by Anne Trafton

New model allows researchers to design more stable drugs

A new computer model developed at MIT can help solve a problem that has plagued drug companies trying to develop promising new treatments made of antibodies: Such drugs have a relatively short shelf life because they tend to clump together, rendering them ineffective.

Antibodies are the most rapidly growing class of human drugs, with the potential to treat cancer, arthritis and other chronic inflammatory and infectious diseases. About 200 such drugs are now in clinical trials, and a few are already on the market.

Susan Bender constantly tries new tricks to get her high school biology students hooked on science.  She requires the seniors in her research class at Jim Hill High School in urban Jackson, Mississippi, to don hospital scrubs before they come to class so they will take the subject seriously. She also pushes her students to participate in the science fair and spends many Saturdays at school helping them refine and polish their ambitious projects.

So when Bender heard that scientists at the nearby University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) were designing a high school biology curriculum focused on fire ants, she jumped at the chance to have her class participate. She thought the painfully familiar pests would help focus her students’ attention on science. “The ants may be the bane of our existence,” said Bender, pointing out that almost all of her students have felt the ants’ fiery stings. “But they might also be something from which we can benefit.”

Skin stem cells are constantly replacing and repairing the body's surface. Fuchs says figuring out how this happens is a delight

Elaine Fuchs of Rockefeller University in New York City studies how stem cells in the skin maintain their orderly but complicated cycle of skin renewal, how they adjust so effectively to heal wounds and what goes wrong in disease. She is also a leader in the stem cell field and an advocate of women in science. Nature Reports Stem Cells spoke to her about the progress of stem cell science and scientists.

What's the best advice you've received as a scientist?

The best advice was from my graduate mentor teaching me how to do a well-controlled experiment. It's easy to come up with controls for what you think is going be the answer in your experiment. It's much more difficult to think more broadly about what could be the possible outcomes if you don't get the result you're expecting. My mentor taught me to set up the controls to be able to interpret an unexpected finding.

During the early days of an embryo’s development, the heart begins to beat. It turns out that beating heart does more than circulate the embryo’s small existing blood supply. Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators have found that the blood’s movement through the aorta triggers the production of new blood stem cells, which will give rise to all the red and white blood cells the organism needs to survive.

The researchers have also discovered that this essential biomechanical signal can be mimicked with drugs. The findings could help clinicians expand the supply of blood stem cells needed to treat leukemia, autoimmune disorders, and other diseases.

by Monya Baker

An RNAi screen finds a protein complex that keeps pluripotency genes open for transcription

In efforts to piece together the network that maintains pluripotency, one strategy is to remove potential components and see if pluripotency is disrupted. Researchers led by Frank Buchholz of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, knocked down thousands of genes one by one and found evidence that embryonic stem cells have specialized gene-transcription machinery. Buchholz's team set up a screen so that they could identify whether levels of a key pluripotency protein, Oct4, dropped in the presence of a series of over 25,000 short RNA molecules (which could be mapped to approximately 15,000 annotated genes). This screen identified hundreds of genes, so the researchers focused on the ones that reproducibly made Oct4 levels drop the most dramatically, and they decreased this number to a set of 16 genes.

by Monica Baker

MicroRNAs, along with transcription factors, produce homogenous iPS cell colonies from mouse fibroblasts

For the first time, microRNAs have been used to facilitate reprogramming. MicroRNAs — short stretches of nucleotides that can suppress translation of certain genes — are one of several strategies being pursued in the search for the best techniques to create induced pluripotent stem cells, a type of cell that behaves like embryonic stem cells but isn't derived from embryos and has vast implications for cell therapy, drug discovery and disease modelling. So far, all techniques to reprogram cells have required the insertion of pluripotency genes, which either directly alters a cell's DNA or creates the potential for the alteration to occur. Recently, several labs have made headway using small molecules instead of genes1. Now a team led by Robert Blelloch at the University of California, San Francisco shows that microRNAs are another potential tool for reprogramming without gene insertion2.

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