Week in BioE (December 8, 2017)

Brain Implant Advance to Cure Dementia

Neurofibrillary tangles in the hippocampus of a patient with Alzheimer’s disease.

The dramatic increase in life expectancy over the past couple of generations has one unfavorable consequence: an increase in the incidence of age-related dementias that include Alzheimer’s disease. Drugs like donepezil, which inhibits hydrolization of acetylcholine and thus increases its presence at the neural synapses, is one treatment that can slow the progression of these diseases, but there is currently no cure. 

An alternative technology that directly stimulates the brain with an implantable chip holds promise to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s. At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, held last month in Washington, D.C., Dong Song, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, gave a lecture on his lab’s device, which uses an array of implantable electrodes to improve human memory.

Dr. Song tested his device in epilepsy patients, who often receive implants designed to control their seizures in intractable cases. Twenty such patients volunteered to receive Dr. Song’s implant, and data from these patients showed that short-term memory increased by 15% and working memory by 25%. While additional testing is needed on more patients, it might not be long before implants like Dr. Song’s become the standard of care in treatment dementias.

Genetic Variation in the Human Microbiome

The human body is host to a veritable universe of microbes that play important roles in the organ systems and other bodily processes. E. coli, for example, is present in the large intestine and it participates in the breaking down of food for energy. Like all other forms of life, these microbes evolve. creating variations in genetic information and, ultimately, new bacteria species. Within any given species of bacteria, the number of differences in the genome sequences can vary broadly; with E. coli, some areas of the genome can vary radically between strains and cannot be explained by DNA copying errors.
To determine why the genome of E. coli subject to such variation, scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), led by Sergei Maslov, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering and physics at UIUC, investigated the issue by developing computational models using Multi Locus Sequence Typing (MLST). In their findings, published in Genetics, they concluded that the variation can be ascribed to the process of recombination, by which different sequences from different sources are combined into the same chromosome. When such events are frequent, they result in a sort of genetic stability in which variation in genetic information increases without speciation.

The study provides an important contribution to basic science in helping to better explain how different strains of bacteria develop, including virulent and drug-resistant strains. In addition, it sheds further light on the mechanisms underlying evolution.

A Step Closer to Water-efficient Agriculture

Drought and famine are closely related phenomena. Some plants are more resistant to drought than others, but few of these plants are fit for human consumption. Determining how plants resist drought could provide a key to engineering crops to become drought-resistant.
Investigating this topic, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy sought to understand better the process of crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), by which drought-resistant plants keep their stomata, or pores, closed during sunlight hours to retain water and open them at night. The team reports in Nature Communications that they compared the genomes of three drought-resistant plants — orchid, pineapple, and Kalanchoë fedtschenkoi, a species of plant native to Madagascar.  Among the authors’ discoveries was a variation in a gene encoding phosphoenolpyruvate carboxylase, an enzyme that plays a role in CAM.

With this increased knowledge of the evolutionary development of drought resistance, we come a step closer to being able to expedite the evolution of plants that are typically not resistant to drought to developing the CAM mechanism and developing this resistance.

Computer Model Can Mimic Heart Attack

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in developed countries. A major obstacle in reducing the deaths due to cardiac arrest is the inability to determine the precise mechanics unfolding in the heart when it stops suddenly. Abnormal heart rhythms (arrythmias) are a major cause of death, but the reasons how arrhythmias occur at the cellular level is poorly understood.

In a recent study published in PLOS Computational Biology,  Raimond L. Winslow, Ph.D. who is Raj and Neera Singh Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and his colleagues developed a computer model of calcium dynamics in cardiac cells. The model predicted a new mechanism for arrythmia that would occur when cardiac cells expelled calcium, creating an electrical charge outside the cell that could evoke an arrhythmia.

The authors believe that their research will facilitate the development of drugs to prevent cardiac arrhythmias and treatments for sudden cardiac arrest. In addition, the work shows that it could be easier to predict the statistical relationship between arrhythmias and cardiac arrest on the basis of far less data.

People and Places

Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., has announced plans to divide its Department of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Biological Sciences (BCB) into two new departments: the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Hongjun Wang, Ph.D., associate professor in the BCB department, will be the new chair of BME. Congratulations Hongjun!