by Katherine Fenz, media relations manager
Breakthrough human embryo research
A revolutionary method to study early human embryo development developed in Ali Brivanlou’s laboratory received widespread media coverage this month. The study was the first to successfully culture human embryos for up to 14 days, the current limit for such research. Rockefeller’s associate vice president of research support Amy Wilkerson co-authored a commentary published alongside the study, calling to revisit the current guidelines in light of the advance.
The research and the ethical considerations it raises was covered by dozens in the media, including the Wall Street Journal, STAT News, and Science. National Public Radio aired an interview with Dr. Brivanlou, and the Associated Press also ran the story, which was picked up by many news outlets.
“What was possible before was to look at the human embryo for the first week, but nothing after that—it was a complete black box,” Dr. Brivanlou told National Public Radio. With this new technique, he said, “we will learn things that we cannot even imagine.”
A history of histones
Also this month, The New Yorker featured a brief history of David Allis’s research on histones, the proteins that package a cell’s DNA. In the following excerpt of the piece, written by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, Dr. Allis comments on his seminal 1996 discovery that helped explain how changes in histone structure can influence gene regulation:
“‘We became interested in the process of histone modification,’ [Allis] said. ‘What is the signal that changes the structure of the histone so that DNA can be packed into such radically different states? We finally found a protein that makes a specific chemical change in the histone, possibly forcing the DNA coil to open. And when we studied the properties of this protein it became quite clear that it was also changing the activity of genes.’ The coils of DNA seemed to open and close in response to histone modifications—inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, like life.”
More than skin deep
“Our recent papers point to a better understanding of how stem cells become malignant,” Dr. Fuchs told journalist Anna Azvolinsky. “What fascinates me most is the parallel of cancer stem cells—the cells that make cancer—with normal stem cells—the cells that make tissue. We’re learning that it is the basic mechanisms that stem cells use to make and repair tissue that become hijacked in cancer.”
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, along with postdoctoral fellow Dominik Paquet and graduate student Dylan Kwart, reported in Nature on their development of a technique based on the CRISPR genome-editing system to engineer neurons mimicking those in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The new method is an improvement upon previous CRISPR-Cas9 systems, as it reduces the repeated DNA cutting that can cause unintended edits.