Category: Genetics

CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing may Unleash Cancer Cell Resistance

CRISPR-Cas9 is a customisable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. This lets scientists study our genes in a specific, targeted way. Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH

Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have identified potential pitfalls in the use of the gene editing technique CRISPR-Cas9, a gene scissors that is used for cancer treatments. Their findings are published in Life Science Alliance.

The study has identified that a cancer cell line, derived from leukaemia, removes a region that encodes a tumour-suppressing gene and genes that control cell growth.

“We found that this elimination often occurs when cancer cells are exposed to stress, such as when using CRISPR, gene scissors, or other treatments such as antibiotics. The elimination changes gene regulation in a unique way, which in turn affects basic biological processes such as DNA replication, cell cycle regulation, and DNA repair,” says Claudia Kutter, research group leader at the Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology (MTC), Karolinska Institutet.

This knowledge is important for researchers, clinicians, and biotechnologists to correctly interpret and apply gene editing results. The study also has clinical relevance, as the observed eliminations are in genes associated with cancer, which has implications for cancer research and treatment.

“Shockingly, this elimination has been unintentionally overlooked by many researchers who modify genes in cancer cells by CRISPR screenings. The elimination also occurred more frequently in patients who have undergone cancer treatment. The treated cancer cells had, due to the elimination, a selective advantage, which is bad for the patient’s long-term survival as these cells remained after the treatment,” says Claudia.

“The study mainly serves as a warning signal, but also opens doors for further research aimed at harnessing the potential of gene editing while minimising unintended consequences,” Claudia concludes.

Source: Karolinska Institutet

European Populations are More Genetically Diverse than Expected

Source: CC0

Researchers have found that previous studies analysing the genomes of people with European ancestry may have reported inaccurate results by not fully accounting for population structure. By considering mixed genetic lineages, researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) demonstrated that previously inferred links between a genomic variant for lactase and traits such as a person’s height and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) level may not be valid.

The study, published in Nature Communications, shows that people with European ancestry, who were previously treated as a genetically homogenous group in large-scale genetic studies, have clear evidence of mixed genetic lineages, known as admixture. As such, the results from previous genome-wide association studies that do not account for admixture in their examinations of people with European ancestry should be re-evaluated.

“By reading population genetics papers, we realised that the pattern of genetic makeup in Europe is too detailed to be viewed on a continental level,” said Daniel Shriner, PhD, staff scientist in the NIH Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health and senior author of the study. “What is clear based on our analysis, is when data from genetic association studies of people of European ancestry are evaluated, researchers should adjust for admixture in the population to uncover true links between genomic variants and traits.”

To look at European genetic ancestry, the researchers collated data in published genetic association studies and generated a reference panel of genomic data that included 19 000 individuals of European ancestry across 79 populations in Europe and European Americans in the US, capturing ancestral diversity not seen in other large catalogues of human genomic variation.

As an example, the researchers investigated the lactase gene, which encodes a protein that helps digest lactose and is highly varied across Europe. Using the new reference panel, they analysed how a genomic variant of the lactase gene is related to traits such as height, body mass index and LDL-C.

When the researchers considered the genetic admixture of the European population in their analysis, they found that the genomic variant of the lactase gene is not linked to height or LDL-C level. In contrast, the same variant does influence body mass index.

“The findings of this study highlight the importance of appreciating that the majority of individuals in populations around the world have mixed ancestral backgrounds and that accounting for these complex ancestral backgrounds is critically important in genetic studies and the practice of genomic medicine,” says Charles Rotimi, PhD, NIH Distinguished Investigator, director of the Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health and senior author of the study.

While the lactase gene is one example of a gene that may be incorrectly linked to some traits based on previous analyses, the researchers say it’s likely that there are other false associations in the literature and that some true associations are yet to be found. Information about how genomic variants are related to different traits helps researchers estimate polygenic risk scores and may give clues about a person’s ability to respond safely to drug treatments.

While the differences in any two people’s genomes are less than 1%, the small percentage of genomic variation can give clues about where a person’s ancestors might have come from and how different families might be related. Information about who a person is biologically descended from, known as genetic ancestry, can give important clues about genetic risks for common diseases.

“Finding true genetic associations will help researchers be more efficient and careful with how further research is conducted,” said first author Mateus Gouveia, PhD, research fellow in the Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health. “We hope that by accounting for mixed ancestries in future genomic analyses, we can improve the predictive value of polygenic risk scores and facilitate genomic medicine.”

The reference panel generated in this study is available to the scientific community for use in other studies, with additional information provided in the paper.

Source: NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute

A Single Gene-editing Infusion may Control Inherited High LDL Cholesterol

CRISPR-Cas9 is a customisable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. This lets scientists study our genes in a specific, targeted way. Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH

A single infusion of a CRISPR-based gene-editing therapy significantly reduced low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, the ‘bad cholesterol’) in people who carry one gene for the inherited condition that results in very high LDL-C levels and a high risk of heart attack at an early age, according to findings presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2023.

“Instead of daily pills or intermittent injections over decades to lower bad cholesterol, this study reveals the potential for a new treatment option – a single-course therapy that may lead to deep LDL-C lowering for decades,” said senior study author Andrew M. Bellinger, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Verve Therapeutics in Boston.

The investigational treatment, VERVE-101, uses DNA-editing technology to permanently turn off the PCSK9 gene in the liver. PCSK9 is a gene that plays a critical role in controlling blood LDL-C through its regulation of the LDL receptor. People with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolaemia (ie, one gene for the disorder inherited from one parent) are treated with oral lipid-lowering medications such as statins as well as PCSK9 inhibitors to bring levels under control, though this only occurs in a small percentage of patients. The study presented is the first human trial of VERVE-101.

Earlier this year, the results of the researchers’ one-year animal study were published in Circulation. In that animal study, VERVE-101 lowered PSCK9 levels 67%-83% and LDL-C 49%-69%, depending on the dose. After a single dose, the reductions have now lasted 2.5 years, supporting the idea that VERVE-101 may potentially be an effective long-term or permanent treatment for high LDL-C.

The ongoing, first-in-human study included 7 men and 2 women in New Zealand or the United Kingdom: average age of 54 years; 8 white adults; and 1 Asian adult. Each participant was diagnosed with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia and had extremely high bad cholesterol levels (average measure of 201mg/dL) despite taking the maximum-tolerated LDL cholesterol-lowering medication.

“These numbers are consistent with the fact that, despite available treatments, only about 3% of patients living with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia globally have reached target treatment goals,” Bellinger said.

The majority of study participants had pre-existing severe coronary artery disease and had already experienced a heart attack, or undergone coronary bypass surgery or stenting to allow adequate blood flow to heart muscle. None were taking PCSK9 inhibitors while enrolled in the study.

Each participant received a single intravenous infusion of VERVE-101, with the first cohort (n=3) receiving a low dose of 0.1 mg/kg and other cohorts receiving escalating doses, after consultation with an independent safety monitoring board. The highest dose received was 0.6 mg/kg.

The study found that the highest-two VERVE-101 doses:

  • reduced LDL-C by 39% and 48% in the two participants receiving 0.45mg/kg of the drug and 55% in the sole participant receiving 0.6mg/kg;
  • reduced blood PCSK9 protein levels by 47%, 59% and 84% in the three participants receiving the 0.45 mg/kg or 0.6 mg/kg doses; and
  • reduced LDL-C at six months in the sole participant receiving 0.6mg/kg, with follow-up ongoing.

“We were thrilled to see that the previous testing we had done of VERVE-101 in animal models translated faithfully to these findings in humans,” Bellinger said.

Most adverse events encountered were mild and unrelated to treatment. Serious adverse cardiovascular events, specifically a cardiac arrest, a myocardial infarction and an arrhythmia, occurred in two patients who had underlying advanced coronary artery disease. “All safety events were reviewed with the independent data safety monitoring board, who recommended continuation of trial enrolment with no protocol changes required,” Bellinger said.

Studies involving a larger number of patients and with a control group will be required to fully document the efficacy and safety of VERVE-101, noted Bellinger.

The study is still enrolling patients to receive the highest-two doses of VERVE-101. After a year’s follow-up, each participant will go into a long-term follow-up study for an additional 14 years, as required by the FDA for all participants in any human genome editing trials.

Among the study’s limitations is that this is an interim report with a few participants who all received the treatment; therefore, no participants receiving an alternate treatment or no treatment were available for direct comparison. Results in the study were measured by reductions in LDL-C, not changes in the occurrence of heart attacks; however, LDL-C reduction is a well-known, validated endpoint among patients with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolaemia and coronary artery disease.

Source: American Heart Assoication

Scientists Identify Stress-linked Gene in Treatment-resistant Depression

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

It has long been appreciated that major depressive disorder (MDD) has genetic as well as environmental influences. In a new study in Biological Psychiatry, researchers identify a gene that interacted with stress to mediate aspects of treatment-resistant MDD in an animal model.

Jing Zhang, PhD, at Fujian Medical University and senior author of the study, said, “Emerging evidence suggests that MDD is a consequence of the co-work of genetic risks and environmental factors, so it is crucial to explore how stress exposure and risk genes co-contribute to the pathogenesis of MDD.”

To do that, the authors used a mouse model of stress-induced depression called chronic social defeat stress (CSDS) in which mice are exposed to aggressor mice daily for two weeks. They focused on a gene called LHPP, which interacts with other signalling molecules at neuronal synapses. Increased expression of LHPP in the stressed mice aggravated the depression-like behaviours by decreasing expression of BDNF and PSD95 by dephosphorylating two protein kinases, CaMKIIα and ERK, under stress exposure.

Dr Zhang noted, “Interestingly, LHPP mutations (E56K, S57L) in humans can enhance CaMKIIα/ERK-BDNF/PSD95 signaling, which suggests that carrying LHPP mutations may have an antidepressant effect in the population.”

MDD is an extremely heterogeneous condition. Differences in the types of depression experienced by people influence the way they respond to treatment. A large subgroup of people with depression fail to respond to standard antidepressant medications and have “treatment-resistant” symptoms of depression. These patients often respond to different medications, such as ketamine or esketamine, or to electroconvulsive therapy. Notably, esketamine markedly alleviated LHPP-induced depression-like behaviours, whereas the traditional drug fluoxetine did not, suggesting that the mechanism might underlie some types of treatment-resistant depression.

John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, said of the work, “We have limited understanding of the neurobiology of treatment-resistant forms of depression. This study identifies a depression risk mechanism for stress-related behaviours that fail to respond to a standard antidepressant but respond well to ketamine. This may suggest that the risk mechanisms associated with the LHPP gene shed light on the poorly understood biology of treatment-resistant forms of depression.”

Dr Zhang added, “Together, our findings identify LHPP as an essential player driving stress-induced depression, implying targeting LHPP as an effective strategy in MDD therapeutics in the future.”

Source: Elsevier

Study Finds Epigenetic Changes Behind Cancer Progression

Photo by Sangharsh Lohakare on Unsplash

The journey a cell makes from healthy to metastatic cancer is mostly driven by epigenetic changes, according to a new computational study that has been recently published in the journal Nature.

Every cell makes its own proteins by accessing its genetic information, but genetic mutations may ruin the function of the affected proteins. In oncology, this is regarded as the genetics of cancer. The last decades, however, have seen the rise of a new field: the epigenetics of cancer.

Epigenetic modifications do not change the information but temporarily modify the cell’s ability to read some of its own genes and produce the associated proteins instead. This forms a vast epigenetic program that controls general cell functions and, when altered, it may put it at the starting line of malignant transformation. Is there a way to track these changes and understand the epigenetics of cancer transition?

Now an international team of researchers has made headway towards this goal. They analysed 1.7 million cells from 225 samples from primary and metastatic origin, from 205 patients of 11 different cancer types. For each cell, the team obtained the full transcriptome, exome and epigenome. This covers virtually all gene mutations, gene accessibility and its consequences. With the help of enormous computational resources, they were able deduce the whole functional status of each analysed cell and link it to its particular cancer type.

The results of the work demonstrate that many regions in the DNA are differentially activated or inactivated in a cancer-specific manner, creating a signature for each tumour. These differences are relevant for cancer progression and many correspond to already identified hallmarks of cancer, the steps a cell must undergo to become malignant. Dr Eduard Porta, group leader at the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute (IJC-CERCA), is part of the team and contributed with his experience in the analysis of large amounts of biological data.

Epigenetic changes at the DNA level stand out as an underlying cause of cancer, according to the new publication. Particularly, the accessibility of enhancer regions, a kind of master regulator acting upon many genes at once. Taken together, the results converges into a short list of genes that can be used as markers for good or poor prognosis, valuable information for the clinical management of patients.

The analysis has also identified the cellular pathways of these important genes, making it possible to track their distant interactions. Sometimes, the affected genes are so fundamental that is impossible to drug them directly without side effects but, knowing the full pathway, researchers may develop strategies to target the weakest link in the chain, maximising the therapeutic benefits while minimising undesirable effects.

Source: Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute

Twin Study Reveals Epigenetic Signature for Obesity

Photo by I Yunmai on Unsplash

A susceptibility to gain weight may be written into the epigenetic information of human cells, a Washington State University study indicates.

The proof-of-concept study with a set of 22 twins found an epigenetic signature in buccal cells appearing only for the twins who were obese compared to their thinner siblings. The findings could lead to the development of a simple cheek swab test for an obesity biomarker and enable earlier prevention, the researchers said.

“Obesity appears to be more complex than simple consumption of food. Our work indicates there’s a susceptibility for this disease and molecular markers that are changing for it,” said Michael Skinner, a WSU professor of biology and corresponding author of the study published in the journal Epigenetics.

The study focused on twins to help eliminate the role of genetics and instead focus on epigenetics, molecular processes which are separate from DNA but influence how genes are expressed. The fact that the epigenetic signature was found in cheek cells rather than fat cells also suggests that the obesity signature is likely found throughout the human system.

The signature’s systemic nature also suggests that something may have occurred early in one twin’s life that triggered obesity susceptibility, Skinner added. It’s also possible that it was inherited by one twin and not the other.

For this study, Skinner worked with lead author Glen Duncan, director of the Washington State Twin Registry based at WSU, to identify 22 twin pairs, both identical and fraternal, who were discordant for obesity: one sibling had a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, the standard for obesity defined by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, while the other sibling was in the normal range of 25 and below.

The research team analysed cells from cheek swabs provided by the twins. In the cells from the twin siblings who were obese, they found similar epigenetic changes to DNA methylation regions, areas where molecular groups made of methane attach to DNA, regulating gene expression or turning genes on or off.

The study would need to be replicated with larger groups of people to develop a biomarker test for obesity, the authors said.

The goal would be able to identify people earlier in life before they become obese so health care providers might help create interventions such as lifestyle changes, medication or both, said Duncan.

“Ultimately we would like to have some kind of preventative measure instead of our usual approach which is treatment,” he said. “It’s a simple fact that it’s better to prevent a disease, then try to treat it after you have it.”

Source: Washington State University

Genetic Analysis Reveals Secrets of Vlad Dracula the Impaler

Mediaeval tyrant and inspiration for vampires, protein analysis reveals health secrets about Vlad the Impaler

New research analysing ancient protein residues left in letters written by the sadistic 15th century tyrant – and vampire inspiration – Vlad Dracula the Impaler suggests that he suffered from a number of health conditions. One of these conditions seemingly confirms one of the more outlandish tales about him – that he cried tears of blood.

Vlad the Impaler got his nickname because he impaled thousands of people on stakes: enemies (mainly the Ottoman Empire), criminals and anyone suspected of conspiring against his rule. He was eventually defeated in 1460, but the newly invented printing press spread the tale of his gruesome deeds all over Europe. Tales surrounding him may have inspired the iconic character of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula in 1897. Nevertheless, more modern vampire stories such as Netflix’s ‘Castlevania’ make use of Vlad as inspiration.

This terrifying reputation made him an interesting topic for a bit of genetic archaeology in a paper published in Analytical Chemistry. Using sophisticated proteomic techniques, scientists analysed three letters written in 1457 and 1475 by the voivode of Wallachia, Vlad III, also known as Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula. This allowed them to tease out information about the man who wrote the letters as well as general information about the environmental conditions of 15th century Wallachia, a place of regional trade and conflict as well as disease transmission.

While centuries-old paper is unlikely to hold entire DNA strands, scientists were still able to piece together genetic information about the writer. The technique depends on the notion that a person’s writing hand will tend to rest on the paper being written upon, rubbing off a surprising amount of organic molecules in the process. They applied ethylene vinyl acetate to the papers, and with mass spectrometry, they discovered over 500 peptides – short chains of amino acids – with about 100 being of human origin, which they looked up in database searches.

Figure 1. (a) First letter (archive catalog number is II 365), dated August 4, 1475, here investigated, also showing the positions of the EVA strips (brownish rectangles) applied to its surface for capturing biological material; (b) mapping of the fluorescence of phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan under flash UV illumination (see the original article). Anal. Chem. 2023, 95, 34, 12732-12744

The researchers noted that while many mediaeval people may have handled these papers, it is also presumable that the most prominent ancient proteins can be attributed to the one who wrote and signed them – Prince Vlad the Impaler.

First, they discovered proteins pointing to ciliopathy, which affects the cellular cilia or the cilia anchoring structures, the basal bodies or ciliary function. This can manifest in a wide range of disorders, ranging from cerebral malformation to liver disease and intellectual disability.

They also uncovered signs of an undetermined inflammatory disease which likely involved his skin and respiratory tract.

Proteomics data also suggests that, according to some stories, he might also have suffered from a pathological condition called haemolacria – he could shed tears admixed with blood. This appears to confirm what some stories said about Vlad – that he sometimes cried tears of blood. While it is a known medical condition, it would have no doubt been terrifying for superstitious mediaeval people to behold when seen in someone with a reputation like Vlad the Impaler’s.

Non-human peptides also proved to be a window into the conditions of the time, hinting at common foods, pests and diseases. Database searches of the identified, as potential endogenous original components, 3 proteins from bacteria, 24 from viruses, 4 from fungi, 17 from insects (suggesting fruit flies), and 5 from plants (including rice, wheat and thale cress). Of the bacteria, they noted that some peptides related to Enterobacterales are specific to Yersinia pestis, the pathogenic bacterium causing plague, whereas another group is specific to E. coli.

Polygenic Risk Scores are not That Useful, Study Finds

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Polygenic risk scores, which estimate a person’s disease risk based on thousands or millions of common genetic variants, perform poorly in screening and prediction of common diseases such as heart disease, according to a new study led by UCL (University College London) researchers. An extremely high number of individuals would need to be screened for each potential intervention, creating a significant burden on healthcare, while producing numerous false positive results.

It has been claimed that polygenic risk scores are set to transform the prediction and prevention of common diseases, with companies already set up to sell polygenic risk score testing services.

The new study, published in BMJ Medicine, examined 926 polygenic risk scores for 310 diseases. It found that, on average, only 11% of individuals who develop disease are identified, while at the same time 5% of people who do not develop the disease test positive. Unaffected people usually outnumber those affected which results in far more false than true positive predictions.

Lead author Professor Aroon Hingorani said: “Strong claims have been made about the potential of polygenic risk scores in medicine, but our study shows that this is not justified.

“We found that, when held to the same standards as employed for other tests in medicine, polygenic risk scores performed poorly for prediction and screening across a range of common diseases.”

For the new study, researchers looked at data available in an open-access database, the Polygenic Score Catalog, to determine what the detection rate and false positive rate of the scores would be if used in screening.

For breast cancer and coronary artery disease, the risk scores identified only 10% and 12% of eventual cases respectively, using a cut-off that resulted in 5% of unaffected individuals testing positive.

The researchers also investigated how polygenic risk scores would perform if used alongside conventional screening methods.

They found that, if used alongside conventional risk factors, several thousand people would need to have a polygenic risk score done to guide statin prescriptions to prevent one additional heart attack or stroke. The researchers noted that using age alone as a guide to statin prescription would be simpler and more effective at preventing heart attacks and strokes without the need for genetic testing.

They also found that adding polygenic risk scores as first stage screening to determine who should be prioritised for mammography would miss most women who later develop breast cancer and generate many false positives, adding to the burden on healthcare systems.

Co-author Professor Sir Nicholas Wald said: “It has been suggested that polygenic risk scores could be introduced early on to help prevent breast cancer and heart disease but, in the examples we looked at, we found that the scores contributed little, if any, health benefit while adding cost and complexity.”

In the paper, the researchers suggest regulation of commercial genetic tests based on polygenic risk scores to “protect the public from unrealistic expectations and already stretched public health systems from becoming overburdened by the management of false positive results”.

The researchers said consumers of commercial polygenic risk score tests should be informed of the detection rate and false positive rate of the polygenic risk scores as well as the absolute risk with and without a polygenic score result so they can better judge whether the test is useful.

Co-author Dr Jasmine Gratton said: “Polygenic risk scores seem attractive because genotyping is now inexpensive, the same for all diseases and is performed only once because a person’s genotype does not change. However, these features are irrelevant if the test is not useful.”

Professor Sir Nick Wald said: “Our results build on evidence that indicates that polygenic risk scores do not have a role in public health screening programmes.”

The researchers said the performance of polygenic risk scores was unlikely to change much as the variants with the strongest effect had already been identified.

Polygenic risk scores should not be confused with genetic testing for certain single gene mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 which have an important role in screening for breast and ovarian cancer.

Discovering variants that are associated with a higher risk of disease is still crucial for drug development, the team emphasised, as the variants encode proteins that can be targeted with drugs that would be useful for everyone regardless of their genetic makeup.

Polygenic risk score testing is also one of the aims of the UK’s nationwide Our Future Health project.

Source: EurekAlert!

Neanderthal Gene Variants Associated with Greater Sensitivity to Some Types of Pain

Source: Pixabay CC0

People who carry three gene variants that have bene inherited from Neanderthals are more sensitive to some types of pain, according to a new study co-led by UCL researchers. The findings, published in Communications Biology, are the latest findings to show how past interbreeding with Neanderthals has influenced the genetics of modern humans.

The researchers found that people carrying three so-called Neanderthal variants in the gene SCN9A, which is implicated in sensory neurons, are more sensitive to pain from skin pricking after prior exposure to mustard oil.

Previous research has identified three variations in the SCN9A gene – known as M932L, V991L, and D1908G – in sequenced Neanderthal genomes and reports of greater pain sensitivity among humans carrying all three variants. However, prior to this study the specific sensory responses affected by these variants was unclear.

An international team measured the pain thresholds of 1963 people from Colombia in response to a range of stimuli.

The SCN9A gene encodes a sodium channel that is expressed at high levels in sensory neurons that detect signals from damaged tissue. The researchers found that the D1908G variant of the gene was present in around 20% of chromosomes within this population and around 30% of chromosomes carrying this variant also carried the M932L and V991L variants.

The authors found that the three variants were associated with a lower pain threshold in response to skin pricking after prior exposure to mustard oil, but not in response to heat or pressure. Additionally, carrying all three variants was associated with greater pain sensitivity than carrying only one.

When they analysed the genomic region including SCN9A using genetic data from 5971 people from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, the authors found that the three Neanderthal variants were more common in populations with higher proportions of Native American ancestry, such as the Peruvian population, in which the average proportion of Native American ancestry was 66%.

The authors propose that the Neanderthal variants may sensitise sensory neurons by altering the threshold at which a nerve impulse is generated. They speculate that the variants may be more common in populations with higher proportions of Native American ancestry as a result of random chance and population bottlenecks that occurred during the initial occupation of the Americas. Although acute pain can moderate behaviour and prevent further injury, the scientists that say additional research is needed to determine whether carrying these variants and having greater pain sensitivity may have been advantageous during human evolution.

Diagram comparing the nose shape of a Neanderthal with that of a modern human by Dr Macarena Fuentes-Guajardo.

Previous research by co-corresponding author Dr Kaustubh Adhikari (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment and The Open University) has shown that humans also inherited some genetic material from Neanderthals affecting the shape of our noses.

Dr Adhikari commented: “In the last 15 years, since the Neanderthal genome was first sequenced, we have been learning more and more about what we have inherited from them as a result of interbreeding tens of thousands of years ago.

“Pain sensitivity is an important survival trait that enables us to avoid painful things that could cause us serious harm. Our findings suggest that Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to certain types of pain, but further research is needed for us to understand why that is the case, and whether these specific genetic variants were evolutionarily advantageous.”

First author Dr Pierre Faux (Aix-Marseille University and University of Toulouse) said: “We have shown how variation in our genetic code can alter how we perceive pain, including genes that modern humans acquired from the Neanderthals. But genes are just one of many factors, including environment, past experience, and psychological factors, which influence pain.”

Source: University College London

CRISPR Untangles the Connections between Genome Organisation and Autism

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Using CRISPR gene editing, stem cells and human neurons, researchers have isolated the impact of a gene that is commonly mutated in autism. This new study, published today in The American Journal of Human Genetics, ties mutations in the gene CHD8 with a broad spectrum of molecular and cellular defects in human cortical neurons.

Autism is a highly heritable disorder with a recent increase in incidence – approximately 1 in 40 children in the US are diagnosed with autism. Over the past decade, sequencing studies have found many genes associated with autism but it has been challenging to understand how mutations in certain genes drive complex changes in brain activity and function.

The team, led by researchers at the New York Genome Center and New York University (NYU) and the Broad Institute, team developed an integrated approach to understand how mutations in the CHD8 gene alter genome regulation, gene expression, neuron function, and are tied to other key genes that play a role in autism. 

For more than a decade, it has been known that individuals with mutations in the CHD8 gene tend to have many similar ailments, such as autism, an abnormally large head size, digestive issues and difficulty sleeping. The CHD8 gene is a regulator of proteins called chromatin that surround the DNA but it is unclear how this particular gene might relate to major alterations in neural development and, in turn, result in autism. 

The research team identified numerous changes in physical state of DNA, which makes the genome more accessible to regulators of gene expression, and, in turn, drives aberrant expression of hundreds of genes. These molecular defects resulted in clear functional changes in neurons that carry the CHD8 mutation. These neurons are much less talkative: They are activated less often and send fewer messages across their synapses. 

The study authors initially observed these changes using human cortical neurons differentiated from stem cells where CRISPR was used to insert a CHD8 mutation. These findings were further bolstered by similar reductions in neuron and synapse activity when examining neurons from mice with a CHD8 mutation. These substantial defects in neuron function were circumvented when extra CHD8 was added to the cell using a gene therapy approach. In this case, extra copies of a healthy CHD8 gene without any mutation were added using a viral vector. Upon differentiation, the team found that the neurons rescued by the treatment returned to a normal rate of activity and synaptic communication, indicating that this gene therapy approach may be sufficient to restore function.

Lastly, when examining disrupted genes, the authors found that the CHD8 mutation seemed to specifically alter other genes that have been implicated in autism or intellectual disability, but not genes associated with unrelated disorders like cardiovascular disease. This suggest that CHD8 might influence selectively those genes that tend to be involved in neurodevelopmental disorders, providing an explanation for some of the particular characteristics of individuals carrying a CHD8 mutation.

Source: EurekAlert!