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

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

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?

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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.

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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

“GenEthics” – The Implications of Genomic Data

I majored in genetics because I love Punnett Squares. Don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated by the groundbreaking research going on in fields like oncology and agriculture, but there was something about the simple and logical nature of calculating inheritance patterns that really drew me in. At the time when I confusingly wandered into my advisor’s office to make this life changing academic decision, I had no idea that this degree would help me see the more complicated, “gray area”, of science, changing the way that I look at the world today.

What is “GenEthics” ?

As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, “GenEthics” is the intersection between the fields of genetics and ethics. A broad term involving questions related to the implications of a variety of different topics in genetic research; “GenEthics” covers everything from the modification of stem cells, to gene therapy and GMOs. Since this term encompasses such a large array of topics, I’m going to focus on some of the ethical questions related to your genome.

Genomic data and its applications

If you’ve ever heard of 23andMe or Ancestry.com then you’ve already had an introduction to genomic data. These direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies are a result of advancements in technology that have made the genotyping process relatively cheap and quick. When you submit a sample, they send it to a lab, extract the DNA, and test it for various markers. What’s returned to you is a report of what markers (alleles) you do and don’t have. These reports can tell you everything from what percent German you are, to your status for any of the many alleles of several genes that may increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Genomic data has affected a variety of fields; knowledge of the genome has allowed us to catch famous criminals like the Golden State Killer and has provided us with diagnostic markers for serious diseases. But even with all the good that genomic data has done and will do, there is a “gray area” where many questions regarding safety, equality, and privacy lie.

Safety – Should everyone have their genomes sequenced?

Some believe this is the future of healthcare, that everyone will have their genomes sequenced at birth and put into a national database. This would have amazing implications in the research world; access to endless data, and the ability to form conclusions about everything from human disease to intelligence.

This question also brings up a plethora of others, some pertaining to identity safety. In particular, what if this fictitious database is hacked? There have already been smaller-scale database breaches, the most recent being on the MyHeritage website. These breaches are potentially dangerous; the entirety of your personal health information is housed in your genome. With proper scientific guidance, hackers could infer your: gender, ethnicity, disease status, etc. DNA is not like a credit card, there is no way to obtain a new set of genes.

Equality – How do we ensure that everyone benefits from the advancements that genomic data has to offer?

There are many studies being done with the goal of eradicating cancer using precision medicine. This involves finding common tumor-causing variants in patients’ DNA sequences, and treating them based on their genes. These types of studies have the potential to contribute greatly to the field of personalized medicine, but caution needs to be taken to ensure that multiple populations are represented in the study. Ethnic groups have evolved on separate continents and their genetic sequences contain different variations, one set of conclusions about a disease might not apply to all populations.

Privacy: Who has a right to your genetic information?

The Genetic Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was passed in 2008 to prevent your genetic test results from affecting your qualification for health insurance, or employment prospects. However, this is but a scratch on the surface of possible genomics-related legal issues; the ownership of a DNA sequence is a complete question mark at this time. There are no laws regarding an organization or family members’ right to an individual’s sequence.

Genomic data has the ability to save lives and prevent devastating disease, but it also can cause disputes within families, and between organizations and individuals. The question of DNA ownership brings up many others: if you test positive for a condition, should you inform other at risk family members? Do you have sole claim on your DNA when you have family members that share most of your sequence? When you submit your DNA to an organization what ownership rights do they have?

The Future…

We have come a long way since completion of the Human Genome Project back in 2003, and we will continue to make amazing advances thanks to the field of genetics. The questions I have posed are just a few that lie in the “gray area” we will be venturing into in the future. These questions may seem as if they are just for researchers, doctors, and lawyers, but they really are for everyone. The social and ethical implications of science affect us all; it’s important that we all join the conversation!

Questions of Genome Privacy and Protection

In April 2018, law enforcement officials announced the arrest of a suspect in the Golden State Killer case (New York Times ). Shortly after the announcement, those same law enforcement officers explained that detectives had used a public forensic genealogy web site to help identify the killer.

What does it mean when a law enforcement agency accesses a public genetic genealogy database to search for a suspect in a crime? Continue reading

Catalyzing Solutions with Synthetic Biology

Computer-generated model of a virus.

The keynote speaker for this year’s International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), Andrew Hessle, describes himself as a catalyst for big projects and ideas (1). In biology, catalysts are enzymes that alter the microenvironment and lower the energy of activation so that a chemical reaction that would proceed anyway happens at a much faster rate—making a reaction actually useful to the biological system in which it occurs.

In practical terms, Andrew Hessel is the person who helps us over our inertia. Instead of waiting for someone else, he sees a problem, gathers an interested group of people with diverse skills and perspectives, creates a microenvironment for these people to interact, and runs with them straight toward the problem. Boom. Reaction started.

One of the problems he has set his mind toward is that of cancer drug development. Continue reading

Why Hasn’t the “Alternative” Become Mainstream?

Pearl Jam, a popular alternative rock band in the 1990s (and still pretty awesome!). Photo credit: Rolling Stone Magazine.

This post could easily start out as an ode to ’90s alternative music (of which I’m a huge fan). That new and totally different sound (a la Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.) in the 1990s eventually made its way into the mainstream as it gained popularity. (I have to say that I got a shock when I recently heard some Pearl Jam on “classic rock” radio stations. But I digress…)

Why isn’t the same true for science career paths? Science careers outside of academia are still referred to as “alternative.” 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 cell.com 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