Biomedical Beat - A monthly digest of research news from NIGMS

April 18, 2007

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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. To read additional news items, visit NIGMS News. To check out other free NIGMS publications, go to the order form.

Cool Image: Fruitful Dyes

Fruitful Dyes
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These colorful, computer-generated ribbons show the backbone of a molecule that glows a fluorescent red. The molecule, called mStrawberry, was created by chemists based on a protein found in the ruddy lips of a coral. Scientists use the synthetic molecule and other "fruity" ones like it as a dye to mark and study cell structures. Courtesy of Roger Y. Tsien, a cell biologist at the University of California, San Diego.

Tsien lab home page

Historical Studies Validate Current Pandemic Flu Planning

In 1918, U.S. cities closed theaters, restricted weddings, and staggered factory shifts so people wouldn't spread the deadly Spanish flu. In two separate studies, epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard School of Public Health and computational biologist Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in London examined why some cities, such as St. Louis, fared better than others. They found that quickly implementing health measures and sustaining them past the peak of the pandemic drastically reduced the death toll. These historical findings help validate results from NIGMS-supported computational studies examining the spread of a future pandemic flu and the preparedness guidelines recently issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Full story (no longer available)
Lipsitch home page
Ferguson home page
Lipsitch and Ferguson article abstracts (from the April 6, 2007, online edition of PNAS)

Simpler Synthesis Strategy Could Spur Drug Development

Chemical structures of the synthesized products imposed over a blue-green algae bloom. Courtesy of Baran.
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Chemical structures of the synthesized products imposed over a blue-green algae bloom. Courtesy of Baran.

Chemicals produced by a wide variety of creatures show great promise as potential drugs, but the molecules can be difficult to harvest from nature and hard to make in the lab. To produce such complex molecules, chemists rely heavily on protecting groups—chemical add-ons that shield specific parts of molecules from unwanted changes during the synthesis process. But, attaching and detaching protecting groups adds time and expense. Chemist Phil Baran of The Scripps Research Institute decided to buck convention and try to make complex molecules without using protecting groups. Baran's innovative approach, which worked in a range of compounds found in marine creatures, should make natural compounds even more appealing drug candidates.

Full story
Baran lab home page
Article abstract (from the March 22, 2007, issue of Nature)

Stem Cells Treat Genetic Disease in Mice

Embryonic stem cell-derived neural cell (yellow) implanted in a section of the mouse brain and other mouse brain cells (blue). Courtesy of Snyder.
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Embryonic stem cell-derived neural cell (yellow) implanted in a section of the mouse brain and other mouse brain cells (blue). Courtesy of Snyder.

In a scientific first, Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research has shown that both adult and embryonic stem cells can treat mice with an incurable genetic disorder similar to human neurodegenerative diseases like Tay-Sachs, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. The researchers separately implanted each type of stem-cell derived nerve cells into mice and found that both replaced damaged brain tissue. The two types also partially remedied an underlying cause of the genetic disorder and reduced the inflammation that typically accompanies it. Snyder and his team hope the study results may lead to a clinical trial to test the strategy in children with Tay-Sachs and similar genetic disorders.

This work was also supported by NIH's National Eye Institute, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Full story
Snyder lab home page
Article abstract (from the March 11, 2007, online issue of Nature Medicine)

Dogging Sepsis and Do-It-Yourself Biology

Findings</cite> cover.
Findings cover.

NIGMS' magazine Findings takes you inside the labs of cutting-edge biomedical scientists. In the March 2007 issue, meet the University of Pennsylvania's Cynthia Otto, a research veterinarian who wants to heal very sick animals—and ultimately people—faster and more reliably. Otto's unique skill set also has given her the chance to monitor the health of the 9/11 search dogs. Then check out the latest from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Drew Endy, a synthetic biologist who blends biology and engineering to make ordinary organisms do extraordinary things. Endy also came up with a clever approach for communicating science to students: He created the comic book Adventures in Synthetic Biology.

Order or view Findings
Dogging Sepsis
Do-It-Yourself Biology
Otto home page
Endy home page