Cancer is a Scourge Most Ancient

Reconstruction of Pappochelys rosinae or grandfather turtle. Attribution: Rainer Schoch [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The first words that come to mind when people hear “Triassic” are likely dinosaur or maybe ginkgo or possibly even phytoplankton, but probably not cancer. For all that we have learned about how cancer develops based on the efforts of numerous research scientists, this disease is not solely a modern affliction. In fact, cancer has deep roots in the past. From several thousand year old human mummies to fossils millions of years old, cancer has left evidence of its presence in the historical record. Yes, even in the era of dinosaurs, cancer existed.

Cancer is usually a soft-tissue-based malady, but occasionally, it can also be found on bones, altering the bone’s surface and leaving unmistakable signs. Alterations like those observed on the femur of a 240-million-year-old shell-less stem-turtle found in modern-day Germany and described in JAMA Oncology. Continue reading “Cancer is a Scourge Most Ancient”

Synthetic Biology by the Letters

Synthetic biology has been in the news a lot lately—or maybe it only seems like it because I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about our partnership with the iGEM Foundation, which is dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology. As the 2019 iGEM teams are forming, figuring out what their projects will be and how to fund them, it seemed fitting to share some of these stories.

A, C, T, G…S, P, Z, B?

Researchers recently developed four synthetic nucleotides that, when combined with the four natural nucleotides (A, C, T and G), make up a new eight-letter synthetic system called “hachimoji” DNA. The synthetic nucleotides—S, P, Z and B— function like natural DNA by pairing predictably and evolving. Continue reading “Synthetic Biology by the Letters”

“We’re From NASA”: How Citizen Science Helped Find Ultima Thule

The science world is a-twitter with excitement lately, following the recent arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at 2014 MU69, dubbed “Ultima Thule” by popular vote. The name means “beyond the borders of the known world”, signifying Ultima Thule’s status as the most distant object ever visited by Earthly spacecraft. Ultima Thule is a dark reddish rock in the Kuiper belt, a contact binary formed by two smaller rocks coming together in what was presumably a gentle fashion.

Do you wanna build a snowman? Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Reaching this space snowman 6.5 billion kilometers away from Earth took brains, dedication, ingenuity and the help of an unnamed Argentinian man and his daughter.

To successfully intercept Ultima Thule, the New Horizons mission team needed to answer some questions, such as “What trajectory is Ultima Thule on?” and “Is there any space debris around Ultima Thule that will destroy our spacecraft?” Being so small (~30km diameter at its widest point), observing Ultima Thule directly from this far away would be too difficult, so the team relied on data gathered during stellar occultations, i.e., when Ultima Thule passed in front of a star.

One of these occultations occurred on July 17, 2017, in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The team had already struck out twice in trying to observe Ultima Thule passing over a star: once in South Africa, and again using the airborne telescope SOFIA over the Pacific Ocean, so tension was already running high.

On this particular night, it happened to be very windy where the observation team was, which is bad news when you’re trying to hold steady focus on a tiny object that’s really far away. The team found themselves needing help to shield the telescopes they had brought with them from wind vibrations, and get the data from the star “without it jiggling around all over the place”, as planetary scientist Anne Verbiscer puts it.

Where does one find volunteers for an astronomical observation? Well, apparently even in Argentina NASA is known and loved, and help can be found just by walking into the community. “If you just started out with ‘We’re from NASA,’ people started coming out of the woodwork,” said Dr. Verbiscer. And that is how one Argentinian man and his daughter ended up spending their evening blocking the wind from a telescope using a truck, a tarp and some plywood, allowing the NASA folks to collect the data they needed to send New Horizons to Ultima Thule.

Want to learn more about the search for Ultima Thule? Check out the episode of NOVA that inspired this blog!

2019: International Year of the Periodic Table

Periodic table of the elements

From the inside covers of elementary science textbooks to the walls of chemistry labs all around the world, the periodic table is one of the most pivotal and enduring tools of modern science. To honor the 150th anniversary of its discovery, the United Nations General Assembly and UNESCO have declared 2019 to be the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements.

As with all scientific progress, Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table was the result of decades—centuries, even—of research performed by scientists all over the world. Aristotle first theorized the existence of basic building blocks of matter over 2,500 years ago, which later were believed to be earth, air, fire and water. Alchemist Hennig Brand is credited with discovering phosphorus in the late 17th century, sparking chemists to begin pursuing these basic atomic elements.

Continue reading “2019: International Year of the Periodic Table”

5 of Our Favorite Blogs from 2018

We have published 130 blogs here at Promega this year (not including this one). I diligently reviewed every single one and compiled a list of the best 8.5%, then asked my coworkers to vote on the top 5 out of that subset. Here are their picks:

1. The Amazing, Indestructible—and Cuddly—Tardigrade

No surprises here, everyone loves water bears. Kelly Grooms knows what the people want.

The face of a creature that is nigh un-killable.

Continue reading “5 of Our Favorite Blogs from 2018”

Could Your Appendix Predispose You to Parkinson’s Disease?

Image of span of vagal nerve, humans.
The vagal nerve could serve as conduit for transit of alpha-synuclein from appendix to brain.

Since about 2000 we’ve learned a lot about the bacteria in our guts. We’ve learned that the right bacterial communities in our gastrointestinal system can make us feel better, think better and even help avoid obesity (1). My colleague Isobel has previously blogged about how certain gut bacteria can improve immunotherapy outcomes.

Conversely, the wrong bacteria in our guts can have negative consequences on health and cognition.

Along the way we’ve learned that gut bacterial flora can be influenced by what we eat, certain medications like antibiotics, and even stressful events. We now know that fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha and that horrible-smelling stuff (kimchi) that another colleague eats are happy food for the good gut bacteria.

And you might guess that fried foods, saturated fats and certain carbohydrates can support the growth of gut bacteria that are doing us no favors when present in large quantities in our gastrointestinal system. Continue reading “Could Your Appendix Predispose You to Parkinson’s Disease?”

Finding Its Place: The Biohealth Industry in Wisconsin

On October 9, the 2018 Wisconsin Biohealth Summit was held in Madison, WI, hosted by BioForward, an organization that supports the growth of the biohealth industry in the state. This day-long event covered topics such as how diversifying your team can build better leadership, discovering new markets for existing products, and biomanufacturing. One of the panels on the schedule was “Examining the Economic Impact of Wisconsin’s Biohealth Industry,” and Penny Patterson, our Vice President of Communications, was one of the panel participants. We spoke after the summit to learn what came out of the panel discussion and the topics of interest raised by the biohealth industry attendees.

As we talked, Penny explained many topics were discussed, but ultimately focused around how to attract talented individuals to the biohealth industry in Wisconsin. This concern stemmed in part from the lower profile of the biohealth industry in Wisconsin compared to the more prominent and well-known East and West coasts. Of note, education and quality of life are important tools for recruiting candidates to join the biohealth industry. Continue reading “Finding Its Place: The Biohealth Industry in Wisconsin”

MSI Analysis and the Application of Therapies Based on 2018 Nobel Immuno-Oncology Work

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded to James P. Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan for their work to identify pathways in the immune system that can be used to attack cancer cells (1). Although immunotherapy for cancer has been a goal for many decades, Dr. Allison and Dr. Honjo succeeded through their manipulation of “checkpoint inhibitor” pathways to target cancer cells.

Immune checkpoint inhibitor drugs have been effective in cancers such as aggressive metastatic melanoma, some lung cancers, kidney, bladder and head and neck cancers. These therapies have succeeded in pushing many aggressive cancers below detectable limits, though these cases are notably not relapse-free or necessarily “cured” (2,3).

One challenge in implementing immunotherapy in a cancer treatment regime is the need to understand the genetic makeup of the tumor. Certain tumors, with specific genetic features, are far more likely to respond to immune checkpoint therapy than others. For this reason, Microsatellite Instability (MSI) analysis has become an increasingly relevant tool in genetic and immuno-oncology research.

What is MSI Analysis?

Continue reading “MSI Analysis and the Application of Therapies Based on 2018 Nobel Immuno-Oncology Work”

Conflict, CRISPR and the Scientific Method

Scientific inquiry is a process that is revered as much as it is misunderstood. As I listed to a TED talk about the subject, I was reminded that for the general public the foundation of science is the scientific method—the linear process of making an observation, asking a question, forming an hypothesis, making a prediction and testing the hypothesis.

While this process is integral to doing science, what gives scientific findings credibility and value is consensus from the scientific community. Building consensus is the time-consuming process that includes peer review, publication and replication of results. It is also the part of scientific inquiry that so often leads the public to misunderstand and mistrust scientific findings.

Continue reading “Conflict, CRISPR and the Scientific Method”

Could Your Dog Meds End Malaria or Zika Infections?

Mosquito photo
Will the sun soon be setting on dangerous mosquito populations?

Could that once-monthly beef-flavored pill you give your dog to kill fleas and ticks save thousands of human lives in Zika virus- and malaria-infected areas of the world?

That’s the hypothesis examined in a 2018 publication “Repurposing isoxazoline veterinary drugs for control of vector-borne human diseases”, published by Miglianico, et al., in PNAS.

Vector-Borne Diseases Under Siege
Mosquito-transmitted diseases, such as malaria and Zika virus, and sand fly-transmitted leishmaniasis are major causes of mortality in sub-tropical regions. Although with a lower mortality incidence, mosquito-borne West Nile virus has spread in temperate regions such as Europe and the United States. Continue reading “Could Your Dog Meds End Malaria or Zika Infections?”