We are rapidly demystifying cancers, exposing the molecular mechanisms underlying tumors and leading the search for the next generation of targeted cancer therapies. We see a future where every cancer and every patient has a cure.


Molecular Cell

What the satellites in your body do

Copies of repetitive DNA sequences called satellite RNAs are high in certain types of cancer, such as breast and ovarian. But whether they cause cancer or merely coincide with it has been unclear. First author and former Salk postdoctoral researcher Quan Zhu, Professor Tony Hunter and colleagues discovered that a specific type of satellite RNA, called hSATa, induces breast cancer by directly interfering with DNA copying and repair. The research suggests that targeting satellite RNAs could provide another approach for treating multiple types of cancer, including breast, ovarian, prostate and pancreatic.

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Nature Comm

Depleting microbiome with antibiotics can affect glucose metabolism

Panda, along with Salk Professor Alan Saghatelian and collaborators from UC San Diego, found that mice with microbiomes depleted by antibiotics had decreased levels of glucose in their blood and better insulin sensitivity. The research has implications for understanding the role of the microbiome in diabetes. It also may lead to better insight into the side effects of being treated with high levels of antibiotics.

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Widespread connections among neurons help the brain distinguish smells

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Charles Stevens and coauthor Shyam Srinivasan illuminated how, in a brain area responsible for processing information about smells (called the piriform cortex), what looks like a messy jumble of connections between neurons is actually critical to how the brain distinguishes between similar odors. Aside from better describing how smells are processed, the research could also lead to greater insight into how some parts of the brain organize information.

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Nature Plants

Common dietary elements cure lethal infections, eliminating the need for antibiotics

Associate Professor Janelle Ayresfound that giving mice dietary iron supplements enabled them to survive a normally lethal bacterial infection and resulted in later generations of those bacteria being less virulent. The approach demonstrated in preclinical studies that non-antibiotic-based strategies—such as nutritional interventions—can shift the relationship between the patient and the pathogens away from antagonism and toward cooperation.

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Cell Metabolism

Cells agree: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Research led by Professor Gerald Shadel suggests why, at a cellular level, the expression “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” might be true. His team reported that brief exposures to stressors can be beneficial by prompting the cell to trigger sustained production of antioxidants, molecules that help get rid of toxic cellular buildup related to normal cell metabolism.

In addition, Shadel, along with collaborators from Yale, Appalachian State University and other institutions, found that a protein called ATM (short for ataxia-telangiectasia mutated) can sense in normal cells the presence of harmful products called reactive oxygen species and responds by sounding the alarm to trigger the production of antioxidants. The work could have implications for a disease in which ATM is dysfunctional—and could also help reveal ways to boost cellular health overall.

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Nature Plants

A switch to turn fragrances on and off

Professor Joseph Noel, co-first author Suzanne Thomas and collaborators at Purdue University discovered the switch in plants that turns off the production of terpenoids—carbon-rich compounds that play roles in plant physiology and are used by humans in everything from fragrances and flavorings to biofuels and pharmaceuticals. Plants often make terpenoids in such low quantities that extracting them for commercial use is difficult. The discovery could lead to more-efficient ways to obtain sufficient amounts of these products to the benefit of humans.

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Science Signaling

A mathematical model reveals a map for odors from the natural environment

Associate Professor Tatyana Sharpee, first author Yuansheng Zhou and collaborators have discovered a new way to organize odor molecules based on how often they occur together in nature. They mapped this data to discover regions of odor combinations humans find most pleasurable. The findings open new avenues for engineering smells and tastes.

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Cell Reports

Salk scientists shed light on breast cancer

Professor Geoffrey Wahl, first author Raj Giraddi and collaborators used cutting-edge techniques to generate an atlas of the genes expressed in each breast cell from very early in development until adulthood. They used this “single-cell-transcriptome atlas” to compare genes expressed in human breast cancers, which led to an understanding of how the stem cells of the breast arise in early development as well as provided insight into the reprogramming of adult cells into states associated with cancer.

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Cell Metabolism

Periods of fasting may protect against obesity and diabetes

Professor Satchin Panda, first author Amandine Chaix and colleagues found that mice lacking the biological clocks thought to be necessary for healthy metabolism could still be protected against obesity and metabolic diseases by having their daily access to food restricted to a 10-hour window. The work suggests that the health problems associated with disruptions to animals’ 24-hour rhythms of activity and rest can be corrected by eating all calories within a 10-hour window.

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Reprogramming wound cells heals large ulcers and regenerates skin

Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and first author Masakazu Kurita, along with collaborators, have developed a technique to directly convert the cells in an open wound into new skin cells. The approach relies on reprogramming the cells to a stem-cell-like state and may be useful for healing skin damage, countering the effects of aging and helping to better understand skin cancer.

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Nature Genetics

New method of pinpointing cancer mutations could lead to more-targeted treatments

Cancer cells often have DNA mutations that can give scientists clues about how the cancer started or which treatment may be most effective. Finding these mutations can be difficult, but a new method may offer more complete, comprehensive results. Helmsley-Salk Fellow Jesse Dixon and collaborators have developed a new framework that can combine three existing methods of finding these large mutations—called structural variants—into a single, more complete picture. The new method could help researchers find structural variations within cancer cells’ DNA and learn more about how those cancers begin.

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Research into yeast leads to serendipitous finding about a central nervous system disorder

Professor Tony Hunter, first author Zheng Wang, colleagues and collaborators found that an important cellular quality-control mechanism in baker’s yeast is closely connected to hypomyelinating leukodystrophy, a debilitating neurodegenerative disease that occurs in children. The findings could indicate a therapeutic approach for this rare disease, as well as for multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases.

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Genes & Development

Salk scientists develop method to manipulate numbers of nuclear pores

VP, Chief Scientific Officer Martin Hetzer and first author Asako McCloskey have devised a method to manipulate numerous individual nuclear pores, which are essential elements of cells that provide controlled ways to move material into and out of a nucleus. The breakthrough may lead to insights into how to stop cancerous cells from proliferating out of control.

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Physicists train robotic gliders to soar like birds

Professor Terrence Sejnowski and UC San Diego collaborators used reinforcement learning to train gliders to autonomously navigate atmospheric thermals, soaring to heights of nearly 2,300 feet. The results highlight the role of vertical wind accelerations and roll-wise torques as viable biological cues for soaring birds. The findings also provide a navigational strategy that directly applies to the development of autonomous soaring vehicles or unmanned aerial vehicles.

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Molecular structures of genetic-engineering tool, therapeutic virus revealed

Assistant Professor Dmitry Lyumkis, first author Sriram Aiyer and collaborators used cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM)—a cutting-edge technology that enables researchers to capture the structure of complex molecules in unprecedented detail—to show the structure of AAV2, a version of a virus, advancing the technique’s capabilities and the virus’ potential as a delivery vehicle for gene therapies.

In addition, Lyumkis, together with co-corresponding author and Helmsley-Salk Fellow Patrick Hsu, first author Cheng Zhang and colleagues, used cryo-EM to report the detailed molecular structure of CRISPR-Cas13d, a promising enzyme for emerging RNA-editing technology.

Read September 7 News Release
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