All You Need is a Tether: Improving Repair Efficiency for CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing

Ribonucleoprotein complex with Cas9, guide RNA and donor ssDNA. Copyright Promega Corporation.

With the advent of genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9, researchers have been excited by the possibilities of precisely placed edits in cellular DNA. Any double-stranded break in DNA like that induced by CRISPR-Cas9 is repaired by one of two pathways: Non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) or homology-directed repair (HDR). Using the NHEJ pathway results in short insertions or deletions (indels) at the break site, so the HDR pathway is preferred. However, the low efficiency of HDR recombination to insert exogenous sequences into the genome hampers its use. There have been many attempts at boosting HDR frequency, but the methods compromise cell growth and behave differently when used with various cell types and gene targets. The strategy employed by the authors of an article in Communications Biology tethered the DNA donor template to Cas9 complexed with the ribonucleoprotein and guide RNA, increasing the local concentration of the donor template at the break site and enhancing homology-directed repair. Continue reading

High-Throughput Drug Screening Using 3D Cell Cultures

For a long time, the drug industry has relied on flat 2D cell cultures grown on a plate to screen for potential drugs. However, 2D models do not accurately reflect the native environment of cells in vivo. 3D cell cultures, on the other hand, better represent the numerous cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions and hypoxic conditions that have a profound effect on the behavior of cells. In a 2018 study published in Oncogene, Kota et al. developed a high-throughput 3D spheroid-based screening assay to identify drug candidates that target RAS proteins.

RAS proteins are GTPases that transmit extracellular signals into cellular signaling pathways, which could activate cell proliferation, differentiation and survival mechanisms. Oncogene mutation in the three human RAS genes (HRAS, NRAS and KRAS) are found in 30% of all cancers, making RAS proteins the most common oncogene. In fact, mutations in KRAS are found in >90% of pancreatic cancers. Despite the prevalence of RAS mutations, targeting RAS proteins with drugs is extremely challenging due to the complex nature of the protein.

The authors in this study wanted to test a new approach using a 3D spheroid-based screening assay to find drugs that target RAS proteins. They first harvested 2D monolayer cultures of pancreatic epithelial tumor cells that express either wild-type KRAS or mutant oncogenic KRAS, and tested their ability to form 3D spheroids. They confirmed spheroid growth using the CellTiter-Glo® 3D Cell Viability Assay with linearity of detection in the range of 1,000–10,000 cells seeded.

The 3D spheroids were then treated with a library of 1,280 known drugs. From the high-throughput screen, they identified one compound with the greatest selective inhibition against oncogenic KRAS. The compound is called Proscillaridin A, a cardiac glycoside that is known for treating congestive heart failure and cardiac arrhythmia. In 3D spheroids, Proscillardin A inhibited oncogenic KRAS at a >90% inhibition rate, with <10% inhibition of wild-type KRAS. In 2D cultures, however, there was no selective inhibition of oncogenic KRAS (inhibition rates for both oncogenic and wild-type KRAS were about 50%). This means that Proscillaridin A would not have been identified as a candidate if the screen was done using only 2D cultures.

Next, the authors wanted to determine how Proscillaridin A impacts tumor cell viability. Could it induce apoptosis in tumor cells? To test this, they used the RealTime-Glo™ Annexin V Apoptosis Assay. This bioluminescent assay is able to detect apoptosis in real time, based on the exposure of phosphatidylserine on the outer leaflet of the cell membrane when apoptosis occurs. Using this assay, they found that Proscillaridin A induced apoptosis at earlier time points and higher rates in 3D spheroids expressing oncogenic KRAS compared with wild-type KRAS. In 2D cultures, there was no difference in the rate of apoptosis.

This study shows that high-throughput screening in 3D spheroids can identify potential drugs that would not have been discovered in a 2D format. This provides hope for finding drugs against difficult target proteins such as RAS.

Reference: Kota S., et al. (2018) A novel three-dimensional high-throughput screening approach identifies inducers of a mutant KRAS selective lethal phenotype. Oncogene. Epub ahead of print.

Bacteria and Viruses as Cancer Treatments

Over a hundred years ago William B Coley, the “Father of Immunotherapy”, discovered that injection of bacteria or bacterial toxins into tumors could cause those tumors to shrink. The introduction of bacteria had the side-effect of stimulating the immune system to attack the tumor. The field of cancer immunotherapy research—which today includes many different approaches for generating anti-tumor immune responses—originated with these early experiments.

Use of bacteria is one way to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells, others include use of cytokines, immune checkpoint blockades and vaccines. This Nature animation provides a simple overview of these methods.

Continue reading

Finding Chinks in the Armor: Cancer’s Need for Metabolites

Illustration of energy metablism in cell.Cancer has been studied for decades by scientists trying to find a vulnerability to exploit and testing compounds to develop as potential drugs. As the “Emperor of All Maladies”, cancer has proven itself to be a wily beast with many varieties of genetic mutations for eluding cellular control, tireless in its ability to divide and spread. In the end, a cancer cell is still a cell and subject to its environment even though cancer does not play by the same rules as the normal cells that exist around it. To be able to grow, a cell needs access to metabolites, molecules needed for building the materials and machinery needed by the cell to function and divide. These requirements also offer potential pathways to target for halting cancer growth and spread.

All cells use glucose to generate ATP, but normal and cancer cells differ in how glucose is converted to ATP. Most cells use glucose in oxidative phosphorylation, but cancer cells use aerobic glycolysis, converting glucose to lactate without oxygen. This Warburg effect (glucose converted to lactate) is a hallmark of cancer cells as they take up glucose at a much higher rate than normal cells. Blocking glucose uptake is one way to target cancer cells. While 2-deoxyglucose (2DG) has been shown to slow glucose uptake in vitro, the compound proved toxic in clinical trials and lower dosages do not seem to be an effective treatment against cancer. While not an ideal drug target, glucose uptake has been helpful in monitoring cancer response to therapies via fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET). Continue reading

The Pan-Cancer Atlas: “The End of the Beginning”

Yesterday, a series of 27 papers representing the most comprehensive genomic analysis of human cancers to date was published in Cell Press journals.

The collection constitutes the final outputs from the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project, a collaboration between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) involving analysis of over 11,000 tumors representing 33 different cancers. The many research teams involved analyzed tumor DNA, mRNA, miRNA and chromatin, comparing them to matched normal cellular genomes to perform a complete molecular characterization of cancer-specific changes. The results have been presented with much hope that open access to this type of comprehensive analysis will build on recent advances in understanding tumor biology and spur further progress in developing new approaches to treatment. (See this news item for more detail).

The Pan-Cancer Atlas results are collected on a portal, where they are presented in three collections grouped by topic: Cell of Origin, Oncogenic Processes and Signaling Pathways. Each collection is accompanied by a “Flagship” paper introducing the topic and summarizing the findings. It seems fitting that these findings have been published in #HumanGenomeMonth. This comprehensive analysis of the genomic and metagenomic profiles of tumors illustrates one powerful application of the type of genomic analysis pioneered by the original Human Genome Project, and shows just how much has been made possible since the initial publication of the human genome fifteen years ago. Continue reading

Counting Crows: Evidence for Hard-Wired, Inborn Ability to Detect Numerical Sets

“The Great Book of Nature is written in mathematical language” –Galileo Galilei (1)

carrion crow (corvus corone) headshot portrait against a blue background

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

If mathematics is the language of the universe, might we find the ability to do math hard-wired in species?

Research in primates has demonstrated that even without training, humans and monkeys possess numerosity, the ability to assess the number of items in a set (2,3).

A paper in Current Biology from Wagener and colleagues provides evidence that crows are born with a subset of neurons that are “hard wired” to perceive the number of items in a set (4). This work provides yet more evidence supporting a hypothesis of an innate “number sense” that is provided by a specific group of “preprogrammed” neurons.

In this study, Wagener’s group measured the responses of single neurons in two “numerically naïve” crows to color dot arrays. They measured neurons in the endbrain region known as the niopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is thought to be the avian analog of the primate prefrontal cortex. They found that 12% of the neurons in NCL specifically responded to numbers and that specific neurons responded to specific numbers of items with greater or lesser activity.

This is the first such study to investigate the idea of an innate “sense of number” in untrained vertebrates that are not primates, and as such it suggests that a hard-wired, innate “sense of number” is not a special feature of the complex cerebral cortex of the primate brain but is an adaptive property that evolved independently in the differently structured and evolved end brains of birds.

Many questions remain. Are there similarities in the actual neurons involved? What does learning do on a physiological level to these neurons: Increase their number, increase connections to them?  What other vertebrates have similar innate mechanisms for assessing numbers of items? What about other members of the animal kingdom that need to have a sense of number for social or foraging behavior? How is it accomplished?

And finally, one last burning question, if birds are dinosaurs, does that mean that dinosaurs perished because they didn’t do their math homework? Asking for an eleven-year-old I know.

  1. Tyson, Peter. (2001) Describing Nature with math. NOVA 
  2. Izard, V. et al. (2009) Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers PNAS USA 106, 10382–85.
  3. Viswanahtan, P. and Neider, A. (2013) Neuronal correlates of a visual “sense of number” in primate parietal and prefrontal cortices. PNAS USA 110, 1118–95.
  4. Wagnener, L. et al. (2018) Neurons in the endbrain of numerically naïve crows spontaneously encode visual numerosity Cur. Biol. 28, 1–5.

A Surprising New Role for Body Fat?

This cloaked fat cell just might be a superhero.

Forty-some years ago fat was just fat. And it was regarded with disdain, to say the least.

An entire industry existed to help get rid of fat, using what was then the latest mass media technology, television. If you wanted to get rid of fat you could exercise with Jack LaLanne as he worked out on television. We exercised in elementary school PE class to a vinyl recording of “Chicken Fat”. You could strap into a device that employed shaking to get rid of the fat from your “hips”, or eat a piece of chocolate fudge with a hot beverage before meals to curb your appetite.

Fat was not our friend. We knew long before the current diabetes epidemic that being overweight was not good for our health.

Fast forward to the 21st century, where we’ve learned that some forms of fat are actually good for you–important in metabolism, growth and immunity. The variety of types of mammalian fat include brown adipose tissue, beige adipose tissue and white adipose tissue, and it’s possible to convert one to the other under certain conditions. For details on these types of adipose tissue, read this article —after you finish this blog. Continue reading

Characterizing Multi-Subunit Protein Complexes Using Cell-Free Expression

artist's concept of a cell membraneMulti-subunit protein complexes control membrane fusion events in eukaryotic cells (1). CORVET and HOPS are two such multi-subunit complexes, both containing the Sec1/Munc18 protein subunit VPS33A (2). Metazoans additionally possess VPS33B, which has considerable sequence similarity to VPS33A but does not integrate into CORVET or HOPS complexes and instead stably interacts with VIPAR. Recent research suggests that VPS33B and VIPAR comprise two subunits of a novel multi-subunit complex analogous in configuration to CORVET and HOPS (3).

In a recent publication (4), Hunter and colleagues, further characterized the VPS33B and VIPAR complex. Using co-immunoprecipitation and proximity-based ligation assay, they identified two novel VPS33B-interacting proteins, VPS53 and CCDC22.

In vitro binding experiments, VPS33B and GST-VIPAR were co-expressed in Escherichia coli and purified by GSH affinity. The VPS33B/GSTVIPAR complex was used as bait in pulldown experiments, with myc-CCDC22 and myc-VPS53 expressed by cell-free in vitro transcription/translation in wheat germ lysate. Myc-CCDC22 was very efficiently pulled down by VPS33B/GST-VIPAR, whereas myc-VPS53 was not .The interaction between VPS53 and the VPS33B-VIPAR complex was either indirect, requires other proteins contribute to the interaction, or requires a post-translational modification not conferred in the plant cell-free expression system (wheat germ). Pull-down experiments with individual subunits or expressing as complexes, was inefficient and did not result in binding to VPS33B/GST-VIPAR.

To further understand how VPS33B-VIPAR may interact with CCDC22, Hunter and colleagues attempted to refine the region of CCDC22 that interacts with VPS33B/GST-VIPAR by generating a series of truncated forms of CCDC22. However, none of five CCDC22 truncations were able to bind to VPS33B/GST-VIPAR. The hypothesis was that truncated forms of CCDC22 are unstable and unable to fold correctly in this assay system.

Additional experiments noted that the protein complex in HEK293T cells which contained VPS33B and VIPAR was considerably smaller than CORVET/HOPS, suggesting that, unlike VPS33A, VPS33B does not assemble into a large stable multi-subunit protein complex.


  1. D’Agostino, M. et. al. (2017) A tethering complex drives the terminal stage of SNARE-dependent membrane fusion. Nature 551, 634–638.
  2. Balderhaar, H. J. K. and Ungermann, C. (2013) CORVET and HOPS tethering complexes – coordinators of endosome and lysosome fusion. J. Cell Sci. 126, 1307–16.
  3. Spang, A. (2016) Membrane Tethering Complexes in the Endosomal System. Front. Cell Dev. Biol. 4, 35.
  4. Hunter, M.  et. al.  (2017) Proteomic and biochemical comparison of the cellular interaction partners of human VPS33A and VPS33B. [Internet bioRxiv  Accessed 3/12/2018]

A Better Way to Understand How and Why Cells Die

Real-time, up-to-the-minute access to information provides new opportunities for scientists to monitor cellular events in ever more meaningful ways. Real-time cytotoxicity and cell viability assay reagents now allow constant monitoring of cell health status without the need to lyse or remove aliquots from plates for measurement. With a real-time approach, data can be collected from cell cultures or microtissues at multiple time points after addition of a drug compound or other event, and the response to treatment continually observed.

The CellTox™ Green assay is a real-time assay that monitors cytotoxicity using a fluorescent DNA binding dye, which binds DNA released from cells upon loss of membrane integrity. The dye cannot enter intact, live cells and so fluorescence only occurs upon cell death, correlating with cytotoxicity. Here’s a quick overview showing how the assay works:

More Data Using Fewer Samples and Reagents
The ability to continually monitor cytotoxicity in this way makes it easy to conduct more than one type of analysis on a single sample. Assays can be combined to determine not only the timing of cytotoxicity, but to also understand related events happening in the same cell population. As long as the readouts can be distinguished from one another multiple assays can be performed in the same well, providing more informative data while using less cells, plates and reagents.

Combining assays in this way can reveal critical information regarding mechanism of cell death. For example, assay combinations can be used to determine whether cells are dying from apoptosis or necrosis, or to distinguish nonproliferation from cell death. Combining CellTox Green with an endpoint luminescent caspase assay or a real-time apoptosis assay allows you to determine whether observed cytotoxic effects are due to apoptosis. Cytotoxic and anti-proliferative effects can be distinguished by combining the cytotoxicity assay with a luminescent or fluorescent cell viability assay. Continue reading

A Cell Viability Assay for Today

Valued for ease of use and scalability, plate-based, bioluminescent cell viability assays are widely used to support research in biologics, oncology and drug discovery.

Cell viability assays are a bread-and-butter method for many researchers using cultured cells —everyday lab tools that are a part of many newsworthy papers, but rarely make news themselves.

Over time, cell viability assays have become easier to use and more “plug ‘n play”. Among modern assays, luminescent plate-reader based systems have been a favorite for several years because of their superior sensitivity, robustness, simple protocols and uncomplicated equipment requirements (all you need is a plate-reading luminometer). These qualities combine to allow easy scalability and adaptability from bench research to high throughput applications.

CellTiter-Glo® Luminescent Cell Viability Assay is an accepted go-to viability assay for many researchers. The assay measures ATP as an indicator of metabolically active cells. A quick search on Google Scholar returns 3,990 CellTiter-Glo results for 2017 and over 500 so far in January and February of 2018. A sampling of these recent publications gives a snapshot of some of the ways the CellTiter-Glo assay is used to support key areas of research today.

Does a treatment kill cells?

The obvious application of a cell viability assay is to understand whether cells are alive. In cancer research, the CellTiter-Glo assay is often used to confirm killing of tumor cells and to verify that normal cells survive. Therefore, these assays are a key part of the evaluation and screening of drug candidates and other therapies for cancer. Many papers reporting use of CellTiter-Glo are developing and evaluating the effectiveness of novel anti-cancer treatments. Continue reading