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Caddis Fly Silk May Be Useful Adhesive in Surgery

"Silk from caddis fly larvae may be useful some day as a medical bioadhesive for sticking to wet tissues," said Dr. Russell Stewart, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah and principal author of a new study of the fly silk's chemical and structural properties. "I picture it as sort of a wet Band-Aid, maybe used internally in surgery--like using a piece of tape to close an incision as opposed to sutures," he added. "Gluing things together underwater is not easy. Have you ever tried to put a Band-Aid on in the shower? This insect has been doing this for 150 million to 200 million years. There's just a fascinating diversity of these insects. Their adhesive is able to bond to a wide range of surfaces underwater: soft and hard, organic and inorganic. If we could copy this adhesive, it would be useful on a wide range of tissue types." Dr. Stewart hopes to make a synthetic version of the caddis fly silk for use as a surgical adhesive. There are thousands of caddis fly species worldwide in an order of insects named Trichoptera that is related to Lepidoptera, the order that includes moths and butterflies that spin dry silk. Because caddis flies are eaten by trout, fly fishermen often use caddis fly lures. Some species of caddis fly spend their larval stages developing underwater, and build an inch-long, tube-shaped case or shelter around themselves using sticky silk and grains of rock or sand (see photo). Some other species use silk, small sticks, and pieces of leaves. In these tube-dwelling species, each larva has a head and four legs that stick out from the tube. The larval case is often conical because it gets wider as the larva grows. A caddis fly larva eventually pupates, sealing off the tube as it develops into an adult fly, and then hatches.

Rapidly-Acting Antidepressant Shows Promise

In a recent issue of Biological Psychiatry, researchers from the NIH have reported that a medication called scopolamine appears to produce replicable rapid improvement in mood in patients with unipolar depression. Scopolamine temporarily blocks the muscarinic cholinergic receptor, thought to be overactive in people suffering from depression. Previously, the NIH team had demonstrated scopolamine’s anti-depressive effect in both unipolar and bipolar depression. The current study replicates these findings in an independent sample of unipolar depression patients. Conventional antidepressant treatments generally require three to four weeks to become effective, thus the discovery of treatments with a more rapid onset is a major goal of biological psychiatry. The authors noted that the first drug found to produce rapid improvement in mood was the synthetic NMDA glutamate receptor antagonist known as ketamine. Scopolamine is an alkaloid compound obtained from plants of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), such as henbane, jimson weed, Angel's Trumpets, corkwood, and belladonna (“deadly nightshade”). "Scopolamine was found to reduce symptoms of depression within three days of the first administration. In fact, participants reported that they experienced relief from their symptoms by the morning after the first administration of drug," explained Dr. Maura Furey, co-author of the new report. "Moreover, one half of participants experienced full symptom remission by the end of the treatment period. Finally, participants remained well during a subsequent placebo period, indicating that the antidepressant effects persist for at least two weeks in the absence of further treatment.”

February 28th

Beewolves Protect Larvae with Antibiotic Cocktail from Symbionts

Digger wasps that typically hunt bees to feed their larvae are called “beewolves,” and they are known to house beneficial bacteria on their cocoons that guarantee protection against harmful microorganisms. A team of scientists from Germany has now discovered that symbiotic bacteria of the genus Streptomyces produce a cocktail of nine different antibiotics that protect the beewolf larvae from invading pathogens. Using imaging techniques based on mass spectrometry, the antibiotics could be displayed in vivo on the cocoon's exterior surface. Moreover, it was shown that the complementary actions of the nine symbiont-produced antibiotics confer a potent antimicrobial defense for the wasp larvae against a multitude of different pathogenic microorganisms. Thus, the scientists said, beewolves have, for millions of years, been taking advantage of a principle in human medicine that is known as “combination prophylaxis.” Many insects spend a part of their life underground and are exposed to the risk of fungal or bacterial infections. This is also the case for many digger wasp species that construct underground nests. Unlike bees that use pollen and nectar as food to nurture their larvae, digger wasps hunt insects to feed their offspring. Because of the warm and humid conditions, as well as the large amounts of organic material in their subterranean nests, both their food supply and their larvae are endangered by pathogens. Mold and bacterial infection are major threats and can cause larval death in many cases. Beewolves have evolved an elegant solution to the problem of fungal and bacterial infection. Earlier studies had shown that beewolves form a symbiotic relationship with bacteria of the genus Streptomyces.

Sneezing Induced by Bright Light Is Subject of Study

In research published in PLoS ONE, scientists from the University of Zurich examined the curious and apparently highly prevalent phenomenon called the “photo-induced sneeze reflex” or “sun sneeze.” This reflex is characterized by the induction of a sneeze upon sudden exposure of a dark-adapted subject to intensive bright light and, according to one previous study, is seen in almost 25% of normal individuals. Although generally considered harmless, it has been hypothesized that photic sneezing is, at least in part, a causal factor in conduction deafness, mediastinorrhexis, and cerebral hemorrhage. Previous studies have pointed out that photic sneezing could be dangerous for individuals in certain professions, such as baseball outfielders, high-wire acrobats, and airplane pilots, or in commonly experienced situations such as driving out of a tunnel, which can triple the risk of sneezing. The Zurich researchers said that their results demonstrated that photic sneezers have a generally enhanced excitability of the visual cortex to standard visual stimuli, and that a stronger prickle sensation in the nose of photic sneezers was associated with both activation in the insular cortex and stronger activation in the secondary somatosensory cortex. Thus, while the results of this study do not contradict those theories that emphasize the role of reflex pathway in the brain stem of photic sneezers, they do, the researchers said, support the view that even cortical circuits, rather than just brainstem circuits, might play a pivotal role in controlling (or modulating) this extraordinary and rarely investigated behavior. The researchers said that the photic sneeze reflex is therefore not a classical reflex that occurs only at a brainstem or spinal cord level, but, in stark contrast to many theories, also involves specific cortical areas.

Personalized Warfarin Dosing Enhanced by MS-Based SNP Genotyping

The anticoagulant drug warfarin (also known under the brand name Coumadin) is commonly used to prevent blood clots and embolisms. However, the drug exhibits significant inter-individual variability in dosing requirements. This variability is partly due to single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that influence either drug action or drug metabolism. Rapid genotyping of these SNPs helps clinicians to choose appropriate initial doses to quickly achieve anticoagulation effects and to prevent complications. A group led by Dr. Haifeng Wu of Ohio State University has developed a new, rapid method to genotype SNPs that will help clinicians to choose appropriate doses of warfarin for individual patients. Using surface-enhanced laser desorption and ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (SELDI-TOF MS), which can determine the elemental composition of a sample, the researchers were able to determine the genotype of three warfarin-related SNPs (CYP2C9*2, CYP2C9*3, and VKORC1 3673G>A) in under five hours with high levels of accuracy. The researchers suggested that "on-site application of this method in hospital laboratories will greatly help clinicians to determine appropriate doses of warfarin to treat patients with thromboembolic disorders." In future studies, the Ohio State scientists plan to apply the SELDI-TOF platform to genotype other medically important SNPs that influence the efficacy and safety profiles of many drug therapies and to thus ultimately promote personalized health care. This work was reported in the March issue of the Journal of Molecular Diagnostics. [Press release] [Journal of Molecular Diagnostics abstract]

Animal Model Suggests Possible Cause for ADHD

Using a mouse model they created, scientists at Rockefeller University and collaborating institutions have identified a gene (CK1 delta) that they believe merits investigation as a possible cause of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Currently, the cause of ADHD is unknown, but there is increasing evidence that dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward-motivation system, is involved. Scientists have previously found that the levels of dopamine, and of the D2 receptor it binds to, are involved in the progression of ADHD, as are four connected regions in the frontal region of the brain, two of which are directly linked to reward and motivation. In their work, the scientists focused on an enzyme called casein kinase I (CK1), which is involved in regulating the dopamine signaling pathway. They created a line of mice genetically modified to overexpress a form of CK1 called CK1 delta, specifically in the forebrain of the mouse. Under normal conditions and in response to stimulation by drugs such as the ones used today to treat ADHD, the mice that overexpressed CK1 delta showed behavioral symptoms and responses to drugs similar to those observed in people with ADHD. “The genetically modified mice that we generated present interesting features such as hyperactivity and altered nesting capacities that might be related to attention deficit, and possibly altered impulsivity,” said Dr. Marc Flajolet, senior author of the report. Biochemical studies showed that both classes of dopamine receptors, D1R and D2R, were significantly reduced in the CK1 delta-overexpressing mice, providing further evidence that the dopaminergic system is severely affected.

Genetic Locus Associated with Increased Need for Orthodontia

Researchers have reported that the teeth of babies with certain genetic variants tend to appear later and that these children have lower numbers of teeth by age one. Additionally, certain of these children whose teeth develop later are more likely to need orthodontic treatment later in life. In a a SNP-based genome-wide association study conducted in approximately 6,000 individuals, the scientists identified five genetic loci (the KCNJ2, EDA, MSRB3, IGF2BP1, and RAD51L1 gene regions) that were significantly associated with both time of first tooth eruption and number of teeth at age one. The researchers also identified five additional loci that were suggestively associated with these same variables. The international team further found that a SNP at one of these suggestive loci (a SNP within the HOXB gene cluster) was associated with a 35 percent increased risk of requiring orthodontia treatment by the age of 31 years. The discovery of genes influencing tooth growth may lead to innovations in the early treatment and prevention of congenital dental and occlusion problems, the authors noted. They also said their findings should provide a strong foundation for the study of the genetic architecture of tooth development, which in addition to its relevance to medicine and dentistry, may have implications in evolutionary biology because teeth represent important markers of evolution. The scientists emphasized that tooth development is not an isolated event. Teeth and several other organs have common growth and developmental pathways in early life. Some of the genes identified here have been linked in previous studies with the development of the skull, jaws, ears, fingers, toes, and heart. The article describing the current research was published online on February 26, 2010, in PLoS Genetics.

February 27th

Normal Version of Fusion Gene Component Is Required by Leukemia

Researchers have found that a particularly aggressive type of blood cancer called mixed lineage leukemia (MLL) requires the normal version of a translocated gene (the MLL gene) to survive. The findings were featured as the cover article in the February 17, 2010 issue of Cancer Cell. MLL develops when a piece of chromosome 11 breaks at the normal MLL gene. The chromosome piece attaches to another broken chromosome, resulting in the joining of the MLL gene to a now-neighboring gene on the other chromosome. The joined genes code for a new “fusion protein” that eventually causes uncontrolled growth of blood cells. The researchers found that the runaway growth triggered by the fusion protein is blocked when the gene for the normal MLL protein is deleted from leukemia cells. The results showed that the normal protein is required for fusion-protein generation of the leukemia and for the maintenance of transformed cells. This suggested that the normal protein cooperates with the fusion protein in the generation of the leukemia. "This research not only uncovers the crucial role of a normal protein key to the development of MLL, but also how the cancer cells stay alive in the first place," said Dr. Xianxin Hua, from the University of Pennsylvania, senior author of the article. The results point to the normal MLL gene as a potential target for new therapies, possibly through repression of the gene in leukemia stem cells. [Press release] [Cancer Cell abstract]

February 26th

Gene-Based Stem Cell Therapy Knocks Down HIV Receptor Expression

UCLA researchers have reported successfully removing CCR5 from human cells in a humanized mouse model. CCR5 is a cell receptor to which HIV-1 binds for infection, but which the human body apparently does not need. Individuals who naturally lack the CCR5 receptor have been found to be essentially resistant to HIV. In the humanized mouse model, the researchers transplanted a specific short hairpin RNA (shRNA), targeted against the CCR5 gene, into human blood stem cells, in order to inhibit the expression of CCR5 in the human immune cells arising from the stem cells. According to the authors, the positive results provide evidence that this strategy may be an effective way to treat HIV-infected individuals, i.e., by prompting the potent long-term and stable reduction of CCR5 in systemic lymphoid organs. The results of the UCLA work were published in the February 25 issue of Blood. [Press release] [Blood abstract]

Prion Protein Functions in Maintenance of Peripheral Myelin

The neuronal expression and regulated proteolysis of the normal, cellular prion protein (PrPc) are essential for the maintenance of peripheral myelin, according to an international team of researchers from institutions including Cal Tech and the University Hospital of Zurich. The integrity of peripheral nerves depends on communication between axons and the Schwann cells that produce myelin. Myelin insulates peripheral nerve axons and speeds electrical transmission. The axon signals that ensure myelin maintenance are distinct from those that direct myelination and are largely unknown, the authors wrote. The normal function of PrPc--that when misfolded into the scarpie-associated form (PrPsc) causes various transmissible fatal neurodegenerative diseases, including scrapie in sheep, mad cow disease in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans--is also unknown. The current results appear to represent progress toward solving, at least in part, both of these puzzles. The authors showed that ablation of PrPc triggers a chronic demyelinating polyneuropathy (CDP) in four independently targeted mouse strains. CDP was triggered by depletion of PrPc specifically in neurons, but not in Schwann cells, and was suppressed by PrPc expression restricted to neurons but not to Schwann cells. CDP was prevented by PrPc variants that undergo proteolytic amino-proximal cleavage, but not by variants that are nonpermissive for cleavage, including secreted PrPc lacking its glycolipid membrane anchor. This work was published in the March issue of Nature Neuroscience. The seminal research identifying and characterizing prion proteins was recognized by the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Dr. Stanley Prusiner in 1997.