Discoveries
Cancer
Cancer
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.

Discoveries

Cell Research
08/2019

A novel technology for genome-editing a broad range of mutations in live organisms

Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, co-first authors Keiichiro Suzuki, Mako Yamamoto, Reyna Hernandez-Benitez and colleagues, have developed a tool to edit the mouse genome, enabling the team to target a broad range of mutations and cell types. The new genome-editing technology, dubbed SATI, could be expanded for use in a broad range of conditions that arise from gene mutations, such as Huntington’s disease and the premature aging syndrome progeria.

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eLife
09/2019

How emotion affects action

During high-stress situations, such as making a goal in soccer, some athletes experience a rapid decline in performance, known as “choking.” Associate Professor Xin Jin and first authors Sho Aoki, Jared Smith and Hao Li have uncovered what might be behind the phenomenon: one-way signals from the brain’s emotion circuit to the movement circuit. The study could lead to new strategies for treating disorders involving disrupted movement, such as depression, along with aiding in improving spinal cord injuries or physical performance under pressure.

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Nature Comm
08/2019

Getting to the root of how plants tolerate too much iron

Iron is essential for plant growth, but with heavy rainfall and poor aeration, many acidic soils become toxic with excess iron. This can a affect the availability of staple foods, such as rice. Associate Professor Wolfgang Busch, first author Baohai Li and collaborators have found a major genetic regulator of iron tolerance, a gene called GSNOR. The findings could lead to the development of crop species that produce higher yields in soils with excess iron.
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PNAS
08/2019

New target for autoimmune disease could enable therapies with fewer side effects

Researchers—including Professor Ronald Evans, Associate Professor Ye Zheng, first author Christina Chang and colleagues—have discovered a way to stop certain immune system cells from mistakenly attacking the body. Their findings suggest a new way to target Th17 helper T cells, a type of immune cell that produces interleukin-17, a molecule known to be at the root of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

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Cell Reports
07/2019

Scratching the surface of how your brain senses an itch

Light touch plays a critical role in everyday tasks, such as picking up a glass or playing a musical instrument. In addition, it is part of the detection system that has evolved to protect us from biting insects, such as those that cause malaria and Lyme disease, by eliciting a feeling of an itch when an insect lands on our skin. Professor Martyn Goulding, first author David Acton and colleagues have discovered how neurons in the spinal cord help transmit such itch signals to the brain. Their findings have contributed to a better understanding of itch and could lead to new drugs to treat chronic itch, which occurs in such conditions as eczema, diabetes and even some cancers.

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Science
06/2019

Sugars that coat proteins are a possible drug target for pancreatitis

Patients who suffer from hereditary pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) have a 40 to 50 percent lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Assistant Professor Dannielle Engle and her team have provided the first evidence that a potentially powerful biomarker, CA19-9, causes the disease it has been correlated with, and they suggest that blocking this complex sugar could be used therapeutically to prevent the progression from pancreatitis to pancreatic cancer.

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Cell
07/2019

Gene identified that will help develop plants to fight climate change

Similar to a worm searching for food, hidden underground networks of plant roots snake through the earth, foraging for nutrients and water. Yet the genetic and molecular mechanisms that govern which parts of the soil roots explore remain largely unknown. Associate Professor Wolfgang Busch, first author Takehiko Ogura and colleagues have discovered a gene that determines whether roots grow deep or shallow in the soil. In addition, the findings will also allow researchers to develop plants that can help combat climate change as part of Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, which aims to grow plants with roots that can store increased amounts of carbon underground for longer periods, reducing CO2 in the atmosphere.

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Science
06/2019

Deciphering how the brain encodes color and shape

Humans can visually distinguish hundreds of thousands of distinct colors and shapes, but how does the brain process all of this information? Scientists previously believed that the visual system initially encoded shape and color with different sets of neurons and then combined them much later. But a study led by Professor Edward Callaway, along with co-first authors Anupam Garg and Peichao Li, has shown that there are neurons that respond selectively to particular combinations of color and shape, findings that provide valuable insight into how visual circuits are connected and organized in the brain.

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Nature Methods
09/2019

Salk scientists develop technique to reveal epigenetic features of cells in the brain

Professor Joseph Ecker, Helmsley-Salk Fellow Jesse Dixon, and co-first authors Dong-Sung Lee, Chongyuan Luo and Jingtian Zhou have developed a method to simultaneously analyze how chromosomes, along with their epigenetic features (such as the chemical tags on DNA), are compacted inside of single human brain cells. The work paves the way for a new understanding of how some cells become dysregulated, causing disease.

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PNAS
07/2019

Computational tool lets researchers identify cells based on their chromosome shape

In the nucleus of every living cell, long strands of DNA are tightly folded into compact chromosomes. Now, thanks to a computational approach developed by Professor Joseph Ecker, first author Jingtian Zhou and colleagues, researchers can use the architecture of these chromosome folds to differentiate cell types. The information about each cell’s chromosome structure will give scientists a better understanding of how interactions between different regions of DNA play a role in health and disease.

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Molecular Cell
07/2019

Finding a cause of neurodevelopmental disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders arising from rare genetic mutations can cause atypical cognitive function, intellectual disability and developmental delays, yet it is unclear why and how this happens. Now, Assistant Professor Diana Hargreaves, first author Fangjian Gao and colleagues have identified the molecular mechanism linking a mutation in a complex of proteins to abnormal nervous system development. The team’s findings bring researchers one step closer to understanding neurodevelopmental disorders such as Nicolaides-Baraitser syndrome.
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Current Biology
07/2019

How mammals’ brains evolved to distinguish odors is nothing to sniff at

The world is filled with millions upon millions of distinct smells, but how mammals’ brains evolved to tell those smells apart is something of a mystery. Now, Salk Distinguished Professor Emeritus Charles Stevens and Shyam Srinivasan from UC San Diego have discovered that at least six types of mammals, including mice and cats, can distinguish odors in roughly the same way, using circuitry in the brain that’s evolutionarily preserved across species. This and future insights on odor coding and the mechanisms for distinguishing odors could be applied to the development of better machine learning or AI systems.

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Science Advances
07/2019

Unlocking therapies for hard-to-treat lung cancers

In two recent papers, Salk scientists revealed insights into the most common—and deadliest—type of lung cancer: non-small-cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC). Some patients with this cancer can be treated with targeted genetic therapies, and some benefit from immunotherapies, but the vast majority of NSCLC patients have no treatment options beyond chemotherapy. In Science Advances, Professor Marc Montminy, Professor Reuben Shaw, first author Laura Rodón and colleagues showed that NSCLC tumors can be targeted by drugs that keep a cellular “switch” called CREB from triggering tumor growth.

Additionally, as detailed in Cancer Discovery, Shaw, first author Pablo Hollstein and colleagues discovered precisely why an inactivated gene commonly mutated in NSCLC, called LKB1, can result in cancer development.The surprising finding highlights how LKB1 communicates with two enzymes that suppress inflammation in addition to cell growth and could lead to new therapies for NSCLC.

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GLIA
07/2019

Brain’s astrocytes play starring role in long-term memory

Professor Terrence Sejnowski, first author António Pinto-Duarte and colleagues have discovered that star-shaped cells called astrocytes help the brain establish long-lasting memories. The new work adds to a growing body of evidence that astrocytes, long considered merely supportive cells, may have more of a leading role in the brain and could inform therapies for disorders in which long-term memory is impaired, such as traumatic brain injury or dementia.

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Cell Reports
10/2019

Mapping normal breast development to better understand cancer

Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers, and some forms rank among the most difficult to treat. Professor Geoffrey Wahl, co-first authors Christopher Dravis and Zhibo Ma and colleagues have used state-of-the-art technology to profile cells during normal breast development in order to understand what goes wrong in cancer. The team’s findings, shared in a free online resource, lay the groundwork for understanding normal breast development and may lead to new strategies for tackling tumors.

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ACS Catalysis
09/2019

Plant enzyme could guide development of medicines and other products

Plants can manufacture a stunning array of compounds that help them repel pests, attract pollinators and cure infections. Professor Joseph Noel, first author Jason Burke and collaborators uncovered how an enzyme called chalcone isomerase evolved to enable plants to make products vital to their own survival. The knowledge may inform the manufacture of products that are beneficial to humans, including medications and improved crops.

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Science Signaling
09/2019

Discovery of how colorectal cancer drug works may help patients

Colorectal cancer is a common lethal disease, and treatment decisions are increasingly influenced by which genes are mutated within each patient. Some patients benefit from a chemotherapy drug called cetuximab, but the mechanism was unknown, making doctors hesitant to prescribe it. Assistant Professor Edward Stites, first author Thomas McFall and colleagues have discovered the mechanism behind why some patients respond to cetuximab, which will help doctors identify more effective, targeted treatment plans for people diagnosed with colorectal cancer. The findings demonstrate the power of blending computational and experimental approaches, as well as how foundational scientific research can translate into an immediate impact for patients.

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