Research Roundup: MacArthur ”genius” relies on primates to crack the face code; transmissible Alzheimer’s disease theory gains traction 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.

  • MacArthur ”genius” relies on primates to crack the face code. Dr. Doris Tsao, Professor of Biology, T&C Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience Leadership Chair, and HHMI Investigator at the California Institute of Technology, was awarded one of the prestigious $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grants in October. In a “big win” for basic science, Tsao won the no-strings-attached award for her work in monkeys that identified brain networks that respond to faces. This research relied on recording from neurons in “face patches,” areas of the brain that responded when shown hundreds of human and monkey faces. Her work led to our understanding of how primates — including humans — process minute differences in shapes, features, tones, and textures to recognize a face. Now, Tsao is working to identify how the brain processes internal representations of the world. Her groundbreaking work, along with her professional journey, are featured extensively in Nature.
Rhesus macaque Source: CNPRC
  • Transmissible Alzheimer’s disease theory gains traction. New tests in mice have highlighted that the “sticky” proteins associated with can be transferred to non diseased individuals — although the risks to humans remains minimal. This work follows a 2015 post-mortem study of 4 humans, which discovered deposits of amyloid-beta (the protein associated with Alzheimer’s) in the brain. These four humans had one thing in common–they had been treated during childhood with growth-hormone preparations from the pituitary glands of thousands of deceased donors. The researchers tested, and then confirmed, in mice, that it was these preparations, which led to these depositions. The are following up to see if this is also true for tau proteins. This study has implications for disease transmission, particularly in regards to the sanitation of surgical instruments used on Alzheimer’s patients.
  • Researchers use wasp venom to develop bacteria-killing antibiotic. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers are using a synthetic version of venom from a South American wasp to develop a possible new antibiotic. Tests in mice show the compound is able to kill bacteria that pose a health risk. The candidate antibiotic works by piercing the cell wall to destroy the bacteria. Some scientists believe the venom could also serve as a basis to attack cancer cells. The research appears in the Dec. 7 issue of the journal Nature Communications Biology.
South American social wasp, Polybia paulista
  • Popular breast cancer drug could also be used to combat pancreatic cancer. Researchers at the Imperial College of London believe the breast cancer drug, tamoxifen, could take advantage of one of the weaknesses of pancreatic cancer. Tamoxifen is successful in fighting breast cancer because it prevents the hormone estrogen from reaching cancer cells encouraging tumor growth. Recent findings in mice show the drug also helps change the “scaffolding,” or physical environment in which tumors grow in the pancreas. The research is notable because less than one percent of pancreatic cancer sufferers survive 10 years or more. The findings were published in EMBO Reports.
  • Novel mechanisms into how dengue and Zika cause microcephaly. An international, multi-institutional team led by researchers of the University of California, San Francisco and Baylor College of Medicine have reported this week on collaboration with investigated how dengue fever and Zika (both flaviviruses) cause infection. The researchers conducted systematic comparative analyses of the interactions of proteins from dengue and Zika viruses with proteins from the host, both mosquitoes and humans. They discovered new strategies via which the virus can infect the host–for example, they found that some viral proteins counteract interferon response genes, a human and mosquito defense mechanism, and that other viral proteins hijack host proteins and redirect their activities to replicate the virus. The researchers combined their systematic comparative analysis with experiments with the fruit fly animal model and discovered an intriguing mechanism that can explain infant microcephaly associated with maternal Zika virus infection. Published in Cell.