The missing link in creating cancer-fighting drugs, unlocking clues to human disease and using CRISPR to save chocolate.

Milestone Research on Madagascar Periwinkle Uncovers Pathway to Cancer-Fighting Drugs

(DDDmag, 5/7/2018, John Innes Centre)

After 15 years of research, the team at the John Innes Centre have located the last missing gene in the genome of the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) that are devoted to building the chemical vinblastine. This valuable natural product has been used as an anti-cancer drug since it was discovered in the 1950s by a Canadian research team. A potent inhibitor of cell division and used against lymphomas and testicular, breast, bladder and lung cancers, it is found in the leaves of Madagascar periwinkle. Until now, the complex chemical mechanisms the periwinkle uses in the production of vinblastine have not been fully understood. Consequently, access to its life-extending chemistry has been laborious—it takes approximately 500 kg of dried leaves to produce 1g of vinblastine. But the new study, which appears in Science, uses modern genome sequencing techniques to identify the final missing genes in the pathway. This research also identifies enzymes that build vinblastine precursor chemicals, which include catharanthine and tabersonine. These can be readily chemically coupled using synthetic biology techniques to give us vinblastine.

Zebrafish Help Unlock Clues to Human Disease

(ALN Magazine, 5/8/2018, Patrick Smith)

If you have been following our Eureka Blog, you know that we are big fans of the Zebrafish. But why? One of the most interesting things about zebrafish is that when they lose something—an eye, a fin, a tail, even individual cell types—they grow a new one. Because their genetic profile is remarkably similar to our own, zebrafish are also found in the Miller Research Building on the medical campus of The Johns Hopkins University, where they provide scientists with genetic clues to medical mysteries. The fish have helped investigators at Johns Hopkins make important breakthroughs toward regenerating eye tissue, understanding thyroid cancer and making sense of the DNA tangles that regulate cell activity. The Center for Functional Investigation in Zebrafish — or the FINZ center — is a research core facility of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. Thirty different cores from departments across The Johns Hopkins University offer more than 500 different research-related services. The centers allow investigators to share valuable resources and expertise, saving both time and dollars. While zebrafish share about 71 percent of the human genome, in some key cases, fish genes are near-perfect matches for people. According to a 2013 study by British researchers, 82 percent of genes associated with human diseases and disorders have a zebrafish counterpart.

Cocoa CRISPR: Gene editing shows promise for improving the ‘chocolate tree’

(Penn State News, 5/9/2018, Chuck Gill)

The cacao tree, which grows in tropical regions, produces the cocoa beans that are the raw material of chocolate. Reliable productivity from cacao plants is essential to the multibillion-dollar chocolate industry, the economies of producing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small cacao farmers. But each year, several plant diseases severely limit global production, with 20-30 percent of cocoa pods destroyed preharvest, noted lead author Andrew Fister, postdoctoral scholar in plant science at Penn State. Researchers reported recently, in Frontiers in Plant Science, study results which were thought to be the first to demonstrate the feasibility of using cutting-edge CRISPR technology to improve Theobroma cacao. Previous work in cacao identified a gene, known as TcNPR3, that suppresses the plant’s disease response. The researchers hypothesized that using CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out this gene would result in enhanced disease resistance. The ultimate goals of Penn State cacao research are to help raise the standard of living for smallholder growers and stabilize a threatened cocoa supply by developing plants that can withstand diseases, climate change and other challenges. Can you imagine a world with no chocolate? Neither can I!


—Compiled by Social Media Specialist Jillian Scola