Biomedical Beat - A monthly digest of research news from NIGMS

April 19, 2005

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The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), one of the National Institutes of Health, supports all research featured in this digest. Although only the lead scientists are named, coworkers and other collaborators also contributed to the findings. Additional news items are posted at

Cool Image: Nano-Rainbow

image of colored vials
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These vials may look like they’re filled with colored water, but they really contain nanocrystals reflecting different colors under ultraviolet light. The tiny crystals, made of semiconducting compounds, are called quantum dots. Depending on their size, the dots emit different colors that let scientists use them as a tool for detecting particular genes, proteins, and other biological molecules. Courtesy of Shuming Nie, professor of biomedical engineering at Emory University.

Nie lab page

Trauma Triggers Genetic Response

photo of surgeons doing surgery
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Each year, hospitals admit millions of critically ill and injured patients. Unfortunately, physicians have trouble predicting who will recover and who will not. By analyzing genes involved in the body’s response to severe injury, a large consortium of scientists including J. Perren Cobb at Washington University School of Medicine has started to crack open the problem. Their research shows, for example, that traumatic injury triggers a massive inflammatory response that genetically reprograms infection-fighting blood cells. Understanding these genetic changes will help physicians tailor treatments and better predict the outcomes of their patients.

"This work is the first step toward developing standard procedures for treating critically injured patients and testing new therapies. Improved treatments could save thousands of lives, as well as speed recovery and avoid serious complications.”

--Scott Somers
   NIGMS program director of trauma and burn research

Full story
Functional Genomics of Critical Illness and Injury meeting (Link is no longer active)
Paper abstract

Image caption: Surgeons operating on a patient (Photodisc)

X Chromosome Genes More Active, Variable in Females

An analysis of the female X chromosome has led to surprising results showing that not only are genes on this bundle of DNA more active than once thought, but that their activity patterns vary greatly from woman to woman. Through sequencing, scientists have found that the X chromosome contains 1,098 protein-coding genes, compared to the male Y chromosome’s 78. With females having a double dose of X-linked genes (they have two X chromosomes while males have an X and Y), researchers have long believed that most genes on one of the X chromosomes are inactivated. But Duke University geneticist Huntington Willard and others now show that at least 15 percent of an X chromosome’s genes escape this inactivation. The researchers also found that gene activity varies greatly from woman to woman. This new information could help us better understand individual health differences, as well as the 300-plus diseases linked to the X chromosome.

Full story
Willard home page (no longer available)
Paper abstract


Synthesized Molecule May Improve Vaccine Effectiveness

Extracts from the bark of a South American tree called Quillaja saponaria Molina can stimulate the body’s immune response, increasing the effectiveness of experimental vaccines against malaria, HIV, and certain cancers. The active ingredient in the bark extract, QS-21A, is now more available for detailed study, thanks to its recent synthesis by chemist David Gin and others at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gin and his team are seeking ways to make the molecule’s structure simpler and its effects more potent.

Full story (Link is no longer active)
Gin's page (Link is no longer active)
Quillaja saponaria Molina tree
Paper abstract

Profiles in Discovery: Biomechanics and Lead Poisoning

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How do cells stick to a surface? How do they navigate through the body? Georgia Tech bioengineer Andrés García (left) has invented unique devices that measure the forces that attach cells to surfaces. His goal is to develop new biomaterials that can mend broken bones or heal injured tissues, as described in "The Forces That Bind." Also appearing in the March 2005 issue of Findings is "Getting the Lead Out," featuring Northwestern University chemist Hilary Godwin (right) and her quest to figure out how atoms of lead mangle protein function inside our cells. Lead poisoning is linked to developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavior problems in children.