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Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 04.05.15

4 May, 2015

Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust Community

A kick in the teeth for HIV

Scientists have found that the human immune system may be capable of handling high bursts of HIV activity – much more than previously thought. This new Wellcome-funded research, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, has highlighted the possibility of a ‘kick and kill’ cure for HIV.

The technique would use a vaccine to stimulate the immune system, then a chemical ‘kick’. This kick would be capable of awakening all dormant HIV that hides in a patient’s white blood cells, allowing the heightened immune system to identify and kill the virus.

This discovery came to light in a single patient study of a man who was described as an ‘elite controller.’ This means his immune system can successfully control HIV for extended periods of time. Although cautious about the results from just a single patient, scientists are confident that the demonstration of our immune system’s ability to control HIV will help them to further research a cure.

Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellow Dr Ravi Gupta said: “We’re still a long way from being able to cure HIV patients, as we still need to develop and test effective vaccines, but this study takes us one step closer by showing us what type of immune responses an effective vaccine should induce.”

Getting from A to B

L0034555 A map of the world c. 1600Taking a different route to work may help your brain connect smaller, local maps into one global map to help you to better navigate your environment.

Wellcome Trust-funded scientists have found that grid cells, a specialised type of neuron that allows us to understand our position within a certain space, are capable of forming large scale maps of distinct areas.

Scientists measured the activity of these grid cells in the brains of rats that were moving between two identical compartments connected by a corridor. Initially, the activity pattern showed two identical but separate local maps. Over time these maps became different and merged to create a single global map, showing that the rats had learnt how the compartments were linked and their locations relative to each other.

Sir Henry Dale Fellow Dr Caswell Barry said: “Grid cells tell us how far we’ve walked and in what direction, this information can be used by place cells to populate our mental maps. If the maps remain separate then it is not possible to relate the places they contain. Our results show that as we move between the areas, grid cells link everything up.”

This study was published in Current Biology.

A new path to a treatment?

B0003857 Alzheimers' disease - plaque in the brainTwo key proteins involved in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease have been found to be linked in a pathway that could offer a new therapeutic target.

Scientists have found that the breakdown of a certain protein called amyloid precursor (APP) is able to affect the levels of another protein in the brain, tau. The combination of tau and the toxic products of APP breakdown are known to cause plagues and tangles in the brain which eventually lead to neuron death.

Using human stem cells directed to become neurons with all the characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists were able to test drugs that could slow the breakdown of APP. The saw that by reducing the breakdown of APP, levels of tau were also reduced.

Not only does this research point to a new possible target for Alzheimer’s treatment, it also highlights the growing importance of human stem cells in medical research: “The question is why hasn’t this pathway been identified, given that Alzheimer’s is so well-studied?” said Dr Rick Livesey of the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research Gurdon Institute. “The answer is that mice don’t develop Alzheimer’s disease, and they don’t respond to these drugs the way human neurons do. It’s something we can only do by looking at real human neurons.”

This research was published in Cell Reports

Other Wellcome Trust-funded Research News

Research published in Lancet Psychiatry has found that the death rate from alcohol and drug misuse in former prisoners is remarkably high. Of prisoners who died within five years of release, around a third of the male deaths and half of the female deaths could be attributed to alcohol and substance abuse. Carried out in Sweden, the study highlights the possible benefit of preventive programmes in reducing the number of deaths.

A new sequencing technique developed at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute will be able to sequence the unique genome of an individual cell as well as the pattern of gene activity within it. This unprecedented level of detail will allow scientists to see exactly when mutational damage and other DNA changes occur. This research, published in Nature Methods, hopes to increase our understanding of normal and disease development.

A new study from the Sanger Institute has found that the public are increasingly more curious about the information that is held by their genes. In a survey of nearly 7000 people, 98% of those asked wanted to be informed if research using their genetic data found indicators of a serious preventable or treatable disease.

In other news…

The Wellcome Trust has recently announced funding for Theraclone Sciences’ I-STAR technology, which is able to rapidly screen antibodies from Ebola survivors for high biological activity. It is hoped that the identification of these could lead to the development of a therapeutic antibody.

Researchers at Imperial College London have announced that they are working to develop drugs that could lessen the damage caused by a heart attack, following the receipt of a Wellcome Trust grant. The Seeding Drug Discovery Initiative will support research to identify a potential drug target in the heart and candidate molecules that could help to prevent the death of heart muscle cells.

Image credits: (from top to bottom) HIV-infected cell by AJC, via Flickr CC-SA; Map of the World, Wellcome Images; Alzheimers’ disease – plaque in the brain, Cardiff University & Wellcome Images

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