LA JOLLA—For roughly one-third of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, lithium is a miracle drug, effectively treating both their mania and depression. But once someone is diagnosed, it can take up to a year to learn whether that person will be among the 30 percent who respond to lithium or the 70 percent who do not.
LA JOLLA—Say you’re reaching for the fruit cup at a buffet, but at the last second you switch gears and grab a cupcake instead. Emotionally, your decision is a complex stew of guilt and mouth-watering anticipation. But physically it’s a simple shift: instead of moving left, your hand went right. Such split-second changes interest neuroscientists because they play a major role in diseases that involve problems with selecting an action, like Parkinson’s and drug addiction.
LA JOLLA—Not everyone is Fred Astaire or Michael Jackson, but even those of us who seem to have two left feet have got rhythm—in our brains. From breathing to walking to chewing, our days are filled with repetitive actions that depend on the rhythmic firing of neurons. Yet the neural circuitry underpinning such seemingly ordinary behaviors is not fully understood, even though better insights could lead to new therapies for disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, ALS and autism.
LA JOLLA—Salk Professor Tony Hunter, who holds an American Cancer Society Professorship, has been awarded $500,000 as part of the $1 million Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ inaugural Sjöberg Prize for Cancer Research for “groundbreaking studies of cellular processes that have led to the development of new and effective cancer drugs.” The prize ceremony, which is modeled after the Nobel Prize ceremony, will be held in Stockholm during the Academy’s annual meeting on March 31, 2017, in the presence of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen of Sweden.
LA JOLLA—FedEx, UPS, DHL—when it comes to sending packages, choices abound. But the most important delivery service you may not have heard of? mRNA. That’s short for messenger RNA, which is how your DNA sends blueprints to the protein-assembly factories of your cells. When a protein is faulty, delivering synthetic mRNA to cells could trigger production of a functional version. And that’s a message people with a variety of genetic diseases want to hear.
LA JOLLA—Most of us would be lost without Google maps or similar route-guidance technologies. And when those mapping tools include additional data about traffic or weather, we can navigate even more effectively. For scientists who navigate the mammalian genome to better understand genetic causes of disease, combining various types of data sets makes finding their way easier, too.
LA JOLLA—Although we spend a lot of our time online nowadays—streaming music and video, checking email and social media, or obsessively reading the news—few of us know about the mathematical algorithms that manage how our content is delivered. But deciding how to route information fairly and efficiently through a distributed system with no central authority was a priority for the Internet’s founders. Now, a Salk Institute discovery shows that an algorithm used for the Internet is also at work in the human brain, an insight that improves our understanding of engineered and neural networks and potentially even learning disabilities.
LA JOLLA—Rapid advances in the ability to grow cells, tissues and organs of one species within an organism of a different species offer an unprecedented opportunity for tackling longstanding scientific mysteries and addressing pressing human health problems, particularly the need for transplantable organs and tissues.
LA JOLLA—The last time you had a stomach bug, you probably didn’t feel much like eating. This loss of appetite is part of your body’s normal response to an illness but is not well understood. Sometimes eating less during illness promotes a faster recovery, but other times—such as when cancer patients experience wasting—the loss of appetite can be deadly.
LA JOLLA—Normally when we think of viruses, from the common cold to HIV, we want to boost people’s immunity to fight them. But for scientists who develop therapeutic viruses (to, for example, target cancer cells or correct gene deficiencies) a more important question is: How do we keep people’s natural immune responses at bay? In these cases, an overenthusiastic immune response actually undermines the therapy.
LA JOLLA—Just as an invasive weed might need nutrient-rich soil and water to grow, many cancers rely on the right surroundings in the body to thrive. A tumor’s microenvironment—the nearby tissues, immune cells, blood vessels and extracellular matrix—has long been known to play a role in the tumor’s growth.
LA JOLLA—In their powerful new road map for greater health throughout our lives, Salk President and Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel explain an important aspect of the aging process in humans at a fundamental level. Based on this science, they share the changes people can make to their daily habits that will help keep them vital and disease-free.
LA JOLLA—Anyone who has allowed a child to “help” with a project quickly learns that kids, no matter how intelligent or eager, are less competent than adults. Teenagers are more capable—but, as every parent knows, teens can be erratic and unreliable. And it’s not just in humans; obvious differences in behavior and ability between juveniles and adults are seen across the animal kingdom.
LA JOLLA—Salk Institute scientists have solved the atomic structure of a key piece of machinery that allows HIV to integrate into human host DNA and replicate in the body, which has eluded researchers for decades. The findings describing this machinery, known as the “intasome,” appear January 6, 2017, in Science and yield structural clues informing the development of new HIV drugs.
LA JOLLA—When you build models, whether ships or cars, you want them to be as much like the real deal as possible. This quality is even more crucial for building model organs, because disease treatments developed from these models have to be safe and effective for humans. Now, scientists at the Salk Institute have studied a 3D “mini-brain” grown from human stem cells and found it to be structurally and functionally more similar to real brains than the 2D models in widespread use. The discovery, appearing in the December 20, 2016, issue of Cell Reports, indicates that the new model could better help scientists understand brain development as well as neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia.
LA JOLLA—Graying hair, crow’s feet, an injury that’s taking longer to heal than when we were 20—faced with the unmistakable signs of aging, most of us have had a least one fantasy of turning back time. Now, scientists at the Salk Institute have found that intermittent expression of genes normally associated with an embryonic state can reverse the hallmarks of old age.
LA JOLLA—We all know how hard it is to find something small like a dropped contact lens that blends into the background. It’s similarly tough for biologists to find tiny proteins against the complex background of the cell. But, increasingly, scientists are learning that such microproteins, which are overlooked by traditional detection methods, also have important biological roles to play.
LA JOLLA—Ever since researchers connected the shortening of telomeres—the protective structures on the ends of chromosomes—to aging and disease, the race has been on to understand the factors that govern telomere length. Now, scientists at the Salk Institute have found that a balance of elongation and trimming in stem cells results in telomeres that are, as Goldilocks would say, not too short and not too long, but just right.
LA JOLLA—Ribosomes—macromolecular machines consisting of RNA and proteins that twist, fold and turn—are responsible for making all of the protein within a cell and could hold the key to deciphering a range of diseases. Despite the intricacies of ribosomes, cells are able to churn out 100,000 of them every hour. But because they assemble so speedily, researchers haven’t been able to figure out how they come together.