering a cascade of immune activity to neutralize the threat.
But if a genetic mutation to MDA5 causes it to confuse some of the body’s own genetic material for being foreign, “false alarms” can lead to unchecked inflammation and disease. Scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital have discovered a new link between MDA5’s ability to discriminate between “self” and “non-self” genetic material — called RNA duplexes — and a spectrum of autoimmune disorders. …
To fight HIV, the development of immunization strategies must keep up with how quickly the virus modifies itself. Now, Boston Children’s Hospital researchers are developing models to test HIV vaccines on a faster and broader scale than ever before with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The researchers are racing against HIV’s sophisticated attack on the human immune system. HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, mutates much faster than other pathogens. Within each infected patient, one virus can multiply by the billions. …
Immune cells called “killer cells” target bacteria invading the body’s cells, but how do they do this so effectively? Bacteria can quickly evolve resistance against antibiotics, yet it seems they have not so readily been able to evade killer cells. This has caused researchers to become interested in finding out the exact mechanism that killer cells use to destroy bacterial invaders.
Although one way that killer cells can trigger bacterial death is by inflicting oxidative damage, it has not yet been at all understood how killer cells destroy bacteria in environments without oxygen.
Now, for the first time, researchers have caught killer cells red-handed in the act of microbial murder …
WATCH: DNA nanoswitches change shape in the presence of biomarkers. The shape change is revealed in a process called gel electrophoresis. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University
“Nanoswitches” — engineered, shape-changing strands of DNA — could shake up the way we monitor our health, according to new research. Faster, easier, cheaper and more sensitive tests based on these tools — used in the lab or at point of care — could indicate the presence of disease, infection and even genetic variabilities as subtle as a single-gene mutation.
“One critical application in both basic research and clinical practice is the detection of biomarkers in our bodies, which convey vital information about our current health,” says lead researcher Wesley Wong, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine (PCMM). “However, current methods tend to be either cheap and easy or highly sensitive, but generally not both.”