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Power of 3

Tim Sommerville. Photo by Brian Stallard, 2018/ CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Many research efforts search for clues about the signals or processes that turn healthy cells into something far worse. Scientists look at everything from different genes that are active to signs of inflammation to the presence of proteins that aren’t typically found in a system or organ.

Tim Somerville, a postdoctoral researcher in Chris Vakoc’s laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, recently took a close look at a specific protein whose presence in a high concentration in pancreatic cancer typically worsens the expectations for a disease with an already grim prognosis.

This protein, called P63, has a normal, healthy function in skin cells for embryos and in maintaining normal skin for adults, but it doesn’t perform any important tasks in the pancreas.

Tim Somerville at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Photo by Brian Stallard, 2018/ CSHL

Somerville wanted to know whether the protein appeared as a side effect of the developing cancer, like the appearance of skinny jeans someone wears after a diet starts working, or whether it might be a contributing cause of the cancer’s growth and development.

“What was unclear was whether [the higher amount of P63] was a correlation, which emerges as the disease progresses, or something more causal,” he said, adding that he wanted to find out whether “P63 was driving the more aggressive features” of pancreatic cancer.

Somerville increased and decreased the concentration of P63 in tissue cells and organoids, which are copies of human tumors, hoping to see whether the change had any effect on the cancer cells.

The postdoctoral researcher knocked out the amount of P63 through the use of CRISPR, a gene-editing technique. He also overexpressed P63, which is also a transcription factor.

“From those complementary experiments, we were able to show that P63 is driving a lot of the aggressive features of cancer cells,” Somerville concluded. “Rather than being a correlation that’s observed, it is functionally driving the cancer itself.”

Somerville recently published his research in the journal Cell Reports.

As a transcription factor, P63 recognizes specific DNA sequences and binds to them. With P63, Somerville observed that it can bind to DNA and switch on many genes that are active in the worse form of pancreatic cancer. He and his collaborators describe P63 as a master regulator of the gene program.

Pancreatic cancer is often discovered after the irreversible conversion of normal, functional cells into a cancerous tumor that can spread to other organs. It also resists chemotherapy. Research teams in the labs of Vakoc and Dave Tuveson, the director of the Cancer Center at CSHL, and other principal investigators at CSHL and elsewhere are seeking to understand it better so they can develop more effective treatments.

Tim Somerville. Photo by Yali Xu

Vakoc was impressed with the work his postdoctoral researcher performed in his lab. Somerville is “one of the most scholarly young scientists I have ever met,” Vakoc explained in an email. “He is simply brilliant and thinks deeply about his project and is also driven to find cures for this deadly disease.”

At this point, Somerville is pursuing why P63 is activated in the pancreas. If he can figure out what triggers it in the first place, he might be able to interfere with that process in a targeted way. He also might be able to think about ways to slow it down or stop the disease.

The form of P63 that is active in the pancreas is not a mutated version of the protein that functions in the skin. If scientists tried to reduce P63, they would need to develop ways to suppress the cancer promoting functions of P63 without suppressing its normal function in the skin.

Many of the genes and proteins P63 activates are secreted factors and some of them contribute to inflammation. Indeed, researchers are exploring numerous ways inflammation might be exacerbating the progression of cancer.

P63 is also active in other types of cancer, including lung, head and neck cancers. Frequently, elevated levels of P63 in these other forms of cancer also lead to a worse prognosis.

Somerville explained that the changes P63 makes in a pancreatic cancer cell may expose new weaknesses. By studying cells in which he has overexpressed the protein, he hopes to see what other addictions the cells may have, which could include a reliance on other proteins that he could make compounds to target.

A resident of Huntington, Somerville has worked in Vakoc’s lab for three years. While he has spent considerable time studying P63, he is also looking at other transcription factors that are involved in pancreatic cancer.

Somerville wants to contribute to the discovery of why one form of pancreatic cancer is so much worse than the other. “If we can understand it, we can find new ways to stop it,” he said.

Originally from Manchester, England, Somerville is working in the United States on a five-year visa and plans to continue contributing to Vakoc’s lab for the next couple of years. At that point, he will consider his options, including a potential return to the United Kingdom.

Tim Somerville. Photo by Gina Motisi, 2018/CSHL

Somerville appreciates the opportunity to work on pancreatic cancer with Vakoc and with Tuveson, whose lab is next door. The researcher is enjoying his time on Long Island, where he takes walks, enjoys local restaurants and, until recently, had been playing on a Long Island soccer team, which played its matches in Glen Cove.

For Somerville, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has exceeded his high expectations. “The research that goes on here and the interactions you can have at meetings” have all contributed to a “great experience,” he said.

Somerville is excited to be a part of the pancreatic cancer team.

“With the work from [Tuveson’s] lab and ours, we’re finding new things we didn’t know,” he said. “It’s only when you understand those different things and the complexity that you can start thinking about how to tackle this in a more successful way. If the research carries on, we’ll make improvements in this disease.”

Weisen Shen in front of a twin-otter airplane in the Antarctic during the 2017-18 season. Photo by Zhengyang Zhou

By Daniel Dunaief

Ever sit alone in a house and hear noises you can’t explain? Was that the wind, the house settling (whatever that means) or the cat swatting at the string hanging from the blinds?

Those sounds, which are sometimes inexplicable and are called ambient noise, are often hard to trace, even if we walk around the house and listen outside every room.

Weisen Shen
Photo by John Griffin

For Weisen Shen, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, ambient noises deep below the Antarctic continent and elsewhere can be and often are clues that unlock mysteries hidden miles below the frozen surface.

A geoscientist who uses computer programs in his research, Shen would like to study the temperature well below the surface. He developed an in-house code to understand and interpret seismic data.

The speed at which Earth rumbling passes from one area to another can indicate the relative temperature of an area. Seismic activity moves more slowly through warmer rocks and moves more rapidly through colder crust, which has a higher rigidity. According to Shen, these temperature readings can help provide a clearer understanding of how much heat is traveling through the surface of the solid Earth into the ice sheet.

Shen traveled to the Ross Ice Shelf in the 2015-16 season and ventured to the South Pole in the 2017-18 season. He is currently seeking funding to go back to the Antartica. Earlier this year, he published an article in the journal Geology in which he found evidence that the lithosphere beneath the Transantarctic Mountains is thinner than expected.

Shen pointed out that seismic properties aren’t just related to temperature: They can help determine the density of the material, the composition and the existence of fluid such as water. He looks for surface geology and other types of geophysical data to detect what is the dominant reason for seismic structure anomalies. He also uses properties other than speed, such as seismic attenuation and amplitude ratios, in his analysis.

This kind of information can also provide an idea of the underlying support for mountain ranges, which get built up and collapse through a lithographic cycling.

As for ambient noises, Shen explained that they can come from ocean fluctuations caused by a hurricane, from human activities or, most commonly, from the bottom of the ocean, where the dynamic ocean wave constantly pushes against the bottom of the earth. By processing the noises in a certain way, he can extract information about the materials through which the noise traveled.

Shen published an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research in which he discussed a noise source in Kyushu Island in the Japanese archipelago. “The noise is so subtle that people’s ears will never catch it,” he said. “By deploying these very accurate seismic sensors, we will be able to monitor and study all the sources of those noises, not just the earthquakes.”

Studying these lower volume, less violent noises is especially helpful in places like Antarctica, which is, Shen said, a “quiet continent,” without a lot of strong seismic activity. He also uses the images of earthquakes that occur elsewhere, which travel less violently and dramatically through Antarctica.

Shen decided to study Antarctica after he earned his doctorate at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I have this ambition to get to all the continents,” he said. In graduate school he told himself, “If you ever want to get that work done, you have to crack this continent.”

During his postdoctoral work, Shen moved to St. Louis, where he worked at Washington University in the laboratory of Doug Wiens, professor of Earth and planetary sciences.

In addition to conducting research in Antarctica, Shen collaborated with Chen Cai, a graduate student in Wiens’ lab. Together with other members of the Washington University team, they used seismic data in the Mariana Trench to show that about three to four times more water than previously estimated traveled beneath the tectonic plates into the Earth’s interior.

That much water rushing further into the Earth, however, is somehow offset by water returning to the oceans, as ocean levels haven’t changed dramatically through this part of the water cycle process.

“People’s estimates for the water coming out is probably out of balance,” Wiens said. “We can’t through millions of years bring lots of water through the interior. The oceans would get lower. There’s no evidence” to support that, which means that “an upward revision of the amount of water coming out of the Earth” is necessary. That water could be coming out through volcanoes or perhaps through the crust or gas funnels beneath the seafloor, he suggested.

Wiens praised all the researchers involved in the study, including Shen, whom he said was “very important” and “wrote a lot of the software we used to produce the final images.”

A resident of Queens, Shen lives with his wife Jiayi Xie, who works as a data scientist at Xaxis, a subcompany of the global media firm GroupM. The couple has an infant son, Luke.

Shen grew up in the southwestern part of China. When he was younger, he was generally interested in science, although his particular passion for geoscience started when he was in college at the University of Science and Technology of China, USTC, in Hefei, Anhui, China.

The assistant professor, who teaches a geophysics class at Stony Brook University, currently has two graduate students in his lab. He said he appreciates the support Stony Brook provides for young faculty.

As for his work, Shen is excited to contribute to the field, where he enjoys the opportunity and camaraderie that comes from exploring parts of Earth that are relatively inaccessible. He feels his detailed studies can help change people’s understanding of the planet.

Photo by Ela Elyada

By Daniel Dunaief

What if, instead of defeating or removing enemy soldiers from the battlefield, a leader could convince them to join the fight, sending them back out to defeat the side they previously supported? That’s the question Giulia Biffi, a postdoctoral researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, is asking about a particular type of cells, called fibroblasts, that are involved in pancreatic cancer.

Fibroblasts activated by cancer cells secrete a matrix that surrounds cancer cells and makes up about 90 percent of pancreatic tumors.

Giulia Biffi. Photo by ©Gina Motisi, 2018/CSHL

Responding to a molecule called IL-1, an inflammatory potential tumor-promoting fibroblast may enhance the opportunity for cancer to grow and spread. Another type of fibroblast responds to TGF-beta, which potentially enables them to restrain tumors.

Researchers had suggested that the inflammatory fibroblasts are tumor promoting, while the myofibroblasts are tumor defeating, although at this point, that still hasn’t been confirmed experimentally.

Researchers knew TGF-beta was important in biology, but they didn’t know that it was involved in preventing the activation of an inflammatory tumor-promoting version.

Biffi, however, recently found that IL-1 promotes the formation of inflammatory fibroblasts. She believes these fibroblast promote tumor growth and create an immunosuppressive environment.

In an article published in the journal Cancer Discovery, Biffi showed that it’s “not only possible to delete the population, but it’s also possible to convert [the fibroblasts] into the other type, which could be more beneficial than just getting rid of the tumor-promoting cells,” she said.

Biffi works in Director Dave Tuveson’s CSHL Cancer Center laboratory, which is approaching pancreatic cancer from numerous perspectives.

Her doctoral adviser, Sir Shankar Balasubramanian, the Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, suggested that the work she did in Tuveson’s lab is an extension of her successful research in England.

“It is evident that [Biffi] is continuing to make penetrating and important advances with a deep and sophisticated approach to research,” Balasubramanian explained in an email. “She is without a doubt a scientist to watch out for in the future.”

To be sure, at this stage, Biffi has performed her studies on a mouse model of the disease and she and others studying fibroblasts and the tumor microenvironment that dictates specific molecular pathways have considerable work to do to extend this research to human treatment.

She doesn’t have similar information from human patients, but the mouse models show that targeting some subsets of fibroblasts impairs cancer growth.

“One of the goals we have is trying to be able to better classify the stroma from pancreatic cancer in humans,” Biffi said. The stroma is mixed in with the cancer cells, all around and in between clusters of cells.

The results with mice, however, suggest that approaching cancer by understanding the molecular signals from fibroblasts could offer a promising additional resource to a future treatment. In a 10-day study of mice using a specific inhibitor involved in the pathway of inflammatory fibroblasts, Biffi saw a reduction in tumor growth.

If Biffi can figure out a way to affect the signals produced by fibroblasts, she might be able to make the stroma and the cancer cells more accessible to drugs. One potential reason other drugs failed in mouse models is that there’s increased collagen, which is a barrier to drug delivery. Drugs that might have failed in earlier clinical efforts could be reevaluated in combination with other treatments, Biffi suggested, adding if scientists can manage to target the inflammatory path, they might mitigate some of this effect.

A native of Bergamo, Italy, which is near Milan, Biffi earned her doctorate at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. Biffi lives on a Cold Spring Harbor property which is five minutes from the lab.

When she was young, Biffi wanted to be a vet. In high school, she was fascinated by the study of animal behavior and considered Dian Fossey from “Gorillas in the Mist” an inspiration. When she’s not working in the lab, she enjoys the opportunity to see Broadway shows and to hike around a trail on the Cold Spring Harbor campus.

Biffi started working on fibroblasts three years ago in Tuveson’s lab. “I really wanted to understand how fibroblasts become one population or the other when they were starting from the same cell type,” she said. “If they have different functions, I wanted to target them selectively to understand their role in pancreatic cancer to see if one might have a tumor restraining role.”

A postdoctoral researcher for over four years, Biffi is starting to look for the next step in her career and hopes to have her own lab by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020.

When she was transitioning from her doctoral to a postdoctoral job, she was looking for someone who shared her idealistic view about curing cancer. Several other researchers in Cambridge suggested that she’d find a welcome research setting in Tuveson’s lab. Tuveson was “popular” among principal investigators in her institute, Biffi said. “I wanted to work on a hard cancer to treat and I wanted to work with [Tuveson].”

Biffi hopes that targeting the inflammatory pro-tumorigenic fibroblasts and reprogramming them to the potentially tumor-restraining population may become a part of a pancreatic cancer treatment.

She remains optimistic that she and others will make a difference. “This can be a frustrating job,” she said. “If you didn’t have hope you can change things, you wouldn’t do it. “I’m optimistic.”

Biffi points to the hard work that led to treatments for the flu and for AIDS. “Years back, both diseases were lethal and now therapeutic advances made them manageable,” she explained in an email. “That is where I want to go with pancreatic cancer.”

Andrew Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

In the era of social media, people reveal a great deal about themselves, from the food they eat, to the people they see on a subway, to the places they’ve visited. Through their own postings, however, people can also share elements of their mental health.

In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Andrew Schwartz, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University, teamed up with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania to describe how the words volunteers wrote in Facebook postings helped provide a preclinical indication of depression prior to a documentation of the diagnosis in the medical record.

Using his background in computational linguistics and computational psychology, Schwartz helped analyze the frequency of particular words and the specific word choices to link any potential indicators from these posts with later diagnoses of depression.

Combining an analysis of the small cues could provide some leading indicators for future diagnoses.

“When we put [the cues] all together, we get predictions slightly better than standard screening questionnaires,” Schwartz explained in an email. “We suggest language on Facebook is not only predictive, but predictive at a level that bears clinical consideration as a potential screening tool.”

Specifically, the researchers found that posts that used words like “feelings” and “tears” or the use of more first-person pronounces like “I” and “me,” along with descriptions of hostility and loneliness, served as potential indicators of depression.

By studying posts from consenting adults who shared their Facebook statuses and electronic medical record information, the scientists used machine learning in a secure data environment to identify those with a future diagnosis of depression.

The population involved in this study was restricted to the Philadelphia urban population, which is the location of the World Well-Being Project. When he was at the University of Pennsylvania prior to joining Stony Brook, Schwartz joined a group of other scientists to form the WWBP.

While people of a wide range of mental health status use the words “I” and “me” when posting anecdotes about their lives or sharing personal responses to events, the use of these words has potential clinical value when people use them more than average.

That alone, however, is predictive, but not enough to be meaningful. It suggests the person has a small percentage increase in being depressed but not enough to worry about on its own. Combining all the cues, the likelihood increases for having depression.

Schwartz acknowledged that some of the terms that contribute to these diagnoses are logical. Words like “crying,” for example, are also predictive of being depressed, he said.

The process of tracking the frequency and use of specific words to link to depression through Facebook posts bears some overlap with the guide psychiatrists and psychologists use when they’re assessing their patients.

The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” typically lays out a list of symptoms associated with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression, just to name a few.

“The analogy to the DSM and how it works that way is kind of similar to how these algorithms will work,” Schwartz said. “We look at signals across a wide spectrum of features. The output of the algorithm is a probability that someone is depressed.”

The linguistic analysis is based on quantified evidence rather than subjective judgments. That doesn’t make it better than an evaluation by mental health professional. The algorithm would need more development to reach the accuracy of a trained psychologist to assess symptoms through a structured interview, Schwartz explained.

At this point, using such an algorithm to diagnose mental health better than trained professionals is a “long shot” and not possible with today’s techniques, Schwartz added.

Schwartz considers himself part computer scientist, part computational psychologist. He is focused on the intersection of algorithms that analyze language and apply psychology to that approach.

A person who is in therapy might offer an update through his or her writing on a monthly basis that could then offer a probability score about a depression diagnosis.

Linguistic tools might help determine the best course of treatment for people who have depression as well. In consultation with their clinician, people with depression have choices, including types of medications they can take.

While they don’t have the data for it yet, Schwartz said he hopes an algorithmic assessment of linguistic cues ahead of time may guide decisions about the most effective treatment.

Schwartz, who has been at SBU for over three years, cautions people against making their own mental health judgments based on an impromptu algorithm. “I’ve had some questions about trying to diagnose friends by their posts on social media,” he said. “I wouldn’t advocate that. Even someone like me, who has studied how words relate to mental health, has a hard time” coming up with a valid analysis, he said.

A resident of Sound Beach, Schwartz lives with his wife Becky, who is a music instructor at Laurel Hill Middle School in Setauket, and their pre-school-aged son. A trombone player and past  member of a drum and bugle corps, he met his wife through college band.

Schwartz grew up in Orlando, where he met numerous Long Islanders who had moved to the area after they retired. When he was younger, he used to read magazines that had 50 lines of computer code at the back of them that created computer games.

He started out by tweaking the code on his own, which drove him toward programming and computers.

As for his recent work, Schwartz suggested that the analysis is “often misunderstood when people first hear about these techniques. It’s not just people announcing to the world that they have a condition. It’s a combination of other signals, none of which, by themselves, are predictive.”

Adrian Krainer in his lab. Photo by ©Kathy Kmonicek, 2016/CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

This Sunday, Adrian Krainer is traveling to California to visit with Emma Larson, a Middle Island girl whose life he helped save, and to see an actor who played the fictional super spy James Bond.

A professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Krainer is the recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which noted Silicon Valley benefactors including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin financed seven years ago. Pierce Brosnan will host the event, which National Geographic will broadcast live starting at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

Dr. Adrian Krainer and Emma Larson. Photo from Diane Larson

Krainer will split the $3 million prize money with Frank Bennett, a senior vice president of research and a founding member of Ionis Pharmaceuticals. The duo helped develop the first treatment for spinal muscular atrophy, the leading genetic cause of death among infants, which affects 1 in 10,000 births.

Prior to the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Ionis and Biogen’s treatment, which is called Spinraza, people with the most severe cases of this disease lost the ability to use their muscles and even to breathe or swallow. Many children born with the most severe symptoms died before they were 2 years old.

“No one deserves it more,” said Dianne Larson, whose 5-year-old daughter Emma has been in a trial for the drug Krainer helped develop since 2015. When Emma started the trial as a 2-year-old, she couldn’t crawl anymore. Now, she’s able to push herself in a wheelchair, stand and take steps while holding onto something. Emma refers to Krainer as the person who helped make “my magic medicine.”

People with medical needs “kind of take for granted that there’s a medicine out there,” Larson said. “You don’t think about the years of dedication and research and hours and hours and money it costs to do this.”

Bruce Stillman, president and chief executive officer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said that this award was well deserved and was rooted in basic science. Krainer’s “insights were substantial and he realized that he could apply this unique knowledge to tackle SMA,” Stillman wrote in an email. “He did this with spectacular results.”

Dr. Adrian Krainer with the Larson family, Matthew, Diane and Emma. Photo from Diane Larson

Children with the most severe case of this disease had faced a grim diagnosis. “Now those children have a treatment that will keep them alive and greatly improve the prospects for a normal life,” Stillman added.

New York recently added SMA to its newborn screening test.

Krainer, who specialized in a process called RNA splicing during his research training, began searching for ways to help people with spinal muscular atrophy in 2000.

SMA mostly originates when the gene SMN1 has a defect that prevents it from producing the SMN protein,  called survival of motor neuron. This protein is important for the motor neurons, the nerve cells that control voluntary muscles.

As it turns out, people have a backup gene, called SMN2, which produces that important protein. The problem with this backup gene, however, is that it produces the protein in lower amounts. Additionally, RNA gene splicing leaves out a segment that’s important for the stability of the protein.

Looking at the backup gene, Krainer began his SMA work by seeking to understand what caused this splicing inefficiency, hoping to find a way to fix the process so that more function protein could be made from the SMN2 gene.

Collaborating with Bennett since 2004, Krainer developed and tested an antisense olignucleotide, or ASO. This molecule effectively blocked the binding of a repressor protein to the SMN2 transcript. By blocking this repressor’s action, the ASO enabled the correct splicing of the survival of motor neuron protein.

Emma Larson standing during her Mandarin lesson at Middle Country Public Library. Photo from Diane Larson

At first, Krainer tested the cells in a test tube and then in culture cells. When that worked, he went on to try this molecule in an SMA mouse model. He then worked with Ionis Pharmaceuticals and Biogen to perform the tests with patients. These tests went through hundreds of patients in numerous countries, as diseases like SMA aren’t limited by geographic boundaries.

“Everything worked” in the drug process, which is why it took a “relatively short time” to bring the treatment to market, Krainer said.

People who have worked with Krainer for years admire his character and commitment to his work.

Joe and Martha Slay, who founded the nonprofit group FightSMA, helped recruit Krainer to join the search for a treatment.

Joe Slay recalls how Krainer made an effort to meet with children with SMA. He recalls seeing Krainer during a pickup football game, running alongside children in wheelchairs, handing them the ball and tossing it with them.

Krainer brought his family, including his three children, to meet with the SMA community. The trip had a positive effect on his daughter Emily, who said it “subliminally had an impact on wanting to work in this field.” 

Currently a third-year resident in a combined pediatric neurology residency and fellowship program, his daughter is “very excited for him and proud.” She recalls spending Christmas holidays and New Years celebrations at the lab, where she met with his friends and co-workers.

Emily Krainer said a few people in her residency know about the role her father played in developing a treatment the hospital is employing.

The treatment is the “talk of child neurology right now,” she said.

Researchers hope the recognition for the value of basic research that comes with the breakthrough prize will have an inspirational effect on the next generation.

“The idea of prizes like this is to highlight to the public that scientists spend many years working without public recognition but make really important contributions to society,” Stillman suggested.

For Larson, the research Krainer did was key to a life change.

“To me, science is hope,” Larson said. “If we didn’t have this science, we wouldn’t have any hope,” adding that she would like her daughter to become a scientist someday.

Gábor Balázsi. Photo by Dmitry Nevozhay

By Daniel Dunaief

An especially hot July day can send hordes of people to Long Island beaches. A cooler July temperature, however, might encourage people to shop at a mall, catch a movie or stay at home and clean out clutter.

Similarly, genes in yeast respond to changes in temperature.

Gábor Balázsi, the Henry Laufer associate professor of physical and quantitative biology at Stony Brook University, recently published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the effect of temperature changes on yeast genes.

“We are looking at single cells and at genetic systems and we can dissect and understand gene by gene with a high level of detail,” said Balázsi, who used synthetic genetic systems to allow him to dissect and understand how temperature affects these genes.

Understanding the basic science of how genes in individual cells respond to temperature differences could have broad applications. In agriculture, farmers might need to know how genes or gene circuits that provide resistance to a pathogen or drought tolerance react when the temperature rises or falls.

Similarly, researchers using genetically designed biological solutions to environmental problems, like cleanups at toxic spills, would need to understand how a change in temperature can affect their systems.

Lingchong You, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, believes the research is promising.

“Understanding how temperature will influence the dynamics of gene circuits is intrinsically interesting and could serve as a foundation for the future,” You said. Researchers “could potentially design gene circuits to program the cell such that the cell will somehow remember its experience with the fluctuating temperatures,” which could provide clues about the experience of the cell.

Balázsi suggested the goal of his work is to understand the robustness of human control over cells in nonstandard conditions.

While other researchers have explored the effects of gene expression for hundreds of genes at different temperatures, Balázsi looked more precisely at single genes and human-made synthetic gene circuits in individual cells. He discovered various effects by inserting a two-gene circuit into yeast.

At the whole-cell level when temperatures rise from 30°C to 38°C, some cells continued growing, albeit at a slower rate, while others stopped growing and started to consume their proteins.

For the second type of cells, changing temperatures can lead to cell death. If the temperature comes down to normal levels soon enough, however, researchers can rescue those cells.

“How this decision happens is a question that should be addressed in the future,” Balázsi said.

While the dilution of all proteins slows down, the chemical reactions in which they participate speed up at a higher temperature, much like children who become more active after receiving sugar at a birthday party.

At another level, certain individual molecules change their movement between conformations at a higher temperature. Proteins wiggle more between different folding conformations even if they don’t change composition. This affects their ability to bind DNA.

Balázsi said he is fortunate that he works through the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology, which partly supported the work, where he was able to find a collaborator to do molecular dynamic simulations. Based on the pioneering experiments of postdoctoral fellow Daniel Charlebois, with help from undergraduate researcher Sylvia Marshall, the team collected data for abnormal behaviors of well-characterized synthetic gene circuits. They worked with Kevin Hauser, a former Stony Brook graduate research assistant, who explained how the altered conformational movements affected how the protein and cells behaved.

The way proteins fold and move between conformations determines what they do.

Gábor Balázsi with his daughter Julianna at West Meadow Beach
Photo from Gábor Balázsi

Taking his observations and experiments further, Balázsi found that proteins that were unbound to a small molecule didn’t experience a change in their conformation. When they were linked up, however, they demonstrated a new behavior when heated. This suggests that understanding the effects of temperature on these genetic systems requires an awareness of the proteins involved, as well as the state of their interaction with other molecules.

While Balázsi explored several ways temperature changes affect the yeast proteins, he acknowledged that other levels or forces might emerge that dictate the way these proteins change.

Additionally, temperature changes represent just one of many environmental factors that could control the way the genetic machinery of a cell changes. The pH, or acidity, of a system might also change a gene or group of genes.

A main overarching question remains as to how much basic chemical and physical changes combine with biological effects to give predictable, observable changes in the behaviors of genes and living cells.

Balázsi may test other cell types. So far, he’s only looked at yeast cells. He would also like to know the order in which the various levels of reactions — from the whole cell to the molecular level — occur.

He is interested in cancer research and possibly defense applications and would like to take a closer look at the way temperature or other environmental factors impact human disease processes and progression or think about their relevance for homeland security or biological solutions to renewable energy.

Balázsi recognizes that he and others in this field have numerous hurdles to overcome to find acceptable appreciation for the application of synthetic gene circuits.

“It’s not so simple to engineer these cells reliably,” he said. “Some roadblocks need to be eliminated to convince people it’s feasible and useful.”

Balázsi suggested that the field of virology might benefit from pursuing some of these research questions. Viruses move from the environment or even from other hosts into humans. Avian influenza, for example, can begin inside a bird and wind up affecting people. These viruses “might have different expression patterns in birds versus humans,” he said.

Ultimately, he added, this kind of scientific pursuit is “multipronged and the applications are numerous.”

Francis Alexander. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Now what? It’s a question that affects everyone from the quarterback who wins the Super Bowl — who often says something about visiting a Disney facility — to the student who earns a college degree, to the researcher who has published a paper sharing results with the scientific community.

For some, the path forward is akin to following footsteps in the snow, moving ever closer to a destination for which a path is clear. For others, particularly those developing new technology, looking to unlock mysteries, the path is more like trudging through unfamiliar terrain.

The technology at facilities like Brookhaven National Laboratory, which includes the powerful National Synchrotron Light Source II and the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, among others, enables scientists to see processes at incredibly fine scales.

While these sites offer the promise of providing a greater ability to address questions such as what causes some batteries to die sooner than others, they also cost considerable money to use, putting pressure on researchers to ask the most fruitful question or pursue research that has the greatest chance for success.

Francis Alexander. Photo from BNL

That’s where people like Francis Alexander, the deputy director of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Computational Science Initiative, and his team at BNL can add considerable value. Alexander takes what researchers have discovered, couples it with other knowledge, and helps guide his fellow laboratory scientists to the next steps in their work — even if he, himself, isn’t conducting these experiments.

“Given our theoretical understanding of what’s going on, as imperfect as that may be, we take that understanding — the theory plus the experimental data — and determine what experiments we should do next,” Alexander said. “That will get us to our goal more quickly with limited resources.”

This approach offers a mutually reinforcing feedback loop between discoveries and interpretations of those discoveries, helping researchers appreciate what their results might show, while directing them toward the next best experiment.

The experiments, in turn, can either reinforce the theory or can challenge previous ideas or results, forcing theoreticians like Alexander to use that data to reconstruct models that take a wide range of information into account.

Alexander is hoping to begin a project in which he works on developing products with specific properties. He plans to apply his knowledge of theoretical physics to polymers that will separate or grow into different structures. “We want to grow a structure with a [particular] function” that has specific properties, he said.

This work is in the early stages in which the first goal is to find the linkage between what is known about some materials and what scientists can extrapolate based on the available experiments and data.

Alexander said the aerospace industry has “models of everything they do.” They run “complex computer simulations [because] they want to know how they’d design something and which design to carry out.”

Alexander is currently the head of a co-design center, ExaLearn, that focuses on exascale, machine-learning technologies. The center is the sixth through the Exascale Computing Project. Growth in the amount of data and computational power is rapidly changing the world of machine learning and artificial intelligence. The applications for this type of technology range from computational and experimental science to engineering and the complex systems that support them.

Ultimately, the exascale project hopes to create a scalable and sustainable software framework for machine learning that links applied math and computer science communities to create designs for learning.

Alexander “brings to machine learning a strong background in science that is often lacking in the field,” Edward Dougherty, a distinguished professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M, wrote in an email. He is an “excellent choice to lead the exascale machine learning effort at Brookhaven.”

Alexander is eager to lead an attempt he suggested would advance scientific and national security work at the Department of Energy. “There are eight national laboratories involved and all the labs are on an equal level,” he said. 

One of the goals of the exascale computing project is to build machines capable of 10 to the 18th operations per second. “There’s this enormous investment of DOE” in this project, Alexander said.

Once the project is completely operational, Alexander expects that this work will take about 30 percent of his time. About 20 percent of the time, he’ll spend on other projects, which leaves him with about half of his workweek dedicated to management.

The deputy director recognizes that he will be coordinating an effort that involves numerous scientists accustomed to setting their own agenda.

Dougherty suggested that Alexander’s connections would help ensure his success, adding that he has “established a strong network of contacts in important application areas such as health care and materials.

The national laboratories are akin to players in a professional sporting league. They compete against each other regularly, bidding for projects and working to be the first to make a new discovery. Extending the sports metaphor, members of these labs often collaborate on broad projects, like players on an all-star team competing against similar teams from other nations or continents.

Alexander grew up in Ohio and wound up working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico  for over 20 years. He came to BNL in 2017 because he felt he “had the opportunity to build something almost from the ground up.” The program he had been leading at Los Alamos was large and well developed, even as it was still growing. 

The experimental scientists at BNL have been receptive to working with Alexander, which has helped him achieve some of his early goals.

Ultimately, Alexander hopes his work increases the efficiency of numerous basic and applied science efforts. He hopes to help experimental scientists understand “what technologies we should develop that will be feasible” and “what technologies would be most useful to carry experiments out.”

Above, Brian Colle, who enjoys surf fishing, with a false albacore that he caught at the Shinnecock Inlet. Photo by B. Colle

By Daniel Dunaief

In August of 2014, Islip experienced record rainfall, with over 13 inches coming down in a 24-hour stretch — more than the typical rainfall for an entire summer and a single day record for New York state. The rain required emergency rescues for motorists whose cars suddenly died after more than 5 inches of rain fell in a single hour.

What if, however, that rain had fallen just 50 miles west, in Manhattan, where the population density is much higher and where people travel to and from work on subways that can become flooded from storms that carry less precipitation?

An image of an ice crystal Colle examined during a Nor’easter. Image from B. Colle

Brian Colle, professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Institute for Terrestrial and Planetary Atmospheres at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, is part of a group that is studying flood risks in the New York metro area during extreme storms that could bring heavy rains, storm surge or both. The team is exploring mitigation strategies that may help reduce flooding.

“The risk for an Islip event for somewhere in the NYC-Long Island area may be about one in 100 years (but this is being further quantified in this project), and this event illustrates that it is not a matter of whether it will occur in NYC, but a matter of when,” Colle explained in a recent interview.

The group, which is led by Brooklyn College, received $1.8 million in funding from New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency. It also includes experts from The New School, the Stevens Institute of Technology and Colorado State University.

The co-principal investigators are Assistant Professor Brianne Smith and Professor Jennifer Cherrier, who are in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Brooklyn College–CUNY.

Smith, who had worked with Colle in the past, had recruited him to join this effort. They had “been wanting to do studies of flooding for New York City for a long time,” Smith said. “When the city came out with this” funding for research, Colle was “the first person I thought of.”

Malcolm Bowman, a distinguished service professor at Stony Brook University, holds his colleague, whom he has known for a dozen years, in high regard. Colle is “a leading meteorologist on regional weather patterns,” he wrote in an email. 

Colle is interested in the atmospheric processes that produce rainfall of 2 or 3 inches per hour. “It takes a unique part of the atmosphere to do that,” he said. The three main ingredients are lots of moisture, lift along a wind boundary, and an unstable atmosphere that allows air parcels, or a volume of air, to rise, condense and produce precipitation.

Representatives from the local airports, the subway systems and response units have been eager to get these predictions, so they can prepare mitigation efforts.

Brooklyn College – CUNY project co-leads Brianne Smith (left) and Jennifer Cherrier at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn in early September. Photo by John Mara

This group has taken an ambitious approach to understanding and predicting the course of future storms. Typically, scientists analyze storms using 100- to 200-kilometer grid spacing. In extreme rainfall events during coastal storms, scientists and city planners, however, need regional spacing of 20 kilometers. Looking at storms in finer detail may offer a more realistic assessment of local precipitation.

Researchers are anticipating more heavy rainfall events, akin to the one that recently caused flooding in Port Jefferson.

A warmer climate will create conditions for more heavy rains. Water vapor increases about 6 to 7 percent for every degree increase in Celsius. If the climate rises two to four degrees as expected by the end of the century, this would increase water vapor by 13 to 25 percent, Colle said.

The group includes experts from several disciplines. “Each of the scientists is highly aware of how integrative the research is,” Cherrier said. The researchers are asking, “How can we provide the best scientific foundation for the decisions” officials need to make. If, as predicted, the storms become more severe, there will be some “hard decisions to make.”

Smith suggested that a visible project led by women can encourage the next generation of students. Women undergraduates can appreciate the opportunity their female professors have to lead “cool projects,” she said. 

Raised from the time he was 4 in Ohio, Colle said he was a “typical weather geek” during his childhood. The blizzard of 1978 fascinated him. After moving to Long Island in 1999, Colle used to sit in a weather shed and collect ice crystals during nor’easters. He would study how the shape of these crystals changed during storms. An avid surf fisherman, Colle said there is “not a better place to observe weather” than standing near the water and fishing for striped bass, fluke, bluefish and false albacore. A resident of Mount Sinai, Colle lives with his wife Jennifer, their 16-year-old son Justin and their 13-year-old son Andrew.

As for his work on flood risks around the New York metro area, Colle said the group is producing monthly reports. The effort will end in December. “The urgency is definitely there,” he acknowledged. Heavy rainfall has increased the need to understand rain, particularly when combined with surge flooding.

A transportation study written over a decade ago describes storm surge and rainfall risk. That study, however, included a prediction of 1 to 2 inches of rainfall an hour, which is far less than the 5 inches an hour that hit Long Island in 2014.

“Once you start seeing that, there’s a lot of people who are nervous about that risk and want to get a best estimate of what could happen,” Colle said.

Cherrier described New York City as being “quite progressive” in gathering information and formulating data. “The city wants to be prepared as soon as possible.”

Leila Esmailzada, kneeling, with another BeLocal team member Caroline Rojosoa (in the black argyle sweater) distribute trial briquettes. Photo courtesy of BeLocal

By Daniel Dunaief

Leila Esmailzada set out to change the world but first had to perform a task that turns many people’s stomachs: clean someone else’s vomit off the floor.

The Stony Brook University graduate student, who is in the master’s Program in Public Health, traveled to Madagascar for a second consecutive summer with the nonprofit BeLocal Group to help several teams of student engineers put into place projects designed to improve the lives of the Malagasy people.

Before they could help anyone else, however, these students, many of them recent graduates from the College of Engineering, fought off a series of viruses, including a particularly painful stomach bug.

Esmailzada said she saw cleaning the vomit off the floor as part of the big picture.

“Compassion really plays into being abroad for your work and for your team, because you realize that everybody came here for a shared mission,” Esmailzada said. “What happens along the way is sometimes just a result of the path that brought them here.”

Briquettes lay out to dry in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of BeLocal

Indeed, beyond Esmailzada’s compassion, her ability to continue to accomplish tasks in the face of unexpected and potentially insurmountable obstacles encouraged BeLocal, a group started by Laurel Hollow residents Mickie and Jeff Nagel and Eric Bergerson, to ask her to become the group’s first executive director.

“I can’t say enough about [Esmailzada] being so resourceful over there,” said Mickie Nagel, who visited the island nation of Madagascar the last two years with Esmailzada. “She thinks about things in a different way. You can have the best product, but if you can’t connect it to the Malagasy and understand more deeply what they need, what their concerns or wants are” the project won’t be effective.

This past summer BeLocal tried to create two engineering design innovations that had originated from senior projects at SBU. In one of them, the engineers had designed a Da Vinci bridge, borrowing a model from the famous inventor, to help villagers cross a stream on their way to the market or to school. When the makeshift bridge constructed from a log or tree got washed away or cracked, the residents found it difficult to get perishable products to the market.

The first challenge the group faced was the lack of available bamboo, which they thought they had secured months before their visit.

“When the bamboo wasn’t delivered, I figured we were now going to do research on bamboo,” Nagel explained in an email, reflecting the group’s need to react, or, as she suggests, pivot, to another approach.

When they finally got bamboo, they learned that it was cut from the periphery of a patch of bamboo that borders on a national park. Government officials confiscated the bamboo before it reached BeLocal.

“We were happy to see that law enforcement recognized and acted on the ‘gray area rules’ of conserving the national park, which shows that the hard work Madagascar is putting into conservation is actually paying off,” Esmailzada said. She eventually found another provider who could deliver the necessary bamboo a few days later. This time, an important material was cut down from a local farm.

While they had the bamboo, they didn’t know how to cure it to prepare it for construction. Uncured, the bamboo could have become a soggy and structural mess. “We did try to cure [it] a few different ways, but we really didn’t have the time needed to properly treat all of it,” Nagel said. “We didn’t anticipate the bamboo not arriving cured since it was what we had been working on for months.”

Nagel credits the bridge team with adjusting to the new circumstances, constructing two girder bridges over creeks for more market research.

The BeLocal team also worked on a project to create briquettes that are healthier than the firewood the Malagasy now use for cooking. The wood produces considerable smoke, which has led to respiratory diseases and infections for people who breathe it in when they cook.

The group produced briquettes toward the end of their summer trip and presented their technique to an audience of about 120 locals, which reflected the interest the Malagasy had shown in the process during its development.

This fall, BeLocal is working on ways to move forward with sharing the briquette technique, which they hope to refine before the new year. BeLocal wants to develop clubs at Stony Brook and at the University of Fianarantsoa in Madagascar that can work together.

While BeLocal will continue to share senior design ideas on its website (www.belocalgrp.com) with interested engineers, the group is focusing its energy on perfecting the briquettes and getting them to people’s homes in Madagascar.

Nagel admired Esmailzada’s approach to the work and to the people in Madagascar.

Esmailzada said she studied how people in Madagascar interact and tried to learn from that, before approaching them with a product or process. She believes it’s important to consider the cultural boundaries when navigating the BeLocal projects, realizing that “you are not the first priority in a lot of these villagers’ lives in general. You have to understand they won’t meet and speak with you. It’s a reasonable expectation to ask maybe three times for something before you think you can get it done.”

Esmailzada also developed a routine that allowed her to shift from one potential project to another, depending on what was manageable at any given time.

The Stony Brook graduate student is delighted to be an ongoing part of the BeLocal effort.

“I love working with an organization that has the passion and vision as large as BeLocal,” she explained. “This work is fulfilling because you are working toward the chance of improving the well-being of another person or community.”

Above, Mikala Egeblad works with graduate student Emilis Bružas in the Watson School of Biological Sciences. Photo from Pershing Square Soon Cancer Research Alliance

By Daniel Dunaief

For some people, cancer goes into remission and remains inactive. For others, the cancer that’s in remission returns. While doctors can look for risk factors or genetic mutations, they don’t know why a cancer may come back at the individual level.

In a mouse model of breast and prostate cancers, Mikala Egeblad, an associate professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has found an important driver of cancer activation and metastasis: inflammation. When mice with cancer also have inflammation, their cancer is likely to become more active. Those who don’t have inflammation, or whose inflammation is treated quickly, can keep the dreaded disease in check. Cancer cells “may be dormant or hibernating and not doing any harm at all,” she said. “We speculated what might be driving them from harmless to overt metastasis.”

Egeblad cautioned that this research, which was recently published in the journal Science, is on mice and that humans may have different processes and mechanisms.

CSHL’s Mikala Egeblad. Photo from Pershing Square Soon Cancer Research Alliance

“It is critical to verify whether the process happens in humans,” Egeblad suggested in an email, which she will address in her ongoing research. Still, the results offer a window into the way cancer can become active and then spread from the lungs. She believes this is because the lungs are exposed to so many external stimuli. She is also looking into the relevance for bone, liver and brain metastases. The results of this research have made waves in the scientific community.

“This study is fantastic,” declared Zena Werb, a professor of anatomy and associate director for basic science at the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California in San Francisco. “When [Egeblad] first presented it at a meeting six months ago, the audience was agog. It was clearly the best presentation of the meeting!”

Werb, who oversaw Egeblad’s research when Egeblad was a postdoctoral scientist, suggested in an email that this is the first significant mechanism that could explain how cancer cells awaken and will “change the way the field thinks.”

Egeblad credits a team of researchers in her lab for contributing to this effort, including first author Jean Albrengues, who is a postdoctoral fellow. This group showed that there’s a tipping point for mice — mice with inflammation that lasts six days develop metastasis.

Egeblad has been studying a part of the immune system called neutrophil extracellular traps, which trap and kill bacteria and yeast. Egeblad and other researchers have shown that some cancers trick these NETs to aid the cancer in metastasizing.

In the new study, inflammation causes cancer cells that are not aggressive to develop NETs, which leads to metastasis. The traps and enzymes on it “change the scaffold that signals that cancer should divide and proliferate instead of sitting there dormant,” Egeblad said.

To test out her theory about the role of enzymes and the NETs, Egeblad blocked the cascade in six different ways, including obstructing the altered tissue scaffold with antibodies. When mice have the antibody, their ability to activate cancer cells after inflammation is prevented or greatly reduced, she explained.

The numbers from her lab are striking: in 100 mice with inflammation, 94 developed metastatic cancer. When she treated these mice with any of the approaches to block the inflammation pathway, 60 percent of them survived, while the remaining 40 percent had a reduced metastatic cancer burden in the lungs.

If inflammation is a key part of determining the cancer prognosis, it would help cancer patients to know, and potentially treat, inflammation even when they don’t show any clinical signs of such a reaction.

In mice, these NETs spill into the blood. Egeblad is testing whether these altered NETs are also detectable in humans. She could envision this becoming a critical marker for inflammation to track in cancer survivors.

The epidemiological data for humans is not as clear cut as the mouse results in Egeblad’s lab. Some of these epidemiological studies, however, may not have identified the correct factor.

Egeblad thinks she needs to look specifically at NETs and not inflammation in general to find out if these altered structures play a role for humans. “We would like to measure levels of NETs and other inflammatory markers in the blood over time and determine if there is a correlation between high levels and risk of recurrence,” she explained, adding that she is starting a study with the University of Kansas.

Werb suggested that inflammation can be pro-tumor or anti-tumor, possibly in the same individual, which could make the net effect difficult to determine.

“By pulling the different mechanisms apart, highly significant effects may be there,” Werb wrote in an email. Other factors including mutation and chromosomal instability and other aspects of the microenvironment interact with inflammation in a “vicious cycle.”

In humans, inflammation may be a part of the cancer dynamic, which may involve other molecular signals or pathways, Egeblad said.

She has been discussing a collaboration with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Doug Fearon, whose lab is close to hers.

Fearon has been exploring how T-cells could keep metastasis under control. Combining their approaches, she said, cancer might need a go signal, which could come from inflammation, while it also might need the ability to alter the ability of T-cells from stopping metastasis.

In her ongoing efforts to understand the process of metastasis, Egeblad is also looking at creating an antibody that works in humans and plans to continue to build on these results. “We now have a model for how inflammation might cause cancer recurrence,” she said. 

“We are working very actively on multiple different avenues to understand the human implications, and how best to target NETs to prevent cancer metastasis.”

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