A Molecular Arms Race: The Immune System Versus HIV

Watson Lecture Preview

It is now more than 30 years after the first AIDS epidemic, and an effective vaccine against HIV does not yet exist—partly because the virus quickly mutates to evade the vaccine's antibodies. On Wednesday, April 1, at 8 p.m. in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, Pamela J. Bjorkman, Caltech's Max Delbrück Professor of Biology and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, will describe ways to neutralize that mutational advantage. Admission is free.

 

What do you do?

We are structural biologists who use various imaging techniques to look at biological macromolecules and assemblies, sometimes in purified forms and sometimes in tissues. For example, we study HIV proteins alone, on viruses, and on viruses in tissues during an infection. Utilizing high-resolution structures of individual proteins, we are trying to apply our knowledge of the chemistry of protein-protein interactions to understanding what makes some antibodies produced by HIV-infected people good at neutralizing viruses and other antibodies less effective. We then try to reengineer good antibodies to make them even better in hopes that they could be used therapeutically to prevent or treat HIV infection.

 

What's the neatest thing about what you do?

Using imaging techniques such as X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy, we can visualize structures in three dimensions, sometimes even localizing all of the atoms in a protein structure. This feels a bit like spying on nature—forcing her to reveal secrets that we can hopefully use to combat HIV/AIDS.

 

How did you get into this line of work?

I was hooked after taking chemistry in high school. I knew then that I wanted to use chemistry to understand biology. I became interested in HIV about 10 years ago when I started teaching the Caltech freshman biology class and used HIV as a model system to understand basic principles of biology, especially evolution. HIV is an amazing example of successful evolution against which the human immune system loses, but I hope that we can win the war against HIV through a fundamental understanding of how it works.

 

Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech's iTunes U site.

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Research Suggests Brain's Melatonin May Trigger Sleep

If you walk into your local drug store and ask for a supplement to help you sleep, you might be directed to a bottle labeled "melatonin." The hormone supplement's use as a sleep aid is supported by anecdotal evidence and even some reputable research studies. However, our bodies also make melatonin naturally, and until a recent Caltech study using zebrafish, no one knew how—or even if—this melatonin contributed to our natural sleep. The new work suggests that even in the absence of a supplement, naturally occurring melatonin may help us fall and stay asleep.

The study was published online in the March 5 issue of the journal Neuron.

"When we first tell people that we're testing whether melatonin is involved in sleep, the response is often, 'Don't we already know that?'" says Assistant Professor of Biology David Prober. "This is a reasonable response based on articles in newspapers and melatonin products available on the Internet. However, while some scientific studies show that supplemental melatonin can help to promote sleep, many studies failed to observe this, so the effectiveness of melatonin supplements is controversial. More importantly, these studies don't tell you anything about what naturally occurring melatonin normally does in the body."

There are several factors at play when you are starting to feel tired. Sleep is thought to be regulated by two mechanisms: a homeostatic mechanism, which responds to the body's internal cues for sleep, and a circadian mechanism that responds to external cues such as darkness and light, signaling appropriate times for sleep and wakefulness.

For years, researchers have known that melatonin production is regulated by the circadian clock, and that animals produce more of the hormone at night than they do during the day. However, this fact alone is not enough to prove that melatonin promotes sleep. For example, although nocturnal animals sleep during the day and are active at night, they also produce the most melatonin at night.

In the hopes of determining, once and for all, what role the hormone actually plays in sleep, Prober and his team at Caltech designed an experiment using the larvae of zebrafish, an organism commonly used in research studies because of its small size and well-characterized genome. Like humans, zebrafish are also diurnal—awake during the day and asleep at night—and produce melatonin at night.

But how exactly can you tell if a young zebrafish has fallen asleep? There are behavioral criteria—including how long a zebrafish takes to respond to a stimulus, like a knock on the tank, for example. "Based on these criteria, we found that if the zebrafish larvae don't move for one or more minutes, they are in a sleep-like state," Prober says.

To test the effect of naturally occurring melatonin on sleep, the researchers first compared the sleep patterns of normal, or "wild-type," zebrafish larvae to those of zebrafish larvae that are unable to produce the hormone because of a mutation in a gene called aanat2. They found that fish with the mutation slept only half as long as normal fish. And although a normal zebrafish begins to fall asleep about 10 minutes after "lights out"—about the same amount of time it takes a human to fall asleep—it took the aanat2 mutant fish about twice as long.

"This result was surprising because it suggests that almost half of the sleep that the larvae are getting at night is due to the effects of melatonin," Prober says. "That suggests that melatonin normally plays an important role in sleep and that you need this natural melatonin both to fall asleep and to stay asleep."

In both humans and zebrafish, melatonin is produced in a part of the brain called the pineal gland. To confirm that the mutation-induced reduction in sleep was actually due to a lack of melatonin, the researchers next used a drug to specifically kill the cells of the pineal gland, thus halting the hormone's production. The drug-treated fish showed the same reduction in sleep as fish with mutated aanat2. When the drug treatment stopped, allowing pineal gland cells to regenerate, the fish returned to a normal sleep pattern.

Sleep patterns, like many other biological and behavioral processes, are known to be regulated by the circadian clock. In an organism, the circadian clock aligns these processes with daily changes in the environment, such as daylight and darkness at night. However, while a great deal is known about how the circadian clock works, it was not known how the clock regulates sleep. Because the researchers had determined that melatonin is involved in promoting natural sleep, they next asked whether melatonin mediates the circadian regulation of sleep.

They first raised both wild-type and aanat2 mutant zebrafish larvae in a normal light/dark cycle—14 hours of light followed by 10 hours of darkness—to entrain their circadian clocks. Then, when the larvae were 5 days old, they switched both populations to an environment of constant darkness. In this "free running" condition, the circadian clock continues to function in the absence of daily light and dark signals from the environment. As expected, the wild-type fish maintained their regular circadian sleep cycle. The melatonin-lacking aanat2 mutants, however, showed no cyclical sleep patterns.  

"This was really surprising," says Prober. "For years, people have been looking in rodents for a factor that's required for the circadian regulation of sleep and have found a few other candidate molecules that, like melatonin, are regulated by the circadian clock and can induce sleep when given as supplements. However, mutants that lack these factors had normal circadian sleep cycles," says Prober. "One thought was that maybe all of these molecules work together and that you'd have to make mutations in multiple genes to see an effect. But we found that eliminating one molecule, melatonin, is the whole show. It's one of those rare and surprisingly clear results."

After finding that melatonin is necessary for the circadian regulation of sleep, Prober next wanted to ask how it does this. To find out, Prober and his colleagues looked to a neuromodulator called adenosine—part of the homeostatic mechanism that promotes sleep. As an animal expends energy throughout the day, adenosine accumulates in the brain causing the animal to feel more and more tired—a pressure that is relieved through sleep.

The researchers treated both wild-type and melatonin-deficient aanat2 mutant fish with drugs that activate adenosine signaling. They found that although the drugs had no effect on the wild-type fish, they restored normal sleep amounts in aanat2 mutants. This result suggests that melatonin may be promoting sleep, in part, by turning on adenosine—providing a long sought-after link between the homeostatic and circadian processes that regulate sleep.

Prober and his colleagues hypothesize that the circadian clock drives the production of melatonin, which then promotes sleep through yet-to-be-determined mechanisms while also stimulating adenosine production, thus promoting sleep through the homeostatic pathway. Although more experiments are needed to confirm this model, Prober says that the preliminary results may offer insights about human sleep as well.

"Zebrafish are vertebrates and their brain is structurally similar to ours. All of the markers that we and others have tested are expressed in the same regions of the zebrafish brain as in the mammalian brain," he says. "Zebrafish sleep and human sleep are likely different in some ways, but all of our drug and genetic data indicate that the same factors—working through the same mechanisms—have similar effects on sleep in zebrafish and mammals. "

Prober's work with the circadian regulation of sleep follows in the conceptual—and physical—footsteps of late Caltech geneticist Seymour Benzer, who founded genetic studies of the circadian clock. In experiments in fruit flies, Benzer and his graduate student, the late Ronald Konopka (PhD '72), discovered the first circadian-rhythm mutants. Benzer passed away in 2007, and when Prober came to Caltech in 2009, he was offered Benzer's former office and lab space. "Seymour Benzer's work in fruit flies launched the beginning of our understanding of the molecular circadian clock," Prober says, "so it's really special to be in this space, and it's gratifying that we're taking the next step based on his work."

The results of Prober's study are published in the journal Neuron in an article titled, "Melatonin is required for the circadian regulation of sleep." Other Caltech coauthors on the paper are graduate student Avni Gandhi and postdoctoral scholars Eric Mosser and Grigorios Oikonomou. This work was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Mallinckrodt Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation as well as a Della Martin Postdoctoral Fellowship to Mosser.

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Feeling Sleepy? Might be the Melatonin
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Fighting a Worm with Its Own Genome

Tiny parasitic hookworms infect nearly half a billion people worldwide—almost exclusively in developing countries—causing health problems ranging from gastrointestinal issues to cognitive impairment and stunted growth in children. By sequencing and analyzing the genome of one particular hookworm species, Caltech researchers have uncovered new information that could aid the fight against these parasites.  

The results of their work were published online in the March 2 issue of the journal Nature Genetics.

"Hookworms infect a huge percentage of the human population. Getting clean water and sanitation to the most affected regions would help to ameliorate hookworms and a number of other parasites, but since these are big, complicated challenges that are difficult to address, we need to also be working on drugs to treat them," says study lead Paul Sternberg, the Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology at Caltech and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Medicines have been developed to treat hookworm infections, but the parasites have begun to develop resistance to these drugs. As part of the search for effective new drugs, Sternberg and his colleagues investigated the genome of a hookworm species known as Ancylostoma ceylanicum. Other hookworm species cause more disease among humans, but A. ceylanicum piqued the interest of the researchers because it also infects some species of rodents that are commonly used for research. This means that the researchers can easily study the parasite's entire infection process inside the laboratory.

The team began by sequencing all 313 million nucleotides of the A. ceylanicum genome using the next-generation sequencing capabilities of the Millard and Muriel Jacobs Genetics and Genomics Laboratory at Caltech. In next-generation sequencing, a large amount of DNA—such as a genome—is first reproduced as many very short sequences. Then, computer programs match up common sequences in the short strands to piece them into much longer strands.

"Assembling the short sequences correctly can be a relatively difficult analysis to carry out, but we have experience sequencing worm genomes in this way, so we are quite successful," says Igor Antoshechkin, director of the Jacobs Laboratory. 

Their sequencing results revealed that although the A. ceylanicum genome is only about 10 percent of the size of the human genome, it actually encodes at least 30 percent more genes—about 30,000 in total, compared to approximately 20,000-23,000 in the human genome. However, of these 30,000 genes, the essential genes that are turned on specifically when the parasite is wreaking havoc on its host are the most relevant to the development of potential drugs to fight the worm.

Sternberg and his colleagues wanted to learn more about those active genes, so they looked not to DNA but to RNA—the genetic material that is generated (or transcribed) from the DNA template of active genes and from which proteins are made. Specifically, they examined the RNA generated in an A. ceylanicum worm during infection. Using this RNA, the team found more than 900 genes that are turned on only when the worm infects its host—including 90 genes that belong to a never-before-characterized family of proteins called activation-associated secreted protein related genes, or ASPRs.

"If you go back and look at other parasitic worms, you notice that they have these ASPRs as well," Sternberg says. "So basically we found this new family of proteins that are unique to parasitic worms, and they are related to this early infection process." Since the worm secretes these ASPR proteins early in the infection, the researchers think that these proteins might block the host's initial immune response—preventing the host's blood from clotting and ensuring a free-flowing food source for the blood-sucking parasite.

If ASPRs are necessary for this parasite to invade the host, then a drug that targets and destroys the proteins could one day be used to fight the parasite. Unfortunately, however, it is probably not that simple, Sternberg says.

"If we have 90 of these ASPRs, it might be that a drug would get rid of just a few of them and stop the infection, but maybe you'd have to get rid of all 90 of them for it to work. And that's a problem," he says. "It's going to take a lot more careful study to understand the functions of these ASPRs so we can target the ones that are key regulatory molecules."

Drugs that target ASPRs might one day be used to treat these parasitic infections, but these proteins also hold the potential for anti-A. ceylanicum vaccines—which would prevent these parasites from infecting a host in the first place, Sternberg adds. For example, if a person were injected with an ASPR protein vaccine before travelling to an infection-prone region, their immune system might be more prepared to successfully fend off an infection.

"A parasitic infection is a balance between the parasites trying to suppress the immune system and the host trying to attack the parasite," says Sternberg. "And we hope that by analyzing the genome, we can uncover clues that might help us alter that balance in favor of the host."

These findings were published in a paper titled, "The genome and transcriptome of the zoonotic hookworm Ancylostoma ceylanicum identify infection-specific gene families." In addition to Sternberg and Antoshechkin, other coauthors include Erich M. Schwarz of Cornell University; and Yan Hu, Melanie Miller, and Raffi V. Aroian from UC San Diego. Sternberg's work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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Knocking Out Parasites with Their Own Genetic Code
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Genetically Engineered Antibodies Show Enhanced HIV-Fighting Abilities

Capitalizing on a new insight into HIV's strategy for evading antibodies—proteins produced by the immune system to identify and wipe out invading objects such as viruses—Caltech researchers have developed antibody-based molecules that are more than 100 times better than our bodies' own defenses at binding to and neutralizing HIV, when tested in vitro. The work suggests a novel approach that could be used to engineer more effective HIV-fighting drugs.

"Based on the work that we have done, we now think we know how to make a really potent therapeutic that would not only work at relatively low concentrations but would also force the virus to mutate along pathways that would make it less fit and therefore more susceptible to elimination," says Pamela Bjorkman, the Max Delbrück Professor of Biology and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "If you were able to give this to someone who already had HIV, you might even be able to clear the infection."

The researchers describe the work in the January 29 issue of Cell. Rachel Galimidi, a graduate student in Bjorkman's lab at Caltech, is lead author on the paper.

The researchers hypothesized that one of the reasons the immune system is less effective against HIV than other viruses involves the small number and low density of spikes on HIV's surface. These spikes, each one a cluster of three protein subunits, stick up from the surface of the virus and are the targets of antibodies that neutralize HIV. While most viruses are covered with hundreds of these spikes, HIV has only 10 to 20, making the average distance between the spikes quite long.

That distance is important with respect to the mechanism that naturally occurring antibodies use to capture their viral targets. Antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that evolved to grab onto their targets with both "arms." However, if the spikes are few and far between—as is the case with HIV—it is likely that an antibody will bind with only one arm, making its connection to the virus weaker (and easier for a mutation of the spike to render the antibody ineffective).

To test their hypothesis, Bjorkman's group genetically engineered antibody-based molecules that can bind with both arms to a single spike. They started with the virus-binding parts, or Fabs, of broadly neutralizing antibodies—proteins produced naturally by a small percentage of HIV-positive individuals that are able to fight multiple strains of HIV until the virus mutates. When given in combination, these antibodies are quite effective. Rather than making Y-shaped antibodies, the Caltech group simply connected two Fabs—often from different antibodies, to mimic combination therapies—with different lengths of spacers composed of DNA.

Why DNA? In order to engineer antibodies that could latch onto a spike twice, they needed to know which Fabs to use and how long to make the connection between them so that both could readily bind to a single spike. Previously, various members of Bjorkman's group had tried to make educated guesses based on what is known of the viral spike structure, but the large number of possible variations in terms of which Fabs to use and how far apart they should be, made the problem intractable.

In the new work, Bjorkman and Galimidi struck upon the idea of using DNA as a "molecular ruler." It is well known that each base pair in double-stranded DNA is separated by 3.4 angstroms. Therefore, by incorporating varying lengths of DNA between two Fabs, they could systematically test for the best neutralizer and then derive the distance between the Fabs from the length of the DNA. They also tested different combinations of Fabs from various antibodies—sometimes incorporating two different Fabs, sometimes using two of the same.

"Most of these didn't work at all," says Bjorkman, which was reassuring because it suggested that any improvements the researchers saw were not just created by an artifact, such as the addition of DNA.

But some of the fabricated molecules worked very well. The researchers found that the molecules that combined Fabs from two different antibodies performed the best, showing an improvement of 10 to 1,000 times in their ability to neutralize HIV, as compared to naturally occurring antibodies. Depending on the Fabs used, the optimal length for the DNA linker was between 40 and 62 base pairs (corresponding to 13 and 21 nanometers, respectively).

Taking this finding to the next level in the most successful of these new molecules, the researchers replaced the piece of DNA with a protein linker of roughly the same length composed of 12 copies of a protein called tetratricopeptide repeat. The end product was an all-protein antibody-based reagent designed to bind with both Fabs to a single HIV spike.

"That one also worked, showing more than 30-fold average increased potency compared with the parental antibodies," says Bjorkman. "That is proof of principle that this can be done using protein-based reagents."

The greater potency suggests that a reagent made of these antibody-based molecules could work at lower concentrations, making a potential therapeutic less expensive and decreasing the risk of adverse reactions in patients.

"I think that our work sheds light on the potential therapeutic strategies that biotech companies should be using—and that we will be using—in order to make a better antibody reagent to combat HIV," says Galimidi. "A lot of companies discount antibody reagents because of the virus's ability to evade antibody pressure, focusing instead on small molecules as drug therapies. Our new reagents illustrate a way to get around that."

The Caltech team is currently working to produce larger quantities of the new reagents so that they can test them in humanized mice—specialized mice carrying human immune cells that, unlike most mice, are sensitive to HIV.

Along with Galimidi and Bjorkman, additional Caltech authors on the paper, "Intra-Spike Crosslinking Overcomes Antibody Evasion by HIV-1," include Maria Politzer, a lab assistant; and Anthony West, a senior research specialist. Joshua Klein, a former Caltech graduate student (PhD '09), and Shiyu Bai, a former technician in the Bjorkman lab, also contributed to the work; they are currently at Google and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, respectively. Michael Seaman of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Michel Nussenzweig of the Rockefeller University in New York are also coauthors. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health through a Director's Pioneer Award and a grant from the HIV Vaccine Research and Design Program, as well as grants from the Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Nussenzweig is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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Getting a Better Grip on HIV
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Why Do We Feel Thirst? An Interview with Yuki Oka

To fight dehydration on a hot summer day, you instinctively crave the relief provided by a tall glass of water. But how does your brain sense the need for water, generate the sensation of thirst, and then ultimately turn that signal into a behavioral trigger that leads you to drink water? That's what Yuki Oka, a new assistant professor of biology at Caltech, wants to find out.

Oka's research focuses on the study of how the brain and body work together to maintain a healthy ratio of salt to water as part of a delicate form of biological balance called homeostasis.

Recently, Oka came to Caltech from Columbia University. We spoke with him about his work, his interests outside of the lab, and why he's excited to be joining the faculty at Caltech.

 

Can you tell us a bit more about your research?

The goal of my research is to understand the mechanisms by which the brain and body cooperate to maintain our internal environment's stability, which is called homeostasis. I'm especially focusing on fluid homeostasis, the fundamental mechanism that regulates the balance of water and salt. When water or salt are depleted in the body, the brain generates a signal that causes either a thirst or a salt craving. And that craving then drives animals to either drink water or eat something salty.

I'd like to know how our brain generates such a specific motivation simply by sensing internal state, and then how that motivation—which is really just neural activity in the brain—goes on to control the behavior.

 

Why did you choose to study thirst?

After finishing my Ph.D. in Japan, I came to Columbia University where I worked on salt sensing mechanisms in the mammalian taste system. We found that the peripheral taste system has a key function for salt homeostasis in the body by regulating our salt intake behavior. But of course, the peripheral sensor does not work by itself.  It requires a controller, the brain, which uses information from the sensor. So I decided to move on to explore the function of the brain; the real driver of our behaviors.

I was fascinated by thirst because the behavior it generates is very robust and stereotyped across various species. If an animal feels thirst, the behavioral output is simply to drink water. On the other hand, if the brain triggers salt appetite, then the animal specifically looks for salt—nothing else. These direct causal relations make it an ideal system to study the link between the neural circuit and the behavior.

 

You recently published a paper on this work in the journal Nature. Could you tell us about those findings?

In the paper, we linked specific neural populations in the brain to water drinking behavior. Previous work from other labs suggested that thirst may stem from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, so we wanted to identify which groups of neurons in the hypothalamus control thirst. Using a technique called optogenetics that can manipulate neural activities with light, we found two distinct populations of neurons that control thirst in two opposite directions. When we activated one of those two populations, it evoked an intense drinking behavior even in fully water-satiated animals. In contrast, activation of a second population drastically suppressed drinking, even in highly water-deprived thirsty animals.  In other words, we could artificially create or erase the desire for drinking water.

Our findings suggest that there is an innate brain circuit that can turn an animal's water-drinking behavior on and off, and that this circuit likely functions as a center for thirst control in the mammalian brain. This work was performed with support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute and National Institutes of Health [for Charles S. Zuker at Columbia University, Oka's former advisor].

 

You use a mouse model to study thirst, but does this work have applications for humans?

There are many fluid homeostasis-associated conditions; one example is dehydration. We cannot specifically say a direct application for humans since our studies are focused on basic research. But if the same mechanisms and circuits exist in mice and humans, our studies will provide important insights into human physiologies and conditions.

 

Where did you grow up—and what started your initial interest in science?

I grew up in Japan, close to Tokyo, but not really in the center of the city. It was a nice combination between the big city and nature. There was a big park close to my house and when I was a child, I went there every day and observed plants and animals. That's pretty much how I spent my childhood. My parents are not scientists—neither of them, actually. It was just my innate interest in nature that made me want to be a scientist.

 

What drew you to Caltech?

I'm really excited about the environment here and the great climate. That's actually not trivial; I think the climate really does affect the people. For example, if you compare Southern California to New York, it's just a totally different character. I came here for a visit last January, and although it was my first time at Caltech I kind of felt a bond. I hadn't even received an offer yet, but I just intuitively thought, "This is probably the place for me."

I'm also looking forward to talking to my colleagues here who use fMRI for human behavioral research. One great advantage about using human subjects in behavioral studies is that they can report back to you about how they feel. There are certainly advantages of using an animal model, like mice. But they cannot report back. We just observe their behavior and say, "They are drinking water, so they must be thirsty." But that is totally different than someone telling you, "I feel thirsty." I believe that combining advantages of animal and human studies should allow us to address important questions about brain functions.

 

Do you have any hobbies?

I play basketball in my spare time, but my major hobby is collecting fossils. I have some trilobites and, actually, I have a complete set of bones from a type of herbivorous dinosaur. It is being shipped from New York right now and I may put it in my new office.

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How Do You Make a Greasy Protein?

Watson Lecture Preview

Every cell is encapsulated and protected by a thin membrane made of greasy molecules called lipids. Assemblies of equally greasy protein molecules span the membrane, forming passageways that control the flow of signaling molecules that, in turn, direct the cell's activities. Because of these proteins' key role in cell-to-cell communication, they have become a prime target for drug design. Professor of Biochemistry Bil Clemons is among those working out the structures of these proteins and, more fundamentally, the biological processes behind them. Clemons will discuss how cells assemble these proteins, and how they deliver them to the membrane, at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, January 7, in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium. Admission is free.

 

Q: What do you do?

A: I am nominally a structural biologist, but I'm really a crystallographer. We purify a protein in solution and then try to crystallize it, which is really, really hard. When we succeed, we make X-ray diffraction patterns of the crystals and work backwards from those patterns to calculate the precise position of every atom. This allows us to make a blueprint for the molecule, and the blueprint helps us understand how the molecule does what it does. That's my group's real interest—figuring out the biological mechanisms that underlie how a protein works. We want to understand, on a molecular level, the processes by which these proteins are targeted and inserted into the membrane.

Proteins are long chains of amino acids that assume very specific three-dimensional shapes, or conformations. The proteins we work on contain hundreds of amino acids and thousands of individual atoms. These proteins interact with other molecules as they do their jobs. When they do, their conformations change, so a large part of our work is trying to understand all these different interactions and motions.

A crystal contains millions of copies of the same molecule held in exactly one conformation, so in that sense, a crystal structure is just one snapshot of a series of biological motions. Eventually we'd like to make movies of all the conformational changes that occur during these interactions—or at least render the important frames. It's almost like producing a cheap cartoon, where the lead animator draws a few key cels, and the rest is filled in later.

 

Q: What do you get from a crystal structure?

A: We get the first glimpse of how something works. Every crystal structure provides a huge amount of information. The beauty of structural biology is that we get to be the first people to peek under the hood of a protein and draw a three-dimensional map of what we see. Science is vast, and most people work in very narrow fields, doing mechanistic studies and drug discovery and all sorts of things. Structural biologists create the platform for everyone else's studies.

 

Q: How did you get into this line of work?

A: Well, I'd like to say it was a series of happy accidents. I've always been passionate about science. In my heart, I think I was born a scientist. I always wanted to know how everything worked, and biochemistry fascinated me. There was so much complexity—so many ways to ask questions.

At Virginia Tech, I was lucky enough to have an undergraduate adviser, Walt Niehaus, who encouraged me to do research in his group. There was really no looking back after that. I just thought, "Wow. This is really fun. I like doing this." Meanwhile, I was paying my way through school. My senior year I was the student manager of one of the food-service facilities. I was working nearly 40 hours a week managing 40 employees plus spending another 20 hours in the lab and 20 hours in school. I wasn't able to look past that to what my future might be, but Walt pushed me to apply for grad school. It was eye-opening the first time he suggested I could do this for a living.

Walt's research was in basic biochemistry. There weren't any structural biologists at Virginia Tech at the time, but the Howard Hughes Medical Institute sent us a booklet with stereo pictures of protein structures. I thought, "You've got to be kidding me. We can look at these things in 3-D?" It blew my mind. So I went to grad school at the University of Utah to be a crystallographer, and I earned my PhD working on the molecular machinery responsible for making proteins. Then I did my postdoctoral work at Harvard Med, trying to understand the complex process of getting greasy membrane proteins into cell membranes. We solved the structure of an important piece of the puzzle there, and now that I'm at Caltech, which has major strengths in X-ray crystallography, we're filling in the details of the bigger picture.

 

 

Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech's iTunes U site.

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Improving The View Through Tissues and Organs

On Saturday, October 18, hundreds of undergraduate students will share the results of their projects during SURF Seminar Day. The event, which is open to the public, is an opportunity for students to discuss and explain their research to individuals with a wide-range of expertise and interests.

This summer, several undergraduate students at Caltech had the opportunity to help optimize a promising technique that can make tissues and organs—even entire organisms—transparent for study. As part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, these students worked in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Viviana Gradinaru, where researchers are developing such so-called clearing techniques that make it possible to peer straight through normally opaque tissues rather than seeing them only as thinly sectioned slices that have been pieced back together.

Gradinaru's group recently published a paper in the journal Cell describing a new approach to tissue clearing. The method they have created builds on a technique called CLARITY that Gradinaru helped develop while she was a research associate at Stanford. CLARITY allowed researchers to, for the first time, create a transparent whole-brain specimen that could then be imaged with its structural and genetic information intact.

CLARITY was specifically developed for studying the brain. But the new approach developed in Gradinaru's lab, which the team has dubbed PARS (perfusion-assisted agent release in situ), can also clear other organs, such as the kidney, as well as tissue samples, such as tumor biopsies. It can even be applied to entire organisms.

Like CLARITY, PARS involves removing the light-scattering lipids in the tissue to make samples transparent without losing the structural integrity that lipids typically provide. First the sample is infused with acrylamide monomers that are then polymerized into a hydrogel that provides structural support. Next, this tissue–hydrogel hybrid is immersed in a detergent that removes the lipids. Then the sample can be stained, often with antibodies that specifically mark cells of interest, and then immersed in RIMS (refractive index matching solution) for imaging using various optical techniques such as confocal or lightsheet microscopy.

Over the summer, Sam Wie, a junior biology major at Caltech, spent 10 weeks in the Gradinaru lab working to find a polymer that would perform better than acrylamide, which has been used in the CLARITY hydrogel. "One of the limitations of CLARITY is that when you put the hydrogel tissue into the detergent, the higher solute concentration in the tissue causes liquid to rush into the cell. That causes the sample to swell, which could potentially damage the structure of the tissue," Wie explains. "So I tried different polymers to try to limit that swelling."

Wie was able to identify a polymer that produces, over a similar amount of time, about one-sixth of the swelling in the tissue.

"The SURF experience has been very rewarding," Wie says. "I've learned a lot of new techniques, and it's really exciting to be part of, and to try to improve, CLARITY, a method that will probably change the way that we image tissues from now on."

At another bench in Gradinaru's lab, sophomore bioengineering major Andy Kim spent the summer focusing on a different aspect of the PARS technique. While antibodies have been the most common markers used to tag cells of interest within cleared tissues, they are too large for some studies—for example, those that aim to image deeper parts of the brain, requiring them to cross the blood–brain barrier. Kim's project involved identifying smaller proteins, such as nanobodies, which target and bind to specific parts of proteins in tissues.

"While PARS is a huge improvement over CLARITY, using antibodies to stain is very expensive," Kim says. "However, some of these nanobodies can be produced easily, so if we can get them to work, it would not only help image the interior of the brain, it would also be a lot less costly."

During his SURF, Kim worked with others in the lab to identify about 30 of these smaller candidate binding proteins and tested them on PARS-cleared samples.

While Wie and Kim worked on improving the PARS technique itself, Donghun Ryu, a third SURFer in Gradinaru's lab, investigated different methods for imaging the cleared samples. Ryu is a senior electrical engineering and computer science major at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST) in the Republic of Korea.

Last summer Ryu completed a SURF as part of the Caltech–GIST Summer Undergraduate Research Exchange Program in the lab of Changhuei Yang, professor of electrical engineering, bioengineering, and medical engineering at Caltech. While completing that project, Ryu became interested in optogenetics, the use of light to control genes. Since optogenetics is one of Gradinaru's specialties, Yang suggested that he try a SURF in Gradinaru's lab.

This summer, Ryu was able to work with both Yang and Gradinaru, investigating a technique called Talbot microscopy to see whether it would be better for imaging thick, cleared tissues than more common techniques. Ryu was able to work on the optical system in Yang's lab while testing the samples cleared in Gradinaru's lab.

"It was a wonderful experience," Ryu says. "It was special to have the opportunity to work for two labs this summer. I remember one day when I had a meeting with both Professor Yang and Professor Gradinaru; it was really amazing to get to meet with two Caltech professors."

Gradinaru says that the SURF projects provided a learning opportunity not only for the participating students but also for her lab. "For example," she says, "Ryu strengthened the collaboration that we have with the Yang group for the BRAIN Initiative. And my lab members benefited from the chance to serve as mentors—to see what works and what can be improved when transferring scientific knowledge. These are very important skills in addition to the experimental know-how that they master."  

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Sensors to Simplify Diabetes Management

For many patients diagnosed with diabetes, treating the disease can mean a burdensome and uncomfortable lifelong routine of monitoring blood sugar levels and injecting the insulin that their bodies don't naturally produce. But, as part of their Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) projects at Caltech, several engineering students have contributed to the development of tiny biosensors that could one day eliminate the need for these manual blood sugar tests.

Because certain patients with diabetes are unable to make their own insulin—a hormone that helps transfer glucose, or sugar, from the blood into muscle and other tissues—they need to monitor frequently their blood glucose, manually injecting insulin when sugar levels surge after a meal. Most glucose monitors require that patients prick their fingertips to collect a drop of blood, sometimes up to 10 times a day for the rest of their lives.

In their SURF projects, the students, all from Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science, looked for different ways to do these same tests but painlessly and automatically.

Mehmet SencanSenior applied physics major Mehmet Sencan has approached the problem with a tiny chip that can be implanted under the skin. The sensor, a square just 1.4 millimeters on each side, is designed to detect glucose levels from the interstitial fluid (fluid found in the spaces between cells) that is just under the skin. The glucose levels in this fluid directly relate to the blood glucose concentration.

Sencan has been involved in optimizing the electrochemical method that the chip will use to detect glucose levels. Much like a traditional finger-stick glucose meter, the chip uses glucose oxidase, an enzyme that reacts in the presence of glucose, to create an electrical current. Higher levels of glucose result in a stronger current, allowing the device to measure glucose levels based on the charge that passes through the fluid.

Once the glucose level is detected, the information is wirelessly transmitted via a radio wave frequency to a reader that uses the same frequency to power the device itself. Ultimately an external display will let the patient know if their levels are within range.

Sencan, who works in the laboratory of Axel Scherer, the Bernard Neches Professor of Electrical Engineering, Applied Physics, and Physics, and who is co-mentored by postdoctoral researcher Muhammad Mujeeb-U-Rahman, started this project three years ago during his very first SURF.

"When I started, we were just thinking about what kind of chemistry the sensor would use, and now we have a sensor that is actually designed to do that," he says. Over the summer, he implanted the sensors in rat models, and he will continue the study over the fall and spring terms using both rat and mouse models—a first step in determining if the design is a clinically viable option.

Sith DomrongkitchaipornJunior electrical engineering major Sith Domrongkitchaiporn from the Scherer laboratory, also co-mentored by Mujeeb-U-Rahman, took a different approach to glucose detection, making tiny biosensors that are inconspicuously wearable on the surface of a contact lens. "It's an interesting concept because instead of having to do a procedure to place something under the skin, you can use a less invasive method, placing a sensor on the eye to get the same information," he says.

He used the method optimized by Mehmet to determine blood glucose levels from interstitial fluid and adapted the chemistry to measure glucose in the eyes' tears. This summer, he will be attempting to fabricate the lens itself and improve upon the process whereby radio waves are used to power the sensor and then transmit data from the sensor to an external computer.

Jennifer Chih-Wen LinSURF student and sophomore electrical engineering major Jennifer Chih-Wen Lin wanted to incorporate a different kind of glucose sensor into a contact lens. "The concept—determining glucose readings from tears—is very similar to Sith's, but the method is very different," she says.

Instead of determining the glucose level based on the amount of electrical current that passes through a sample, Lin, who works in the laboratory of Hyuck Choo, assistant professor of electrical engineering, worked on a sensor that detects glucose levels from the interaction between light and molecules.

In her SURF project, she began optimizing the characterization of glucose molecules in a sample of glucose solution using a technique called Raman spectroscopy. When molecules encounter light, they vibrate differently based on their symmetry and the types of bonds that hold their atoms together. This vibrational information provides a unique fingerprint for each type of molecule, which is represented as peaks on the Raman spectrum—and the intensity of these peaks correlates to the concentration of that molecule within the sample.

"This step is important because once I can determine the relationship between peak intensities and glucose concentrations, our sensor can just compare that known spectrum to the reading from a sample of tears to determine the amount of glucose in the sample," she says.

Lin's project is in the very beginning stages, but if it is successful, it could provide a more accurate glucose measurement, and from a smaller volume of liquid, than is possible with the finger-stick method. Perhaps more importantly for patients, it can provide that measurement painlessly.

Sophia ChenAlso in Choo's laboratory, sophomore electrical engineering major Sophia Chen's SURF project involves a new way to power devices like these tiny sensors and other medical implants, using the vibrations from a patient's vocal cords. These vibrations produce the sound of our voice, and also create vibrations in the skull.

"We're using these devices called energy harvesters that can extract energy from vibrations at specific frequencies. When the vibrations go from the vocal folds to the skull, a structure in the energy harvester vibrates at the same frequency, generating energy—energy that can be used to power batteries or charge things," Chen says.

Chen's goal is to determine the frequency of these vibrations—and if the energy that they produce is actually enough to power a tiny device. The hope is that one day these vibrations could power, or at least supplement the power of, medical devices that need to be implanted near the head and that presently run on batteries with finite lifetimes.

Chen and the other students acknowledge that health-monitoring sensors powered by the human body might be years away from entering the clinic. However, this opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to a real-life challenge—such as diabetes treatment—is an important part of their training as tomorrow's scientists and engineers.

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Orchestrating the Healing Process in a Damaged Cornea

It is safe to say that the eye is an amazing biological system. One reason is its keratocyte cells—specialized cells that make up the bulk of the cornea. Unlike most of the other cells in our body, those in the cornea are transparent, making sight possible. Should something happen to make the cornea opaque, blindness results.

Sadly, injuries to the cornea do occur, sometimes in the simplest of ways, such as getting sand in one's eyes and scratching the cornea. The scar tissue that then grows to heal the cornea may have the unwanted side effect of being opaque. This does not happen, however, if the cornea and the tissue around it heal in a very orderly fashion. The question, then: Is it possible to encourage this orderly healing after an injury, thus preserving vision?

Professor of Chemical Engineering Julia Kornfield and graduate student Amy Fu are very much hoping that this is the case. To find out, they have assigned a few students, including Caltech senior and recent SURF fellow Jacqueline Masehi-Lano, to experiment with various growth factors that might inhibit the formation of scar tissue and promote orderly wound healing.

"We chose three growth factors to test because Amy Fu and I read several papers on growth factors that have been able to suppress some types of scar tissue," Masehi-Lano says. "In particular, we want to inhibit the formation of alpha smooth muscle actin, the type of stress fiber that creates opaque scars over corneal wounds. So far, the experiments I've done with cell cultures have worked pretty well, so it looks promising."

Eventually, the researchers hope to encapsulate the growth factors in a hydrogel that is reminiscent of the native cornea. "Our hydrogel starts out as a liquid and gels in situ on the eye," explains Masehi-Lano.

Masehi-Lano is enthusiastic about her experience with the SURF program. This past summer was her second in Kornfield's lab, and last year she was a recipient of an Amgen scholarship. "I'm really grateful that my mentor and my co-mentor have entrusted me with my own project and have allowed me to conduct my own experiments. And since it was my second summer in this lab, I was able to take up a leadership role by training a new SURF student," she says. "For me, SURF has gone beyond research. I've been able to improve my ability to present my research to the general public, which I think is extremely important." Indeed, Masehi-Lano was awarded the Caltech Doris S. Perpall SURF Speaking Competition for delivering the most outstanding oral research presentation.

Masehi-Lano plans to continue in bioengineering and is contemplating an MD/PhD program. "I've always been interested in the medical field, and though I'm committed to doing research," she explains, "I'd like to be able to do clinical trials and directly apply new medical technologies to people."

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A New Way to Prevent the Spread of Devastating Diseases

For decades, researchers have tried to develop broadly effective vaccines to prevent the spread of illnesses such as HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis. While limited progress has been made along these lines, there are still no licensed vaccinations available that can protect most people from these devastating diseases.

So what are immunologists to do when vaccines just aren't working?

At Caltech, Nobel Laureate David Baltimore and his colleagues have approached the problem in a different way. Whereas vaccines introduce substances such as antigens into the body hoping to illicit an appropriate immune response—the generation of either antibodies that might block an infection or T cells capable of attacking infected cells—the Caltech team thought: Why not provide the body with step-by-step instructions for producing specific antibodies that have been shown to neutralize a particular disease?

The method they developed—originally to trigger an immune response to HIV—is called vectored immunoprophylaxis, or VIP. The technique was so successful that it has since been applied to a number of other infectious diseases, including influenza, malaria, and hepatitis C.

"It is enormously gratifying to us that this technique can have potentially widespread use for the most difficult diseases that are faced particularly by the less developed world," says Baltimore, president emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology at Caltech.

VIP relies on the prior identification of one or more antibodies that are able to prevent infection in laboratory tests by a wide range of isolated samples of a particular pathogen. Once that has been done, researchers can incorporate the genes that encode those antibodies into an adeno-associated virus (AAV), a small, harmless virus that has been useful in gene-therapy trials. When the AAV is injected into muscle tissue, the genes instruct the muscle tissue to generate the specified antibodies, which can then enter the circulation and protect against infection.

In 2011, the Baltimore group reported in Nature that they had used the technique to deliver antibodies that effectively protected mice from HIV infection. Alejandro Balazs was lead author on that paper and was a postdoctoral scholar in the Baltimore lab at the time.

"We expected that at some dose, the antibodies would fail to protect the mice, but it never did—even when we gave mice 100 times more HIV than would be needed to infect seven out of eight mice," said Balazs, now at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard. "All of the exposures in this work were significantly larger than a human being would be likely to encounter."

At the time, the researchers noted that the leap from mice to humans is large but said they were encouraged by the high levels of antibodies the mice were able to produce after a single injection and how effectively the mice were protected from HIV infection for months on end. Baltimore's team is now working with a manufacturer to produce the materials needed for human clinical trials that will be conducted by the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health.

Moving on from HIV, the Baltimore lab's next goal was protection against influenza A. Although reasonably effective influenza vaccines exist, each year more than 20,000 deaths, on average, are the result of seasonal flu epidemics in the United States. We are encouraged to get flu shots every fall because the influenza virus is something of a moving target—it evolves to avoid resistance. There are also many different strains of influenza A (e.g. H1N1 and H3N2), each incorporating a different combination of the various forms of the proteins hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). To chase this target, the vaccine is reformulated each year, but sometimes it fails to prevent the spread of the strains that are prevalent that year.

But about five years ago, researchers began identifying a new class of anti-influenza antibodies that are able to prevent infection by many, many strains of the virus. Instead of binding to the head of the influenza virus, as most flu-fighting antibodies do, these new antibodies target the stalk that holds up the head. And while the head is highly adaptable—meaning that even when mutations occur there, the virus can often remain functional—the stalk must basically remain the same in order for the virus to survive. So these stalk antibodies are very hard for the virus to mutate against.

In 2013, the Baltimore group stitched the genes for two of these new antibodies into an AAV and showed that mice injected with the vector were protected against multiple flu strains, including all H1, H2, and H5 influenza strains tested. This was even true of older mice and those without a properly functioning immune system—a particularly important finding considering that most deaths from the flu occur in the elderly and immunocompromised populations. The group reported its results in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

"We have shown that we can protect mice completely against flu using a kind of antibody that doesn't need to be changed every year," says Baltimore. "It is important to note that this has not been tested in humans, so we do not yet know what concentration of antibody can be produced by VIP in humans. However, if it works as well as it does in mice, VIP may provide a plausible approach to protect even the most vulnerable patients against epidemic and pandemic influenza."

Now that the Baltimore lab has shown VIP to be so effective, other groups from around the country have adopted the Caltech-developed technique to try to ward off malaria, hepatitis C, and tuberculosis.

In August, a team led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that as many as 70 percent of mice that they had injected by the VIP procedure were protected from infection with malaria by Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that carries the most lethal of the four types of the disease. A subset of mice in the study produced particularly high levels of the disease-fighting antibodies. In those mice, the immunization was 100 percent effective.

"This is also just a first-generation antibody," says Baltimore, who was a coauthor on the PNAS study. "Knowing now that you can get this kind of protection, it's worth trying to get much better antibodies, and I trust that people in the malaria field will do that."

Most recently, a group led by researchers from The Rockefeller University showed that three hepatitis-C-fighting antibodies delivered using VIP were able to protect mice efficiently from the virus. The results were published in the September 17 issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine. The researchers also found that the treatment was able to temporarily clear the virus from mice that had already been infected. Additional work is needed to determine how to prevent the disease from relapsing. Interestingly, though, the work suggests that the antibodies that are effective against hepatitis C, once it has taken root in the liver, may work by protecting uninfected liver cells from infection while allowing already infected cells to be cleared from the body.    

An additional project is currently evaluating the use of VIP for the prevention of tuberculosis—a particular challenge given the lack of proven tuberculosis-neutralizing antibodies.

"When we started this work, we imagined that it might be possible to use VIP to fight other diseases, so it has been very exciting to see other groups adopting the technique for that purpose," Baltimore says. "If we can get positive clinical results in humans with HIV, we think that would really encourage people to think about using VIP for these other diseases."

Baltimore's work is supported by funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Caltech-UCLA Joint Center for Translational Medicine, and a Caltech Translational Innovation Partnership Award.

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