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Daniel Dunaief

Image courtesy of Disney Dan Stevens as the Beast and Emma Watson as Belle star in Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Image courtesy of Disney

By Daniel Dunaief

The latest version of “Beauty and the Beast,” which broke box office records when it opened last weekend, offers a visually stunning montage, as one magnificent set blends into the next in a familiar story that, not much of a spoiler here, tracks the well-known story.

The sets, cinematography and songs take center stage in this live-action remake, as Disney spared no expense to make the enchanted castle, the quiet village where every day is like the one before, and the journey through the forest between them as detailed and lavish as the animated version. The script and main actors, including Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast, are fine, but not extraordinary.

Disney may not have wanted to tinker too much with a classic film and its well-known dialog, leaving the original script largely unchanged. That is both for the better and the worse, as this current incarnation lacks a novel flavor, a new Disney humor and charm, or the opportunity to explore much more about the characters. There are a few welcome moments when the audience learns more about unfortunate events in Belle and the Beast’s past, but those are short-lived in a film that is over two hours.

Luke Evans does a serviceable job as Gaston, conveying the narcissistic brute who seems more in love with his own reflection than he is with Belle or anyone else. The charm or the irresistibility the villagers feel for him is not evident to Belle or to the audience.

Josh Gad provides welcome comic relief as Gaston’s companion LeFou, fawning over him and calming him down when things don’t go his way. Gad takes his character further than the animated version of LeFou, becoming impish and playful.

Like the Broadway version of the classic animated film “Aladdin” and its “Never Had a Friend Like Me” song, “Beauty and the Beast” somehow equals and, in some ways, exceeds the original film with its “Be Our Guest” feature. While Belle prepares for her meal, the creatures of the castle surround her with food, song and spectacle.

While the script and the characters stay true to the Broadway and animated versions of the story, the visual details truly make the film memorable. The finale in the castle looks like the kind of details an eager bride would include if she had an unlimited budget, with symmetrical floral arrangements, magnificent lighting, perfectly spaced dancers and a cast of characters delighted to share in the space.

For parents, the scenes of peril with the wolves outside the Beast’s castle are familiar and filled with the same kind of potential for danger. Young children will likely be as concerned for the welfare of Belle and the Beast in the wolf scenes of this film as they would be watching the animated version.

The fight scene between the Beast and Gaston also involves some peril, with Gaston displaying a combination of cowardice and villainy. At the same time, the fight scene between the villagers incited by Gaston to battle and the members of the enchanted castle who are defending themselves also contains some of the few moments of humor in a film that otherwise takes its tale and the retelling of it seriously.

Some of the other cast members, including Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, have a tough act to follow, repeating familiar phrases and songs from Angela Lansbury. Thompson holds her own, regaling the audience with the lyrics from a tale as old as time.

The three-dimensional version of the film included a few noticeable effects, including when Belle and the Beast engage in a snowball fight. It also adds some depth to the image of the castle and the trek through the woods. The additional expense, however, didn’t seem especially necessary, given an elaborate attention to other visual details.

Line Pouchard at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013. Photo by Allan Miller

By Daniel Dunaief

They produce so much information that they can’t keep up with it. They use the latest technology to gather data. Somewhere, hidden inside the numbers, might be the answer to current questions as well as the clues that lead to future questions researchers don’t know how to ask yet.

Scientists in almost every facility, including at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Stony Brook University, are producing information at an unprecedented rate. The Center for Data-Driven Discovery at Brookhaven National Laboratory can help interpret and make sense of all that information.

Senior researcher Line Pouchard joined BNL’s data team early this year, after a career that included 15 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (another Department of Energy facility) and more than two-and-a-half years at Purdue University. “The collaborations at the [DOE] lab are highly effective,” she said. “They have a common purpose and a common structure for the scientist.” Pouchard’s efforts will involve working with metadata, which adds annotations to provide context and a history of a file, and machine learning, which explores large blocks of information for patterns. “As science grows and the facility grows, we are creating more data,” she said.

Scientists can share large quantities of information, passing files through various computer systems. “You may want to know how this data has been created, what the computer applications or codes are that have been used, who developed it and who the authors are,” she said.

Knowing where the information originated can help the researchers determine whether to trust the content and the way it came together, although there are other requirements to ensure that scientists can trust the data. If the metadata and documentation are done properly “this can tell you how you can use it and what kind of applications and programs you can use to continue working with it,” Pouchard said. Working in the Computational Science Initiative, Pouchard will divide her time between responding to requests for assistance and conducting her own research.

“At Purdue, [Pouchard] was quite adept at educating others in understanding metadata, and the growing interest and emphasis on big data in particular,” explained Jean-Pierre Herubel, a professor of library science at Purdue, in an email. Herubel and Pouchard were on the research council committee, and worked together with other members to shepherd their research agendas for the Purdue University library faculty.

Pouchard “has a capacity to participate well with colleagues; regarding national and international venues, she will be a strong participating member,” Herubel continued. “She does well working and integrating with others.”

Pouchard recently joined a team that submitted a proposal in the area of earth science and data preservation. She has also worked on something called the Semantic Web. The idea, which was proposed by Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, is to allow the use of data items and natural language concepts in machine readable and machine actionable forms. As an example, this could include generating rules for computers that direct the machines to handle the multiple meanings of a word.

One use of the Semantic Web is through searches, which allows people to look for information and data and, once they’re collected, gives them a chance to sort through them. Combined with other technologies, the Semantic Web can allow machines to do the equivalent of searching through enormous troves of haystacks.

“When I first started talking about the Semantic Web, I was at Oak Ridge in the early days,” Pouchard said. Since then, there has been considerable progress, and the work and effort have received more support from scientists.

Pouchard was recently asked to “work with ontologies [a Semantic Web technology] in a proposal,” she said, which suggests they are getting more traction. She is looking forward to collaborating with several scientists at BNL, including Kerstin Kleese van Dam, the director of the Computational Sciences Initiative and the interim director of the Center for Data-Driven Discovery.

Kleese van Dam has “an incredible vision of what is needed in science in order to improve computational science,” said Pouchard, who met the director about a decade ago when van Dam was working in England. Pouchard has an interest in data repositories, which she explored when she worked at Purdue University.

Living temporarily in Wading River, Pouchard bought a home in Rocky Point and hopes to move in soon. Her partner Allan Miller, from Knoxville, Tennessee, owned and managed the Disc Exchange in Knoxville for 26 years. He is starting to help small business owners and non-profit organizations with advertising needs. Pouchard experienced Long Island when she was conducting her Ph.D. research at the City University of New York and took time out to visit a friend who lived in Port Jefferson.

When she’s not working on the computer, Pouchard, who is originally from Normandy, France, enjoys scuba diving, which she has done in the Caribbean, in Hawaii, in Mexico and a host of other places.

When Pouchard was young, she visited with her grandparents during the summer at the beach in Normandy, in the town of Barneville-Carteret. Her parents, and others in the area, lectured their children never to go near or touch metal objects they found in the dunes because unexploded World War II devices were still occasionally found in remote areas. The environment on Long Island, with the marshes, reminds her of her visits years ago.

Pouchard has an M.S. in information science from the University of Tennessee and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the City University of New York.

As for her work, Pouchard said she is “really interested in the Computational Science Initiative at BNL, which enables researchers to collaborate. Computational science is an integral part of the facilities,” at her new research home.

From left, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya in a scene from ‘Get Out,’ now playing at local theaters. Photo courtesy of Universal

By Daniel Dunaief

Race permeates Jordan Peele’s directorial debut “Get Out” so thoroughly that the film is like a battery, with the white people on one side and the African-Americans on the other. Between them, the electricity of an unusual horror film flows with a shocking effect.

The film starts off with the feel of Sidney Poitier’s masterpiece, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams, bringing her African-American boyfriend Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her parents. Even though she says he’s the only African-American man she’s dated, she makes it clear that her parents will be totally cool with her choice and that they’ll support the biracial couple. And yet, the film quickly disposes of any notion of a simple meeting between an African-American man and potentially liberal white America.

Daniel Kaluuya in a hypnotic scene from ‘Get Out’. Photo courtesy of Universal

While Chris meets several African-American people around his girlfriend’s parents’ house, each encounter has a Hitchcock quality, with an eerie disconnect that suggests an unexplained distance.

On the other hand, Rose’s parents and her over-the-top creepy brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who wants to fight with Chris at dinner, introduce a terrifying blend of personalities. Catherine Keener is at her creepy best, playing Rose’s hypnotist mother Missy while Bradley Whitford as Rose’s father Dean seems on the verge of supporting and attacking Chris at the same time.

Chris’s best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who spends much of the movie talking to Chris by cell phone, threatens to steal the movie. A TSA agent, Rod provides comic relief, infusing the movie with humorous lines that seem straight out of a paranoid playbook, until he seems like the only one who might have a clue about what could be going on at Rose’s house.

The movie is a true horror film, which means there’s gore and an undercurrent of violence. Each scene, which occurs in upstate New York, could easily have been filmed in Salem, Massachusetts, home of mass hysteria and witch trials.

As the movie progresses, Peele gradually reviews details about the Armitage family, and the people who share the upstate neighborhood, that blur the line between mundane and creepy. When the plot unfolds, all the details about how Chris and the audience got there become clear.

The final 20 minutes of the film blend horror, gore, comedy and social satire. Some of the particular details of the plot reside in the willing suspension of disbelief. Thinking through the specifics detracts from the film’s value as entertainment and social commentary.

The audience in the packed theater reacted to the climactic scenes of “Get Out” in a way that would likely please Peele, as they shared the drama of a gruesome experience that strays from customary plot points to shocking drama and horror.

While the film offers a disturbing take on race, it also tells a dramatic story that drives the viewer through to the chilling end. While it’s not Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” it does reveal a captivating, literally at times, story that keeps the audience guessing and at times horrified.

The best element of “Get Out” is the balance between horror and comedy, provided primarily by Rod, whose fast-talking, high-pitched responses to situations he senses aren’t what they seem are endearing and amusing.

While “Get Out” offers the audience plenty to ponder after the movie ends, the action and the plot won’t appeal to everyone. It earns its R rating with violence, horror, foul language and dangerous, suspenseful situations. Still, the movie exposes a fresh look at the races, albeit with novel plot devices, and it seemed to satisfy its viewers with unexpected and jarring visuals, music and close-ups.

Above, members of the New York Chapter of The Children’s Heart Foundation present CSHL Research Assistant Professor Michael Ronemus with a $50,000 check from The Children’s Heart Foundation for his recently funded research grant on Feb. 23. Photo courtesy of ©C. Brukin, 2017/Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

By Daniel Dunaief

Just before he took a holiday break in December, Michael Ronemus received a welcome surprise. “In the last afternoon before the holidays, I got a call from William Foley. He said, ‘Congratulations,’” recalled Ronemus, a research assistant professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “I submitted the application in May and I didn’t know what to expect.”

Foley, the executive director at the Children’s Heart Foundation, was reaching out to Ronemus to let him know he was one of seven researchers — six in North America and one in Europe — to receive funding for his research. Ronemus received a check for $50,000 at a presentation ceremony on Feb. 23.

Scientists are seeking out private foundations more as they search for sources of funding, said Ronemus. The funds will help Ronemus use next-generation sequencing to look closely at 120 families for evidence of copy number variation in their genes.

 

When a person has a different number of copies of a part of a specific gene, that can be a positive, neutral or negative event, depending on the consequence for the individual. Most copy number variations are neutral, which is why people have hundreds of them in their genes. Copy number variations can contribute, however, to de novo mutations, presenting changes in a genetic code that can make the genes of an offspring different from those of his or her parents. If these mutations damage a gene that’s essential for normal development of the heart, they can contribute to congenital heart defects.

Michael Ronemus explains the relevance of his research to the community at the check presentation event on Feb. 23. Photo courtesy of ©C. Brukin, 2017/Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Indeed, the Children’s Heart Foundation has contributed $8.7 million to research, hoping to improve the ability to prevent, diagnose and treat the 40,000 people born each year in the United States with a heart defect. Of the children born with a heart defect, about one in four, has a form of critical congenital heart disease, said Jon Kaltman, the chief in the Heart Development and Structures Diseases Branch of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. That means he or she will most likely require surgery within the first year of life, although most have it within the first month.

At this point, doctors and researchers understand the genetic cause of congenital heart disease for a small percent of people. The work of the Pediatric Cardiac Genomics Consortium hopes to make this true for a larger number of people with a congenital heart defect, Kaltman said.

Knowing the genetics of a patient and his or her family could be “helpful for that family to understand what might have caused the congenital heart disease” said Kaltman, who has been a pediatric cardiologist since 2005. “If that family were to have another child” the genetics could help assess the “risk that a second child will also have a congenital heart defect.”

A greater awareness of the genes involved in heart disease could also provide a guide for the way the defect might react to treatment. “We see patients with identical looking hearts [on an echocardiogram] from different families in which they undergo surgery” and have different reactions, Kaltman said. “One does well and has few complications and the other develops arrhythmias at 15 and heart failure at 25.”

The differences in respones to treatment for those patients may be genetic. “For the patient with the genetic signal for the complicated course, we can do more interventions early on,” Kaltman said, which could include earlier valve replacements or more aggressive arrhythmia surveillance.

Working with Bruce Gelb, a professor in pediatrics and cardiology at Mount Sinai Hospital, Ronemus is focusing on a group of patients with a condition called tetralogy of Fallot. Children with this defect develop a bluish color in their skin and can have trouble breathing when they exercise.

New York Chapter president of the Children’s Heart Foundation Jackie Pecora speaks at the check presentation event. Photo courtesy of ©C. Brukin, 2017/Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Doctors treat people with this condition with open heart surgery, which fixes a hole between the ventricles and opens up a narrowed right ventricular outflow tract. “Early diagnosis can lead to a straightforward procedure and good outcome,” Ronemus said. “If there is any reason to suspect [that a developing fetus has this condition], we’d like to know.”

By studying copy number variation, Gelb and Ronemus can search for signatures or markers in prenatal screening, which doctors can do through amniocentesis or cell-free fetal DNA analysis, which is a noninvasive form of prenatal testing. A definitive diagnosis even before birth could help doctors prepare for quick intervention that could be more effective, Ronemus said. If not diagnosed, a third of the children with the condition die within the first year and 50 percent in the first three years, Ronemus explained. If doctors know a child has the condition, they can take precautions, like have supplementary oxygen or drugs nearby.

Ronemus, who started his career in plant genetics and then became involved in the study of autism, is applying a genetic technique he co-developed at CSHL for copy number variation detection called SMASH. He applied for the Children’s Heart Foundation grant because of a meeting at CSHL with Jackie Pecora, a resident of East Northport, who is New York Chapter president of the Children’s Heart Foundation. The foundation has 11 chapters throughout the country and raises funds through events like the Long Island Congenital Heart Walk, which will take place on May 21 in Sunken Meadow State Park. Ronemus will be an honorary co-chair for the walk.

Foley said Ronemus’ approach is a “unique way” of looking at congenital heart defects. During the medical advisory board’s discussion of which projects to fund “there was a lot of enthusiasm” for this project. Ronemus is the first New York researcher to receive CHF funds since 2009.

A resident of East Meadow, Ronemus lives with his wife Ana Rodriguez-Fernandez, who is an associate professor of microbiology at the NYU School of Medicine. The couple has three children, Martin, 14, Silvia, 12, and Daniel, 11.

Pecora has family experience with congenital heart disease. After she gave birth to twins 18 years ago, doctors discovered that her daughter Chloe had a heart defect that required surgery. Nine days after she was born, Chloe died from an infection. Pecora got involved because of a bumper sticker for another grassroots fundraiser for a baby with the same heart condition as Chloe. That led her to the Children’s Heart Foundation. While the awareness among the public is improving, there’s still a way to go to combat a prevalent condition, Pecora said. “Look at the clock: Every 15 minutes a baby is born with congenital heart disease. People don’t realize the magnitude.”

Joseph Schwartz, right, with a collaborator, Daichi Shimbo, the director of the Translational Lab at the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Medical Center, in front of a poster they presented at an annual meeting of the American Society of Hypertension in New York City in 2013.Photo by John Booth, III

By Daniel Dunaief

The cardiovascular skies may be clear and sunny, but there could also be a storm lurking behind them. About one in eight people who get a normal reading for their blood pressure have what’s called masked hypertension.

That’s the finding in a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology led by Joseph Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry and sociology at Stony Brook University and a lecturer of medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center. Schwartz said his research suggests that some people may need closer monitoring to pick up the kinds of warning signs that might lead to serious conditions.

“The literature clearly shows that those with masked hypertension are more likely to have subclinical disease and are at an increased risk of a future heart attack or stroke,” Schwartz explained in an email.

Tyla Yurgel, Schwartz’s lab manager from 2005 to 2016 who is now working in the Department of Psychiatry, wears the ambulatory blood pressure cuff that was a part of the study. Photo by Arthur Stone

Schwartz and his colleagues measured ambulatory blood pressure, in which test subjects wore a device that records blood pressure about every half hour, collecting a set of readings as a person goes about the ordinary tasks involved in his or her life. Through this reading, he was able, with some statistical monitoring, to determine that about 17 million Americans have masked hypertension, a term he coined in 2002.

Schwartz, who started studying ambulatory blood pressure in the late 1980s, has been actively exploring masked hypertension for over a decade. Ambulatory blood pressure monitoring is more effective at predicting subclinical disease such as left ventricular hypertrophy and the risk of future cardiovascular events, said Schwartz. “There was some rapidly growing evidence it was a better predictor of who would have a heart attack or stroke than in the clinic, even when the blood pressure in the clinic was properly measured,” he said.

To be sure, the expense of 24-hour monitoring of ambulatory blood pressure for everyone is unwieldy and unrealistic, Schwartz said. The list price for having an ambulatory blood pressure recording is $200 to $400, he said. Wearing the device is also a nuisance, which most people wouldn’t accept unless it was likely to be clinically useful or, as he suggested, they were paid as a research participant.

Schwartz said he used a model similar to one an economist might employ. Economists, he said, develop simulation models all the time. He said over 900 people visited the clinic three times as a part of the study. The researchers took three blood pressure readings at each visit. The average of those readings was more reliable than a single reading.

The study participants then provided 30 to 40 blood pressure readings in a day and averaged those numbers. He collected separate data for periods when people were awake or asleep. A patient close to the line for hypertension in the clinical setting was the most likely to cross the boundaries that define hypertension. “You don’t have that far to go to cross that boundary,” Schwartz said.

After analyzing the information, he came up with a rate of about 12.3 percent for masked hypertension of those with a normal clinic blood pressure. The rate was even higher, at 15.7 percent, when the researchers used an average of the nine readings taken during the patient’s first three study visits.

William White, a professor of medicine at the Calhoun Cardiology Center at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in Farmington was a reviewer for one of these major studies. “They are excellent,” said White, who has known Schwartz for about a decade. “We should be monitoring blood pressure more outside of the clinical environment.”

Indeed, patients have become increasingly interested in checking their blood pressure outside of the doctor’s offices. “We have a 200 to 300 percent increase in requests for ambulatory blood pressure monitoring from our clinical lab during the last five to ten years — in all age groups, genders and ethnicities,” explained White.

The challenge, however, is that tracking hypertension closely for every possible patient is difficult clinically and financially. “There are no obvious clinical markers for masked hypertension other than unexpectedly high self-blood pressure or unexplained hypertensive target organ damage,” White added.

Schwartz himself has a family history that includes cardiovascular challenges. His father, Richard Schwartz, who conducted nonmedical research, has a long history of cardiovascular disease and had a heart attack at the age of 53. His grandfather had a fatal heart attack at the same age. When Schwartz reached 53, he said he had “second thoughts,” and wanted to get through that year without having a heart attack. He’s monitoring his own health carefully and is the first one in his family to take blood pressure medication.

Schwartz, who grew up in Ithaca, New York, came to Stony Brook University in 1987. He called his upbringing a “nonstressful place to grow up.” He now lives in East Setauket with his wife Madeline Taylor, who is a retired school teacher from the Middle Country school district. The couple has two children. Lia lives in Westchester and works at Graham Windham School and Jeremy lives in Chelsea and works for Credit Suisse.

As for his work, Schwartz said the current study on masked hypertension was a part of a broader effort to categorize and understand pre-clinical indications of heart problems and to track the development of hypertension.

Now that he has an estimate of how many people might have masked hypertension, he plans to explore the data further. That analysis will examine whether having masked hypertension puts a patient at risk of having cardiovascular disease or other circulatory challenges. “We are very interested in whether certain personality characteristics and/or circumstances (stressful work situation) makes it more likely that one will have masked hypertension,” he explained.

Benjamin Martin in his lab at Stony Brook University. Photo courtesy of SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Last week, the Times Beacon Record Newspapers profiled the work of David Matus, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. Matus and Benjamin Martin, who has the same title in the same department, are working together on a new cancer study.

While neither Matus nor Martin are cancer biologists, these researchers have experience in developmental biology with different organisms that could contribute to insights in cancer. Specifically, they are exploring the processes that lead to cell division or invasion. Matus is working with the transparent roundworm, while Martin is focusing on the zebrafish.

The duo recently won the 2017 Damon Runyon–Rachleff Innovation Award, which includes a grant of $300,000. Martin got involved in the research “based on learning more about [Matus’] work and the general hypothesis” about division and invasion, Martin said. The overall perspective is that the cell doesn’t “invade through tissues and divide at the same time.”

Martin has done innovative work with a neuromesodermal progenitor in the zebrafish. These cells are highly plastic and can give rise to numerous other cell types. Martin is focused on trying to understand the basic biology of these cells.

From left, David Matus and Benjamin Martin in the lab where they investigate metastatic cancer. Photo courtesy of SBU

Martin is known for the “very original discovery that a signaling protein called Wnt can regulate the decision between these progenitor cells becoming muscle or neurons,” explained David Kimelman, a professor of Biochemistry at the University of Washington who oversaw Martin’s research when he was a postdoctoral student.

“What is very nice is that [Martin’s] discovery in zebrafish has since been replicated in other organisms such as the mouse and even in human stem cells, showing that this is a fundamental property of vertebrates,” Kimelman explained in an email.

Similar to Matus’ work with the worm, Martin has been working with cells that go through invasive behavior and don’t engage in cell proliferative activities. “We already knew that notochord progenitors are not proliferating when they undergo convergence and extension” from other published works, explained Martin in an email. “Since notochord progenitors exist in the tailbud and we were already studying them, it was a natural jumping off point to address the same question.”

Martin is testing a transcription factor, called brachyury, which drives metasasis-like behavior in human cancer cells. He has studied this transcription factor in the context of early zebrafish development and will see if it helps drive metastasis through inhibition of the cell cycle. At this point, Martin said, there is some “evidence that it does arrest the cell cycle” using human cells in another lab.

So far, the work he has done with brachyury and the cell cycle/invasion in zebrafish is preliminary. Their hypothesis is that halting the cell cycle is a prerequisite for invasive behavior. Like the roundworm, the embryonic zebrafish is transparent, which makes it easier to observe cellular changes.

One of the goals of the project is “to observe the cell cycle of human cancer as it invades through tissues in the fish embryo,” Martin said. In the long term, he hopes to see whether the overexpression of a transcription factor Matus has found in the worm is sufficient to drive metastasis in the zebrafish.

Martin described winning the Damon Runyon–Rachleff Award as “exciting,” and suggested that it “pushes back a little bit of the worry phase” of finding funding for compelling scientific projects. Kimelman said Martin is an “exceptional scientist” and one of the “best I have had the privilege to train.”

Kimelman believes the work Martin and Matus are doing has the potential to provide “important insight into the basic changes that occur during cancer as cells become metastatic,” he explained in an email. “While it doesn’t immediately lead to a therapeutic, understanding the basic biology of cancer is the first step to defining new ways of affecting it.”

Kimelman particularly appreciated the way Matus and Martin combined two different model systems, which offers the potential to provide insight into the basic changes that occur during cancer as cells become metastatic.

Martin learned about science and research during his formative years. His father Presley Martin was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore when the younger Martin was born. Presley Martin recently retired from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he studied the genetics of the fruit fly Drosophila. “At a young age, I was exposed to a lot of the lab and experiments and it was certainly appealing to me,” said Martin.

Benjamin Martin with his son Calvin. Photo by Richard Row

Martin is married to Jin Bae, whom he met at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was studying the molecular control of how muscle precursor cells move to distant parts of the embryo in frogs and fish. Bae is a registered nurse at Stony Brook Hospital. The couple’s son Calvin, who enjoys visiting the lab, will be four in April.

Matus and Martin are collaborating with Scott Powers, a professor in the Department of Pathology at Stony Brook, and Eric Brouzes, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Stony Brook.

Powers said the work Martin and Matus are doing is a “basic discovery but an important one,” he explained in an email. “Conceivably, further research could lead to translation but as of right now, any thoughts along those lines are speculative.”

Martin appreciates the opportunity to work on these cells that are so important in development and that might lead to insights about cancer. “It seems like in the past few years” these discoveries have “opened up a subfield of developmental biology,” he said. “It’s exciting to see.”

By Daniel Dunaief

 

Adrian Krainer with Emma Larson earlier this year. Photo from Dianne Larson

The prognosis hit Dianne Larson of Middle Island hard. Within three weeks, anxiety attacks, a lack of sleep and fear caused her weight to plummet from 135 to 120 pounds. She found out her daughter Emma, who was 17 months old at the time, had a potentially fatal genetic condition called spinal muscular atrophy in which the motor nerve cells of the spinal cord progressively weaken. Normally, the SMN1 gene produces the survival of motor neuron protein, which, as its name suggests, helps maintain motor neurons. People with SMA, which has four types and severity, produce a lower amount of the functional protein.

“My mind went to the darkest of dark places,” said Larson, whose daughter couldn’t crawl or sit up to eat. “There was no hope. There was nothing I could do.”

At the time of Emma’s diagnosis, there was no treatment for a disease that is the leading genetic cause of death among infants and affects about 1 in 10,000 newborns. Thanks to the work of Adrian Krainer, a professor and program chair of cancer and molecular biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, that changed early enough to alter the expectations for Emma and children around the world battling a genetic condition that causes progressive weakness and can make moving and even breathing difficult.

Turning to a back up gene called SMN2, Krainer hoped to fix a problem with the way that gene is spliced. On SMN2, exon 7 is normally skipped and the resulting protein has a different sequence at the end. Krainer developed an antisense olignocleotide that binds to a sequence in the intro following exon 7, blocking the splicing receptor. The treatment, which is called Spinraza, helps guide the splicing machinery, which carries out one of the steps in gene expression that is necessary to build a functional protein.

The Larson family of Middle Island, from left, Dianne, Emma and Matthew. Photo from Dianne Larson

Larson had heard of Krainer’s work and was eager to see if his success with animal models of the disease would translate for humans. As soon as Emma reached her second birthday, Larson enrolled her daughter in a clinical trial for Spinraza. After her daughter had a few shots, Larson was stunned by the change. “I was in the master bedroom and she was in the den and I heard a voice getting closer,” Larson recalls. “Next thing I know, she was in my bedroom. I couldn’t believe she crawled from the den to the bedroom. I put her in the den and told her to do it again,” which she did.

The SMA community and Krainer received an early holiday present in late December when the Food and Drug Administration not only approved the treatment, but it also gave doctors the green light to prescribe it for all types of SMA and for patients of all ages. While the SMA community, doctors and Krainer have been delighted with the FDA approval, the excitement has been tempered by concerns about the price tag Biogen, which manufactures and commercializes Spinraza and funded the drug’s development, has placed on the treatment.

For the first full year of injections, the drug costs $750,000. Every year after that will cost $375,000, which Biogen has said publicly is consistent with the pricing for other drugs for so-called orphan diseases, which affect a much smaller percentage of the population.

Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit advocate for affordable medicines, sent a letter to the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services, seeking an investigation. The letter claims that the inventor and maker of Spinraza failed to disclose that the treatment received federal funding. KEI urges the government to use that alleged disclosure failure to end the patent and authorize a generic manufacture of the treatment.

Biogen didn’t return a call and email for comment. Patients and their families, meanwhile, are looking for immediate access to a life-altering treatment. “To be honest, I really don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Larson, whose daughter has four injections left as part of the extension trial soon. “I’m hoping insurance will cover it.”

Insurer Anthem announced late in January that the treatment was only medically necessary for patients with Type 1 SMA, which include people diagnosed with the disease within six months of birth. Anthem created a pay for performance model, which will require patients or their families to prove that the treatment is improving the lives of the recipients.

Larson said she has been in touch with a personal liaison at Biogen, which has been “helpful and supportive,” she said. “They have been going out of their way to reach out to the community to make sure everyone gets access.”

Larson, who is a financial advisor, said she understands the need for the company to generate a profit. “A lot of money goes into” research and development Larson said. “If they’re not gong to make money, they’re not going to” support the efforts to create a treatment.

Emma Larson will be turning 4 this month. Photo from Dianne Larson

Joe Slay, who is the chairman of FightSMA, a group he and his wife Martha founded in 1991 after they learned their son Andrew had Type 2 SMA, sounded hopeful that people who need this treatment will receive it. “I understand there’s constructive, good conversations between insurance companies and Biogen,” Slay said. “We’re monitoring that.”

While Andrew, who is now 30, considers the potential benefits of Spinraza, Slay is pleased the treatment is an option for people and is proud of Krainer’s work.Krainer is “by any definition of the word a hero,” Slay said. “He’s taken his natural gifts, his brilliance in science, his discipline year in and year out approach to his work and has applied himself 100 percent.”

Slay and FightSMA, which has raised over $8 million since its founding, helped provide seed money to Krainer more than 15 years ago, attracting a promising scientist to what was then an intractable medical challenge.

Tom Maniatis, who is the chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University, said Krainer, who did his doctoral work in Maniatis’s lab, showed considerable scientific promise early in his career. Krainer “clearly had the intelligence, drive and experimental skills to make important contributions,” Maniatis said. His work is “a perfect example of how deep basic science studies can lead to profound understanding of a disease mechanism and that, in turn to the development of a treatment,” explained Maniatis in an email.

Within Krainer’s own family, there is a connection to patient care. Krainer’s daughter Emily, who is a pediatric neurology resident at Rochester, may one day prescribe a treatment her father developed. “It will be quite something for me if she eventually prescribes Spinraza to one of her patients,” Krainer said. Even as other scientists and companies like AveXis continue to search for ways to treat SMA, Krainer enhances and refines his research.

“We continue to work on understanding aspects of SMA pathophysiology, the role of SMN levels outside the central nervous system and the potential for prenatal therapy,” he explained in an email. “We are also working on antisense therapies for other genetic diseases and cancer.”

Larson, who is overjoyed with her daughter’s progress, calls Krainer her “superhero” who “saved my daughter’s life.” “It’s such a different feeling when you know you can do something,” she said. When she found out that the FDA approved the treatment, it was “the best day.”

Liliana Davalos, right in blue and white shirt, in La Victoria, Colombia with the paleo team from Grand Valley State University during a fossil dig last year. Photo courtesy of Siobhán Cooke

By Daniel Dunaief 

It’s like that old bus riddle. The bus starts out with 20 people. Six people get off, then eight get on, two more get off, 12 enter, eight exit, and so on until, lo and behold, the bus has either the same number of people or someone asks the identity of the driver.

In this case, though, the bus is a collection of Caribbean islands called the Greater Antilles, which includes the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Hispaniola, Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. The passengers are not people; they are species of bats.

Working with Luis Valente, a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, Liliana Davalos, an associate professor of conservation biology/ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, recently determined that the number of species of bats, like the people entering and leaving the bus, remained in relative equilibrium for millions of years over many generations.

Liliana Davalos at La Venta site in Colombia with a rainbow in the background.Photo courtesy of Siobhán Cooke

While several species of bats will colonize the islands and new species will also form over that long time scale, the rate of natural extinction in that time balances out the islands’ diversity gains, leaving the metaphorical bus with about the same number of species.

Famous biologists Edward O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur came up with the theory of island biogeography in 1967, which might help explain how the number of species of bats remained in equilibrium for millions of years. The theory proposes an equilibrium between colonization and extinction.

For bats, however, that balance changed. About 20,000 years ago, fossils of extinct species made their final appearance, while other species died off about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. So, what happened to the bat bus?

The last ice age accounts for some of the declines about 20,000 years ago. More recently, the arrival of people altered conditions on the islands. At least two other waves of colonization occurred before the arrival of Europeans, with people changing the landscape through agriculture. While hunting of other mammals is evident from the archeological record, it is less certain how changes on the land affected bats. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact time when each species went extinct, although many of those events happened after people arrived on the islands, changing the region’s equilibrium.

Davalos’ previous work had found that the number of species lost was as predicted if the losses occurred because of the rising sea levels at the end of the last glaciation. If that were the case, many of those species would have disappeared around that time. Some of her colleagues, however, dated the remains of bats and found that these species became extinct more recently, over the last few thousand years.

“While we cannot be certain that all bat extinctions were caused by humans, evidence increasingly seems to suggest so,” explained Valente in an email. “All over the world, colonization of islands by humans has led to many extinctions of local species, because islands have very unique species that are very prone to any disturbances.”

The researchers used computer simulations to calculate that it would take nature eight million years to restore bat biodiversity. “Some people argue that if we leave nature alone it will quickly return to its original state,” Valente explained. “However, the finding that it would take eight million years to recover lost diversity suggests that is clearly not the case.” Valente, who described Davalos as a “wonderful collaborator” who was “actively involved in the project at all stages,” wrote that this study “raises awareness for conservation of the unique bat species of the Caribbean.”

While there is still work ahead, the “nations of the Greater Antilles have amazing natural parks to protect their biodiversity,” Davalos explained. In the tropics of the Western Hemisphere, Puerto Rico is the “number one example of a forest growing back,” Davalos said. “Puerto Rico is one of the places in the world that has had more of a resurgence of the forest.”

The preservation of biodiversity remains threatened even now as at least three bat populations on the Greater Antilles are threatened with extinction and two might already be extinct. Still, the effort is not “hopeless,” she said, as there are some large populations of bats thriving on these islands. Davalos and her colleagues were able to make these discoveries by examining the bat in detail.

A resident of Setauket, Davalos has been at Stony Brook University for eight years. She enjoys kayaking on Long Island and visiting local and state parks. Over the last few years, she has spent her free time on staycations, where she sees a protected area of Long Island each day.

From a young age, Davalos recalls being interested in science. Indeed, when she was only 4, she saw a documentary where Louis and Mary Leakey showed the results of their expeditions where they collected human fossils in Kenya. “From that moment on,” Davalos recalled, “I thought, ‘Some day, this is what I’m going to study.’” Her family and their acquaintances suggested that pursuing such a career path would be challenging.

She tells her current SBU students that she’s “the luckiest person in the world, living out my childhood dream.” Last year, she went on her first fossil dig in Colombia, where she joined a team from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and Johns Hopkins. She found fossils from bats that were 12 million years old.

While Davalos has never met the Leakey family, she wants to tell them that, “Children are watching and [their work] can have a huge effect” on their dreams. Some day, Davalos hopes a future scientist may say the same thing about her research.

By Daniel Dunaief

First responders, soldiers or those exposed to any kind of chemical weapons attack need a way to remove the gas from the air. While masks with activated carbon have been effective, the latest technological breakthrough involving a metal organic framework may not only remove the gas, but it could also disarm and decompose it.

That’s the recent finding from research led by Anatoly Frenkel in a study on a substance that simulates the action of sarin nerve gas.

Frenkel, who is a senior chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook University, worked with metal organic frameworks, which contain zirconium cluster nodes that are connected through a lattice of organic linkages.

Anatoly Frenkel with his son, Yoni, at Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. Photo by Mikhail Loutsenko.

These structures would “do the job even without any catalytic activity,” Frenkel said, because they are porous and capture gases as they pass through them. “It’s like a sponge that can take in moisture. Its high porosity was already an asset.”

Frenkel and his colleagues, which include John Morris and Diego Troya from Virginia Tech, Wesley Gordon from Edgewood Chemical Biological Center and Craig Hill from Emory University, among other contributors, suspected that these frameworks might also decompose the gas.

Theoretically, researchers had predicted this might be the case, although they had no proof. Frenkel and his team used a differential method to see what was left in the structure after the gas passed through. Their studies demonstrated a high density of electrons near the zirconium atoms. “These were like bread crumbs congregated around a place where the zirconium nodes with the connecting linkers were,” Frenkel said.

While this work, which the scientists published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, has implications for protecting soldiers or civilians in the event of a chemical weapons attack, Frenkel and his colleagues, who received funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, can share their results with the public and scientific community because they are not working on classified materials and they used a substance that’s similar to a nerve gas and not sarin or any other potentially lethal gas.

“This knowledge can be transferred to classified research,” Frenkel said. “This is a stepping stone.” Indeed, Frenkel can envision the creation of a mask that includes a metal organic framework that removes deadly nerve gases from the air and, at the same time, disarms the gas, providing a defense for first responders or the military after a chemical weapons attack. Even though he doesn’t work in this arena, Frenkel also described how manufacturers might use these frameworks in treating the fabric that is used to make clothing that can prevent gases that can be harmful to the skin from making contact.

A physicist by training, Frenkel’s work, which includes collaborations on five other grants, has a common theme: He explores the relationship between structure and function, particularly in the world of nanomaterials, where smaller materials with large surface areas have applications in a range of industries, from storing and transmitting energy to delivering drugs or pharmaceuticals to a targeted site.

Eric Stach, a group leader in electron microscopy at BNL, has collaborated with Frenkel and suggested that his colleague has helped “develop all these approaches for characterizing these materials.” Stach said that Frenkel has “an outstanding reputation internationally” as an expert in X-ray absorption spectroscopy, and, in particular, a subarea that allows scientists to learn about extremely subtle changes in the distance between atoms when they are subjected to reactive environments.

Frenkel said some of the next steps in the work with metal organic frameworks include understanding how these materials might become saturated with decomposed gas after they perform their catalytic function. “It’s not clear what can affect saturation,” he said, and that is something that “needs to be systematically investigated.” After the catalyst reaches saturation, it would also be helpful to know whether it’s possible to remove the remaining compound and reuse the catalyst.

“The next question is whether to discard” the framework after it’s trapped and deactivated the chemicals or regenerate it, Frenkel said. He is also exploring how temperature ranges might affect the performance of the framework. Ideally, it would function as well in an arctic environment as it would in a desert under extreme heat. A commercial application might require the synthesis of a material with different physical characteristics for a range of temperature conditions.

Frenkel has been working on this project for about one and a half years. A colleague approached him to become a part of this new collaboration. “My role was to bring this work to a national lab setting,” where the scientists could use the advanced tools at BNL to study the material as it was working, he said.

A resident of Great Neck, Frenkel, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, lives with his wife Hope Chafiian, a teacher at the Spence School in Manhattan for almost 30 years. He has three children: Yoni lives in Manhattan and works at JP Morgan Chase, Ariela is a student at Binghampton and Sophie is in middle school in Great Neck.

Frenkel appreciates the opportunity to explore the broader world of nanomaterials, which, he said, are not constrained by crystal structures and can be synthesized by design. “They show a lot of mysteries that are not understood fully,” he said. Indeed, Frenkel explained that there are numerous commercial processes that might benefit from design studies conducted by scientists. As for his work with metal organic frameworks, he said “there’s no way to overestimate how important [it is] to do work that has a practical application that improves technology, saves costs, protects the environment” and/or has the potential to save lives.

By Daniel Dunaief

Born in Berlin just before World War II, Eckard Wimmer has dedicated himself in the last 20 years to producing something that would benefit humankind. A distinguished professor in molecular genetics and microbiology at Stony Brook University, Wimmer is hoping to produce vaccines to prevent the spread of viruses ranging from influenza, to Zika, to dengue fever, each of which can have significant health consequences for people around the world.

Using the latest technology, Wimmer, Steffen Mueller and J. Robert Coleman started a company called Codagenix in Melville. They aim to use software to alter the genes of viruses to make vaccines. “The technology we developed is unique,” said Wimmer, who serves as senior scientific advisor and co-founder of the new company.

Mueller is the president and chief science officer and Coleman is the chief operating officer. Both worked for years in Wimmer’s lab. Despite the potential to create vaccines that could treat people around the world facing the prospect of debilitating illnesses, Wimmer and his collaborators weren’t able to attract a pharmaceutical company willing to invest in a new technology that, he estimates, will take millions of dollars to figure out its value.“Nobody with a lot of money may want to take the risk, so we overcame that barrier right now,” he said.

Eckard Wimmer in his lab. Photo by Naif Mohammed Almojarthi

Codagenix has $6.2 million in funding. The National Institutes of Health initially contributed $600,000. The company scored an additional $1.4 million from NIH. It also raised $4.2 million from venture capital, which includes $4 million from TopSpin and $100,000 from Accelerate Long Island and a similar amount from the Center for Biotechnology at Stony Brook University.

Stony Brook University recently entered an exclusive licensing agreement with Codagenix to commercialize this viral vaccine platform. Codagenix is scheduled to begin phase I trials on a vaccine for seasonal influenza this year.

The key to this technology came from a SBU collaboration that included Wimmer, Bruce Futcher in the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology and Steven Skiena in the Department of Computer Science. The team figured out a way to use gene manipulation and computer algorithms to alter the genes in a virus. The change weakens the virus, giving the attack dog elements of the immune system a strong scent to seek out and destroy any real viruses in the event of exposure.

Wimmer explained that the process starts with a thorough analysis of a virus’s genes. Once scientists determine the genetic code, they can introduce hundreds or even thousands of changes in the nucleic acids that make up the sequence. A computer helps select the areas to alter, which is a rapid process and, in a computer model, can take only one afternoon. From there, the researchers conduct experiments in tissue culture cells and then move on to experiment on animals, typically mice. This can take six months, which is a short time compared to the classical way, Wimmer said.

At this point, Codagenix has a collaboration with the Universidad de Puerto Rico at the Caribbean Primate Research Center to treat dengue and Zika virus in primates. To be sure, some promising vaccines in the past have been taken off the market because of unexpected side effects or even because they have become ineffective after the virus in the vaccine undergoes mutations that return it to its pathogenic state. Wimmer believes this is unlikely because he is introducing 1,000 changes within a vaccine candidate, which is much higher than other vaccines. In 2000, for example, it was discovered that the polio vaccines involve only five to 50 mutations and that these viruses had a propensity to revert, which was rare, to the type that could cause polio.

Colleagues suggested that this technique was promising. “This approach, given that numerous mutations are involved, has the advantage of both attenuation and genetic stability of the attenuated phenotype,” Charles Rice, the Maurice R. and Corrine P. Greenberg professor in virology at Rockefeller University explained in an email.

While Wimmer is changing the genome, he is not altering the structure of the proteins the attenuated virus produces, which is exactly the same as the virus. This gives the immune system a target it can recognize and destroy that is specific to the virus. Wimmer and his associates are monitoring the effect of the vaccines on mosquitoes that carry and transmit them to humans. “It’s not that we worry about the mosquito getting sick,” he said. “We have to worry whether the mosquito can propagate this virus better than before.” Preliminary results show that this is not the case, he said.

Wimmer said there are many safety precautions the company is taking, including ensuring that the vaccine candidate is safe to administer to humans. Wimmer moved from Berlin to Saxony after his father died when Wimmer was 3. He earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry in 1956 at the University of Rockstock. When he was working on his second postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he heard a talk on viruses, which brought him into the field.

A resident of Old Field, Wimmer lives with his wife Astrid, a retired English professor at Stony Brook. The couple’s daughter Susanne lives in New Hampshire and has three children, while their son Thomas lives in Portland, Oregon, and has one child. “We’re very happy Long Islanders,” said Wimmer, who likes to be near the ocean and Manhattan.

Through a career spanning over 50 years, Wimmer has won numerous awards and distinctions. He demonstrated the chemical structure of the polio genome and worked on polio pathogenesis and human receptor for polio. He also published the first cell-free creation of a virus.

“This was an amazing result that enabled a number of important mechanistic studies on poliovirus replication,” Rice explained. Wimmer has “always been fearless and innovative, with great enthusiasm for virology and discovery.”

With this new effort, Wimmer feels he will continue in his quest to contributing to humanity.

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