Jeffrey S. Buguliskis Ph.D. Technical Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Alzheimer’s and Marijuana, CFS and the Gut Were among the Prominent Science News Stories

Amid political controversy, the loss of iconic legends, and global civil unrest, science discovery and innovation transcended this tumultuous year with some important discoveries and newly formed controversies. So, turn on some holiday music and take another sip of that eggnog latte while the editorial staff at GEN takes you on one last trip through 2016 with the most popular science news of the year. We present our list in chronological order.

Saying Goodbye to the BMI

Controversy in 2016 didn’t take long to manifest, as early February saw a report from researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and UCLA which stated that millions of Americans labeled overweight or obese based on their body mass index (BMI) are, in fact, perfectly healthy. The scientists' contention was that the BMI is a deeply flawed measure of health, stating that “in the overweight BMI category, 47 percent are perfectly healthy. So to be using BMI as a health proxy, particularly for everyone within that category, is simply incorrect. Our study should be the final nail in the coffin for BMI.”

Cancer Cells Are What They Eat, and It’s Not Glucose

Advances in cancer research continued to soar this year as investigators from MIT found some surprising results about the feeding habits of cancer cells. The MIT team found that the carbon from glucose doesn’t show up in the cancer cell mass. Instead, they found that largest source for new cell material was amino acids. “Using intra-exosomal metabolomics,” the authors wrote, “we provide compelling evidence that CDEs [cancer-associated fibroblast-derived exosomes] contain intact metabolites, including amino acids, lipids, and TCA-cycle [tricarboxylic acid cycle] intermediates that are avidly utilized by cancer cells for central carbon metabolism and promoting tumor growth under nutrient deprivation or nutrient stressed conditions.”

Harvard Team Takes Major Step toward Overcoming Antibiotic Resistance

With antibiotic resistance growing exponentially, scientists at Harvard said they created a new platform for antibiotic discovery that may help solve the global crisis. The authors stated that they have developed “a platform where we assemble eight (chemical) building blocks by a simple process to make macrolide antibiotics” without using erythromycin, the original macrolide antibiotic, and the drug upon which all others in the class have been based since the early 1950s.

Genetic Origin of Multiple Sclerosis Discovered

Early this summer, researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Vancouver Coastal Health ended the argument as to whether there are some inheritable gene mutations for multiple sclerosis (MS), with compelling evidence that MS can be caused by a single genetic mutation. “This finding is critical for our understanding of MS,” the authors explained. “Little is known about the biological processes that lead to the onset of the disease, and this discovery has massive amounts of potential for developing new treatments that tackle the underlying causes, not just the symptoms.”

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, It’s All in Your Gut

The microbiome saw some significant discoveries this year, with one of the most popular coming out of Cornell University where scientists discovered the first biological markers for chronic fatigue syndrome in gut bacteria and inflammatory microbial agents in the blood. “Our work demonstrates that the gut bacterial microbiome in ME/CFS [myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome] patients isn't normal, perhaps leading to gastrointestinal and inflammatory symptoms in victims of the disease,” the authors stated. “Furthermore, our detection of a biological abnormality provides further evidence against the ridiculous concept that the disease is psychological in origin.” 

Can Marijuana Protect against Alzheimer’s?

One of our most popular and controversial stories this year came from investigators at the Salk Institute, where they found preliminary evidence that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other compounds found in marijuana can promote the cellular removal of amyloid-β (Aβ), a toxic protein associated with Alzheimer's disease. “Although other studies have offered evidence that cannabinoids might be neuroprotective against the symptoms of Alzheimer's, we believe our study is the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and Aβ accumulation in nerve cells,” explained senior study author David Schubert, Ph.D., professor and laboratory head at the Salk Institute.

Immune System Controls Brain, Shapes Social Behavior

Our single most popular news story of the year tackled the connection between the immune system and the brain. University of Virginia researchers investigated how meningeal immunity could influence behavior. While previous studies suggested that behaviors such as spatial learning and memory could be affected, this new research focused on social behavior. “Associations between rodent transcriptomes from the brain and cellular transcriptomes in response to T-cell-derived cytokines suggest a strong interaction between social behavior and interferon-γ (IFN-γ)-driven responses,” wrote the article’s authors. “Concordantly, we demonstrate that inhibitory neurons respond to IFN-γ and increase GABAergic (γ-aminobutyric-acid) currents in projection neurons, suggesting that IFN-γ is a molecular link between meningeal immunity and neural circuits recruited for social behavior.”

“Kissing Disease” Virus Promotes Malignant Breast Cancer Development

In recent years, mounting evidence has suggested that infection with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is associated with various forms of cancer. A study led by researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center revealed that infection with EBV might put some women at increased risk of developing breast cancer. “We think that if a young woman develops EBV during her teenage years or later, her breast epithelial cells will be exposed to the virus and can be infected. While for most individuals there will be no long-term consequences, in some the infection may leave genetic scars and change the metabolism of these cells,” explained the authors. “While these are subtle changes, they may decades later facilitate breast cancer formation.” 

Eye Color Determines Risk for Cancer

Scientists at The Ohio State University (OSU) and New York University were able to shed light on specific inherited genetic differences that may cause an increased risk of uveal melanoma, a rare cancer that arises from the pigment cells that determine eye color. “This is a very important discovery that will guide future research efforts to explore the interactions of these pigmentary genes with other genetic and environmental risk factors in cancers not linked to sun exposure, such as eye melanoma,” explained co-senior study author Mohamed Abdel-Rahman, M.D., Ph.D., ophthalmologic pathologist and cancer geneticist at OSU Comprehensive Cancer Center. “This could provide a paradigm shift in the field. Our study suggests that in eye melanoma, the pigmentation difference may play a direct cancer-driving role not related to sunlight protection.”

A Gene That Knows When to Say When to Alcohol

In a fitting end to our 2016 list, a genome-wide study lead by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center looked at social drinkers and found a genetic variant that suppresses the desire to drink alcohol. “We identified β-Klotho (KLB) as a locus associated with alcohol consumption,” wrote the authors of the PNAS study. “β-Klotho is an obligate coreceptor for the hormone FGF21 [fibroblast growth factor 21], which is secreted by the liver and implicated in macronutrient preference in humans.”

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