Dogs are often called man’s best friend. In this case, dogs are helping humans more than you might think! Dogs can be a great model for understanding cancer, because they develop cancer spontaneously, and in this case, cocker spaniels may be able to help researchers better understand human breast cancer.
Recently, the epigenome of the cocker spaniel has been characterized. Researchers compared dog and human epigenetic changes, and found that when looking at breast cancer, the same regions of DNA are affected in dogs and humans.
So, why is this important? Discovering common mechanisms can help both humans and dogs in future research studies. It’s possible that targeting these epigenetic changes could help slow disease progression, and dogs may be able to help us understand this faster. And ultimately, understanding more about the connection between canine and human cancer will benefit both species.
Read more about this research here: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-10/ibri-deg100214.php
MRSA- Picture courtesy of CDC’s Public Health Image Library
Antibiotic resistance is a growing- and serious- problem. Most antibiotics work by interfering with cell functions, but certain types of bacteria (like MRSA) have evolved in such a way that these antibiotics just won’t work. Researchers all over the world are working on this problem, and it seems that scientists at MIT have made a pretty significant breakthrough.
By using a genome-editing system called CRISPR, researchers have been able to target the genes that allow bacteria to resist antibiotics. And by targeting the genes responsible for antibiotic resistance and disrupting them, they were able to kill over 99% of the resistant bacteria. Using this method, they also successfully increased survival rates of waxworm larvae infected with a nasty form of E. coli.
Currently, research in mice is in progress. The goal is that one day, this technology could be modified to work on humans. As recent research hasn’t yielded many new classes of antibiotics, this method may ultimately play an important role in stopping the spread of antibiotic resistance in the human population.
Read more about it here: http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/fighting-drug-resistant-bacteria-0921
New research stresses the importance of a pregnant woman’s diet, and shows the possible consequences for her offspring. Through mouse studies, it was found that inadequate caloric intake in later stages of pregnancy can cause changes to occur in the sperm of her male offspring.
Epigenetic programming of the offspring’s sperm cells happens later in pregnancy, and when researchers cut caloric intake in half during this time, they found over 100 regions on the sperm that were developed differently than control mice.
In this type of research, animals were really important. In a controlled environment, researchers are able to make all conditions stable and only have one variable (caloric restriction in the last week of the mother’s gestation). This provides very solid evidence, because in humans, there are so many other variables that it would be difficult to determine the impact of the mother’s diet alone on the offspring. We know that the actions of both parents will contribute to the health of the children- there is evidence that a man’s health status can influence the health of his sperm, and in turn, can have consequences on offspring. This type of research wouldn’t have been possible in humans due to the number of variables involved, and it helped increase understanding of intergenerational gene transmission.
Why is this research important? Evidence that a mother’s actions will directly influence the outcome of her children will hopefully prompt more support for pregnant women in areas of the world where food availability is a problem. It also may provide more incentive for women to reconsider food choices during pregnancy. If restricting calories causes these problems, it’s likely that unhealthy eating could also be causing more issues that mothers might realize. Read more about it here:
Over 35 million Americans take daily medications to reduce their cholesterol, and that number continues to increase. But thanks to new research from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, it’s possible that patients will be able to experience an improved quality of life with a single injection!
By disrupting gene activity in a gene (PCSK9) that regulates cholesterol, researchers were able to permanently reduce cholesterol by 35-40%. First, they targeted the DNA sequence where the gene resides, then created a break in the system, and then used adenovirus to carry the treatment to the liver. In one injection, they were able to permanently change the genome, meaning that the benefits are there forever.
While this treatment is probably at least 5-10 years away for humans, the accomplishment in mice is pretty amazing. The next step in this research is to work with mice that have human-derived liver cells before moving into human studies. Read more about it here:
Electric eels are fascinating animals, not only because they look pretty cool, but also because they can generate electricity and deliver shocks of up to 600 volts. But they’re not the only fish that can produce electric fields, and recently, research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison has yielded some surprising information about the evolution of this ability- and what it could mean for other species.
Researchers analyzed the genes of the electric eel as well as other electric fish from unrelated families. It appears that there are a limited number of ways to evolve electric organs, and in at least six different fish, their electric organs evolved in the same way.
So… why should we care? By understanding the way electric organs were created through evolution, scientists may be able to gain the information needed to one day create electric organs in humans or other other animals. The zebrafish, a commonly used research animal, may play a role in attempts at this type of modification. If humans were able to have electric organs, they could possibly serve to power pacemakers, neurostimulators, or other implanted medical devices. Read more about it here:
Researchers at Michigan State University have finally identified the genetic mutation that causes albinism in Doberman Pinschers. The same gene can also cause a form of albinism in humans. This gene mutation results in a missing protein that is necessary for cells to be pigmented. And unfortunately, both dogs and humans with albinism can experience sun sensitivity and are at a higher risk for skin tumors. But identifying the genetic culprit behind the condition is a big deal!
This gene can be carried without being expressed, which means that a dog that doesn’t exhibit albinism could pass the gene to its offspring. This research could help improve Doberman breeding programs by identifying the genes to select away from. Healthier dogs are good for everyone!
Humans and animals are more similar than you may think when it comes to genes, diseases, and illnesses. In this particular case, the genetic variance that causes albinism is similar in dogs and in humans. It’s possible that this knowledge could allow researchers to look at possible ways of preventing skin tumors in dogs with albinism, and then translate those results into treatments for humans!
Laboratory opossums (Monodelphis domestica) are marsupials that are native to South America. Unlike North American opossums, which are the size of a full-grown cat, they’re only about six inches long. But for such a small size, they’ve made quite an impact in the field of biomedical research.
They are excellent research models for a variety of reasons. Mini opossums are the only mammal (besides humans) to develop malignant melanoma after UV radiation. Because of this trait, researchers can test new treatments for melanoma and research prevention strategies. And amazingly, these animals also have the ability to heal after severe spinal cord injuries sustained during the first week of life. Adults are unable to do this, so researchers are working to identify the genes that switch this capability on and off.
They give birth to extremely underdeveloped young (gestation is only 14-15 days!), which cling to the mother and remain attached to her for a few more weeks until they are fully developed. This unique trait makes them an excellent model for research on early development, as well as transplant and cancer research. The laboratory opossum is also the first marsupial to have its genome sequenced, and in addition to the applications above, it’s also important in heart disease research, HIV research, and comparative genetics. They’re pretty important animals- read more about them here!
It’s been known for decades that the incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is 20 times higher in children with Down syndrome than in the general population. And now- thanks to mice- researchers know why!
People with Down syndrome have an extra copy of part or all of chromosome 21. And by working with mice that carry extra copies of genes that are found on chromosome 21, researchers have identified the link between Down syndrome and ALL. Long story short, this particular type of leukemia is caused by an excess of abnormal white blood cells that are supposed to fight infections but don’t work properly. These mice led researchers to the specific proteins involved in this process, and they found- and confirmed in human cell samples- that the gene responsible for spurring the creation of these abnormal cells was an extra gene on chromosome 21. Link: discovered.
While there currently aren’t any drugs that target this specific gene, researchers now know where to focus. Now that they know where the problem lies, they can work to develop drugs that could potentially reduce the chances of a child with Down syndrome developing leukemia! It’s also possible that ALL patients without Down syndrome could benefit from this research.
It’s not good news yet; there’s still work to be done. But I support the fight against pediatric cancer- and the mice do, too!
Anyone facing infertility issues knows that when it comes to sperm, there’s a big difference between Olympic swimmers and those that will never leave the kiddie pool. But what makes those swimmers go the extra mile?
Researchers have found that it’s all about hydrodynamics. Just as professional swimmers wear swim caps and take extra steps to cruise through the water more efficiently (body waxing, anyone?), sperm with sleeker ‘swim caps’ are faster swimmers.
And it’s all in the genes. In looking at promiscuous mice, researchers found that the ratio between two specific genes is important to hydrodynamics. This is important because if these findings are similar in humans, couples facing infertility issues might have an advantage in knowing which of those swimmers (based on gene expression) are most likely to win the gold medal, so to speak. Who knows- it might be possible to alter gene expression to speed up swimmers that would otherwise need a life jacket! Read more here:
Cancer cells, unfortunately, can be pretty efficient at spreading. This is partly due to their “sticky” characteristics, which makes them better at invading new areas in the body. But researchers in London have identified a gene that is responsible for making breast cancer cells sticky- and this could be a big deal!
By switching off different genes in breast tumors that were grown in mice, they were able to identify a particular gene, called ST6GaINAc2 (we’ll call it ST6 for short), that contributes to tumor formation. When it’s active, ST6 prevents cancer cells from binding to the proteins that are responsible for giving them their sticky characteristics. But when ST6 gene activity is low, the cells pick up these proteins, become sticky, and spread more efficiently.
Figuring out how breast cancer spreads is really important. If researchers can identify patients with low ST6 gene activity, they might be able to treat these patients with a drug that can replicate ST6′s ability to make tumor cells less sticky. And preventing cancer cells from ‘sticking’ is good for everyone!