Bond Life Sciences

Nerve cell communication mechanisms uncovered, may lead to new therapeutic approaches for neurodegenerative diseases

 

Story by Madison Knapp/ Bond Life Sciences summer intern

Simple actions like walking, swallowing and breathing are the result of a complex communication system between cells. When we touch something hot, our nerve cells tell us to take our hand off the object.

This happens in a matter of milliseconds.

This hyperspeed of communication is instrumental in maintaining proper muscle function. Many degenerative diseases affecting millions of people worldwide result from reduced signaling speed or other cellular miscommunications within this intricate network.

Michael Garcia, investigator at the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center and associate professor of biology at the University of Missouri, conducts basic research to answer fundamental questions of nerve cell mechanics.

“In order to fix something, you need to first understand how it works,” Garcia said.

Garcia’s research illuminates relationships between nerve cells to find factors affecting function.  His goal is to provide insight on fundamental cellular mechanisms that aren’t fully understood.

Garcia’s research has been funded partly by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Technological advancements have made it possible to better understand disease development in the human body to create more effective treatments. Alas, a scientist’s work is never finished— when the answer to one question is found, ten more crop up in its wake.

Garcia’s research, which appeared in several journals including Human Molecular Genetics andthe Journal of Neuroscience Research initially sought to shed light on the neuronal response to myelination, the development of an insulating border around a nerve cell, called a myelin sheath, which is critical in rapid communication between cells.

Eric Villalon, a graduate student in Michael Garcia's lab at the Bond Life Sciences Center, examines results. The Garcia Lab is answering news questions in cell mechanics. | PAIGE BLANKENBUEHLER

Eric Villalon, a graduate student in Michael Garcia’s lab at the Bond Life Sciences Center, examines results. The Garcia Lab is answering news questions in cell mechanics. | PAIGE BLANKENBUEHLER

How it works: Rebuilding cell theory

Garcia’s early research disproved a long-standing hypothesis concerning this cellular feature.

Mammals’ nervous systems are uniquely equipped with myelination, which has been shown to increase conduction velocity, or the speed at which nerve cells pass signals. Low velocity is often associated with neurodegenerative diseases, so research exploring why could later have application in therapeutic technology.

In addition to myelination, cell size makes a big difference in conduction velocity — the bigger the nerve cells, the faster they can pass and receive signals. Garcia’s findings disproved a hypothesis that related myelination to this phenomenon.

The hypothesis, published in a 1992 edition of Cell, claimed that myelination causes a cellular process called phosphorylation which then causes an increase in the axonal diameter (width of the communicating part of a nerve cell), leading to faster nerve cell communication. Garcia found that myelination did cause an increase in axonal diameter, and myelination was required for phosphorylation, but that the two results were independent of one another.

To narrow in on the processes affecting axonal diameter, Garcia identified the protein responsible for growth.

Garcia followed earlier work, showing that one subunit controls whether there is growth at all with myelination, by identifying the domain of this protein that determines how much growth.

After clarifying this part of the process, a question still remains: If not to control myelination, why does phosphorylation happen?

 

Looking forward

Jeffrey Dale, a recent PhD graduate from Garcia’s lab, said current research is in part geared toward finding a connection between phosphorylation and a process called remyelination.

Remyelination could be key to new therapeutic approaches. When a cell is damaged (as in neurodegenerative disease) the myelin sheath can be stripped away. Remyelination is the process a cell goes through to replace the myelin.

Imagine you have a new wooden toy boat, painted and smooth. If you take a knife and whittle away all the paint and then repaint it—even exactly how it was painted before—the boat is not going to be as shiny and smooth as it was before. This is how remyelination works (or rather, doesn’t).  When nerve cells are damaged, the myelin sheath is stripped away and even after the cell rebuilds it, the cell can’t conduct signals at the same speed it was able to before.

“If you can learn what controls myelination, maybe you can improve effectiveness of remyelination,” Dale said.

Garcia said it is possible that revealing the mechanics involved in phosphorylation could lead to better treatments. In context of neurodegenerative diseases, the question why don’t axons function properly might be wrapped up in Garcia’s question: In healthy cells, why do they?

Supervising editor: Paige Blankenbuehler

SoyKB: Leading the convergence of wet and dry science in the era of Big Data

Yaya Cui, an investigator in plant sciences at the Bond Life Sciences Center examines data on fast neuron soybean mutants that are represented on the SoyKB database.

Yaya Cui, an investigator in plant sciences at the Bond Life Sciences Center examines data on fast neuron soybean mutants that are represented on the SoyKB database.

The most puzzling scientific mysteries may be solved at the same machine you’re likely reading this sentence.

In the era of “Big Data” many significant scientific discoveries — the development of new drugs to fight diseases, strategies of agricultural breeding to solve world-hunger problems and figuring out why the world exists — are being made without ever stepping foot in a lab.

Developed by researchers at the Bond Life Sciences Center, SoyKB.org allows international researchers, scientists and farmers to chart the unknown territory of soybean genomics together — sometimes continents away from one another — through that data.

 

Digital solutions to real-world questions

As part of the Obama Administration’s $200 million “Big Data” Initiative, SoyKB (Soy Knowledge Base) was born.

The digital infrastructure changes the way researchers conduct their experiments dramatically, according to plant scientists like Gary Stacey, Bond LSC researcher, endowed professor of soybean biotechnology and professor of plant sciences and biochemistry.

“It’s very powerful,” Stacey said. “Humans can only look at so many lines in an excel spreadsheet — then it just kind of blurs. So we need these kinds of tools to be able to deal with this high-throughput data.”

The website, managed by Trupti Joshi, an assistant research professor in computer science at MU’s College of Engineering, enables researchers to develop important scientific questions and theories.

“There are people that during their entire career, don’t do any bench work or wet science, they just look at the data,” Stacey said.

The Gene Pathway Viewer available on SoyKB, shows different signaling pathways and points to the function of specific genes so that researchers can develop improvements for badly performing soybean lines.

“It’s much easier to grasp this whole data and narrow it down to basically what you want to focus on,” Joshi said.

A 3D-protein modeling tool lends itself especially to drug design. A pharmaceutical company could test the hypothesis and in some situations, the proposed drug turns out to yield the expected results — formulated solely by data analysis.

The Big Data initiative drives a blending of “wet science” — conducting experiments in the lab and gathering original data — and “dry science” — using computational methods.

Testament of the times?

“Oh, absolutely,” Joshi said.

 

Collaboration between the “wet” and “dry” sciences

Before SoyKB, data from numerous experiments would be gathered and disregarded, with only the desired results analyzed. The website makes it easy to dump all of the data gathered to then be repurposed by other researchers.

“With these kinds of databases now, all the data is put there so something that’s not valuable to me may be valuable to somebody else,” Stacey said,

Joshi said infrastructure like SoyKB is becoming more necessary in all realms of scientific discovery.

“(SoyKB) has turned out to be a very good public resource for the soybean community to cross reference that and check the details of their findings,” she said.

Computer science prevents researchers having to reinvent the wheel with their own digital platforms. SoyKB has a translational infrastructure with computational methods and tools that can be used for many disciplines like health sciences, animal sciences, physics and genetic research.

“I think there’s more and more need for these types of collaborations,” Joshi said. “It can be really difficult for biologists to handle the large scope of data by themselves and you really don’t want to spend time just dealing with files — You want to focus more on the biology, so these types of collaborations work really well.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” she said.

The success of SoyKB was perhaps catalyzed by Joshi. She adopted the website and the compilation of data in its infant stages as her PhD dissertation.

Joshi is unique because she has both a biology degree and a computer science background. Stacey said Joshi, who has “had a foot in each camp,” serves as an irreplaceable translator.

Most recently, the progress of SoyKB as part of the Big Data Initiative was presented at the International Conference on Bioinformatics and Biomedicine Dec. 2013 in Shanghai. The ongoing project is funded by NSF grants.

A drug that packs a punch: new compound works better against resistant HIV

Virologist Stefan Sarafianos stands in the atrium of the Bond LSC.

Bond LSC researcher Stefan Sarafianos stands in the LSC atrium. The virologist is an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and Chancellor’s Chair of Excellence in Molecular Virology with appointments in MU’s School of Medicine and the Department of Biochemistry.

Resistance is the price of success when it comes to treating HIV.

Virologists at the Bond Life Sciences Center are helping to test the next generation of anti-AIDS medication to quell that resistance.

Stefan Sarafianos’ lab recently proved that EFdA, a compound that stops HIV from spreading, is 70 times more potent against some HIV that resists Tenofovir – one of the most used HIV drugs.

“HIV in patients treated with Tenofovir eventually develop a K65R RT mutation that causes a failure of this first line of defense,” said Sarafianos, virologist at Bond LSC. “Not only does EFdA work on resistant HIV, but it works 10 times better than on wild-type HIV that hasn’t become Tenofovir resistant.”

Sarafianos and a team of researchers found that EFdA (4′-ethynyl-2-fluoro-2′-deoxyadenosine) is activated by cells more readily and isn’t broken down by the liver and kidneys as quickly as similar existing drugs.

“These two reasons make it more potent than other drugs, and so our task is to look at the structural features that make it such a fantastic drug,” he said.

 

From soy sauce to virus killer

The path from EFdA’s discovery to current research is a bit unorthodox.

A Japanese soy sauce company named Yamasa patented this molecule, which falls into a family of compounds called nucleoside analogues that are very similar to existing drugs for HIV and other viruses. EFdA was designed and synthesized by Hiroshi Ohrui (Chem Rec. 2006; 6 (3), 133-143Org. Lett. 2011; 13, 5264) and shown by Hiroaki Mitsuya, Eiichi Kodama, and Yamasa to have potential usefulness against HIV. Samples sent for further testing confirmed EFdA’s potential usefulness against HIV. This started more than a decade of research to pinpoint what makes the compound special.

EFdA joins a class of compounds called nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) that includes eight existing HIV drugs. Like all NRTIs, EFdA hijacks the process HIV uses to spread by tricking an enzyme called reverse transcriptase (RT). RT helps build new DNA from the RNA in HIV, assembling nucleoside building blocks into a chain. Since EFdA looks like those building blocks, RT is tricked into using the imposter. When this happens the virus’ code cannot be added to the DNA of white blood cells it attacks.

“NRTIs are called chain terminators because they stop the copying of the DNA chain, and once incorporated it’s like a dead end,” Sarafianos said.

 

A little help from some friends

Sarafianos isn’t alone in studying EFdA.

The virologist’s lab works closely with University of Pittsburgh biochemist Michael Parniak and the National Institutes of Health’s Hiroaki Mitsuya to explore the molecule’s potential. Mitsuya had a hand in discovering the first three drugs to treat HIV and Parniak has spent years evaluating HIV treatments using cultured white blood cells.

Sarafianos’ focus requires him to take a very close look at EFdA to define how it works on a molecular level. He uses virology, crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance to piece together the exact structure, bonding angles and configuration of the compound.

By looking at subtle differences in EFdA’s sugar-like ring, his lab identified the best structure that looks the most like actual nucleosides, doesn’t break down easily and is activated readily by CD4+ T lymphocyte white blood cells.

“The structure of this compound is very important because it’s a lock and key kind of mechanism that can be recognized by the target,” Sarafianos said. “We’re looking at small changes and the ideal scenario is a compound bound very efficiently by the target and activating enzyme but not efficiently by the degrading enzymes.”

 

Treatment for the future

The research of Sarafianos, Parniak and Mitsuya continue to uncover the magic of EFdA. In 2012, they showed that the drug worked incredibly well to treat the HIV equivalent in monkeys.

“These animals were so lethargic, so ill, that they were scheduled to be euthanized when EFdA was administered,” said Parniak. “Within a month they were bouncing around in their cages, looking very happy and their virus load dropped to undetectable levels. That shows you the activity of the molecule; it’s so active that resistance doesn’t come in as much of a factor with it.”

HIV prevention is the newest focus in their collaboration.

By recruiting formulation expert Lisa Rohan at the University of Pittsburgh, they are now putting EFdA in a vaginal film with a consistency similar to Listerine breath strips.

“The only way we are going to make a difference with HIV is prevention,” Parniak said. “If we can prevent transmission, this approach could make a huge difference in minimizing the continued spread of the disease when combined with existing therapies for people already infected.”

While AIDS in the U.S. occurs mostly in men, the opposite is true in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 70 percent of HIV cases occur. Since a film has a better shelf life than creams or gels, it could benefit those at risk in extreme climates and third-world countries.

“We have nearly 30 drugs approved for treating HIV infected individuals, but only one approved for prevention,” Sarafianos said. “Women in Africa would benefit from a formulation like this as a means to protect themselves.”

Despite this success, Sarafianos and Parniak aren’t slowing down in figuring out how EFdA works so well.

“We want to understand how long EFdA stays in the bloodstream and cells,” Parniak said. “If we understand structurally why this drug is so potent it allows us to maybe develop additional molecules equally potent, and a combination of those molecules could be a blockbuster.”

Grants from the National Institutes of Health fund this research.

In 2013 and 2014, the journals Retrovirology, Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy and The International Journal of Pharmaceutics published this group’s work on EFdA. Sarafianos is an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and Chancellor’s Chair of Excellence in molecular virology with MU’s School of Medicine and a joint associate professor of biochemistry in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.