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ASHG Honors Janina Jeff, PhD, with Its $10,000 Advocacy Award for Producing Hip-Hop Inspired Podcast That Uses Genetics to Uncover Lost Identities of African-Descended Americans Through Lens of Black Culture

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) has named Janina Jeff, PhD, MS, as the 2020 recipient of the Society’s Advocacy Award ( Dr. Jeff is the host and executive producer of “In Those Genes,” described as “a hip-hop inspired podcast that uses genetics to uncover the lost identities of African descended Americans through the lens of Black Culture.” See sample podcast at Dr. Jeff is a Senior Scientist at Illumina, a company at the intersection of biology and technology. This award, which includes a plaque with a $10,000 prize, honors individuals or groups who have exhibited excellence and achievement in applications of human genetics for the common good, in areas such as facilitating public awareness of genetics issues, promoting funding for biomedical research, and integrating genetics into health systems. “Dr. Janina Jeff’s groundbreaking podcast ‘In Those Genes’ has provided fundamental insight into genetics and the exploration of the lost identities of African-descended Americans through the lens of Black culture,” said ASHG President Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD. “She is also an inspiring leader with a deep commitment to educating others and is a very important spokesperson in human genetics for a wider audience beyond scientists.” “In the wake of COVID-19, the podcast has quickly evolved as a forum dispensing scientific and medical truths and dispelling rumors and conspiracy theories circulating in the Black community on social media,” said Dana Crawford, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Population and Quantitative Health Services, Case Western University, in her nomination letter. Dr.

Two UTSW Studies in Science Focus on Elucidating Molecular Underpinnings of Schistosiomiasis

Two studies led by University of Texas (UT) Southwestern (UTSW) researchers have shed light on the biology and potential vulnerabilities of schistosomes – parasitic flatworms that cause the little-known tropical disease schistosomiasis. The findings, published in the Septembr 25, 2020 issue of Science, could change the course of this disease that kills up to 250,000 people a year. About 240 million people around the world have schistosomiasis – mostly children in Africa, Asia, and South America in populations that represent “the poorest of the poor,” says study leader James J. Collins (photo) (, PhD, Associate Professor in UTSW’s Department of Pharmacology. Most of those infected survive, but those who die often suffer organ failure or parasite-induced cancer. Symptoms can be serious enough to keep people from living productive lives, Dr. Collins says. The parasite that causes this disease has a complicated life cycle that involves stages in both freshwater snails and mammals. Dwelling in mammalian hosts’ circulatory systems, schistosomes feed on blood and lay copious numbers of eggs, all while causing an array of symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody stool, or blood in the urine. Larval worms are released from snails into water, where the flatworms then may infect humans by penetrating the skin. Schistosomiasis may become a chronic disease that affects the person for years. Only one drug, praziquantel, is available to treat this condition. However, Dr. Collins explains, it is of limited use – it doesn’t kill all intramammalian stages of the schistosome life cycle, and it has a variable cure rate in some endemic settings. There’s been little interest by pharmaceutical companies in developing new drugs for this disease, he adds, because there is no monetary incentive to do so.

Fighting Intestinal Infections with Body's Own Endocannabinoids: Native Chemicals Similar to Those Found in Cannabis Can Inhibit Bacterial Virulence, UTSW-Led Study Suggests

Endocannabinoids, signaling molecules produced in the body that share features with chemicals found in marijuana, can shut down genes needed for some pathogenic intestinal bacteria to colonize, multiply, and cause disease, new research led by University of Texas (UT) Southwestern (UTSW) scientists shows. The findings, published online on October 7, 2020 in Cell, could help explain why the cannabis plant--the most potent part of which is marijuana--can lessen the symptoms of various bowel conditions and may eventually lead to new ways to fight gastrointestinal infections. The Cell article is titled” Endocannabinoids Inhibit the Induction of Virulence in Enteric Pathogens.” Discovered in 1992, endocannabinoids are lipid-based neurotransmitters that play a variety of roles in the body, including regulating immunity, appetite, and mood. Cannabis and its derivatives have long been used to relieve chronic gastrointestinal conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Studies have shown that dysregulation of the body’s endocannabinoid system can lead to intestinal inflammation and affect the makeup of gut microbiota, the population of different bacterial species that inhabit the digestive tract. However, study leader Vanessa Sperandio (photo), PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Biochemistry at UTSW, says it’s been unknown whether endocannabinoids affect susceptibility to pathogenic gastrointestinal infections.

ASHG 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting to Showcase Innovative Research in Human Genetics (October 27-30)

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting taking place October 27-30 will showcase global advances in human genetics and genomics research that are transforming the scientific landscape and leading to new advances in the treatment of devastating diseases. The ASHG 2020 Virtual Meeting ( will feature more than 200 oral presentations, nearly 2,000 scientific poster presentations, 80+ exhibit booths, networking and professional development opportunities, and more, making it the digital epicenter of human genetics. As always, it will be among the world’s largest events for genetic and genomic discovery, with thousands of scientists, clinicians, advocates, and others participating from more than 50 countries.“As a global showcase of the latest developments in human genetics, the ASHG 2020 Virtual Meeting will provide an online venue for researchers who conduct human genetics and genomics research around the world to exchange scientific knowledge,” said Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD, ASHG President. “I am excited about the fantastic talks, posters, and special sessions, that will be presented at the Virtual Meeting.” The meeting will host chat sessions throughout the program to continue scientific conversations and exchanges around the latest scientific updates and breakthroughs. The Society will also recognize the outstanding scientific achievements of its members in the human genetics and genomics community with special awards and lectures throughout the meeting. Not only will the ASHG 2020 Virtual Meeting host exceptional plenaries, but also concurrent programming sessions covering critical areas of the field.

Simple Sugar (N-Acetylglucosamine) May Be Possible Therapy for Repairing Myelin in Multiple Sclerosis, Study in JBC Suggests

N-acetylglucosamine (image), a simple sugar found in human breast milk and sold as an over-the-counter dietary supplement in the United States, promotes myelin repair in mouse models and correlates with myelination levels in multiple sclerosis patients according to a new University of California, Irvine (UCI)-led study. Published online on September25, 2020 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the study also demonstrates that in mice, delivering N-acetylglucosamine orally to lactating mothers drove primary myelination in their nursing offspring. N-acetylglucosamine is a simple sugar that is metabolically attached to proteins at the cell surface to control cellular function. "We found that N-acetylglucosamine activates myelin stem cells to promote primary myelination and myelin repair," said Michael Demetriou, MD, PhD, FRCP(C), Professor of Neurology, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the UCI School of Medicine and leader of the study. "Our data raises the intriguing possibility that N-acetylglucosamine may be a simple therapy to promote myelin repair in multiple sclerosis patients". Formal human studies will be required to test this theory. The open-access JBC article is titled “N-Acetylglucosamine Drives Myelination by Triggering Oligodendrocyte Precursor Cell Differentiation.” The failure of robust re-myelination following inflammatory demyelination in multiple sclerosis leads to chronic disability and neurodegeneration. Myelin insulates the long, cable-like nerve cell branches called axons, and serves to increase the speed of electrical signal conduction between neurons. Myelination in the central nervous system also plays an important role in cognitive development during childhood.

Genomic Study Reveals Evolutionary Secrets of Banyan Fig Tree’s Aerial Roots and Specific Wasp Pollinator

The banyan fig tree Ficus microcarpa (photo) is famous for its aerial roots, which sprout from branches and eventually reach the soil. The tree also has a unique relationship with a wasp that has coevolved with it and is the only insect that can pollinate it. In a new study, researchers identify regions in the banyan fig's genome that promote the development of its unusual aerial roots and enhance its ability to signal its wasp pollinator. The study, published online on October 8, 2020 in the journal Cell, also identifies a sex-determining region in a related fig tree, Ficus hispida. Unlike F. microcarpa, which produces aerial roots and bears male and female flowers on the same tree, F. hispida produces distinct male and female trees and no aerial roots. The Cell article is titled “Genomes of the Banyan Tree and Pollinator Wasp Provide Insights into Fig-Wasp Coevolution.” Understanding the evolutionary history of Ficus species and their wasp pollinators is important because their ability to produce large fruits in a variety of habitats makes them a keystone species in most tropical forests, said Ray Ming, PhD, a Plant Biology Professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign who led the study with Jin Chen, PhD, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Figs are known to sustain at least 1,200 bird and mammal species. Fig trees were among the earliest domesticated crops and appear as sacred symbols in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other spiritual traditions. The relationship between figs and wasps also presents an intriguing scientific challenge. The body shapes and sizes of the wasps correspond exactly to those of the fig fruits, and each species of fig produces a unique perfume to attract its specific wasp pollinator. To better understand these evolutionary developments, Dr.

Blocking Alternative Complement Pathway with Factor D Inhibitor May Halt COVID-19 Infection & Prevent Severe Organ Damage, Johns Hopkins Study Suggests

While the world waits eagerly for a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infections from severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers also are focusing on better understanding how SARS-CoV-2 attacks the body in the search for other means of stopping its devastating impact. The key to one possibility--blocking a protein that enables the virus to turn the immune system against healthy cells--has been identified in a recent study by a team of Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers. Based on their findings, the researchers believe that inhibiting the protein, known as factor D (image), also will curtail the potentially deadly inflammatory reactions that many patients have to the virus. Making the discovery even more exciting is the fact that there may already be drugs in development and testing for other diseases that can do the required blocking. The study was published online on September 2, 2020, in Blood. The open-access article is titled “Direct Activation of the Alternative Complement Pathway by SARS-CoV-2 Spike Proteins Is Blocked by Factor D Inhibition.” Scientists already know that spike proteins on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are the means by which it attaches to cells targeted for infection. To do this, the spikes first grab hold of heparan sulfate, a large, complex sugar molecule found on the surfaces of cells in the lungs, blood vessels, and smooth muscle making up most organs. Facilitated by its initial binding with heparan sulfate, SARS-CoV-2 then uses another cell-surface component, the protein known as angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), as its doorway into the attacked cell. The Johns Hopkins Medicine team discovered that when SARS-CoV-2 ties up heparan sulfate, it prevents factor H from using the sugar molecule to bind with cells.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 Awarded for Monumental Discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 Genome Editing by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna

On October 7, 2020, it was announced that The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 jointly to Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany and Jennifer A. Doudna, PhD, University of California, Berkeley, USA “for the development of a method for genome editing.” Dr. Charpentier (at right in photo) and Dr. Doudna (at left in photo) discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants, and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies, and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true. Researchers need to modify genes in cells if they are to find out about life’s inner workings. This used to be time-consuming, difficult, and sometimes impossible work. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks. “There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionized basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” says Claes Gustafsson, MD, PhD, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. As so often in science, the discovery of these genetic scissors was unexpected. During Dr. Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

ASU’s Dr. Carl Yamashiro's Innovative Teaching Approach Gives Diagnostics Students Real-World Experience; His Outstanding Efforts Have Been Recognized by 2020 Arizona Bioscience Educator of the Year Award

Carl Yamashiro ( and at end), PhD, an Associate Clinical Professor at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University(ASU), has been named the 2020 Michael A. Cusanovich Arizona Bioscience Educator of the Year by the Arizona Bioindustry Association (AZ Bio) for his innovation and creativity in preparing the next generation of biomedical diagnostics professionals. In 2014, Dr. Yamashiro joined the International School of Biomedical Diagnostics, a partnership created by ASU President Michael Crow, PhD, and College of Health Solutions Professor of Practice Mara Aspinall, MBA, with Dublin City University in Ireland to offer the first Master of Science in Biomedical Diagnostics degree. This degree is designed to provide a more holistic understanding of biomedical diagnostics by joining the technology and science of diagnostics with a business and application approach. Dr. Yamashiro’s extensive experience in the diagnostics industry-- combined with his academic expertise--has been instrumental in developing an innovative degree program where students apply their diagnostics knowledge to real-world health challenges. Part of that industry-academia connection is the Applied Projects course (, the degree’s culminating experience Dr. Yamashiro created that has partnered with 40 companies, organizations, and institutions from Arizona, the U.S., and around the world to offer teams of students hands-on experience and the opportunity to build relationships with industry leaders. The students work to solve issues within these companies and organizations, putting into practice all the skills and knowledge they have gained from their biomedical diagnostics courses.

Caltech Researcher Unveils Low-Cost Device That Detects SARS-CoV-2 Virus, Anti-Virus Antibodies, and Inflammatory Molecules in Under 10 Minutes; Device Designed for Home Use & Detects Virus in Infected, But Still Pre-Symptomatic Individuals

One feature of the COVID-19 virus that makes it so difficult to contain is that it can be easily spread to others by a person who has yet to show any signs of infection. The carrier of the virus might feel perfectly well and go about his/her daily business--taking the virus with him/her to work, to the home of a family member, or to public gatherings. A crucial part of the global effort to stem the spread of the pandemic, therefore, is the development of tests that can rapidly identify infections in people who are not yet symptomatic. Now, Caltech researchers have developed a new type of multiplexed test (a test that combines multiple kinds of data) with a low-cost sensor that may enable the at-home diagnosis of a COVID infection through rapid analysis of small volumes of saliva or blood, without the involvement of a medical professional, in less than 10 minutes. The research was conducted in the lab of Wei Gao, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Department of Medical Engineering at Caltech. Previously, Dr. Gao and his team have previously developed wireless sensors that can monitor conditions such as gout, as well as stress levels, through the detection of extremely low levels of specific compounds in blood, saliva, or sweat. Dr. Gao's sensors are made of graphene, a sheet-like form of carbon. A plastic sheet etched with a laser generates a 3D graphene structure with tiny pores. Those pores create a large amount of surface area on the sensor, which makes it sensitive enough to detect, with high accuracy, compounds that are only present in very small amounts. In this sensor, the graphene structures are coupled with antibodies, immune system molecules that are sensitive to specific proteins, like those on the surface of a COVID virus, for example.

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