The Nature salary and satisfaction survey reveals researchers’ outlook, and NASA’s test of planetary defenses.
In this episode:
00:45 Salary and satisfaction survey
Like all aspects of life, scientific careers have been impacted by the pandemic. To get an insight into how researchers are feeling, Nature has conducted a salary and satisfaction survey. We hear from some of the respondents.
Is the future of deep-sea exploration soft? Researchers have developed a new type of soft robot designed to cope with the crushing pressures at the bottom the ocean. Inspired by the skull of the Mariana Snailfish, the deepest living fish, the researchers distributed their robot’s electronics, creating a machine that can withstand extreme pressure.
Finding medicines that can kill cancer cells while leaving normal tissue unscathed is a Holy Grail of oncology research. In two new papers, scientists at UC San Francisco and Princeton University present complementary strategies to crack this problem with “smart” cell therapies—living medicines that remain inert unless triggered by combinations of proteins that only ever appear together in cancer cells.
Biological aspects of this general approach have been explored for several years in the laboratory of Wendell Lim, PhD, and colleagues in the UCSF Cell Design Initiative and National Cancer Institute– sponsored Center for Synthetic Immunology. But the new work adds a powerful new dimension to this work by combining cutting-edge therapeutic cell engineering with advanced computational methods.
For one paper, published September 23, 2020 in Cell Systems, members of Lim’s lab joined forces with the research group of computer scientist Olga G. Troyanskaya, PhD, of Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute.
Using a machine learning approach, the team analyzed massive databases of thousands of proteins found in both cancer and normal cells. They then combed through millions of possible protein combinations to assemble a catalog of combinations that could be used to precisely target only cancer cells while leaving normal ones alone. In another paper, published in Science on November 27, 2020, Lim and colleagues then showed how this computationally derived protein data could be put to use to drive the design of effective and highly selective cell therapies for cancer.
“Currently, most cancer treatments, including CAR T cells, are told ‘block this,’ or ‘kill this,’” said Lim, also professor and chair of cellular and molecular pharmacology and a member of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We want to increase the nuance and sophistication of the decisions that a therapeutic cell makes.”
Over the past decade, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells have been in the spotlight as a powerful way to treat cancer. In CAR T cell therapy, immune system cells are taken from a patient’s blood, and manipulated in the laboratory to express a specific receptor that will recognize a very particular marker, or antigen, on cancer cells. While scientists have shown that CAR T cells can be quite effective, and sometimes curative, in blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, so far the method hasn’t worked well in solid tumors, such as cancers of the breast, lung, or liver.
Cells in these solid cancers often share antigens with normal cells found in other tissues, which poses the risk that CAR T cells could have off-target effects by targeting healthy organs. Also, solid tumors also often create suppressive microenvironments that limit the efficacy of CAR T cells. For Lim, cells are akin to molecular computers that can sense their environment and then integrate that information to make decisions. Since solid tumors are more complex than blood cancers, “you have to make a more complex product” to fight them, he said.
Researchers have run numerous military-style simulations to predict the consequences of fictitious viral outbreaks. We discuss how these simulations work, what recommendations come out of them and if any of these warnings have been heeded.
24:08 One good thing
Our hosts pick out things that have made them smile in the last week, including audience feedback, the official end of the Ebola outbreak in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and an enormous t-shirt collection.
Though a law requiring clinical trial results reporting has been on the books for decades, many researchers have been slow to comply. Now, 2 years after the law was sharpened with higher penalties for noncompliance, investigative correspondent Charles Piller took a look at the results. He talks with host Sarah Crespi about the investigation and a surprising lack of compliance and enforcement.
Also this week, Sarah talks with Brett Finlay, a microbiologist at the University Of British Columbia, Vancouver, about an Insight in this week’s issue that aims to connect the dots between noncommunicable diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer and the microbes that live in our guts. Could these diseases actually spread through our microbiomes?
USC Stem Cell scientist Andy McMahon is using human stem cells to create mini-kidney structures known as organoids. His lab is using these organoids to study and find new drugs to treat polycystic kidney disease.