New RNA interference technique finds seven genes for head and neck cancer

In the hunt for genetic mutations that cause cancer, there is a lot of white noise. So although genetic sequencing has identified hundreds of genetic alterations linked to tumors, it’s still an enormous challenge to figure out which ones are actually responsible for the growth and metastasis of cancer. Scientists in Rockefeller’s Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development have created a new technique that can weed out that noise — eliminating the random bystander genes and identifying the ones that are critical for cancer. Applying their technique to head and neck cancers, they’ve discovered seven new tumor-suppressor genes whose role in cancer was previously unknown.The new technique, which the lab recently applied to a screen for skin tumor genes, is particularly useful because it takes a fraction of the resources and much less time than the traditional method for determining gene function — breeding genetically modified animals to study the impact of missing genes.”Using knockout mice, which are model organisms bred to have a particular gene missing, is not feasible when there are 800 potential head and neck cancer genes to sort through,” says Daniel Schramek, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, which is headed by Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor Elaine Fuchs. “It can take about two years per gene. Our method can assess about 300 genes in a single mouse, in as little as five weeks.”The researchers made use of RNA interference, a natural process whereby RNA molecules inhibit gene expression. They took short pieces of RNA which are able to turn off the function of specific genes, attached them to highly concentrated viruses, and then, using ultrasound to guide the needle without damaging surrounding tissue, they injected the viruses into the sacs of mouse embryos.”The virus is absorbed and integrated into the chromosomes of the single layer of surface cells that cover the tiny embryo,” explains Fuchs. “As the embryo develops, this layer of cells becomes the skin, mammary glands and oral tissue, enabling us to efficiently, selectively and quickly eliminate the expression of any desired gene in these tissues. The non-invasive method avoids triggering a wound or inflammatory response that is typically associated with conventional methods to knockdown a gene in cultured cells and then engraft the cells onto a mouse.”When the mice grew, the researchers determined which genes, when turned off, were promoting tumor growth, and what they found was surprising.”Among the seven novel tumor suppressor genes we found, our strongest hit was Myh9, which codes for the protein myosin IIa, a motor protein with well-known function in cell structure and cell migration,” says Schramek. …

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Toxin-emitting bacteria being evaluated as potential multiple sclerosis trigger

Oct. 17, 2013 — A research team from Weill Cornell Medical College and The Rockefeller University has identified a bacterium it believes may trigger multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic, debilitating disorder that damages myelin forming cells in the brain and spinal cord.Their study, published in PLoS ONE, is the first to identify the bacterium, Clostridium (C.) perfringens type B, in humans.The scientists say their study is small and must be expanded before a definitive connection between the pathogen and MS can be made, but they also say their findings are so intriguing that they have already begun to work on new treatments for the disease.”This bacterium produces a toxin that we normally think humans never encounter. That we identified this bacterium in a human is important enough, but the fact that it is present in MS patients is truly significant because the toxin targets the exact tissues damaged during the acute MS disease process,” say the study’s first author, K. Rashid Rumah, an MD/PhD student at Weill Cornell Medical College, and the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Timothy Vartanian, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College and director of the Judith Jaffe Multiple Sclerosis Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.”While it is clear that new MS disease activity requires an environmental trigger, the identity of this trigger has eluded the MS scientific community for decades,” Dr. Vartanian says. “Work is underway to test our hypothesis that the environmental trigger for MS lays within the microbiome, the ecosystem of bacteria that populates the gastrointestinal tract and other body habitats of MS patients.”Connection to MS in grazing animalsThe study describes discovery of C. perfringens type B in a 21-year-old woman who was experiencing a flare-up of her MS.The woman was part of the Harboring the Initial Trigger for MS (HITMS) observational trial launched by Dr. Vartanian and K. Rashid Rumah, who works both with Dr. …

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Genetic engineering alters mosquitoes’ sense of smell

May 29, 2013 — In one of the first successful attempts at genetically engineering mosquitoes, HHMI researchers have altered the way the insects respond to odors, including the smell of humans and the insect repellant DEET. The research not only demonstrates that mosquitoes can be genetically altered using the latest research techniques, but paves the way to understanding why the insect is so attracted to humans, and how to block that attraction. “The time has come now to do genetics in these important disease-vector insects.

I think our new work is a great example that you can do it,” says Leslie Vosshall, an HHMI investigator at The Rockefeller University who led the new research, published May 29, 2013 in the journal Nature.

In 2007, scientists announced the completion of the full genome sequence of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits dengue and yellow fever. A year later, when Vosshall became an HHMI investigator, she shifted the focus of her lab from Drosophila flies to mosquitoes with the specific goal of genetically engineering the insects. Studying mosquitoes appealed to her because of their importance as disease carriers, as well as their unique attraction to humans.

Vosshall’s first target: a gene called orco, which her lab had deleted in genetically engineered flies 10 years earlier. “We knew this gene was important for flies to be able to respond to the odors they respond to,” says Vosshall. “And we had some hints that mosquitoes interact with smells in their environment, so it was a good bet that something would interact with orco in mosquitoes.”

Vosshall’s team turned to a genetic engineering tool called zinc-finger nucleases to specifically mutate the orco gene in Aedes aegypti. They injected the targeted zinc-finger nucleases into mosquito embryos, waited for them to mature, identified mutant individuals, and generated mutant strains that allowed them to study the role of orco in mosquito biology. The engineered mosquitoes showed diminished activity in neurons linked to odor-sensing. Then, behavioral tests revealed more changes.

When given a choice between a human and any other animal, normal Aedes aegypti will reliably buzz toward the human. But the mosquitoes with orco mutations showed reduced preference for the smell of humans over guinea pigs, even in the presence of carbon dioxide, which is thought to help mosquitoes respond to human scent. “By disrupting a single gene, we can fundamentally confuse the mosquito from its task of seeking humans,” says Vosshall. But they don’t yet know whether the confusion stems from an inability to sense a “bad” smell coming from the guinea pig, a “good” smell from the human, or both. Next, the team tested whether the mosquitoes with orco mutations responded differently to DEET. When exposed to two human arms — one slathered in a solution containing 10 percent DEET, the active ingredient in many bug repellants, and the other untreated — the mosquitoes flew equally toward both arms, suggesting they couldn’t smell the DEET. But once they landed on the arms, they quickly flew away from the DEET-covered one. “This tells us that there are two totally different mechanisms that mosquitoes are using to sense DEET,” explains Vosshall. “One is what’s happening in the air, and the other only comes into action when the mosquito is touching the skin.” Such dual mechanisms had been discussed but had never been shown before.

Vosshall and her collaborators next want to study in more detail how the orco protein interacts with the mosquitoes’ odorant receptors to allow the insects to sense smells. “We want to know what it is about these mosquitoes that makes them so specialized for humans,” she says. “And if we can also provide insights into how existing repellants are working, then we can start having some ideas about what a next-generation repellant would look like.”

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