Biomedical Researchers Explore New Approaches to Flu, Cancer, and Cell Division

A look at recent research from Pew-supported scholars and fellows

Biomedical Researchers Explore New Approaches to Flu, Cancer, and Cell Division
A colored transmission electron microscope view of the H3N2 flu virus. As flu season continues, 2016 Pew biomedical scholar Trevor Bedford is tracking the disease’s spread around Seattle.
CDC/Science Photo Library via Getty

Close to 200 scientists gathered in Sarasota, Florida, in March for the 2019 Pew annual meeting in the biomedical sciences, a week-long educational and networking event for talented researchers supported by Pew who are pursuing innovative solutions to advance human health. This annual gathering allows attendees to share their latest research plans and findings, connect with fellow scientists, and learn from one another’s experiences, successes, and challenges. Here is a closer look at the current work of some Pew-supported scientists. 

A first-of-its-kind flu study in Seattle

As this year’s flu season continues, 2016 Pew scholar Trevor Bedford is tracking the disease’s spread around Seattle. With help from a team of researchers from the University of Washington, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, and the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, the Seattle Flu Study aims to take a closer look at how the disease emerges and spreads through a community by gathering up to 10,000 samples from people experiencing flu symptoms before they visit a doctor. At kiosks placed throughout Seattle in places such as child care and senior centers, researchers collect nose swabs to identify circulating flu strains. Geographic data on where the samples are collected will also be used in the analysis. Bedford, the study’s lead data scientist, will examine how the viruses are related from one person to another, and the spread of different strains throughout the community.

New targets for aggressive cancers

Cigall Kadoch, a 2015 Pew-Stewart scholar, studies synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer of the soft tissues. Her lab previously discovered that the disease might be caused by changes in a protein complex that regulates gene activity. Now, her lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has revealed that a specific “molecular machine,” called ncBAF, plays a major role in the proliferation of not only synovial sarcoma, but also rhabdoid tumors, a rare and aggressive pediatric cancer that arises in the kidney, liver, and peripheral nerves. Made up of several proteins, ncBAF is responsible for remodeling the way DNA is packaged in a cell, and subsequently controls which genes are turned on and off. Kadoch discovered that two subunits within ncBAF can be targeted by existing molecules that disrupt complex function, halting the growth of both cancers. Nature Cell Biology first reported this finding, which offers an exciting opportunity toward the development of therapeutic intervention against these aggressive cancers. 

Collaborative study of cell division

Labs run by two principal investigators instead of one are a rare sight in the academic world.  However, Pew scholars Gloria Brar and Elçin Ünal find that working together to lead a joint lab at the University of California, Berkeley has many benefits. Recently profiled in the Journal of Cell Science, this duo shares group meetings, laboratory space, equipment and an office, exemplifying the essence of team science and collaboration, even though their work does not entirely overlap. They both study meiosis—the unique form of cell division responsible for the creation of germ cells, such as sperm and eggs—but have different perspectives and viewpoints to parse out their differing hypotheses. Their complementary approaches create synergy to help them tackle some of the bigger questions in their field.

Latin American fellows start labs back home

The Pew Latin American Fellows Program provides Latin American scientists funding to receive postdoctoral training at leading research institutions in the United States. To help encourage and strengthen scientific communities across borders, fellows who return home after their training are eligible to receive additional funds to help kick-start their independent research careers, an opportunity several fellows have recently taken. For example, Daiana A. Capdevila, 2016 Pew fellow at Indiana University in Bloomington, will head back to Argentina to start her own lab at the Leloir Institute Foundation, where she will use biochemical and biophysical approaches to study how pathogenic bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics and the immune system. Her research will strive to develop new antimicrobial strategies. Fernando J. Bustos, a 2015 fellow, recently returned to Chile as an assistant professor at Andres Bello University, where he uses genome editing tools to better understand the different effects of mutations associated with autism. This work could uncover important mechanisms underlying how neuronal functions are disturbed in individuals with the disorder.

Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs.

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