Biomedical Beat - A monthly digest of research news from NIGMS

August 15, 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 free NIGMS publications, go to the order form.

Cool Image: Mapping Disease Spread

Courtesy of David Chrest, a geographic information system specialist at RTI International
High res. image
(1.5 MB JPEG)

How far and fast an infectious disease spreads across a community depends on many factors, including transportation. These U.S. maps, developed as part of an international study to simulate and analyze disease spread, chart daily commuting patterns. They show where commuters live (top) and where they travel for work (bottom). Green represents the fewest number of people whereas orange, brown, and white depict the most. Such information enables researchers and policymakers to visualize how an outbreak in one area can spread quickly across a geographic region. Courtesy of David Chrest, a geographic information system specialist at RTI International.

Full story (no longer available)
RTI International home page

Detecting Cancer's Molecular Signature

Cancer cells from different people have unique molecular profiles. As a result, a cancer drug that works well for one person may be less effective for another. An advance by chemist Weihong Tan and colleagues at the University of Florida could help resolve this problem. Tan's team constructed short pieces of DNA or RNA that detected genetic changes indicative of cancer. In the future, scientists could use these snippets to uncover the molecular profiles of different cancer cells and pave the way for more individualized disease diagnosis and treatment.

Full story (no longer available)
Tan lab home page (no longer available)
Article abstract (from the April 26, 2007, online edition of Clinical Chemistry)

The Physics of HIV Infection

New work by Carnegie Mellon University biophysicists John Nagle and Stephanie Tristram-Nagle explains how HIV enters human immune cells with ease. The researchers discovered that before infecting a human T-cell, HIV dramatically reduces the amount of energy needed to bend the cell membrane, making it easier for the virus to fuse with and infect the cell. Since other viruses may use a similar strategy, the finding offers a possible new avenue for drug discovery and a framework for studying virus-cell interactions.

Full story (Link no longer available)
Nagle lab home page
Tristam-Nagle lab home page
Article abstract (from the May 25, 2007, online edition of by Biophysics Journal)

How Fruit Fly Cells Specialize

For the first time, scientists have made a movie of a developing fruit fly embryo. A team of Princeton University researchers, including physicist William Bialek, created a technique that shows how cells in a 3-hour-old embryo develop into specialized types, such as those that form the fly's head or backside. The method has already revealed that an unexpectedly precise number of protein molecules from the mother fly direct each developing cell's fate. Since developmental processes are similar in flies and people, the work could sharpen our understanding of underlying biological processes fundamental to human health.

Full story
Bialek lab home page
Article abstracts 1, 2 (from the July 13, 2007, issue of Cell)

Fishing for Function

Proteins shape our organs and tissues and trigger the body's chemical reactions. Yet the function of millions of these molecules remains mysterious. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign biochemist John Gerlt and University of California, San Francisco, chemist Matthew Jacobson may help change that. They used computers to match proteins they knew little about with ones whose structures and functions were known. The scientists then used that information to predict if the unknown proteins would fit snugly into other molecules—information critical for determining what they do. Lab tests confirmed the predictions, suggesting that the computational approach could unlock the secrets of many more proteins.

Full story
Gerlt lab home page
Jacobson lab home page
Article abstract (from the August issue of Nature Chemical Biology)