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Salk News

Salk scientists discover genetic “dial” to turn immune function up and down to target cancer, autoimmune disease

LA JOLLA—The human immune system is a finely-tuned machine, balancing when to release a cellular army to deal with pathogens, with when to rein in that army, stopping an onslaught from attacking the body itself. Now, Salk researchers have discovered a way to control regulatory T cells, immune cells that act as a cease-fire signal, telling the immune system when to stand down.

Giant leap in diagnosing liver disease

LA JOLLA—Chronic liver disease represents a major global public health problem affecting an estimated 844 million people, according to the World Health Organization. It is among the top causes of mortality in Australia, the UK and the United States. At the same time, it is both difficult to manage and there is no FDA-approved anti-fibrotic liver therapy. The microbiome—a complex collection of microbes that inhabit the gut—may be an unexpected indictor of health. Now, a collaborative team of Salk Institute and UC San Diego scientists have created a novel microbiome-based diagnostic tool that, with the accuracy of the best physicians, quickly and inexpensively identifies liver fibrosis and cirrhosis over 90 percent of the time in human patients.

Salk researchers accelerate, expand COVID-19 research

LA JOLLA—As the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the globe, the Salk Institute joins in efforts to understand the fundamental science behind the novel coronavirus to pave the way to treatments and cures. COVID-19 exploits a vulnerability in the immune system’s armor: because the SARS-CoV-2 virus—the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19—appeared in humans recently, our immune systems have no experience with the virus—and sometimes have difficulty fighting it.

Statement on the Current Operations at the Salk Institute

The Salk Institute is closed to the public at this time. We do not anticipate reopening to the public until we can do so in a manner that protects the health and safety in accordance with applicable public health orders.

How targeting killer T cells in the lungs could lead to immunity against respiratory viruses

LA JOLLA—A significant site of damage during COVID-19 infection is the lungs. Understanding how the lungs’ immune cells are responding to viral infections could help scientists develop a vaccine.

Message from Rusty Gage and Mallory Zaslav

Our mission to better humanity must extend beyond science. That was the core premise on which we founded the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) at Salk. Repugnant racial discrimination and violence against Black people are devastating reminders of the vital importance of this work, but also of the need to be vigilant in continually assessing and enhancing our efforts. Just as “every cure has a starting point” is championed as our mantra in research towards eradicating disease and other issues threatening human health, it so too must be our mindset in doing our part to eradicate systemic racism and injustice. For each, the essential starting point is an absolute commitment to being constructive forces for progress and agents of meaningful change.

How cells solve their identity crisis

LA JOLLA—Cancer is often the result of DNA mutations or problems with how cells divide, which can lead to cells “forgetting” what type of cell they are or how to function properly. Now, Professor Martin Hetzer and a team of scientists have provided clarity into how new cells remember their identity after cell division. These memory mechanisms, published in Genes & Development on June 4, 2020, could explicate problems that occur when cell identity is not maintained, such as cancer.

Message from the Salk President

Racism must not be tolerated in our country and will not be tolerated within the Salk Institute, which holds as its fundamental value the betterment of humanity. Remarks made recently by an employee run completely counter to the Institute’s humanistic mission and beliefs, have prompted a vigorous response within our campus, and deepened the pain being experienced by our black communities in the face of abhorrent injustice.

Message from the Salk President

Each of us has a responsibility to maintain a work environment that is professional, civil and enables people and creativity to thrive. It is important that all of us approach this ongoing dialogue with respect and consideration for how our words and actions may impact one another.

Message from the Salk President

The Salk Institute strongly condemns the tragic death of George Floyd in Minnesota, and we deplore the ongoing injustices and racism faced daily by communities of color in our country. During this period of deep unrest, the Salk Institute reaffirms our commitment to strengthen inclusion and increase diversity on campus, and to the well-being of our colleagues.

Location, location, location: the cell membrane facilitates RAS protein interactions

LA JOLLA—Many cancer medications fail to effectively target the most commonly mutated cancer genes in humans, called RAS. Now, Salk Professor Geoffrey Wahl and a team of scientists have uncovered details of how normal RAS interacts with mutated RAS and other proteins in living cells for the first time. The findings, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 18, 2020, could aid in the development of better RAS-targeted cancer therapeutics.

Experimental drug boosts levels of “good” fats

LA JOLLA—Salk and Scripps Research Institute scientists, along with collaborators at the pharmaceutical company Lundbeck, identified two genes that can regulate levels of healthy fats, called FAHFAs, in mice. The team found that the loss of the two genes led to higher-than-normal levels of the beneficial FAHFAs, while blocking the genes’ activity with an experimental drug also increased FAHFA levels.

Salk promotes Wolfgang Busch to full professor

LA JOLLA—The Salk Institute has promoted Wolfgang Busch to the rank of professor for his groundbreaking contributions to plant biology. The promotion was based on recommendations by Salk faculty and nonresident fellows, and approved by President Rusty Gage and the Institute’s Board of Trustees.

New insights into how genes control courtship and aggression

LA JOLLA—Fruit flies, like many animals, engage in a variety of courtship and fighting behaviors. Now, Salk scientists have uncovered the molecular mechanisms by which two sex-determining genes affect fruit fly behavior. The male flies’ courtship and aggression behaviors, they showed, are mediated by two distinct genetic programs. The findings, both published in eLife on April 21, 2020, demonstrate the complexity of the link between sex and behavior.

Mysterious tuft cells found to play role in pancreatitis

LA JOLLA—Persistent inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis) is a known risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer, the third-deadliest cancer in the United States. Tuft cells—cells sensitive to chemical (chemosensory) changes typically found in the intestines and respiratory tract—had previously been discovered in the pancreas, but their function has largely remained a mystery. Now, a team of Salk scientists led by Professor Geoffrey Wahl and Staff Scientist Kathleen DelGiorno has uncovered the formation of tuft cells during pancreatitis and the surprising role of tuft cells in immunity, using mouse models of pancreatitis. The findings, published in Frontiers in Physiology on February 14, 2020, could lead to the development of new biomarkers to test for pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Salk scientist Ronald Evans receives a 2020 NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award

LA JOLLA—Salk Professor Ronald Evans, Howard Hughes Medical investigator and director of Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory, has been awarded a 2020 NOMIS Distinguished Scientist and Scholar Award by the NOMIS Foundation, a Swiss foundation that supports high-risk basic research. The award, which totals $2.5M, recognizes scientists for their “outstanding contributions to the advancement of science and human progress through their pioneering, innovative and collaborative research,” according to NOMIS. The award will enable Evans to decode how different parts of the body, including the brain, endocrine glands, gut, liver, immune cells and the microbiome, cooperate to maintain health.

Plant geneticist Todd Michael joins Salk Institute

LA JOLLA—Todd Michael will return to Salk as a research professor in the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, where he will oversee his own research group as well as provide key expertise in genomics to the Harnessing Plants Initiative (HPI). Michael completed his postdoctoral research at Salk in 2007 under the direction of Professor Joanne Chory, director of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and executive director of the Initiative. The non-tenured research professor track was created by Salk in 2018 to attract and retain top talent to the faculty.

Salk Institute appoints Leona Flores as executive director of Salk Cancer Center

LA JOLLA—The Salk Institute announced the hiring of Leona Flores, PhD, as executive director of the Salk Cancer Center, to help oversee administrative and scientific management functions as a member of its leadership team and to provide decision strategy support to the Cancer Center’s director.

Salk minimizes on-site staff and takes additional steps around coronavirus (COVID-19)

LA JOLLA—Due to the continuing spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and California Governor Gavin Newsom’s public health order last night for people to stay at home, the Institute is taking additional steps to minimize opportunities for viral transmission through the community.

How plants sound the alarm about danger

LA JOLLA—Just like humans and other animals, plants have hormones. One role of plant hormones is to perceive trouble—whether an insect attack, drought or intense heat or cold—and then signal to the rest of the plant to respond.