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May 04, 2016

In Research

New bone-chewing role for ‘B Cells’ in rheumatoid arthritis

Medical Center researchers have uncovered a new mechanism of bone erosion and a possible biomarker for rheumatoid arthritis. The group is the first to demonstrate that immune cells, called “B cells,” contribute directly to the breakdown of bone by producing a signaling molecule called RANKL.

Jennifer Anolik, professor of medicine and author of the study, found that B cells extracted from blood of a patient with rheumatoid arthritis produced more RANKL and led to production of more bone-chewing cells, called osteoclasts, than B cells from the blood of healthy volunteers. The effect was even greater when study authors inspected B cells extracted from patients’ joint fluid and tissue. The study was featured on the cover of Arthritis and Rheumatology.

“The novel finding is that B cells contribute to bone erosion in rheumatoid arthritis by producing RANKL,” says Anolik. “The other striking thing is that rheumatoid arthritis patient B cells produce more RANKL, especially in the joint itself.”

Anolik believes that RANKL could be used as a marker to decide which rheumatoid arthritis patients are most likely to have progressive joint damage and which drugs are most likely to halt that progression. “Patients with high RANKL on B cells, especially in the joint, may be most responsive to different types of B cell–targeted therapies,” says Anolik.

A tale of two equations

graphic of Drake equation

Are humans unique and alone in the vast universe?

In 1961, astrophysicist Frank Drake developed an equation to estimate the number of advanced civilizations likely to exist in the Milky Way galaxy. The Drake equation (top row) has proven to be a durable framework for research, and space technology has advanced scientists’ knowledge of several variables. But it is impossible to do anything more than guess at variables such as L, the probably longevity of other advanced civilizations.

In new research published in Astrobiology, Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan offer a new equation (bottom row) to address a slightly different question: what is the number of advanced civilizations likely to have developed over the history of the observable universe? Frank and Sullivan’s equation draws on Drake’s, but eliminates the need for L.

“The question of whether advanced civilizations exist elsewhere in the universe has always been vexed with three large uncertainties in the Drake equation,” says Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester and coauthor of the paper. “We’ve known for a long time approximately how many stars exist. We didn’t know how many of those stars had planets that could potentially harbor life, how often life might evolve and lead to intelligent beings, and how long any civilizations might last before becoming extinct.”

“Rather than asking how many civilizations may exist now, we ask ‘Are we the only technological species that has ever arisen?’” says coauthor Woodruff Sullivan, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. “This shifted focus eliminates the uncertainty of the civilization lifetime question and allows us to address what we call the ‘cosmic archaeological question’—how often in the history of the universe has life evolved to an advanced state?”

That still leaves huge uncertainties in calculating the probability for advanced life to evolve on habitable planets. Rather than guessing at the odds of advanced life developing, Frank and Sullivan calculate the odds against it occurring in order for humanity to be the only advanced civilization in the entire history of the observable universe. Then they calculated the line between a universe where humanity has been the sole experiment in civilization and one where others have come before us. Using that approach, Frank and Sullivan calculate how unlikely advanced life must be if there has never been another example among the universe’s 10 billion trillion stars, or even among the Milky Way’s 100 billion. The result? By applying the new exoplanet data to the universe’s 2 x 10 to the 22nd power stars, Frank and Sullivan find that human civilization is likely to be unique in the cosmos only if the odds of a civilization developing on a habitable planet are less than about 1 in 10 billion trillion, or 1 part in 10 to the 22th power.

Honeycomb’ of nanotubes could boost genetic engineering

Researchers have developed a new and highly efficient method for gene transfer involving culturing and transfecting cells with genetic material on an array of carbon nanotubes that appears to overcome the limitations of other gene-editing technologies.

The device, which is described in a study published in the journal Small, is the product of a collaboration between researchers at the Medical Center and Rochester Institute of Technology.

“This platform holds the potential to make the gene-transfer process more robust and decrease toxic effects, while increasing amount and diversity of genetic cargo we can deliver into cells,” says Ian Dickerson, associate professor of neuroscience and coauthor of the paper.

Gene transfer therapies have long held great promise in medicine. New gene-editing techniques enable researchers to precisely target segments of genetic code, giving rise to a range of potential scientific and medical applications—from fixing genetic defects to manipulating stem cells to helping immune cells fight infection and cancer.

The new device described in the study was fabricated in the Schrlau Nano-Bio Interface Laboratory at RIT by Masoud Golshadi, first author of the paper.

Using a process called chemical vapor deposition, the researchers created a structure akin to a honeycomb consisting of millions of densely packed carbon nanotubes with openings on both sides of a thin disk-shaped membrane.

The device has shown the ability to successfully culture a wide range of cell types, including cells that are typically difficult to grow and keep alive, such as immune cells, stem cells, and neurons.

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