In this issue
“As 2020 comes to a close, I am filled with gratitude for the extraordinary efforts made by our faculty and administrative staff over the past year, which helped the Institute successfully navigate this pandemic.”
NeuroscienceTraveling brain waves help detect hard-to-see objectsProfessor John Reynolds, Professor Terrence Sejnowski, co-first authors Zac Davis and Lyle Muller, and colleagues have uncovered details about the neural mechanisms underlying the perception of objects. They found that patterns of neural signals, called traveling brain waves, exist in the visual system of the awake brain and are organized to allow the brain to perceive objects that are faint or otherwise difficult to see.
CancerLocation, location, location: the cell membrane facilitates RAS protein interactionsMany cancer medications fail to effectively target the most commonly mutated cancer genes in humans, called RAS. Now, Salk Professor Geoffrey Wahl, first author Yao-Cheng (Leo) Li and a team of scientists have uncovered details of how normal RAS interacts with mutated RAS and other proteins in living cells for the first time. The findings could aid in the development of better RAS-targeted cancer therapeutics.
MetabolismFirst immune-evading cells created to treat type 1 diabetesProfessor Ronald Evans, first author and former Staff Scientist Eiji Yoshihara, and colleagues have made a major advance in the pursuit of a safe and effective treatment for type 1 diabetes. Using stem-cell technology, they generated the first human insulin-producing pancreatic cell clusters able to evade the immune system. These “immune shielded” cell clusters controlled blood glucose without immunosuppressive drugs in mice, once transplanted in the body.
GeneticsHow cells solve their identity crisisCancer is often the result of DNA mutations or problems with how cells divide, which can lead to cells “forgetting” what type of cell they are or how to function properly. Professor and VP/CSO, first author Hyeseon Kang, Assistant Professor Jesse Dixon and colleagues have now provided clarity into how new cells remember their identity after cell division. These memory mechanisms could explicate problems that occur when cell identity is not maintained, such as cancer.
Immune System BiologyHow targeting killer T cells in the lungs could lead to immunity against respiratory virusesSalk Professor Susan Kaech examined the immune cells in the lungs, a significant site of damage during the COVID-19 infection. When we are first exposed to bacteria or viruses, immune cells called killer T cells destroy the infected cells to prevent the spread of the disease. Killer T cells effectively provide long-term protective immunity against the invader, a fundamental concept behind vaccination. Kaech’s team, including first author and then-graduate student Jun Siong Low, found that the cells responsible for long-term immunity in the lungs can be activated more easily than previously thought. The insight could aid in the development of universal vaccines for influenza and the novel coronavirus.
AgingMethod to derive blood vessel cells from skin cells suggests ways to slow agingProfessor and VP/CSO Martin Hetzer, co-first authors Simone Bersini and Roberta Schulte, and colleagues have used skin cells called fibroblasts from young and old patients to successfully create blood vessel cells that retain their molecular markers of age. The team’s approach revealed clues as to why blood vessels tend to become leaky and hardened with age, and lets researchers identify new molecular targets to potentially slow aging in vascular cells.
Protein InteractionsImaging method highlights new role for cellular “skeleton” proteinWhile your skeleton helps your body to move, fine skeleton-like filaments within your cells likewise help cellular structures to move. Now, Staff Scientist Uri Manor and co-first authors Cara Schiavon and Tong Zhang have developed a new imaging method that lets them monitor a small subset of these filaments, called actin. They observed how actin mediates an important function: helping the cellular “power stations” known as mitochondria divide in two. The work could provide a better understanding of mitochondrial dysfunction, which has been linked to cancer, aging and neurodegenerative diseases.
Computational BiologyGiant leap in diagnosing liver diseaseChronic liver disease represents a major global public health problem affecting an estimated 844 million people. A collaborative team of scientists, co-led by Salk Professor Ronald Evans and including first author Tae Gyu Oh and Senior Staff Scientist Michael Downes, have created a novel diagnostic tool based on the microbiome—a complex collection of microbes that inhabit the gut. The non-invasive method quickly and inexpensively identifies liver fibrosis and cirrhosis over 90 percent of the time and could lead to improved patient care and treatment outcomes.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed local schools this past year, Salk’s Education Outreach department had to get creative to continue its mission of teaching and inspiring students to pursue careers in science. They quickly adapted and rolled out virtual options for popular programs, to great success.
Assistant Professor Edward Stites has been named an NIH Director’s New Innovator for 2020 as part of the National Institutes of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. The award “supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators,” according to the NIH and provides $1.5 million for a 5-year project.
Assistant Professor Dannielle Engle has been awarded a New Investigator Award from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP) to examine how tobacco use promotes cellular changes that lead to pancreatic cancer. Engle will receive more than $1 million over 3 years to develop new models for examining how tobacco carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) lead to tumor development and metastasis.
Professor Ronald Evans, director of Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology, has been awarded a 2020 NOMIS Distinguished Scientist and Scholar Award by the NOMIS Foundation, a Swiss foundation that supports high-risk basic research. The award, which totals $2.5 million, recognizes scientists for their “outstanding contributions to the advancement of science and human progress through their pioneering, innovative and collaborative research,” according to NOMIS.
In the spring, Salk introduced the Power of Science Lecture series, a new format to allow faculty to share recent research with donors that occurred throughout the year. Faculty speakers included Professors Janelle Ayres, Ronald Evans, Martin Hetzer, Susan Kaech, Satchin Panda, Reuben Shaw and Assistant Professor Dannielle Engle on topics ranging from collaborative cancer research; circadian biology; infectious disease; and aging.
On October 28, Susan Kaech, Salk Professor and Director of the NOMIS Center for Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis, joined a panel of speakers hosted by Union Bank entitled “Women, Wealth and Health: Connecting Well-Being and Philanthropy in the Age of COVID.” She joined Jennifer Alcorn, deputy director of Philanthropic Partnerships for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Eric Verdin, president and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, in discussing health and aging research, community involvement and health-related philanthropic efforts.
On October 24, Education Outreach held its annual Ellen Potter Symposium, featuring Uri Manor, director of Salk’s Advanced Biophotonics Core. Each fall, teachers are invited to Salk to hear from Salk faculty and researchers in a seminar environment, then collaborate with colleagues to apply what they have learned to their lesson plans.