Research Roundup: Risks in gene editing tools, reversing skin ageing, neural code of love, and more!

Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • Gene-editing technique that scientists hope will cure cancer and all inherited disease found to have dangerous flaw.  Crispr-Cas9 technology allows editing of a specific section of the genome. This has led scientists to explore its use in curing genetic diseases like muscular dystrophy and blindness and even curing cancer. A team of researchers in the US successfully used this technology to restore sight in mice. They then sequenced the entire genome of three of these animals and found that despite the mice appearing normal, hundreds of areas other than that targeted DNA sections were affected in some mice. Typically a computer algorithm is used to identify areas of the genome that have the potential to be damaged  and then those specific sections are examined. The result of this study shows that when using this technology for live animals, the entire genome needs to be sequenced in order to identify unintended mutations that may have occurred.  One of the researchers, Professor Stephen Tsang, of Columbia University, said: “We hope our findings will encourage others to use whole-genome sequencing as a method to determine all the off-target effects of their Crispr techniques and study different versions for the safest, most accurate editing.”  Researchers are confident that this technology is still medically beneficial but encourage others to be aware of the potential side effects, as with any medical intervention. This study was published in the journal Nature Methods.
  • Research on a specific brain connection brings us closer to understanding the neural code of “love”. Prairie voles are an interesting model species because,like humans, one of their mating/cohabitation styles is that of monogamy. Previous research has identified that brain chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin, acting on the medial prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens, co-occur with the formation of a monogamous pair bond in this species. In the present study, they found that the prefrontal cortex regulates the rhythmic oscillation of neurons in the nucleus accumbens — and it is this functional connection that leads to the formation of the pairbond. Moreover, using optogenetics, they were able to stimulate this connection during brief cohabitation with a mate — not long enough to facilitate pair bonding — and found that this was sufficient to induce a preference toward this mate. The results of this study lend insight to disorders which are associated with impaired social functioning such as autism. This study was published in Nature.

  • A new tool for genetic modification. Two UC Davis graduates, Arshia Firouzi and Gurkern Sufi, have developed a gene editing tool that they hope will refine animal research. Their start-up company, Ravata Solutions, came about through their combined expertise in electrical engineering (Firouzi) and biotechnology (Sufi), and together these graduates have devised a method to refine genetic engineering in research animals, particularly rodents. Genetically modified mice are widely used in human disease research, and currently these models are developed by “injecting a needle into a cell,” but this invention creates pores in the cells that will allow the insertion of genetic materials “without a trace,” said Sufi.
  • Century old drug, Methylene Blue, shows promise reversing the effects of skin aging in humans. Researchers at the University of Maryland, have recently tested methylene blue on 3D models of human skin, from human donors, and determined that the chemical improves skin viability, increases skin hydration and thickness, promotes skin elastin and collagen synthesis, and protects the skin matrix. Previous research on mice and rats over the past decade, has led to this discovery. A study in 2008 on rat liver cells demonstrated that methylene blue delays cellular aging. Then a study in 2014 suggested that methylene blue extended the lifespan of female mice by 6% when included in the food. We hope that research on this topic continues to both help the aging effects in normal humans and patients with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare genetic disorder of accelerated aging. This study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

  • New study finds that having a stroke may be a risk factor for increased alcohol consumption. It is generally accepted that excessive alcohol consumption is a risk factor for having a stroke. However, it is virtually unknown how having a stroke may later affect the inclination to consume alcohol — a question that these researchers investigated using rats. These Rats were first trained to consume alcohol using an operant self administration procedure. Next, an ischemic stroke was induced in these animals. In these animals they found an increased inclination to consume alcohol compared to prior to stroke induction. These researchers found that inhibition of a dopamine receptor (D1) was sufficient to reduce this alcohol seeking behaviour in animals with a stroke — suggesting that this is an underlying cause of this effect. “As much as possible, we tried to use a model that would replicate the experience of a human patient,” Sohrabji said. “Therefore, we think that these findings, although preliminary, might eventually help people who have experienced any type of brain injury, whether a stroke or an accident that causes traumatic brain injury.” This study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.