Archive for the ‘Metabolism’ Category

Embryogenesis in Mechanical Womb

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.

A highly effective platforms for the ex utero culture of post-implantation mouse embryos have been developed in the present study by scientists of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. The study was published in the journal Nature. They have grown more than 1,000 embryos in this way. This study enables the appropriate development of embryos from before gastrulation (embryonic day (E) 5.5) until the hindlimb formation stage (E11). Late gastrulating embryos (E7.5) are grown in three-dimensional rotating bottles, whereas extended culture from pre-gastrulation stages (E5.5 or E6.5) requires a combination of static and rotating bottle culture platforms.

At Day 11 of development more than halfway through a mouse pregnancy the researchers compared them to those developing in the uteruses of living mice and were found to be identical. Histological, molecular and single-cell RNA sequencing analyses confirm that the ex utero cultured embryos recapitulate in utero development precisely. The mouse embryos looked perfectly normal. All their organs developed as expected, along with their limbs and circulatory and nervous systems. Their tiny hearts were beating at a normal 170 beats per minute. But, the lab-grown embryos becomes too large to survive without a blood supply. They had a placenta and a yolk sack, but the nutrient solution that fed them through diffusion was no longer sufficient. So, a suitable mechanism for blood supply is required to be developed.

Till date the only way to study the development of tissues and organs is to turn to species like worms, frogs and flies that do not need a uterus, or to remove embryos from the uteruses of experimental animals at varying times, providing glimpses of development more like in snapshots than in live videos. This research will help scientists understand how mammals develop and how gene mutations, nutrients and environmental conditions may affect the fetus. This will allow researchers to mechanistically interrogate post-implantation morphogenesis and artificial embryogenesis in mammals. In the future it may be possible to develop a human embryo from fertilization to birth entirely outside the uterus. But the work may one day raise profound questions about whether other animals, even humans, should or could be cultured outside a living womb.







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Two brothers with MEPAN Syndrome: A Rare Genetic Disorder

Reporter: Amandeep Kaur

In the early 40s, a married couple named Danny and Nikki, had normal pregnancy and delivered their first child in October 2011.  The couple was elated after the birth of Carson because they were uncertain about even conceiving a baby. Soon after birth, the parents started facing difficulty in feeding the newborn and had some wakeful nights, which they used to called “witching hours”. For initial six months, they were clueless that something was not correct with their infant. Shortly, they found issues in moving ability, sitting, and crawling with Carson. Their next half year went in visiting several behavioral specialists and pediatricians with no conclusion other than a suggestion that there is nothing to panic as children grow at different rates.

Later in early 2013, Caron was detected with cerebral palsy in a local regional center. The diagnosis was based on his disability to talk and delay in motor development. At the same time, Carson had his first MRI which showed no negative results. The parents convinced themselves that their child condition would be solved by therapies and thus started physical and occupational therapies. After two years, the couple gave birth to another boy child named Chase in 2013. Initially, there was nothing wrong with Chase as well. But after nine months, Chase was found to possess the same symptoms of delaying in motor development as his elder brother. It was expected that Chase may also be suffering from cerebral palsy. For around one year both boys went through enormous diagnostic tests starting from karyotyping, metabolic screen tests to diagnostic tests for Fragile X syndrome, lysosomal storage disorders, Friedreich ataxia and spinocerebellar ataxia. Gene panel tests for mitochondrial DNA and Oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) deficiencies were also performed. No conclusion was drawn because each diagnostic test showed the negative results.

Over the years, the condition of boys was deteriorating as their movements became stiffer and ataxic, they were not able to crawl anymore. By the end of 2015, the boys had an MRI which showed some symmetric anomalies in their basal ganglia indicating a metabolic condition. The symptoms of Carson and Chase was not even explained by whole exome sequencing due to the absence of any positive result. The grievous journey of visits to neurologist, diagnostic tests and inconclusive results led the parents to rethink about anything happened erroneous due to them such as due to their lifestyle, insufficient intake of vitamins during pregnancy or exposure to toxic agents which left their sons in that situation.

During the diagnostic odyssey, Danny spent many restless and sleepless nights in searching PubMed for any recent cases with symptoms similar to his sons and eventually came across the NIH’s Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN), which gave a light of hope to the demoralized family. As soon as Danny discovered about the NIH’s Diseases Network, he gathered all the medical documents of both his sons and submitted the application. The submitted application in late 2015 got accepted a year later in December 2016 and they got their first appointment in early 2017 at the UDN site at Stanford. At Stanford, the boys had gone through whole-genome sequencing and some series of examinations which came back with inconclusive results. Finally, in February 2018, the family received some conclusive results which explained that the two boys suffer from MEPAN syndrome with pathogenic mutations in MECR gene.

  • MEPAN means Mitochondrial Enoyl CoA reductase Protein-Associated Neurodegeneration
  • MEPAN syndrome is a rare genetic neurological disorder
  • MEPAN syndrome is associated with symptoms of ataxia, optic atrophy and dystonia
  • The wild-type MECR gene encodes a mitochondrial protein which is involved in metabolic processes
  • The prevalence rate of MEPAN syndrome is 1 in 1 million
  • Currently, there are 17 patients of MEPAN syndrome worldwide

The symptoms of Carson and Chase of an early onset of motor development with no appropriate biomarkers and T-2 hyperintensity in the basal ganglia were matching with the seven known MEPAN patient at that time. The agonizing journey of five years concluded with diagnosis of rare genetic disorder.

Despite the advances in genetic testing and their low-cost, there are many families which still suffer and left undiagnostic for long years. To shorten the diagnostic journey of undiagnosed patients, the whole-exome and whole-genome sequencing can be used as a primary tool. There is need of more research to find appropriate treatments of genetic disorders and therapies to reduce the suffering of the patients and families. It is necessary to fill the gap between the researchers and clinicians to stimulate the development in diagnosis, treatment and drug development for rare genetic disorders.

The family started a foundation named “MEPAN Foundation” (https://www.mepan. org) to reach out to the world to educate people about the mutation in MECR gene. By creating awareness among the communities, clinicians, and researchers worldwide, the patients having rare genetic disorder can come closer and share their information to improve their condition and quality of life.

Reference: Danny Miller, The diagnostic odyssey: our family’s story, The American Journal of Human Genetics, Volume 108, Issue 2, 2021, Pages 217-218, ISSN 0002-9297, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2021.01.003 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002929721000033)




https://www.mepan. org

Other related articles were published in this Open Access Online Scientific Journal, including the following:

Effect of mitochondrial stress on epigenetic modifiers

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator, LPBI


The Three Parent Technique to Avoid Mitochondrial Disease in Embryo

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


New Insights into mtDNA, mitochondrial proteins, aging, and metabolic control

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator, LPBI


Mitochondrial Isocitrate Dehydrogenase and Variants

Writer and Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP


Update on mitochondrial function, respiration, and associated disorders

Larry H. Benstein, MD, FCAP, Gurator and writer


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Inhibitory CD161 receptor recognized as a potential immunotherapy target in glioma-infiltrating T cells by single-cell analysis

Reporter: Dr. Premalata Pati, Ph.D., Postdoc


Brain tumors, especially the diffused Gliomas are of the most devastating forms of cancer and have so-far been resistant to immunotherapy. It is comprehended that T cells can penetrate the glioma cells, but it still remains unknown why infiltrating cells miscarry to mount a resistant reaction or stop the tumor development.

Gliomas are brain tumors that begin from neuroglial begetter cells. The conventional therapeutic methods including, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, have accomplished restricted changes inside glioma patients. Immunotherapy, a compliance in cancer treatment, has introduced a promising strategy with the capacity to penetrate the blood-brain barrier. This has been recognized since the spearheading revelation of lymphatics within the central nervous system. Glioma is not generally carcinogenic. As observed in a number of cases, the tumor cells viably reproduce and assault the adjoining tissues, by and large, gliomas are malignant in nature and tend to metastasize. There are four grades in glioma, and each grade has distinctive cell features and different treatment strategies. Glioblastoma is a grade IV glioma, which is the crucial aggravated form. This infers that all glioblastomas are gliomas, however, not all gliomas are glioblastomas.

Decades of investigations on infiltrating gliomas still take off vital questions with respect to the etiology, cellular lineage, and function of various cell types inside glial malignancies. In spite of the available treatment options such as surgical resection, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy, the average survival rate for high-grade glioma patients remains 1–3 years (1).

A recent in vitro study performed by the researchers of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, USA, has recognized that CD161 is identified as a potential new target for immunotherapy of malignant brain tumors. The scientific team depicted their work in the Cell Journal, in a paper entitled, “Inhibitory CD161 receptor recognized in glioma-infiltrating T cells by single-cell analysis.” on 15th February 2021.

To further expand their research and findings, Dr. Kai Wucherpfennig, MD, PhD, Chief of the Center for Cancer Immunotherapy, at Dana-Farber stated that their research is additionally important in a number of other major human cancer types such as 

  • melanoma,
  • lung,
  • colon, and
  • liver cancer.

Dr. Wucherpfennig has praised the other authors of the report Mario Suva, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts Common Clinic; Aviv Regev, PhD, of the Klarman Cell Observatory at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and David Reardon, MD, clinical executive of the Center for Neuro-Oncology at Dana-Farber.

Hence, this new study elaborates the effectiveness of the potential effectors of anti-tumor immunity in subsets of T cells that co-express cytotoxic programs and several natural killer (NK) cell genes.

The Study-

IMAGE SOURCE: Experimental Strategy (Mathewson et al., 2021)


The group utilized single-cell RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) to mull over gene expression and the clonal picture of tumor-infiltrating T cells. It involved the participation of 31 patients suffering from diffused gliomas and glioblastoma. Their work illustrated that the ligand molecule CLEC2D activates CD161, which is an immune cell surface receptor that restrains the development of cancer combating activity of immune T cells and tumor cells in the brain. The study reveals that the activation of CD161 weakens the T cell response against tumor cells.

Based on the study, the facts suggest that the analysis of clonally expanded tumor-infiltrating T cells further identifies the NK gene KLRB1 that codes for CD161 as a candidate inhibitory receptor. This was followed by the use of 

  • CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology to inactivate the KLRB1 gene in T cells and showed that CD161 inhibits the tumor cell-killing function of T cells. Accordingly,
  • genetic inactivation of KLRB1 or
  • antibody-mediated CD161 blockade

enhances T cell-mediated killing of glioma cells in vitro and their anti-tumor function in vivo. KLRB1 and its associated transcriptional program are also expressed by substantial T cell populations in other forms of human cancers. The work provides an atlas of T cells in gliomas and highlights CD161 and other NK cell receptors as immune checkpoint targets.

Further, it has been identified that many cancer patients are being treated with immunotherapy drugs that disable their “immune checkpoints” and their molecular brakes are exploited by the cancer cells to suppress the body’s defensive response induced by T cells against tumors. Disabling these checkpoints lead the immune system to attack the cancer cells. One of the most frequently targeted checkpoints is PD-1. However, recent trials of drugs that target PD-1 in glioblastomas have failed to benefit the patients.

In the current study, the researchers found that fewer T cells from gliomas contained PD-1 than CD161. As a result, they said, “CD161 may represent an attractive target, as it is a cell surface molecule expressed by both CD8 and CD4 T cell subsets [the two types of T cells engaged in response against tumor cells] and a larger fraction of T cells express CD161 than the PD-1 protein.”

However, potential side effects of antibody-mediated blockade of the CLEC2D-CD161 pathway remain unknown and will need to be examined in a non-human primate model. The group hopes to use this finding in their future work by

utilizing their outline by expression of KLRB1 gene in tumor-infiltrating T cells in diffuse gliomas to make a remarkable contribution in therapeutics related to immunosuppression in brain tumors along with four other common human cancers ( Viz. melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), hepatocellular carcinoma, and colorectal cancer) and how this may be manipulated for prevalent survival of the patients.


(1) Anders I. Persson, QiWen Fan, Joanna J. Phillips, William A. Weiss, 39 – Glioma, Editor(s): Sid Gilman, Neurobiology of Disease, Academic Press, 2007, Pages 433-444, ISBN 9780120885923, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-012088592-3/50041-4.

Main Source

Mathewson ND, Ashenberg O, Tirosh I, Gritsch S, Perez EM, Marx S, et al. 2021. Inhibitory CD161 receptor identified in glioma-infiltrating T cells by single-cell analysis. Cell.https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(21)00065-9?elqTrackId=c3dd8ff1d51f4aea87edd0153b4f2dc7

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19th Annual Koch Institute Summer Symposium on Cancer Immunotherapy, June 12, 2020 at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium


Other related articles published in this Open Access Online Scientific Journal include the following:


Single Cell Sequencing:

Part 4.1 in Genomics Volume 2

Latest in Genomics Methodologies for Therapeutics: Gene Editing, NGS & BioInformatics, Simulations and the Genome Ontology 

On Amazon.com since 12/28/2019



4.1.3   Single-cell Genomics: Directions in Computational and Systems Biology – Contributions of Prof. Aviv Regev @Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cochair, the Human Cell Atlas Organizing Committee with Sarah Teichmann of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



4.1.4   Cellular Genetics



4.1.5   Cellular Genomics



4.1.6   SINGLE CELL GENOMICS 2019 – sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, September 24-26, 2019, Djurönäset, Stockholm, Sweden http://www.weizmann.ac.il/conferences/SCG2019/single-cell-genomics-2019

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



4.1.7   Norwich Single-Cell Symposium 2019, Earlham Institute, single-cell genomics technologies and their application in microbial, plant, animal and human health and disease, October 16-17, 2019, 10AM-5PM

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



4.1.8   Newly Found Functions of B Cell

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.






CRISPR – 200 articles in the Journal


Chapter 21 in Genomics Volume 1

Genomics Orientations for Personalized Medicine. On Amazon.com since 11/23/2015



Glioblastoma – 150 articles in the Journal

Most recent


Immunotherapy may help in glioblastoma survival

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.



New Treatment in Development for Glioblastoma: Hopes for Sen. John McCain

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



Funding Oncorus’s Immunotherapy Platform: Next-generation Oncolytic Herpes Simplex Virus (oHSV) for Brain Cancer, Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM)

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



Glioma, Glioblastoma and Neurooncology

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and Near-Infrared Fluorescence Imaging:  Noninvasive Imaging of Cancer Stem Cells (CSCs)  monitoring of AC133+ glioblastoma in subcutaneous and intracerebral xenograft tumors

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) as a Therapeutic tool in the Management of Glioblastoma

Eric Fine* (1), Mike Briggs* (1,2), Raphael Nir# (1,2,3)




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Placenta lacks molecules required for COVID-19 infection

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.

The pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has affected more than 10 million people, including pregnant women. To date, no consistent evidence for the vertical transmission of SARS-CoV-2 has been found. The placenta serves as the lungs, gut, kidneys, and liver of the fetus. This fetal organ also has major endocrine actions that modulate maternal physiology and, importantly, together with the extraplacental chorioamniotic membranes shield the fetus against microbes from hematogenous dissemination and from invading the amniotic cavity.


Most pathogens that cause hematogenous infections in the mother are not able to reach the fetus, which is largely due to the potent protective mechanisms provided by placental cells (i.e. trophoblast cells: syncytiotrophoblasts and cytotrophoblasts). Yet, some of these pathogens such as Toxoplasma gondii, Rubella virus, herpesvirus (HSV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), and Zika virus (ZIKV), among others, are capable of crossing the placenta and infecting the fetus, causing congenital disease.


The placental membranes that contain the fetus and amniotic fluid lack the messenger RNA (mRNA) molecule required to manufacture the ACE2 receptor, the main cell surface receptor used by the SARS-CoV-2 virus to cause infection. These placental tissues also lack mRNA needed to make an enzyme, called TMPRSS2, that SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter a cell. Both the receptor and enzyme are present in only miniscule amounts in the placenta, suggesting a possible explanation for why SARS-CoV-2 has only rarely been found in fetuses or newborns of women infected with the virus, according to the study authors.


The single-cell transcriptomic analysis presented by the researchers provides evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to infect the placenta and fetus since its canonical receptor and protease, ACE2 and TRMPSS2, are only minimally expressed by the human placenta throughout pregnancy. In addition, it was shown that the SARS-CoV-2 receptors are not expressed by the chorioamniotic membranes in the third trimester. However, viral receptors utilized by CMV, ZIKV, and others are highly expressed by the human placental tissues.


Transcript levels do not always correlate with protein expression, but the data of the present study indicates a low likelihood of placental infection and vertical transmission of SARS-CoV-2. However, it is still possible that the expression of these proteins is much higher in individuals with pregnancy complications related with the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, which can alter the expression of ACE2. The cellular receptors and mechanisms that could be exploited by SARS-CoV-2 are still under investigation.
















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Cholesterol-busting gut bacteria affect people’s cardiac health

Reporter: Irina Robu, PhD

Scientists at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, has discovered a group a gut bacterium that can metabolize enough cholesterol to affect metabolism. Their study in Cell Host and Microbe, found that bacteria in the intestines have lower cholesterol levels in their blood. Cholesterol is a key biological molecule that functions as a structural component of all animal cell membranes and is a precursor of steroid hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids. Two main sources of cholesterol are thought to influence concentrations of this metabolite in serum: endogenous cholesterol synthesized in the liver and exogenous cholesterol derived from dietary components of animal origin.

The study shows a roadmap of how enzymes and microbial genes can manipulate metabolism and impact human health. The concept that bacteria can metabolize cholesterol is been known for a long time, but not enough has been known of which species of bacteria was doing this. However, isolating cholesterol metabolizing bacteria and growing them in the lab proved to be difficult.

The idea that bacteria can metabolize cholesterol isn’t a new one; in the early 1900s, scientists reported the existence of bacteria that could chemically transform cholesterol into a compound called coprostanol. Coprostanol-generating bacteria have been found in the guts of rats, baboons, pigs, and even humans, but the biology of these bacteria was poorly understood.

The scientists genetically engineered bacteria in the lab to produce genetically engineered bacteria in the lab to produce four enzymes of interest. Yet, they focused on one gene named Intestinal Stool Metabolism (IsmA) that could metabolize cholesterol. Furthermore, individuals with the IsmA gene had, on average, cholesterol levels in the blood that were 2.7 mg/dL lower than those without any copies of the IsmA genes in their microbiomes. This is a larger average effect on blood cholesterol than human genes such as HMGCR and PCSK9, which are known to alter a person’s risk of high cholesterol levels and are targeted by some FDA-approved cholesterol drugs.





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Live Notes, Real Time Conference Coverage AACR 2020 #AACR20: Tuesday June 23, 2020 Noon-2:45 Educational Sessions

Live Notes, Real Time Conference Coverage AACR 2020: Tuesday June 23, 2020 Noon-2:45 Educational Sessions

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, PhD

Follow Live in Real Time using




Register for FREE at https://www.aacr.org/


Presidential Address

Elaine R Mardis, William N Hait


Welcome and introduction

William N Hait


Improving diagnostic yield in pediatric cancer precision medicine

Elaine R Mardis
  • Advent of genomics have revolutionized how we diagnose and treat lung cancer
  • We are currently needing to understand the driver mutations and variants where we can personalize therapy
  • PD-L1 and other checkpoint therapy have not really been used in pediatric cancers even though CAR-T have been successful
  • The incidence rates and mortality rates of pediatric cancers are rising
  • Large scale study of over 700 pediatric cancers show cancers driven by epigenetic drivers or fusion proteins. Need for transcriptomics.  Also study demonstrated that we have underestimated germ line mutations and hereditary factors.
  • They put together a database to nominate patients on their IGM Cancer protocol. Involves genetic counseling and obtaining germ line samples to determine hereditary factors.  RNA and protein are evaluated as well as exome sequencing. RNASeq and Archer Dx test to identify driver fusions
  • PECAN curated database from St. Jude used to determine driver mutations. They use multiple databases and overlap within these databases and knowledge base to determine or weed out false positives
  • They have used these studies to understand the immune infiltrate into recurrent cancers (CytoCure)
  • They found 40 germline cancer predisposition genes, 47 driver somatic fusion proteins, 81 potential actionable targets, 106 CNV, 196 meaningful somatic driver mutations



Tuesday, June 23

12:00 PM – 12:30 PM EDT

Awards and Lectures

NCI Director’s Address

Norman E Sharpless, Elaine R Mardis


Introduction: Elaine Mardis


NCI Director Address: Norman E Sharpless
  • They are functioning well at NCI with respect to grant reviews, research, and general functions in spite of the COVID pandemic and the massive demonstrations on also focusing on the disparities which occur in cancer research field and cancer care
  • There are ongoing efforts at NCI to make a positive difference in racial injustice, diversity in the cancer workforce, and for patients as well
  • Need a diverse workforce across the cancer research and care spectrum
  • Data show that areas where the clinicians are successful in putting African Americans on clinical trials are areas (geographic and site specific) where health disparities are narrowing
  • Grants through NCI new SeroNet for COVID-19 serologic testing funded by two RFAs through NIAD (RFA-CA-30-038 and RFA-CA-20-039) and will close on July 22, 2020


Tuesday, June 23

12:45 PM – 1:46 PM EDT

Virtual Educational Session

Immunology, Tumor Biology, Experimental and Molecular Therapeutics, Molecular and Cellular Biology/Genetics

Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy for Nonimmunologists: Innovation and Discovery in Immune-Oncology

This educational session will update cancer researchers and clinicians about the latest developments in the detailed understanding of the types and roles of immune cells in tumors. It will summarize current knowledge about the types of T cells, natural killer cells, B cells, and myeloid cells in tumors and discuss current knowledge about the roles these cells play in the antitumor immune response. The session will feature some of the most promising up-and-coming cancer immunologists who will inform about their latest strategies to harness the immune system to promote more effective therapies.

Judith A Varner, Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta



Judith A Varner
New techniques reveal critical roles of myeloid cells in tumor development and progression
  • Different type of cells are becoming targets for immune checkpoint like myeloid cells
  • In T cell excluded or desert tumors T cells are held at periphery so myeloid cells can infiltrate though so macrophages might be effective in these immune t cell naïve tumors, macrophages are most abundant types of immune cells in tumors
  • CXCLs are potential targets
  • PI3K delta inhibitors,
  • Reduce the infiltrate of myeloid tumor suppressor cells like macrophages
  • When should we give myeloid or T cell therapy is the issue
Judith A Varner
Novel strategies to harness T-cell biology for cancer therapy
Positive and negative roles of B cells in cancer
Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta
New approaches in cancer immunotherapy: Programming bacteria to induce systemic antitumor immunity



Tuesday, June 23

12:45 PM – 1:46 PM EDT

Virtual Educational Session

Cancer Chemistry

Chemistry to the Clinic: Part 2: Irreversible Inhibitors as Potential Anticancer Agents

There are numerous examples of highly successful covalent drugs such as aspirin and penicillin that have been in use for a long period of time. Despite historical success, there was a period of reluctance among many to purse covalent drugs based on concerns about toxicity. With advances in understanding features of a well-designed covalent drug, new techniques to discover and characterize covalent inhibitors, and clinical success of new covalent cancer drugs in recent years, there is renewed interest in covalent compounds. This session will provide a broad look at covalent probe compounds and drug development, including a historical perspective, examination of warheads and electrophilic amino acids, the role of chemoproteomics, and case studies.

Benjamin F Cravatt, Richard A. Ward, Sara J Buhrlage


Discovering and optimizing covalent small-molecule ligands by chemical proteomics

Benjamin F Cravatt
  • Multiple approaches are being investigated to find new covalent inhibitors such as: 1) cysteine reactivity mapping, 2) mapping cysteine ligandability, 3) and functional screening in phenotypic assays for electrophilic compounds
  • Using fluorescent activity probes in proteomic screens; have broad useability in the proteome but can be specific
  • They screened quiescent versus stimulated T cells to determine reactive cysteines in a phenotypic screen and analyzed by MS proteomics (cysteine reactivity profiling); can quantitate 15000 to 20,000 reactive cysteines
  • Isocitrate dehydrogenase 1 and adapter protein LCP-1 are two examples of changes in reactive cysteines they have seen using this method
  • They use scout molecules to target ligands or proteins with reactive cysteines
  • For phenotypic screens they first use a cytotoxic assay to screen out toxic compounds which just kill cells without causing T cell activation (like IL10 secretion)
  • INTERESTINGLY coupling these MS reactive cysteine screens with phenotypic screens you can find NONCANONICAL mechanisms of many of these target proteins (many of the compounds found targets which were not predicted or known)

Electrophilic warheads and nucleophilic amino acids: A chemical and computational perspective on covalent modifier

The covalent targeting of cysteine residues in drug discovery and its application to the discovery of Osimertinib

Richard A. Ward
  • Cysteine activation: thiolate form of cysteine is a strong nucleophile
  • Thiolate form preferred in polar environment
  • Activation can be assisted by neighboring residues; pKA will have an effect on deprotonation
  • pKas of cysteine vary in EGFR
  • cysteine that are too reactive give toxicity while not reactive enough are ineffective


Accelerating drug discovery with lysine-targeted covalent probes


Tuesday, June 23

12:45 PM – 2:15 PM EDT

Virtual Educational Session

Molecular and Cellular Biology/Genetics

Virtual Educational Session

Tumor Biology, Immunology

Metabolism and Tumor Microenvironment

This Educational Session aims to guide discussion on the heterogeneous cells and metabolism in the tumor microenvironment. It is now clear that the diversity of cells in tumors each require distinct metabolic programs to survive and proliferate. Tumors, however, are genetically programmed for high rates of metabolism and can present a metabolically hostile environment in which nutrient competition and hypoxia can limit antitumor immunity.

Jeffrey C Rathmell, Lydia Lynch, Mara H Sherman, Greg M Delgoffe


T-cell metabolism and metabolic reprogramming antitumor immunity

Jeffrey C Rathmell


Jeffrey C Rathmell

Metabolic functions of cancer-associated fibroblasts

Mara H Sherman

Tumor microenvironment metabolism and its effects on antitumor immunity and immunotherapeutic response

Greg M Delgoffe
  • Multiple metabolites, reactive oxygen species within the tumor microenvironment; is there heterogeneity within the TME metabolome which can predict their ability to be immunosensitive
  • Took melanoma cells and looked at metabolism using Seahorse (glycolysis): and there was vast heterogeneity in melanoma tumor cells; some just do oxphos and no glycolytic metabolism (inverse Warburg)
  • As they profiled whole tumors they could separate out the metabolism of each cell type within the tumor and could look at T cells versus stromal CAFs or tumor cells and characterized cells as indolent or metabolic
  • T cells from hyerglycolytic tumors were fine but from high glycolysis the T cells were more indolent
  • When knock down glucose transporter the cells become more glycolytic
  • If patient had high oxidative metabolism had low PDL1 sensitivity
  • Showed this result in head and neck cancer as well
  • Metformin a complex 1 inhibitor which is not as toxic as most mito oxphos inhibitors the T cells have less hypoxia and can remodel the TME and stimulate the immune response
  • Metformin now in clinical trials
  • T cells though seem metabolically restricted; T cells that infiltrate tumors are low mitochondrial phosph cells
  • T cells from tumors have defective mitochondria or little respiratory capacity
  • They have some preliminary findings that metabolic inhibitors may help with CAR-T therapy

Obesity, lipids and suppression of anti-tumor immunity

Lydia Lynch
  • Hypothesis: obesity causes issues with anti tumor immunity
  • Less NK cells in obese people; also produce less IFN gamma
  • RNASeq on NOD mice; granzymes and perforins at top of list of obese downregulated
  • Upregulated genes that were upregulated involved in lipid metabolism
  • All were PPAR target genes
  • NK cells from obese patients takes up palmitate and this reduces their glycolysis but OXPHOS also reduced; they think increased FFA basically overloads mitochondria
  • PPAR alpha gamma activation mimics obesity



Tuesday, June 23

12:45 PM – 2:45 PM EDT

Virtual Educational Session

Clinical Research Excluding Trials

The Evolving Role of the Pathologist in Cancer Research

Long recognized for their role in cancer diagnosis and prognostication, pathologists are beginning to leverage a variety of digital imaging technologies and computational tools to improve both clinical practice and cancer research. Remarkably, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms for analyzing pathology specimens is poised to not only augment the resolution and accuracy of clinical diagnosis, but also fundamentally transform the role of the pathologist in cancer science and precision oncology. This session will discuss what pathologists are currently able to achieve with these new technologies, present their challenges and barriers, and overview their future possibilities in cancer diagnosis and research. The session will also include discussions of what is practical and doable in the clinic for diagnostic and clinical oncology in comparison to technologies and approaches primarily utilized to accelerate cancer research.


Jorge S Reis-Filho, Thomas J Fuchs, David L Rimm, Jayanta Debnath


Tuesday, June 23

12:45 PM – 2:45 PM EDT


High-dimensional imaging technologies in cancer research

David L Rimm

  • Using old methods and new methods; so cell counting you use to find the cells then phenotype; with quantification like with Aqua use densitometry of positive signal to determine a threshold to determine presence of a cell for counting
  • Hiplex versus multiplex imaging where you have ten channels to measure by cycling of flour on antibody (can get up to 20plex)
  • Hiplex can be coupled with Mass spectrometry (Imaging Mass spectrometry, based on heavy metal tags on mAbs)
  • However it will still take a trained pathologist to define regions of interest or field of desired view



Jayanta Debnath

Challenges and barriers of implementing AI tools for cancer diagnostics

Jorge S Reis-Filho

Implementing robust digital pathology workflows into clinical practice and cancer research

Jayanta Debnath

Invited Speaker

Thomas J Fuchs
  • Founder of spinout of Memorial Sloan Kettering
  • Separates AI from computational algothimic
  • Dealing with not just machines but integrating human intelligence
  • Making decision for the patients must involve human decision making as well
  • How do we get experts to do these decisions faster
  • AI in pathology: what is difficult? =è sandbox scenarios where machines are great,; curated datasets; human decision support systems or maps; or try to predict nature
  • 1) learn rules made by humans; human to human scenario 2)constrained nature 3)unconstrained nature like images and or behavior 4) predict nature response to nature response to itself
  • In sandbox scenario the rules are set in stone and machines are great like chess playing
  • In second scenario can train computer to predict what a human would predict
  • So third scenario is like driving cars
  • System on constrained nature or constrained dataset will take a long time for commuter to get to decision
  • Fourth category is long term data collection project
  • He is finding it is still finding it is still is difficult to predict nature so going from clinical finding to prognosis still does not have good predictability with AI alone; need for human involvement
  • End to end partnering (EPL) is a new way where humans can get more involved with the algorithm and assist with the problem of constrained data
  • An example of a workflow for pathology would be as follows from Campanella et al 2019 Nature Medicine: obtain digital images (they digitized a million slides), train a massive data set with highthroughput computing (needed a lot of time and big software developing effort), and then train it using input be the best expert pathologists (nature to human and unconstrained because no data curation done)
  • Led to first clinically grade machine learning system (Camelyon16 was the challenge for detecting metastatic cells in lymph tissue; tested on 12,000 patients from 45 countries)
  • The first big hurdle was moving from manually annotated slides (which was a big bottleneck) to automatically extracted data from path reports).
  • Now problem is in prediction: How can we bridge the gap from predicting humans to predicting nature?
  • With an AI system pathologist drastically improved the ability to detect very small lesions


Virtual Educational Session


Cancer Increases in Younger Populations: Where Are They Coming from?

Incidence rates of several cancers (e.g., colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancers) are rising in younger populations, which contrasts with either declining or more slowly rising incidence in older populations. Early-onset cancers are also more aggressive and have different tumor characteristics than those in older populations. Evidence on risk factors and contributors to early-onset cancers is emerging. In this Educational Session, the trends and burden, potential causes, risk factors, and tumor characteristics of early-onset cancers will be covered. Presenters will focus on colorectal and breast cancer, which are among the most common causes of cancer deaths in younger people. Potential mechanisms of early-onset cancers and racial/ethnic differences will also be discussed.

Stacey A. Fedewa, Xavier Llor, Pepper Jo Schedin, Yin Cao

Cancers that are and are not increasing in younger populations

Stacey A. Fedewa


  • Early onset cancers, pediatric cancers and colon cancers are increasing in younger adults
  • Younger people are more likely to be uninsured and these are there most productive years so it is a horrible life event for a young adult to be diagnosed with cancer. They will have more financial hardship and most (70%) of the young adults with cancer have had financial difficulties.  It is very hard for women as they are on their childbearing years so additional stress
  • Types of early onset cancer varies by age as well as geographic locations. For example in 20s thyroid cancer is more common but in 30s it is breast cancer.  Colorectal and testicular most common in US.
  • SCC is decreasing by adenocarcinoma of the cervix is increasing in women’s 40s, potentially due to changing sexual behaviors
  • Breast cancer is increasing in younger women: maybe etiologic distinct like triple negative and larger racial disparities in younger African American women
  • Increased obesity among younger people is becoming a factor in this increasing incidence of early onset cancers



Other Articles on this Open Access  Online Journal on Cancer Conferences and Conference Coverage in Real Time Include

Press Coverage

Live Notes, Real Time Conference Coverage 2020 AACR Virtual Meeting April 28, 2020 Symposium: New Drugs on the Horizon Part 3 12:30-1:25 PM

Live Notes, Real Time Conference Coverage 2020 AACR Virtual Meeting April 28, 2020 Session on NCI Activities: COVID-19 and Cancer Research 5:20 PM

Live Notes, Real Time Conference Coverage 2020 AACR Virtual Meeting April 28, 2020 Session on Evaluating Cancer Genomics from Normal Tissues Through Metastatic Disease 3:50 PM

Live Notes, Real Time Conference Coverage 2020 AACR Virtual Meeting April 28, 2020 Session on Novel Targets and Therapies 2:35 PM


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Nano-guided cell networks as conveyors of molecular communication

Nature Communications
Article number:
07 March 2015
28 August 2015
12 October 2015


Advances in nanotechnology have provided unprecedented physical means to sample molecular space. Living cells provide additional capability in that they identify molecules within complex environments and actuate function. We have merged cells with nanotechnology for an integrated molecular processing network. Here we show that an engineered cell consortium autonomously generates feedback to chemical cues. Moreover, abiotic components are readily assembled onto cells, enabling amplified and ‘binned’ responses. Specifically, engineered cell populations are triggered by a quorum sensing (QS) signal molecule, autoinducer-2, to express surface-displayed fusions consisting of a fluorescent marker and an affinity peptide. The latter provides means for attaching magnetic nanoparticles to fluorescently activated subpopulations for coalescence into colour-indexed output. The resultant nano-guided cell network assesses QS activity and conveys molecular information as a ‘bio-litmus’ in a manner read by simple optical means.

At a glance


View all figures


  1. Nano-guided cell networks for processing molecular information.
    Figure 1
  2. Cells express functional, interchangeable protein components indicating both fluorescence and ability for streptavidin-linked surface coupling.
    Figure 2
  3. Cells equipped with magnetic nanoparticles (mNPs) via streptavidin-mediated interaction with surface-expressed proteins.
    Figure 3
  4. Affinity-based probing for functional analysis of AI-2-induced protein expression.
    Figure 4
  5. Single and multi-population cell responses to autoinducer-2.
    Figure 5
  6. Binning molecular information through cell-based parallel processing and magnetically focusing fluorescence into collective consensus output.
    Figure 6
  7. Extension of nano-guided cell networks for hypothetical regulatory structures.
    Figure 7



It has become increasingly apparent that a wealth of molecular information exists, which, when appropriately accessed, can provide feedback on biological systems, their componentry and their function. Thus, there is a developing niche that transcends length scales to concurrently recognize molecular detail and at the same time provide understanding of the overall system1, 2. An emerging scheme is to develop nano- to micro-scaled tools that intimately engage with biological systems through monitoring and interacting at the molecular level, with synthetic biology being one such tool3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

While synthetic biology is often viewed as an innovative means for ‘green’ product synthesis through the genetic rearrangement of cells, their biosynthetic capabilities and their regulatory networks can instead be tuned for executive function8, 9, 10. That is, cells can be rewired to survey molecular space3, 11, 12 as they have sophisticated capabilities to recognize, amplify and transduce chemical information13. Further, they provide a means to connect biological systems with traditional microelectronic devices and in doing so present a potential interface between chemically based biomolecular processing and conventional vectors of information flow, such as electrons and photons14, 15, 16. Specifically, through engineered design, cell-based molecular processing can be further coupled to enable external abiotic responses. Cells, then, represent a versatile means for mediating the molecular ‘signatures’ common in complex environments, or in other words, they are conveyors of molecular communication17, 18, 19.

Further, beyond clonal cell-based sensors, there is an emerging concept of population engineering to establish microorganisms in deliberate networks that enable enriched system identification through a combination of distinctive yet coexistent behaviours, including, perhaps, competitive or cooperative features8, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25. We posit the use of cell populations assembled in parallel¸ where multiple microbes with distinct molecular recognition capabilities work congruently. An advantage is that populations, as opposed to few cells, can facilitate thorough sampling since the presence of many cells increases their spatial breadth and per-cell data contributions (Fig. 1a). Each cellular unit undergoes independent decision-making and contributes a datum to its entire constituency. The prevalence of data provided within the population, then, substantiates a collective output by the system based on the molecular landscape. As follows in a multi-population system, molecular input thus influences the outcomes of each population, and elicits plural responses when the molecular input ranges overlap the ranges of the sensing populations21, which can define classification boundaries (Fig. 1a). Cell-mediated classification was posited in silico by Didovyk et al.21, where reporter libraries with randomized sensitivities to a molecular cue elicit concentration-dependent fluorescent patterns and these are elucidated by population screening . In the present construct, multiple populations enable multiplexed analysis, resulting, here, in a response gradation that is designed to index the molecular input ‘signature’. Consequently, the fed-back information becomes transfigured beyond a dose-dependent cell-by-cell analysis. That is, the output is predicated by the comparison between the populations rather than accumulation of response within a total population.

Figure 1: Nano-guided cell networks for processing molecular information.

Nano-guided cell networks for processing molecular information.

(a) Biotic (multicellular) processing is facilitated by cell recognition, signal transduction and genetic response. The genetically encoded response reflects the identity and prevalence of the target molecule(s). Biotic processing includes both increased cell number of responders and their genetically tuned response patterns. (b) Abiotic processing, used in conjunction with biotic processing, adds dimensionality to cell-based output by modifying through a physical stimulus (in our example, magnetic focusing). (c) Schematic of a cell population and nanomaterial-based network comprising both biotic (green/red axis) and abiotic (black axis) processing mechanisms. This conceptual system interprets molecular information by intercepting diverse molecular inputs, processes them autonomously through independent cell units within the system and refines output to include positive responders that are viewed via orthogonal means (visual classification). The system’s hierarchical structure allows molecular information to be refined into categorized collective outputs.

With population engineering as a premise for enriched molecular information processing, we engineered cell species, each to achieve an appropriate output through genetic means. There is conceptual basis for incorporation into networks, such as through mobile surveillance and position-based information relay26, 27. Hence, it is conceivable that, in addition to autonomous molecular recognition and processing afforded by synthetic biology, the use of physical stimuli to enable cell response could confer similar networking properties28, 29. For example, the complete information-processing ‘repertoire’ can be expanded beyond specific cell responses by the integration of external stimuli that serve to collate cell populations30. Specifically, we envision integration of nanomaterials that enable co-responses to molecular inputs, such that cell populations employ traditional reporting functions, that is, fluorescence marker expression, as well as responses that enable additional processing via the integration of stimuli-responsive abiotic materials (Fig. 1b).

In our example, cells are engineered to respond by permitting the attachment of magnetic nanoparticles (mNPs), such that each fluorescent cell becomes receptive to a magnetic field. Thus, the combination of cell-nanoparticle structures provides further dimensionality for the conveyance of molecular information (via magnetic stimulation). That is, without magnetic collation the fully distributed system would harbour diffuse responses; a magnetically stimulated system results in acute output due to a filtering and focusing effect (Fig. 1b)31, 32, allowing binned information to be readily, and fluorescently, conveyed.

The detection and interpretation of signalling molecules in our example is based on a microbial communication process known as quorum sensing (QS). The molecules, autoinducers (AIs), are secreted and perceived within a microbial community; once accumulated, the AI level indicates that the population size has reached a ‘quorum’33, 34. By surpassing a threshold concentration, the AI signalling coordinates population-wide phenotypic changes35. We have designed a QS information processor that utilizes two cell populations to independently interrogate natural microbial communities and generate information about QS activity by accessing AI-2 (ref. 36). Each cell population becomes ‘activated’ in response to a characteristic AI-2 level by expressing a fluorescent marker and a streptavidin-binding peptide (SBP) on the outer membrane38. SBP provides a means for collating data by binding mNPs that are introduced into the community. Using a post-processing magnetic sweep, the system as a whole interprets a molecular landscape and refines output into colour-categorized, or ‘binned,’ states (no fluorescence, red, or red and green) through (1) parallel population processing and (2) acute focusing (Fig. 1c).

The use of engineered cells as data-acquiring units and selectively equipping each with functional nanomaterials to form a redistributable processing system merges two paradigms: decentralized, active probing at a molecular scale and self-organization of units through structured dependencies on stimuli42. The population-based system overall contributes categorized feedback about a biological environment.


Surface expression of SBP and fluorescent protein fusions

First, we established expression of a fusion protein consisting of a fluorescent marker (enhanced green fluorescent protein (eGFP) and variants) and SBP. Importantly, for SBP to function as a coupling agent between cells and mNPs, we used AIDAc (kindly shared by J. Larssen)40 to export the chimeric protein to Escherichia coli’s outer surface. Translocation to a cell’s surface utilizes a signal peptide (for inner membrane translocation) and AIDAc as an outer membrane autotransporter pore38, 39, 40, 41, with the passenger protein linked to each. In Fig. 2a, we depict expression of three different constructs using Venus, eGFP and mCherry for optical transmission, and the AIDAc translocator domain for surface localization. These constructs are mapped inSupplementary Fig. 1. After induction with isopropyl B-D-1-thiogalactopyranoside (IPTG), cultures were probed for surface expression of the SBP portion of the tagged fluorescent protein. Cells were incubated with fluorescently labelled streptavidin; the fluorophore of the streptavidin probe was orthogonal to the expressed fluorescent protein. The multiple fluorescence emissions were analysed by confocal microscopy without spectral overlap. The fraction of cells (fc) that exhibit colocalized fluorescent protein and the fluorescently-labeled streptavidin is reported in Fig. 2b, showing that SBP–Venus cells bound streptavidin at a slightly lower frequency than SBP–mCherry and SBP–eGFP, which exhibited statistically similar fractions (fc=0.7).

Figure 2: Cells express functional, interchangeable protein components indicating both fluorescence and ability for streptavidin-linked surface coupling.

Cells express functional, interchangeable protein components indicating both fluorescence and ability for streptavidin-linked surface coupling.

(a) A T7 cassette was used to express chimeric proteins consisting of a membrane autotransporter domain (AIDAc), one of several fluorescent proteins and a streptavidin-binding peptide (SBP). Fluorophore-tagged streptavidin (SA) was used to bind SBP. (b) Of cells expressing fluorescent proteins (FP), those also marked by SBP coupling are represented as a ‘colocalized fraction (fc),’ plotted with image analysis-based s.d. of at least five replicates. The asterisk ‘*’ denotes fc that +SBP–eGFP and+SBP–mCherry are statistically equivalent (fc~0.7) by t-test and greater than +SBP–Venus cells. (c) Composite images show cell fluorescence (Column I) from the fluorescent protein (FP); labelled streptavidin using orthogonal filter sets (Column II); and an overlay of both (Column III). Arrows indicate representative cells with strong colocalization. Plotted in Column IV are the fluorescence mean grey values (y-axis) from a representative horizontal slice of the composite image (x-axis). Vertical bars displayed between Columns III and IV identify the position of each analysed slice. Arrows indicate peaks that match the highlighted cells in Column III. fc values are noted. Fluorophores with non-overlapping spectra were paired. Row 1, Venus expression (yellow-green) was paired with Dylight405-labelled SA (blue). Row 2, eGFP expression (green) was paired with Alexafluor594-labeled SA (red). Row 3, mCherry expression (red) was paired with Alexafluor488-labeled SA (green). Scale bar in lower left, 50μm.

That is, microscopy results related to the colocalization analysis are depicted for pairings of Venus and blue-streptavidin (SA), eGFP and red-SA, and mCherry and green-SA (Fig. 2c). Strong signals were observed in both filter sets (the fluorescent protein (Column I) and the labelled streptavidin (Column II)). Overlaying each image reveals colocalization, as indicated in Column III, where arrows point to examples of strong colocalization. In addition, Column IV plots fluorescence intensities across horizontal sections of the images, where cells that exhibit colocalized fluorescence are indicated by superimposed peaks. For +pSBP–Venus cells, those with both a blue and yellow signal are observed as pale blue–violet in the overlaid image. Cells with +pSBP–eGFP and +pSBP–mCherry and labelled streptavidin emit both green and red signals; their colocalization appears yellow. Controls shown in Supplementary Fig. 2, verify that fluorescent streptavidin (all colours) has specificity for only SBP-expressing cells over negative controls. Colocalization indicates that not only are both components of the fusion, SBP and the fluorescent protein, expressed, but that SBP is accessible to bind streptavidin on the cell’s surface. This is the first use of AIDAc for cell surface anchoring of fluorescent proteins, each having been functionalized with an affinity peptide.

Cell hybridization via mNPs

Given that expression of a fluorescent protein tagged with SBP enabled external binding of streptavidin, we employed this interaction for fastening streptavidin-functionalized materials directly to the cell surface. We chose streptavidin-conjugated mNPs, 100nm in diameter (an order of magnitude smaller than a cell), for binding to a cell surface (Fig. 3a) to impart the abiotic magnetic properties. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) was used to observe surface interaction between cell surface-expressing SBP and streptavidin-functionalized mNPs. Supplementary Fig. 3a,bshows electron micrographs of E. coli cells (dimensions 1.5–2μm in length) and the mNPs (~100nm in diameter). The SEM image in Fig. 3b, shows a magnetically isolated SBP-expressing cell with streptavidin-mNPs. The sample was prepared by mixing SBP-expressing cells with streptavidin-mNPs, then collecting or ‘focusing’ into a magnetized pellet via magnetic field, then separating from unbound cells in the supernatant. The cells were then washed and resuspended. In Fig. 3b, clusters of surface-bound mNPs are observed. In addition, the elemental composition was analysed with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, shown in Fig. 3c by an element map superimposed with carbon (red) and iron (green). While the cell appears to be of a uniform carbon composition, the particles localized at the cell surface (highlighted with arrows) were found having a strong iron composition; thus, elemental analysis confirmed particle identity as iron oxide mNPs. Additional characterization of magnetic functionality, including detailed SEM and fluorescent microscopic analysis prior to and after application of magnetic fields, is described in theSupplementary Information (Supplementary Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Cells equipped with magnetic nanoparticles (mNPs) via streptavidin-mediated interaction with surface-expressed proteins.

Cells equipped with magnetic nanoparticles (mNPs) via streptavidin-mediated interaction with surface-expressed proteins.

(a) Cell surface binding of streptavidin-conjugated magnetic nanoparticles occurs via surface-anchored streptavidin-binding peptide (SBP). The fusion of T7-expressed SBP-fluorescent protein (FP)-AIDAc enables the cell surface accessibility. (b) Scanning electron micrograph of an E. coli cell with surface-bound particles. (c) Element map of carbon (red) and iron (green) through energy-dispersive spectroscopy.

In sum, the well-known affinity interaction between streptavidin and the peptide SBP is harnessed to endow cells with non-natural abiotic properties. Here coupling a functionalized nanomaterial to the surface-displayed peptide physically extends the fusion protein and also adds physical (magnetic) functionality to the cell.

Linking expression to AI-2 recognition

The expression system for pSBP–Venus was then put under AI-2 control so that the protein is expressed in the presence of AI-2 instead of IPTG. That is, we coupled the native QS signal transduction circuitry to the reporter cassette. To ensure ample expression (as the native operon is fairly weak), we placed expression of T7 RNA polymerase under control of the natural QS circuitry43. Phosphorylated AI-2 activates the system through derepression of the regulator LsrR, naturally upregulating AI-2 import and phosphorylation44, and, by design, the T7 RNA polymerase on a sensor plasmid43. When sbp–Venus is included downstream of a T7 promoter region on a second plasmid, expression is then triggered by AI-2 uptake (Supplementary Fig. 4a). Then, we used two host sensor strains engineered to provide varied AI-2 sensitivity (denoted responders ‘A’ and ‘B’). In ‘A’, lsrFG, genes required for internally phosphorylated AI-2 degradation45, 46 are deleted. Also, both strains lack the terminal AI-2 synthase, luxS, so they cannot produce AI-2 and, instead, must ‘receive’ AI-2 from an external source (Supplementary Fig. 4a). The phenotypic difference between A and B is the threshold level of AI-2 that activates the genetic response47, 48. Fully constructed, these cells are designed to take up and process AI-2 to generate fluorescence output (that co-functions with streptavidin binding).

We next evaluated the kinetics of surface-fusion protein expression and effects on cell growth. The AI-2-induced expression for AIDAc-linked and SBP-tagged fluorescent proteins did not alter growth kinetics for either cell type (Supplementary Fig. 4b,c). Expression efficacy was also evaluated via immunoassay of the outer membrane, probing for AI-2-induced surface display. After induction with 20μM AI-2, extracts from cell types A and B were size-separated and blotted using alkaline phosphatase-conjugated streptavidin to probe for the SBP-tagged protein fusion (Supplementary Fig. 5). The 88kDa AIDAc–Venus–SBP protein was only found in the membrane-containing pellet fraction (Fig. 4a). Analogously, protein orientation was assessed by immunolabeling the fluorescent protein. Cell type B transformed with pSBP–eGFP was induced with 20μM AI-2 overnight; cell surfaces were then probed for eGFP using a mouse anti-GFP primary antibody and red-labelled secondary anti-mouse IgG. Simultaneously, cells were observed using phase contrast and fluorescence confocal microscopy. We noted a punctate pattern for eGFP, which was in one-to-one correspondence with red immunostaining of the surface-expressed protein. The positive staining of eGFP-expressing cells for red fluorescence, contrasted by the absence of negative control immunostaining indicated surface exposure of the fusion (Supplementary Fig. 6). Confocal microscopy confirmed precise colocalization of the eGFP and red-labelled antibodies within the confines of individual cells (Fig. 4b). Therefore, efficient transport of this functionality to the membrane under AI-2 induction was demonstrated in each host.

Figure 4: Affinity-based probing for functional analysis of AI-2-induced protein expression.

Affinity-based probing for functional analysis of AI-2-induced protein expression.

(a) 64–82kDa region of western blot for pelleted (P) and supernatant (S) protein fractions isolated from Type A and B cells. Alkaline phosphatase-conjugated streptavidin was used to target AIDAc–Venus–SBP at expression timepoints. Arrows indicate the expected position of the full fusion protein. (b) Immunostaining for assessment of the fluorescent protein surface accessibility. The external surfaces of cells expressing AIDAc–eGFP–SBP were probed with an anti–eGFP and Alexafluor594-labelled antibody pair. A representative overlaid fluorescence and phase contrast image is shown along with fluorescence images of the green (G) and red (R) filters for the boxed-in region. Scale bar, 2μM.

Establishing molecular ranges for cell interrogation

Importantly, the engineered cells each provide a characteristic response to the level of AI-2. Recently, we showed that AI-2 level influences the quorum size of responding engineered populations but does not alter the expression level within each quorum47. Here we evaluated our engineered AI-2 responders, again for quorum size (or in other words, percentage of AI-2-responsive cells in the population), this time varying the compositions of molecular input and the configuration of responders (Fig. 5a). First, we added AI-2, synthesized in vitro, to each of the two responder populations (Fig. 5b). We also added conditioned medium (CM), the spent medium from an AI-2 producer culture containing metabolic byproducts, as well as AI-2 (refs 36, 49; Fig. 5c). We also mixed the responder populations and added AI-2 to gauge responses in complex cultures (Fig. 5d).

Figure 5: Single and multi-population cell responses to autoinducer-2.

Single and multi-population cell responses to autoinducer-2.

(a) Fluorescence output is linked to small molecule input, derived from purified or crude sources. Fluorescence from Responders A and B was analysed after exposure to autoinducer-2 (AI-2) in mono and mixed culture environments. (b) Venus expression from in vitro-synthesized AI-2 added to monocultures of A and B. (c) Venus expression from conditioned media (CM) added to monocultures of A and B. CM was isolated from WT W3110 E. coli cultures sampled at indicated OD. Data are averages from triplicate cultures with s.d. indicated. (d) Red and green fluorescence responses to AI-2 during co-incubation of Responders A (pSBP–mCherry+, red) and B (pSBP–eGFP+, green). Representative fluorescence images show colocalization of red and green cells. Scale bar, 10μm. The average cell count per responder cell is plotted against AI-2 concentration, as determined by image analysis in quadruplicate. All data are plotted as averages of at least triplicate samples with s.d.

Specifically, in Fig. 5b, A and B populations were incubated at mid-exponential phase with in vitro-synthesized AI-2 (refs 50, 51) at concentrations: 0, 2, 10, 28 and 75μM. After 12h, samples were observed for fluorescence by confocal microscopy and then quantified by fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS; Supplementary Fig. 4c). We found that SBP–Venus expression for responder A cells occurred at the lowest tested level (2μM AI-2), where 56% of the population expressed SBP–Venus and this fraction increased with AI-2 reaching a maximum of 90% at 28μM. For type B, a more gradual trend was found; only ~1% was fluorescent from 0-2μM, and this increased from 9 to 46% as AI-2 was increased to 28μM. Finally, the highest fraction of fluorescing cells was found at the highest concentration tested, 75μM.

We next isolated CM, which contains a dynamic composition of unfiltered metabolites and media components, from W3110 E. coli cultures at intervals during their exponential growth, throughout which AI-2 accumulates (AI-2 levels for the samples are indicated in Supplementary Fig. 7). CM aliquots were mixed with either A or B cells and cultured in triplicate for 12h. Through FACS analysis it was found, again, that a larger subpopulation of A expressed Venus compared with population B at any concentration (Fig. 5c). Statistically relevant expression from B was not apparent until incubated with CM from cultures at an optical density (OD) of 0.23. In all cases, population A recognized AI-2 presence, including from media isolated at a W3110 OD of 0.05, the minimum cell density tested in this study.

The sensitivities of both strains to AI-2-mediated induction corroborate previous literature10, 47. These trends demonstrate that strains engineered for altered sensitivity to molecular cues provide discrimination of concentration level. That is, the identical plasmid expression system was transformed into different hosts, providing robust and distinct levels of expression.

Having developed cell types A and B with differential ability to detect AI-2, we next altered the reporters so that each cell type expressed a unique SBP-fluorescence fusion for colour-coded designation. Cell type A was engineered with pSBP–mCherry and type B with pSBP–eGFP, resulting in red and green fluorescence, respectively. These populations were mixed together in equal proportion at mid-exponential phase, introduced to a range of AI-2 concentrations, and incubated overnight. Populations A and B exhibited equal growth rates when cultured alone and together (Supplementary Fig. 8c); it followed that the cocultures should comprise a 1:1 ratio of each constituent. Fluorescence output is shown by representative images in Fig. 5d. Also in Fig. 5d, the green and red cell count is plotted from a quadruplicate analysis for each input concentration.

Coculturing enables parallel processing as the molecule-rich environment is perceived by each cell, and is processed uniquely per cell type. Yet, since each sensing mechanism is a living and proliferating population, we tested whether the potentially altered dynamics of coculturing would permit the same sensitivities as isolated culturing. We evaluated the Monod-type saturation constant for each population independently and in cocultures. We found, in Fig. 5d, the general trends in response to an increasing AI-2 level were as predicted by modelled response curves (Supplementary Table 4), which were also well-correlated to Fig. 5b data (Supplementary Fig. 8a,b). That is, the saturation constants that describe dependence on AI-2 were unchanged when measured in cocultures. Phenomenologically, as expected, an initial accumulation of red type A responders was found. Then, at higher AI-2 levels, we found an emergence of a green subpopulation (type B). Above 28μM, there was no longer an apparent differential response that would otherwise enable discrimination of AI-2 concentration; based on the consistency with modelled behaviour, coculturing contributed to dampen the response as the maximum percentage of responding cells in cocultures is 50% instead of 100%. However, the overall fluorescence output is enriched by the combination of multiple populations since the ranges of sensitivity overlap and effectively expand that of the master population (Supplementary Fig. 8d). Specifically, because the fluorescence of B is described by a larger saturation constant, its fluorescence continually increases at higher AI-2 concentrations, while the fluorescence of A remains unchanged. Thus, coculturing between A and B enables resolvable output that is lower than the detection limit of B (due to A) yet surpasses the upper limit at which A saturates by the inclusion of B. The choice to fluorescently differentiate A and B was important because the output would otherwise be biased by extracellular components including the existence of non-sensing cells. Due to colour designation of A and B, a colour ‘pattern’ emerges as a feature of the parallel response, which we recognize is independent of the absolute fluorescence of the population.

Consensus feedback through multidimensional processing

We hypothesized that the value of cell-based sensing would be enhanced if the cell output could be collated in an unbiased manner that in turn were easily ‘read’ using optical means. We engaged magnetic processing, which represents an abiotic processing step that enhances the signal by focusing the collective response. Hence, cells were equipped with streptavidin-conjugated mNPs (Fig. 3). The ability of a magnetic field to refine fluorescence output through filtering and focusing is described in the Supplementary Information (Supplementary Fig. 11). Thus, in our combinatorial approach, fluorescence feedback about molecular information within a microbial community entails biotic processing through constituencies of two independent cell types in conjunction with magnetic post-processing that is enabled by guidance at the nanoscale (Fig. 6c). Moreover, since the fluorescence feedback data is provided through two constituencies, consensus from each independently provides an aggregate output; in our example, the output becomes relayed as a distinctive ‘binned’ category due to finite colour-combinations generated from constituencies A and B (Fig. 6c).

Figure 6: Binning molecular information through cell-based parallel processing and magnetically focusing fluorescence into collective consensus output.

Binning molecular information through cell-based parallel processing and magnetically focusing fluorescence into collective consensus output.

(a) A and B cell types were co-incubated with AI-2 levels ranging from 0 to 55μM AI-2 (left axis), then imaged after magnetic nanoparticle coupling and magnetic collation. Fluorescence results (centred directly over the magnet) are shown from high to low input (top left to bottom right). (b) Quantification of red and green fluorescence cell densities per AI-2 level. (c) The process of accessing molecular information begins by distributing Responders A and B within the environment of an AI-2 producer, P. A and B independently express fluorophore fusions and are linked with magnetic nanoparticles on processing autoinducer-2. Magnetic focusing translocates fluorescing responders. Image analysis of the magnetically collated cell aggregate reveals classified fluorescence output, representing the AI-2 composition of the interrogated environment. (d) Bright field (left) and fluorescence (right, red and green filters) images positioned over the edge of a magnet, as indicated by the inset. The sample in the bottom image pair was isolated from an environment of low AI-2 accumulation. The sample in the top image pair was isolated from a high AI-2 environment. (e) Quantification of visual space occupied by collated cells (eGFP and mCherry expressers) while distributed (- magnet) and magnetically focused (+). Scale bars, 50μm.

Again, type A transmits red output (SBP–mCherry+) and type B transmits green (SBP–eGFP+). These were first co-incubated with titred concentrations of AI-2, to obtain results similar to those ofFig. 5d. By coupling mNPs to the responsive parallel populations, we tested for aggregate two-colour output to provide informative feedback within a set of outcomes ranging from no colour, red-only to red+green. After overnight co-incubation and a magnetic sweep with streptavidin-mNPs, fluorescence results are shown in Fig. 6a, where the recovered cells are displayed above a magnet’s center in order from highest to lowest AI-2 level (top left to bottom right). The processing output generated by the range of conditions was quantitatively assessed for contributions from A and B responders. The spatial density of each fluorophore, or the area occupied by fluorescent responders as a percentage of total visible area, was quantified and plotted in Fig. 6b. Here the trend of increasing fluorescence with AI-2 is followed by both A and B cell types; however, red A cells accumulate at a higher rate than green B cells. This relationship between A and B processing is not only consistent with their previous characterizations (Fig. 5) but indicates that the aggregate output is unbiased regardless of assembly with mNPs and magnetic-stimulated redistribution (Supplementary Information, Supplementary Fig. 14a).

Next, A and B cells were added together to probe the QS environment of Listeria innocua, an AI-2-producing cell type that is genetically and ecologically similar to the pathogenic strain L. monocytogenes52. The environment was biased towards low and high cell density conditions by altering nutrient levels to develop contrasting scenarios of AI-2 level. Preliminary characterization in the Supplementary Information indicated that L. innocua proliferation is unperturbed by the presence of E. coli responders (Supplementary Fig. 12) and that type A cells detect AI-2 at lowListeria densities limited by sparse nutrients; then with rich nutrient availability, cell proliferation permits a higher AI-2 level that can be detected by type B (Supplementary Fig. 13). Replicating these conditions, we expected red fluorescence to be observed at low culture density and for green fluorescence to be reported when high (Fig. 6c). Two conditions were tested: L. innocua was proportioned to responder cells at 20:1 in dilute media to establish a low culture density condition or, alternatively, a ratio of 200:1 in rich media for a high culture density condition. After overnight co-incubation and a magnetic sweep (applied directly to the triple strain cultures) with streptavidin-mNPs, the recovered cells are displayed above a magnet’s edge (shown in Fig. 6d). Acute focusing of the fluorescence signals, contributed by each subset population of the processor (A and B), is visually apparent. The magnetic field had a physical effect of repositioning the ‘on’ subsets to be tightly confined within the magnetic field.

The processing output generated by the contrasting culture conditions was again assessed for the respective contributions of A and B, and for changes in spatial signal density due to the magnetic sweep (Fig. 6e). The analysis was based on images provided in Supplementary Fig. 14b. Data inFig. 6e indicate that red type A cells are prevalent regardless of culture condition (except negative controls). However, compared with the low AI-2 condition, the abundance of green cells is 100-fold higher in the high AI-2 condition. In addition, the ratio of green to red was consistent prior to and after magnetic concentration, substantiating observations in the distributed system. Further, data show that magnetic refining increased per-area fluorescence 100-fold or 10-fold in low and high cell culture studies, respectively.

Based on the thresholds established for responder populations A and B, we found colour-coded binning corresponded to AI-2 level, where ‘red-only’ represented less AI-2 than ‘red+green’ (Fig. 5d). Thus, we found a binned output was established via this multidimensional molecular information-processing system and that this matched the expectations. Red feedback (from responder A) indicated dilute AI-2 accumulation occurred in the low density culture. In the dense cultures, high AI-2 accumulation turned on both A and B for combined red and green feedback.

System response patterns defined by parallel populations

Our example demonstrates the concept of an amorphous processing system that utilizes several biotic and abiotic components for multidimensional information processing. Interestingly, a binning effect was enabled: our system yields an index of colour-categorized feedback that characterizes the sampled environment. In Fig. 7, we present a means to extend our approach to multidimensional systems, those with more than one molecule-of-interest and at different concentrations. That is, by appropriate design of the cell responders, we can further enrich the methodology, its depth and breadth of applicability. We depict 10 hypothetical pairs of responses (with defining equations located in Supplementary Table 5)—those that can be driven by appropriately engineering cells to portend altered genetic responses. For example, rows 1 and 3 provide genetic outcomes as a function of analyte (AI-2) concentration. The hypothetical depictions are feasible as ‘designer’ signal transduction and marker expression processes enabled by synthetic biology21, 53, 54. Rows 2 and 4 demonstrate the corresponding visual planes, where red cell numbers (x-axis) are plotted against green (y-axis), illustrated by the first example. If one divides the two-dimensional space into quadrants (no colour, majority red, majority green, and equivalent ratios of red and green), it becomes apparent that the relationship between cell types influences the ‘visual’ or optical output. Thus, the 10 arbitrary response sets yield a variety of pairings that can provide unique visual patterns for categorizing molecular information. We have simplified the analysis by placing dot marker symbols at the various coincident datapoints, revealing visual patterns. In this way, the ability to incorporate unique responses to a multitude of molecular cues, all within a single pair of cells, or through further multiplexing with additional cell populations becomes apparent.

Figure 7: Extension of nano-guided cell networks for hypothetical regulatory structures.

Extension of nano-guided cell networks for hypothetical regulatory structures.

(a) Rows 1 and 3 depict 10 hypothetical genetic responses to molecular inputs for pairs of fluorescence-reporting cell populations (red, R and green, G). Rows 2 and 4 depict genetic responses as phase-plane plots yielding distinct patterns. This establishes a visual field, showing the extent of any population–population bias (illustrated in example case 1). (b) Left panel: a two-population pairing (shown in case 10) defines visual output that inherently bins into three quadrants: Q1, negligible colour; Q2, red bias due to majority red cell output; and Q4, combined red and green output. Right panel: data from Figs 5d and 6bare plotted analogously, where each data point represents an autoinducer-2 input (labelled, μM). As expected, red and green outputs were binned into Q1, Q2 and Q4 as indicated by coloured outlines.

Our AI-2-conveying cell network is similar to example 7 in Fig. 7a and the AI-2 response curves inFig. 5 (characterized by Supplementary Table 4 equations). Example 7 establishes output into three basic quadrants, including Q1 (negligible colour), Q2 (majority red) and Q4 (roughly equal red and green) (Fig. 7b). We recast the data from Figs 5d and 6b as a phase-plane portrait in Fig. 7c. This reveals the mechanisms by which the output is binned and how the originating cell response curves lead to this pattern, which in turn, was unchanged due to magnetic refinement. InSupplementary Fig. 15, we demonstrate a parameterization of the red and green response curves that suggest the methodology is robust, that when cells are appropriately engineered one could ‘tune’ system characteristics to enhance or diminish a binning effect. We suggest that the utility of subcellular genetic tuning extends well beyond per-cell performance. Rather, we suggest such a strategy may be used to guide the dynamics of population architecture for actuation of by-design response patterns at a systems level.


While cell-based sensors work well in well-defined assay conditions, extension to complex environments remains a challenge. They grow, they move, they perturb their environs, they report in a time and concentration-dependent manner, small numbers of sensor cells may require signal amplification and so on. Also, increasingly, bacterial cells are engineered for user specified ‘executive’ functions in complex environments55, 56, 57. Their performance depends on their ability to filter out extraneous noise while surveying the molecular landscape, and providing informed actuation.

Our system interrogates the molecular space by focusing on bacterial QS and a widely distributed signal molecule, AI-2. In addition to genetic attributes of the AI-2-responding sensor cells, AI-2 is a chemoattractant for E. coli, and hence E. coli engineered to sense and respond to AI-2 will naturally move towards its sources, enabling full sampling of the prevailing state10, 37. Each strain evaluates AI-2 with a distinct sensitivity. When ‘activated’ in response to a characteristic level, the cells simultaneously expressed a fluorescent marker and a SBP on the outer membrane via AIDAc translocation. SBP provides a means for cell hybridization through its strong affinity to streptavidin, and here, aids in binding mNPs. This enables the non-genetically coded property of cell translocation within a magnetic field through physically stimulated focusing and binning.

By making use of a diversity of biotic and abiotic features, our multidimensional system of ‘responder’ populations exemplifies several key metrics that promote executive performance in such environments: active molecule capture, post-capture refining of the detection output and finally the utilization of multiple feedback thresholds58, 59, 60. Here cells facilitate AI-2 recognition autonomously and actively because, as a distributed network they reside planktonically, chemotaxing to and continually processing signals over time. When AI-2 is detected, a processor cell’s cognate machinery responds by upregulation of the native QS operon, leading to rapid signal uptake and thereby creating an active-capture signal-processing mechanism. To maximize information acquisition and account for a potentially heterogeneous molecular landscape, cells serve as molecular sampling units among a distributed population, which leads to data fed back as a consensus of fluorescent ‘datapoints’. Then, distributed data collection can be selectively reversed via the incorporated abiotic feature: mNPs, fastened externally on the cell through affinity-guided self-assembly. As such, responding cells obtained this extendable feature, thereby becomes sensitized to repositioning within a magnetic field.

The layered nature of the processor here, from the subcellular to multicellular scale, permits a series of selective steps: it commences with the AI-2-triggered expression cascade which releases a tight repressor, surface localization of both the fluorescent protein and SBP tag, and finally nanoparticle binding for recovery. In addition, multiple layers of amplification result in orthogonal fluorescence feedback. The AI-2 detection event leads to whole-cell fluorescence through expression of many protein copies47. Then their physical collection further amplifies the signal, yielding a macroscopic composite of many individual cell units. When utilized as a network of multiple constituencies, responder cell types A and B contribute individual recognition results (off, red or green) to a single consensus output. Finally, due to their overlapping thresholds for recognition of the same molecule, in this case, AI-2, parallel processing by A and B responders can contribute to visual interpretation of information about the molecule. Outcomes are classified into a finite number of states: here output to no fluorescence, red, or red and green, with each addition of colour as a metric of a higher interval of AI-2. In many respects, the elucidation of layered information networks as demonstrated here is analogous to computer information processing via information theory61, 62, 63.

Here, however, interrogation of biological systems requires a reliable means for accessing molecular information—that which is communicated between biological species and that which can be relayed to the end user. The responder cells need not be present in high concentration, nor must they all be collected in the present format. We suggest that engineered biological mechanisms are well-poised to serve at this critical interface between information acquisition and user interaction. Thus, the functional design of components for autonomous self-assembly, decision-making and networking is requisite in the field of micro- and nano-scaled machines. Our combinatorial approach allows for cells to independently assess, yet collectively report, on molecular information. Its processing is enabled through appropriate integration of synthetic biology and nanomaterials design. We suggest this approach provides a rich opportunity to direct many formats of multi-population response through genetic tuning and systems-level engineering. Further development of cellular networks and incorporation of alternate abiotic attributes can expand the depth and breadth of molecular communication for user specified actuation.

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Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


When a baby is born through its mother’s birth canal, it is bathed in a soup of microbes. Those born by caesarean section (C-section) miss out on this bacterial baptism. The differences in microbe exposure at birth and later health could be caused by other factors, such as whether a mother takes antibiotics during her surgery, and whether a baby is breastfed or has a genetic predisposition to obesity. So, the researchers are sharply split on whether or not this missing of bacterial exposure increases the risk of chronic health problems such as obesity and asthma.


Researchers found that babies delivered surgically harboured different collections of bacteria than did those born vaginally. C-section babies, which comprise more than 30% of births in the United States, are also more prone to obesity and immune diseases such as diabetes. Experiments show that mice born by C-section are more prone to obesity and have impaired immune systems. There are fewer factors that could account for these differences in the rodents, which can be studied in controlled conditions, than in people.


A wave of clinical trials now under way could help to settle the question — and feed into the debate over whether seeding babies born by C-section with their mother’s vaginal bacteria is beneficial or potentially harmful. Several groups of researchers will be swabbing hundreds of C-section babies with their mother’s microbes, while comparing them to a control group. Each team plans to monitor its study participants over several years in the hope of learning more about how the collection of microbes in their bodies might influence weight, allergy risk and other factors.


But some scientists say that the trials could expose C-section babies to infection, or encourage mothers to try do-it-yourself swabbing, without much evidence that there is a benefit or risk. Moreover, there is no evidence that differing exposure to vaginal microbes at birth can help explain variation in people’s health over time. Presently the whole concept is in very much a state of uncertainty.


Researchers in near future will compare swabbed C-section babies with a placebo group and with infants delivered vaginally. They confirmed that their protocols will not increase the risk of infection for C-section babies. Scientists will also rigorously screen mothers participating in these trials for microbes such as HIV and group B streptococcus — a common vaginal bacterium that causes respiratory problems in newborns.

















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The Journey of Antibiotic Discovery

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


The term ‘antibiotic’ was introduced by Selman Waksman as any small molecule, produced by a microbe, with antagonistic properties on the growth of other microbes. An antibiotic interferes with bacterial survival via a specific mode of action but more importantly, at therapeutic concentrations, it is sufficiently potent to be effective against infection and simultaneously presents minimal toxicity. Infectious diseases have been a challenge throughout the ages. From 1347 to 1350, approximately one-third of Europe’s population perished to Bubonic plague. Advances in sanitary and hygienic conditions sufficed to control further plague outbreaks. However, these persisted as a recurrent public health issue. Likewise, infectious diseases in general remained the leading cause of death up to the early 1900s. The mortality rate shrunk after the commercialization of antibiotics, which given their impact on the fate of mankind, were regarded as a ‘medical miracle’. Moreover, the non-therapeutic application of antibiotics has also greatly affected humanity, for instance those used as livestock growth promoters to increase food production after World War II.


Currently, more than 2 million North Americans acquire infections associated with antibiotic resistance every year, resulting in 23,000 deaths. In Europe, nearly 700 thousand cases of antibiotic-resistant infections directly develop into over 33,000 deaths yearly, with an estimated cost over €1.5 billion. Despite a 36% increase in human use of antibiotics from 2000 to 2010, approximately 20% of deaths worldwide are related to infectious diseases today. Future perspectives are no brighter, for instance, a government commissioned study in the United Kingdom estimated 10 million deaths per year from antibiotic resistant infections by 2050.


The increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, alongside the alarmingly low rate of newly approved antibiotics for clinical usage, we are on the verge of not having effective treatments for many common infectious diseases. Historically, antibiotic discovery has been crucial in outpacing resistance and success is closely related to systematic procedures – platforms – that have catalyzed the antibiotic golden age, namely the Waksman platform, followed by the platforms of semi-synthesis and fully synthetic antibiotics. Said platforms resulted in the major antibiotic classes: aminoglycosides, amphenicols, ansamycins, beta-lactams, lipopeptides, diaminopyrimidines, fosfomycins, imidazoles, macrolides, oxazolidinones, streptogramins, polymyxins, sulphonamides, glycopeptides, quinolones and tetracyclines.


The increase in drug-resistant pathogens is a consequence of multiple factors, including but not limited to high rates of antimicrobial prescriptions, antibiotic mismanagement in the form of self-medication or interruption of therapy, and large-scale antibiotic use as growth promotors in livestock farming. For example, 60% of the antibiotics sold to the USA food industry are also used as therapeutics in humans. To further complicate matters, it is estimated that $200 million is required for a molecule to reach commercialization, with the risk of antimicrobial resistance rapidly developing, crippling its clinical application, or on the opposing end, a new antibiotic might be so effective it is only used as a last resort therapeutic, thus not widely commercialized.


Besides a more efficient management of antibiotic use, there is a pressing need for new platforms capable of consistently and efficiently delivering new lead substances, which should attend their precursors impressively low rates of success, in today’s increasing drug resistance scenario. Antibiotic Discovery Platforms are aiming to screen large libraries, for instance the reservoir of untapped natural products, which is likely the next antibiotic ‘gold mine’. There is a void between phenotanypic screening (high-throughput) and omics-centered assays (high-information), where some mechanistic and molecular information complements antimicrobial activity, without the laborious and extensive application of various omics assays. The increasing need for antibiotics drives the relentless and continuous research on the foreground of antibiotic discovery. This is likely to expand our knowledge on the biological events underlying infectious diseases and, hopefully, result in better therapeutics that can swing the war on infectious diseases back in our favor.


During the genomics era came the target-based platform, mostly considered a failure due to limitations in translating drugs to the clinic. Therefore, cell-based platforms were re-instituted, and are still of the utmost importance in the fight against infectious diseases. Although the antibiotic pipeline is still lackluster, especially of new classes and novel mechanisms of action, in the post-genomic era, there is an increasingly large set of information available on microbial metabolism. The translation of such knowledge into novel platforms will hopefully result in the discovery of new and better therapeutics, which can sway the war on infectious diseases back in our favor.














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Celiac Disease Breakthrough: (1) 472 genes regulated differently in organoids reflecting celiac disease than in non-celiac control organoids (2) bio-products derived from gut microorganisms can be employed to modify the epithelial response to gluten, a finding that could lead to future treatment strategies.


Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

“These results confirm our hypothesis that genes and exposure to gluten are necessary but not sufficient, since changes in both the composition and function of the gut microbiome are also needed to switch from genetic predisposition to clinical outcome, as shown by our data,” said Alessio Fasano, HMS professor of pediatrics at Mass General, director of MIBRC and co-senior author of the paper.




Image Source: iStock/wildpixel

Article OPEN Published: 

Human gut derived-organoids provide model to study gluten response and effects of microbiota-derived molecules in celiac disease

Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 7029 (2019Download Citation


Celiac disease (CD) is an immune-mediated disorder triggered by gluten exposure. The contribution of the adaptive immune response to CD pathogenesis has been extensively studied, but the absence of valid experimental models has hampered our understanding of the early steps leading to loss of gluten tolerance. Using intestinal organoids developed from duodenal biopsies from both non-celiac (NC) and celiac (CD) patients, we explored the contribution of gut epithelium to CD pathogenesis and the role of microbiota-derived molecules in modulating the epithelium’s response to gluten. When compared to NC, RNA sequencing of CD organoids revealed significantly altered expression of genes associated with gut barrier, innate immune response, and stem cell functions. Monolayers derived from CD organoids exposed to gliadin showed increased intestinal permeability and enhanced secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines compared to NC controls. Microbiota-derived bioproducts butyrate, lactate, and polysaccharide A improved barrier function and reduced gliadin-induced cytokine secretion. We concluded that: (1) patient-derived organoids faithfully express established and newly identified molecular signatures characteristic of CD. (2) microbiota-derived bioproducts can be used to modulate the epithelial response to gluten. Finally, we validated the use of patient-derived organoids monolayers as a novel tool for the study of CD.

Mass. General researchers develop 3D “mini-gut” model to study autoimmune response to gluten in celiac and non-celiac patient tissue

Gene expression of intestinal organoids reflects functional differences found in celiac disease

In pursuit of a novel tool for the research and treatment of celiac disease, scientists at the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center (MIBRC) at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have validated the use of intestinal organoids. These three-dimensional tissue cultures are miniature, simplified versions of the intestine produced in vitro. Taking tissue from duodenal biopsies of celiac and non-celiac patients, researchers created the “mini-guts” to explore how the gut epithelium and microbiota-derived molecules respond to gluten, a complex class of proteins found in wheat and other grains.

“We currently have no animal model that can recapitulate the response to gluten that we see in humans,” says Stefania Senger, PhD, co-senior author of the study published in Scientific Reports this week. “Using this human tissue model, we observed that intestinal organoids express the same molecular markers as actual epithelium in the celiac tissue, and the signature gene expression reflects the functional differences that occur when epithelia of celiac disease patients are exposed to gliadin.” Gliadin and glutenin proteins are main components of gluten.

Celiac disease is triggered when genetically predisposed individuals consume gluten. The condition affects approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population. Based on current data, the onset of celiac disease is thought to be preceded by the release of the protein zonulin, which is triggered by the activation of undigested gliadin to induce an autoimmune response. This leads to increased intestinal permeability and a disrupted barrier function. Novel evidence suggests that the microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract may play a role in the onset of celiac disease.

Earlier studies from the MIBRC group and others have shown that human organoids “retain a gene expression that recapitulates the expression of the tissue of origin, including a diseased state,” the authors write. Through RNA sequencing, the new findings validate the organoid model as a “faithful in vitro model for celiac disease,” Senger says.
Using whole-transcriptome analysis, the researchers identified 472 genes regulated differently in organoids reflecting celiac disease than in non-celiac control organoids. These included novel genes associated with epithelial functions related to the pathogenesis of celiac disease – including gut barrier maintenance, stem cell regeneration and innate immune response. A second finding of the study shows that bioproducts derived from gut microorganisms can be employed to modify the epithelial response to gluten, a finding that could lead to future treatment strategies.

“These results confirm our hypothesis that genes and exposure to gluten are necessary but not sufficient, since changes in both the composition and function of the gut microbiome are also needed to switch from genetic predisposition to clinical outcome, as shown by our data,” says Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center and co-senior author.

Senger adds, “We believe our observations represent a major shift in the study of celiac disease. We are confident that with adequate funding we could achieve major goals that include the development and implementation of high-throughput drug screenings to quickly identify new treatments for patients and expand the organoid repository to develop more complex models and pursue personalized treatment.”
Additional co-authors of the paper are first author Rachel Freire, PhD, along with Laura Ingano and Gloria Serena, PhD, of the MGH MIBRC; Murat Cetinbas, PhD, and Ruslan Sadreyev, PhD, MGH Department of Molecular Biology; Anthony Anselmo, PhD, formerly of MGH Molecular Biology and now with PatientsLikeMe, Cambridge, Mass.; and Anna Sapone, MD, PhD, Takeda Pharmaceuticals International. Support for the study includes National Institutes of Health grants RO1 DK104344-01A1 and 1U19 AI082655-02 and the Egan Family Foundation.




Other related articles and e-Books by LPBI Group’s Authors published on this Open Access Online Scientific Journal include the following:


Series D: e-Books on BioMedicine – Metabolomics, Immunology, Infectious Diseases

  • Metabolomics 

VOLUME 1: Metabolic Genomics and Pharmaceutics. On Amazon.com since 7/21/2015


Gluten-free Diets

Writer and Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



Breakthrough Digestive Disorders Research: Conditions affecting the Gastrointestinal Tract.

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



Collagen-binding Molecular Chaperone HSP47: Role in Intestinal Fibrosis – colonic epithelial cells and subepithelial myofibroblasts

Curators: Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP and Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


Expanding area of Tolerance-inducing Autoimmune Disease Therapeutics: Key Players

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



What is the key method to harness Inflammation to close the doors for many complex diseases?

Author and Curator: Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP


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