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Wellcome Trust Research Round-Up: 07.03.16

7 Mar, 2016

Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Deep roots

B0000329 Human metaphase, normal male + nucleus

Credit: Wessex Reg. Genetics Centre. Wellcome Images

Complete sequencing of Aboriginal Australian men’s Y chromosome reveals a long genetic history that stretches back 50,000 years, according to new research published in Current Biology.

Conducted at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, with collaborators at La Trobe University and other Australian institutes, the study refutes a previous theory suggesting that populations migrated from India to Australia around 4000-5000 years ago.

Researchers worked closely with local Aboriginal Australian communities to sequence DNA from the Y chromosome of 13 male volunteers. The results indicated that Aboriginal Australians have a long and independent genetic history in Australia, which aligns with the archaeological record for modern humans arriving in Australia.

Dr Chris Tyler Smith, group leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute said: “By fully sequencing and analysing Y-chromosomal DNA, we have been able to trace ancient human migrations and inform living people about their ancestry. We are using the latest technology to genetically unearth our ancient history – something that has only become possible in the last decade. We look forward to further collaborations to understand more of this unique heritage.”

Baby steps

B0003565 Embryonic stem cell-derived adipocytes

Credit: Vasanta Subramanian. Wellcome Images

Scientists have successfully produced ‘naïve’ stem cells – with the ability to become any cell in the body – from human embryos for the first time, according to new research published in Stem Cell Reports.

Researchers have shown that it is possible to derive pluripotent stem cells from human embryos, which can develop into all human tissue except placenta, and grow them in the lab.  To date, it has only been possible to derive ‘primed’ pluripotent embryonic stem cells, which resemble those from an embryo which has already implanted in the womb. Compared to the naïve stem cells, these may be more restricted in the types of cells into which they can develop.

Stem cell researchers intercepted human embryo development around six days after an egg had been fertilised when it is known as a ‘blastocyst’. At this stage of development, the cells in the embryo cluster towards one side where they begin to form the different organs and tissues of the body. By removing cells at this stage, researchers were able to prevent them from ‘talking’ to each other and being steered down a particular path of development.

Naïve embryonic stem cells can develop into any type of adult tissue, and could be useful both in regenerative medicine as well as opening new avenues of research into disorders like Down’s syndrome.

Ge Guo, first author of the study, said: “Until now it hasn’t been possible to isolate these naïve stem cells, even though we’ve had the technology to do it in mice for thirty years – leading some people to doubt it would be possible. But we’ve managed to extract the cells and grow them individually in culture. Naïve stem cells have many potential applications, from regenerative medicine to modelling human disorders.”

Detecting fatty deposits

N0012667 Atherosclerosis of artery

Credit: Wellcome Images. Wellcome Images

A new imaging technique can detect dangerous fatty plaques in blood vessels that may rupture leading to a heart attack or stroke, according to new Wellcome Trust-funded research.

The build-up of fatty plaques on artery walls – known as atherosclerosis – restricts the blood flow to vital organs. If a plaque ruptures, it can cause a dangerous blood clot, which may block the blood supply to the heart or brain entirely.

Using a new optical technique called fluorescence molecular tomography, researchers were able to determine how much oxidised LDL (OxLDL) was present in mice with fatty plaques. OxLDL is known to play a major role in atherosclerosis. The researchers used a specially designed antibody to target OxLDL, and added a fluorescent marker to the antibody to track it.

During the second stage of the study, researchers used a special infrared catheter to look inside the artery and detect the fluorescent antibody. It is thought that this technique could eventually be used in humans to help doctors assess how likely an atherosclerotic plaque is to rupture.

Dr Ramzi Khamis, Lead researcher of the study published in Scientific Reports and a Clinical Research Fellow at the National Heart and Lung Institute, said: “With this research we’re trying to pick out the plaques that are most likely to rupture before they cause a heart attack. Our next step will be to modify the technique that we’ve used here so that it can be used in patients to detect dangerous plaques.

In other news…

B0007066 Memory

Credit: Neil Webb. Wellcome Images

Three British neuroscientists have been awarded the world’s most valuable prize for brain research for their outstanding work on the mechanisms of memory. This year’s winners of the €1m Euro Brain Prize are Tim Bliss, Graham Collingridge and Richard Morris. All three have received Wellcome funding during their careers and Richard Morris was Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust from 2007 to 2010.

Congratulations to Dr Hayley Francies from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, who received a highly commended award in this year’s 3Rs Prize for her work on cancer published in Cell. The prize is run by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

We’ve recently posted a series of Q&As on the Zika virus with experts in infectious diseases, mapping, climate change and anthropology. They are freely available to republish under the Creative Commons license.

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