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Archive - Mar 2017

March 7th

American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) Opposes Trump’s New Executive Order Restricting Travel to the US; World’s Largest Genetics Organization Says “Order Will Harm the Progress of Scientific Research in the US and Abroad”

In a March 7, 2017 press release, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) announced that it opposes and urges the White House to rescind its recent Executive Order "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States," issued March 6. Effective March 16, the Executive Order will suspend entry of nationals from six countries into the United States, and of refugees whose applications have not yet been approved by the Department of State. "As a global organization that deeply values collaboration, we believe this order will harm the progress of scientific research in the United States and abroad," said Nancy J. Cox, Ph.D., President of ASHG. "Beyond its practical effects, this travel ban sends a message to some in the international scientific community that their presence is unwelcome -- a message we do not endorse," she added. The ASHG is the world's largest genetics organization, and nearly one-third of its members reside outside the U.S. The Society has long recognized the important contributions to the genetics enterprise that come from all over the world, and believes that research in the U.S. benefits greatly from the influx of international researchers to laboratories around the country. "Restricting the travel of scientists threatens the United States' status as a world leader in genetics and genomics research," Dr. Cox said. Every year at the ASHG Annual Meeting, scientists from more than 65 countries come together to share their latest findings and ideas. This cross-pollination, at the ASHG meeting as well as other international conferences, is essential for sparking new avenues of inquiry and establishing partnerships. "As geneticists, we are all students of human variation and we value - indeed, celebrate - the diversity that has contributed to our survival as a species.

UC-Irvine Chemists Determine How to Easily & Cheaply Halt Snake Venom's Spread; Molecular Gel Could Save Millions Globally from Death or Disfigurement

Chemists at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) have developed a way to neutralize deadly snake venom more cheaply and effectively than with traditional anti-venom -- an innovation that could spare millions of people the loss of life or limbs each year. In the U.S., human snakebite deaths are rare -- about five a year -- but the treatment could prove useful for dog owners, mountain bikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts brushing up against nature at ankle level. Worldwide, an estimated 4.5 million people are bitten annually, 2.7 million suffer crippling injuries, and more than 100,000 die, most of them farmworkers and children in poor, rural parts of India and sub-Saharan Africa with little healthcare. The existing treatment requires slow intravenous infusion at a hospital and costs up to $100,000. And the antidote only halts the damage inflicted by a small number of species. "Current anti-venom is very specific to certain snake types. Ours seems to show broad-spectrum ability to stop cell destruction across species on many continents, and that is quite a big deal," said doctoral student Jeffrey O'Brien, lead author of a study published on December 14, 2016 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The article is titled “Engineering the Protein Corona of a Synthetic Polymer Nanoparticle for Broad-Spectrum Sequestration and Neutralization of Venomous Biomacromolecules.” Zeroing in on protein families common to many serpents, the UCI researchers demonstrated that they could halt the worst effects of cobras and kraits in Asia and Africa, as well as of pit vipers in North America. The team synthesized a polymer nanogel material that binds to several key protein toxins, keeping them from bursting cell membranes and causing widespread destruction.

Brain Scans of Service Dog Trainees Help Sort Weaker Recruits from the Pack

Brain scans of canine candidates to assist people with disabilities can help predict which dogs will fail a rigorous service training program, a study by Emory University finds. The journal Scientific Reports published the results of the study, involving 43 dogs that underwent service training at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) (http://www.cci.org/) in Santa Rosa, California. The open-access article, titled “Functional MRI in Awake Dogs Predicts Suitability for Assistance Work,” was published on March 7, 2017 (http://www.nature.com/articles/srep43704). "Data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provided a modest, but significant, improvement in the ability to identify dogs that were poor candidates," says Emory neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns, who led the research. "What the brain imaging tells us is not just which dogs are more likely to fail, but why." All of the dogs in the study underwent a battery of behavioral tests showing that they had a calm temperament before being selected for training. Despite calm exteriors, however, some of the dogs showed higher activity in the amygdala - an area of the brain associated with excitability. These dogs were more likely to fail the training program. "The brain scans may be like taking a dog's mental temperature," Dr. Berns says. "You could think of it as a medical test with a normal range for a service dog. And the heightened neural activity that we see in the amygdala of some dogs may be outside of that range, indicating an abnormal value for a successful service dog." The findings are important, he adds, because the cost of training a service dog ranges from $20,000 to $50,000. As many as 70 percent of the animals that start a six-to-nine-month training program have to be released for behavioral reasons.

Obstacles & Opportunities in the Functional Analysis of Extracellular Vesicle RNA (EV RNA) – ISEV Position Paper Published

“A new ISEV (International Society for Extracellular Vesicles) position paper giving an overview and critical review of analysis of EV (extracellular vesicle) RNA has just been published in JEV (Journal of Extracellular Vesicles). Authored by participants of the 2015 ISEV EV-RNA Workshop and led by Esther Nolte-'t Hoen (Utrecht University), Bogdan Mateescu (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich), and Emma Kowal (MIT), this is essential reading for anyone interested in EV-RNA!” This is the message from Professor Andy Hill (photo), Ph.D., President of the ISEV and Director of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science at La Trobe University in Australia, who was also an author on the paper. The article is titled “Obstacles and Opportunities in the Functional Analysis of Extracellular Vesicle RNA – An ISEV Position Paper,” and it was published online on March 7, 2017 in the open-access JEV (see link below). The article notes that “although EV-RNA has attracted enormous interest from basic researchers, clinicians, and industry, we currently have limited knowledge on which mechanisms drive and regulate RNA incorporation into EV and on how RNA-encoded messages affect signaling processes in EV-targeted cells. Moreover, EV-RNA research faces various technical challenges, such as standardization of EV isolation methods, optimization of methodologies to isolate and characterize minute quantities of RNA found in EV, and development of approaches to demonstrate functional transfer of EV-RNA in vivo.” The authors said the paper “was written not only to give an overview of the current state of knowledge in the field, but also to clarify that our incomplete knowledge – of the nature of EV(-RNA)s and of how to effectively and reliably study them – currently prohibits the implementation of gold standards in EV-RNA research.

March 6th

In Infants at High Risk of Autism, MRIs Showing Increased Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) Predict Future Autism with Nearly 70 Percent Accuracy

A national research network led by the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine's Joseph Piven, M.D., found that many toddlers diagnosed with autism at two years of age had a substantially greater amount of extra-axial cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) at 6 and 12 months of age, before diagnosis is possible. They also found that the more CSF at six months - as measured through MRIs - the more severe the autism symptoms were at two years of age. "The CSF is easy to see on standard MRIs and points to a potential biomarker of autism before symptoms appear years later," said Dr. Piven, co-senior author of the study, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, and Director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD). "We also think this finding provides a potential therapeutic target for a subset of people with autism." The findings, published online on March 6, 2016 in Biological Psychiatry, point to faulty CSF flow as one of the possible causes of autism for a large subset of people. The article is titled “Increased Extra-axial Cerebrospinal Fluid in High-Risk Infants who Later Develop Autism.” "We know that CSF is very important for brain health, and our data suggest that in this large subset of kids, the fluid is not flowing properly," said Mark Shen, Ph.D., CIDD postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study. "We don't expect there's a single mechanism that explains the cause of the condition for every child. But we think improper CSF flow could be one important mechanism." Until the last decade, the scientific and medical communities viewed CSF as merely a protective layer of fluid between the brain and skull, not necessarily important for proper brain development and behavioral health.

Anti-Inflammatory Drug Anakinra Does Not Seem to Improve Fatigue Severity in Women with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)

The anti-inflammatory biologic drug anakinra (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist) does not reduce fatigue severity in women with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), according to findings of a randomized, placebo-controlled trial, the results of which were published online on March 7, 2017 in Annals of Internal Medicine. The article is titled “Cytokine Inhibition in Patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Randomized Trial.” CFS is characterized by severe, persistent, and disabling fatigue. In order to fulfill the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) criteria for CFS, patients have to report at least four of eight accompanying symptoms in addition to fatigue (headache, persistent muscle pain, increased malaise [extreme exhaustion and sickness] following physical activity or mental exertion, problems with sleep, difficulties with memory and concentration, joint pain [without redness or swelling], tender lymph nodes in the neck or armpit, sore throat). Interleukin-1 (IL-1), a pro-inflammatory cytokine, has been associated with CFS in some studies. There is extensive experience with blocking IL-1 in a variety of diseases with the IL-1 receptor antagonist anakinra. Several studies in inflammatory and non-inflammatory illnesses have assessed the effect of IL-1 inhibition on fatigue severity, and most have found positive effects of this intervention. Researchers from the Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to evaluate the effects of anakinra injections versus placebo on fatigue severity in patients with CFS. Because CFS typically affects women, the researchers included only female patients to investigate a homogeneous group.

Stream of Surprises from Atlantic Cod Genome

Researchers at the University of Oslo (UiO) in Norway keep discovering surprises in the Atlantic cod genome. The most recent study has revealed an unusual amount of short and identical DNA sequences, which might give cod an evolutionary advantage. The report was published online on January 18, 2017 in BMC Genomics in an open-access article titled “An Improved Genome Assembly Uncovers Prolific Tandem Repeats in Atlantic Cod.” Close to ten years ago, researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) caught "Calvin the Cod" and hauled him out of the cold Arctic waters during an oceanographic expedition to the Barents Sea and the northern coast of Norway and the Lofoten archipelago. From Lofoten, Calvin’s journey took him to NIVA’s research station close to Norway’s capital Oslo. The story could have ended there, but Calvin’s destiny took a sudden twist when researchers from the University of Oslo found him swimming in a tank, killed him with a blow to the head, and took samples from his body home to their big freezer at the Department of Biosciences. An ordinary cod would have been eaten after being placed in the freezer, but Calvin the Cod instead started a new career. Calvin was in fact a healthy and characteristic representative of the population of skrei, which is the Norwegian term for cod that migrate between feeding grounds in the Barents Sea and spawning areas along the Norwegian coast. Thus, Calvin was chosen for the honorable task of donating his body parts and genes to science. In 2008, researchers at the University of Oslo initiated a unique project: they wanted to map the genome of a fish of great economic importance, namely Atlantic cod. This project has later become a huge success, and the cod genome researchers have delivered a stream of surprises, based on their studies of Calvin’s genome.

Johns Hopkins to Host Expert Panel on Challenges Surrounding Future of Immunotherapy & Precision Medicine on March 8 in Washington, DC; First Event in Precision Medicine Series

Johns Hopkins inHealth (http://hopkinsinhealth.jhu.edu/), an initiative of Johns Hopkins aimed at moving the field of individualized health forward, will kick off a brand-new event series called the “On the Road to Precision Medicine Health Care Leader Series.” The series will address some of the challenges and obstacles faced in the field of precision medicine. The inaugural event taking place March 8, 2017 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, will focus on the future of immunotherapy. Leading experts will gather to discuss topics such as cost, communication, research, and health care delivery “Immunotherapy: Precision Medicine in Action.” An expert panel will provide insight about the obstacles immunotherapy is facing today. The panelists will include Roy Baynes, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Clinical Development and Chief Medical Officer, Merck Research Laboratories; Glenn Dranoff, M.D., Global Head of Exploratory Immuno-Oncology, Novartis; William Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, Elizabeth Jaffee, M.D., Associate Director, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center; and Margaret Anderson, Executive Director, FasterCures (http://www.fastercures.org/). The event will be held on Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 9–10:30 a.m. EST, at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor, Fourth Estate Room, Washington, DC 20045.

[Media alert]

New Species of Shadow-Loving Fungus Gnat Named After Founder of Symphonic Metal Band Nightwish

Tuomas Holopainen (photo), the multi-talented musician and founder of the symphonic metal band Nightwish, is also a full-blooded nature person. This gave conservation biologist Jukka Salmela, Ph.D., of Metsähallitus Parks & Wildlife Finland an idea for the name of a new species he found in Finland. Discovered in eastern Lapland during an insect survey, the fungus gnat was given the scientific name Sciophila holopaineni after Tuomas. The new species was described online in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal on March 6, 2017. The article is titled “New and Poorly Known Palaearctic Fungus Gnats (Diptera, Sciaroidea).” "I am very, very touched. This is the highest honor a nature nerd like me can receive," Holopainen replied after Dr. Salmela, who collected and described the fungus gnat, asked him for permission to name the species after him. The idea for the name came to Salmela while he was thinking about the habitat and appearance of the species. Then, he recalled Tuomas Holopainen's interest in the natural sciences. So far, the new species of fungus gnat has only been known from two locations: the Törmäoja Natura Area in Savukoski, eastern Lapland, and a meadow close to the White Sea, Russian Karelia. The dark and beautiful gnat thrives in shadowy environments. In Törmäoja, it was caught in a river gulch next to the river source, while hiding under the shelter of the forest. Salmela proposes “tuomaanvarjokainen” as the common Finnish name, inspired by the latest Nightwish album. After all, the themes of the album, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful,” are evolution and the diversity of nature. Fungus gnats are flies that feed on dead wood or fungi. Some of the larvae are predaceous. At current count, there are almost 800 species in Finland and about 1,000 in the Nordic countries.

DNA Patterns Can Reveal How Glucose Metabolism Drives Cancer, Study Finds

A UCLA-led study of DNA patterns in tumor cells suggests that the abundance of aberrant genetic signatures common in more aggressive cancers is not random but reflects selective forces in tumor evolution. The findings also demonstrate that these changes drive glucose metabolism in cells, which can lead to accelerated cancer growth. Less aggressive cancers are known to have an intact genome — the complete set of genes in a cell — while the genome of more aggressive cancers tends to have a great deal of abnormalities. Modern research has focused largely on individual cancer genes, specifically oncogenes and tumor-suppressor genes, as the primary targets for DNA mutations and copy number alternations. Mutation or amplification in oncogenes can turn healthy cells into tumor cells. When tumor-suppressor genes are not working properly cells can grow out of control. However, scientists continue to observe many recurrent copy number alteration patterns in tumors that cannot be fully explained by these canonical cancer genes. It has long been known that a fundamental difference between healthy cells and tumor-forming cells is reprogrammed cellular metabolism. An altered metabolism benefits a transformed cell in many ways, particularly in the ability to convert glucose into energy. This process, known as glycolysis, can fuel tumor growth the most-aggressive cancers. In the five-year study, Thomas Graeber, Ph.D., UCLA Professor of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, and his colleagues used a cross-cancer analysis of copy number alterations data from human tumors, cancer cell lines and mouse models of cancer.