March 2013

In other news

A $200 million gift for Columbia brain science institute
Late last year, Mortimer B. Zuckerman pledged $200 million to endow a new brain science institute at Columbia University. The endowment will transform the university’s longstanding mind-brain initiative, positioning the institute as a facilitator of translational programs focused on new therapies and possibly cures for various brain diseases and disorders and mental illnesses. “With an inspiring team of neuroscientists at its core, Columbia’s Mind Brain Behavior Institute is not only researching vital questions about diseases of the brain, especially as we age, it is bringing together talented researchers across many academic fields to address the central questions we face as a society,” Zuckerman, co-founder and chairman of Boston Properties, said in a statement. “At its root, this is an investment in accomplished scholars whose collective mission is both greater understanding of the human condition and the discovery of new cures for human suffering. I can hardly think of anything more important than that.” The institute, to be based at the Jerome L. Greene Science Center under construction at Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus, will be co-directed by Thomas Jessell and Nobel laureates Richard Axel and Eric Kandel. Once it is at capacity, it will employ about 1,000 researchers and staff members across Columbia’s campuses.

Bloomberg pledges $350 million to Johns Hopkins
Starting with his first humble gift of $5 in the year after he graduated from Johns Hopkins University, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has so far pledged a total of $1.118 billion to the research institution. His latest contribution of $350 million is to be put toward the creation of cross-disciplinary programs and to fund 50 faculty appointments in areas including water resource sustainability and global health as well as need-based financial aid programs for undergraduate students.

Are scientists normal people?
Often portrayed by the media as “evil geniuses” or “nerdy geeks,” scientists are indeed different from other people, says ASBMB member Steve Caplan in a recent piece for Occam’s Corner on The Guardian's website. Caplan notes that ASBMB’s recent survey of young scientist showed that the top priority in choosing this career was not pay, benefits or job security – but rather intellectual freedom.

Stem-cell approach for Duchenne muscular dystrophy
University of Illinois comparative biosciences professor Suzanne Berry-Miller, veterinary clinical medicine professor Robert O’Brien and their colleagues developed a method to enhance cardiac function in a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The researchers injected aorta-derived mesoangioblasts (stem cells with a working copy of the dystrophin gene) into the hearts of dystrophin-deficient mice, preventing or delaying heart problems. Three types of changes were observed: Some of the injected stem cells became new heart muscle cells that expressed the previously lacked dystrophin protein, existing stem cells in the heart divided and became new heart muscle cells, and the stem cells stimulated angiogenesis in the heart. It is not yet clear which of these effects is responsible for delaying the onset of cardiomyopathy. The team’s work was reported in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

Australian researchers turn HIV against itself
A team of researchers led by David Harrich from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research modified a protein in human immunodeficiency virus that normally helps the virus spread, turning it into a potent inhibitor. The study was reported in the journal Human Gene Therapy. The altered protein, called Nullbasic (a mutant form of the HIV-1 Tat protein), inhibited virus replication about eight- to 10-fold in some cells, providing a potential avenue for curbing the spread of HIV as well as treating AIDS patients. “If this research continues down its strong path, and bear in mind there are many hurdles to clear, we’re looking at a cure for AIDS,” Harrich said. Animal trials are due to start this year.

Drug targets leukemia stem cells tied to relapses
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine are developing a novel cancer stem-cell-targeting drug. The compound is called sabutoclax, and it suppresses all BCL2 anti-apoptotic proteins, which specifically promote malignant transformation of dormant white blood cell precursors into leukemia stem cells. This makes leukemia stem cells more susceptible to tyrosine kinase inhibitor-based therapeutics at doses that do not harm normal progenitor cells. The findings may have implications for treating solid tumor cancers, such as colon, prostate, breast and brain cancers, noted Daniel J. Goff, the study’s first author.

Leprosy bacteria use “biological alchemy”
A team at the University of Edinburgh report in the journal Cell Stem Cell that leprosy-causing bacteria can transform parts of the body into things that are more valuable for the microorganism. Experiments on mice and cells grown in the laboratory showed the chemistry of infected nerve cells changed over a few weeks and consequently became stem cells. The cells would thus gain mobility, relocate in the muscle tissue and differentiate into muscle cells. (Skin cells already have been transformed into flexible stem cells that can become any of the body’s building blocks.) Writing in the journal Cell, the authors said the “clever and sophisticated” technique could lead to future therapies and will bolster stem-cell research.

“Quadruple helix” DNA in human cells
Cambridge University scientists report in the journal Nature Chemistry they have seen four-stranded DNA at work in human cells for the first time and that it might be related to certain dysfunctional states such as malignant transformation. The research group has produced this four-stranded version of the molecule, calling it the G-quadruplex (“G” refers to guanine), which seems to form in guanine-rich environments. Using a technique with fluorescent-marked antibodies, the scientists were able to track the molecule within human cells.

Star Trek style “tractor beam”
A real-life “tractor beam” that uses light to attract objects has been developed by a group of scientists at the University of St. Andrews. The development, reported in Nature Photonics, is the first time researchers were able to move microscopic elements using beams of light, with this technique working in liquids and a vacuum. The energy transfer makes it impossible for this to work on larger objects, but it could have applications in medicine, as it works on microscopic elements with high specificity.

Researchers turn one neuron into another
Harvard University stem-cell biologists reported in the journal Nature Cell Biology that it is possible to turn one type of neuron into another differentiated form within the brain. They reprogrammed callosal projection neurons and turned them into neurons similar to corticospinal motor ones using a transcription factor known to play an important part in the neuronal development within embryos – Fezf2. This experiment was conducted on young living mice. If it proves to be efficient in older mammals, it may have enormous implications for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Teodora DonisanThis news roundup was compiled by ASBMB Today contributor Teodora Donisan (, a medical student at Carol Davila University in Bucharest, Romania. Send links of interest to for possible inclusion in future issues.

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