Psychedelics as Therapeutic Agents: Current Research, Potential Benefits

This past May (2019) the symposium “Psychedelic Therapy in Society: Exploring the Mechanisms of Action and Delivery of Care” was hosted by the International Forum on Consciousness at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center on the Promega Madison Campus.

Having the good fortune to work across the street at Promega, I was able to attend this two-day conference and learn from leading researchers in psychedelics and about their use in therapy.

My interest in psychedelics is relatively new. I didn’t experiment with these substances during high school or college years. But in recent years, I’ve seen a close relative struggle with profound anxiety related to terminal disease, and another with substance abuse and depression. The lessons learned from each experience is that the battery of medicines used to treat such illness can result in additional problems for which there are currently not good medication options. And in some cases, traditional medications can cause further health problems. Continue reading “Psychedelics as Therapeutic Agents: Current Research, Potential Benefits”

Here Comes the Sun: How to Protect Yourself and the Coral Reefs

Sunscreen usage is increasing, with more people using SPF to prevent the very real threats of skin cancer and early signs of aging. While slathering on the sunscreen is unarguably important to protect your skin from the sun, new concerns arise linking sunscreen chemicals to coral reef bleaching, as an estimated “14,000 tons of sunscreen is believed to be deposited in the oceans annually.”

Coral reefs are the most productive marine ecosystem known. Coral reefs protect coastlines from storm surge and support commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism. Unfortunately, certain chemicals in sunscreen are causing coral reefs to bleach; thus, becoming more susceptible to viral infections. The reefs eventually turn white and die. Coral reef bleaching is the leading cause of coral reef deaths worldwide. This conversation is an important one to discuss leading up to the celebration of World Oceans Day on June 8.

Chemical recreational sunscreen contains oxybenzone, a toxic synthetic molecule. Oxybenzone is prevalent in the majority of mainstream sunscreen brands. This ingredient results in extreme harm to marine organisms. The Ocean Foundation emphasized that, “A single drop of this compound in more than 4 million gallons of water is enough to endanger organisms.” Even if you do not physically go in the water, the chemical can be washed into the ocean through the sand.

In response to this issue, many countries and resorts are banning “reef-toxic” sunscreen. Hawaii and Key West recently passed a bill banning the sale and distribution of any sunscreen that contains 10 toxic ingredients, including oxybenzone. This bill goes into effect January 2021. Many dermatologists are concerned for public safety, highlighting that banning certain sunscreens will decrease overall use. Unprotected sun exposure it the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. From the perspective of a customer, it is important to be actively informed on what constitutes a “reef-safe” sunscreen. Oxybenzone can pop-up in many moisturizers, primers, and foundations that contain SPF. Reef-friendly options include: any version of chemical sunscreen that does not contain oxybenzone.

With a commitment to protect the environment, Promega has pledged $3 million over the next three years to the Revive and Restore Catalyst Science fund. Organization founders and scientists are focused on an extremely long-term view of wildlife conservation. This fund invests in proof-of-concept research projects that offer innovative solutions for conservation challenges and threatened ecosystems. Marine biologist Steve Palumbi was awarded the first Fund grant to investigate the triggers that may cause corals to bleach. Palumbi reflects on his research in an interview with Stanford News stating, “The report reflects a sense of urgency. We need to start helping corals now, so that as the climate gets worse—and it will inevitably get worse—we’re a little bit in front of the problem. There’s this amazing sense that we all have to just jump in and try ideas and fail so that, eventually, someone comes up with the answers we need.”

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”

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?”

“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 “Questions of Genome Privacy and Protection”

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

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 “A Surprising New Role for Body Fat?”

Science News: Demoting Termites, Monitoring Blood Pressure with Your Smartphone and Finding Amelia Earhart’s Bones

A few science news items caught my eye this week.

Macro image of a termite (Isoptera) found under a rock. Image by Sanjay Acharay via Wikimedia Commons.
Wood-Shattering Revelation: Termites have been recategorized based on genetic and other evidence. Turns out, they are just social cockroaches and thus, have become part of the cockroach order Blattodea rather than remaining in a separate order. This decision was not made lightly, but based on years of debate amongst American entomologists. The insects will still retain termite in their name, but they gain a reputation for surviving apocalyptic events. Read about the update to the insect name master list by the Entomological Society of America.

Sphygmomanometer with cuff, used to measure blood pressure via Wikimedia Commons.
Blood Pressure Measurements at the Tip of Your Finger: A blood pressure cuff is bulky, annoying but accurate for monitoring the effort needed for pushing blood around your body. While this device is a fairly simple one, in the developing world it is not that common. However, mobile phones are available to many more globally so why not find a way to put the two together? Turns out that smartphones are equipped with hardware that can be used to measure blood pressure. By adding a device that attaches to the back of a smartphone and with the press of a finger, you can monitor your blood pressure. While not currently as accurate as a blood pressure cuff, the people that tried the mobile blood pressure device were able to quickly adapt to using it, making it easy to take several readings for continuous monitoring. A pocket-sized blood pressure monitor without the nasty squeeze of your arm sounds like a great medical advancement for treating high blood pressure. See a video of the device.

Photo of Amelia Earhart and Dr. Edward C. Elliott, president of Purdue University with the Lockheed Electra she later disappeared in. Purdue University paid for the plane as Earhart was then a consultant on aeronautics there. Photo taken 20 August 1936.
For a Forensic ID, All You Needed Was a Picture, Old Clothing and Some Numbers: The quest to find where Amelia Earhart may have landed in the Pacific Ocean has been investigated and speculated about since she and her navigator disappeared July 2, 1937. In fact, skeletal remains had been found on a remote island in the South Pacific in 1940 along with other artifacts–a woman’s shoe, an American sextant box, but the bones were identified as a man by a physician at the time. Unfortunately, these remains have subsequently been lost. Recently, an anthropologist decided to take the measurements made in 1940, and using a modern-day techniques including a program that estimates stature, sex and ancestry, and he found that the bone measurements were more consistent with Earhart than with 99% of the reference sample used. In addition, using a photograph of the American pilot that had scale generated bone lengths of her humerus and radius and measuring her clothing from a collection gave a number for her tibia. All these numbers strongly suggest the skeletal remains were Earhart’s. Read the press release.