A genome-wide screen in live hosts reveals new secrets of parasite infection

Researchers in the Lourido Lab performed the first genome-wide screen of Toxoplasma gondii in live hosts, revealing genes that are important for infection but previously undetected in cell culture experiments. 

Greta Friar | Whitehead Institute
July 8, 2024

Apicomplexan parasites are a common cause of disease, infecting hundreds of millions of people each year. They are responsible for spreading malaria; cryptosporidiosis – a severe childhood diarrheal disease; and toxoplasmosis – a disease that endangers immune compromised people and fetuses, and is the reason why pregnant women are told to avoid changing cat litter. Apicomplexan parasites are very good at infecting humans and many other animals, and persisting inside of them. The more that researchers can learn about how apicomplexans infect hosts, the better they will be able to develop effective treatments against the parasites.

To this end, researchers in Whitehead Institute Member Sebastian Lourido’s lab, led by graduate student Christopher Giuliano, have now completed a genome-wide screen of the apicomplexan parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), which causes toxoplasmosis, during its infection of mice. This screen shows how important each gene is for the parasite’s ability to infect a host, providing clues to genes’ functions. In the journal Nature Microbiology on July 8, the researchers share their approach for tracing lineages of parasites in a live host, and some specific findings of interest—including a possible anti-parasitic drug target.

From dish to animal

Researchers in Lourido’s lab previously developed a screen to test the function of every T. gondii gene in cells in a dish in 2016. They used CRISPR gene editing technology to make mutant parasites in which each lineage had one gene inactivated. The researchers could then assess the importance of each gene to a parasite’s fitness, or ability to thrive, based on how well the mutants missing that gene did. If a mutant died off, this implied that its inactivated gene is essential for the parasite’s survival.

This screen taught the researchers a lot about T. gondii’s biology but faced a common limitation: the parasites were studied in a dish rather than a live host. Cell culture provides an easier way to study parasites, but the conditions are not the same as what parasites face in an animal host. A host’s body is a more complex and dynamic environment, so it may require parasites to rely on genes that they don’t need in the artificial setting of cell culture.

To overcome this limitation, researchers in Lourido’s lab figured out how to repeat the T. gondii genome-wide screen, which their colleagues in the lab had previously done in cell culture, in live mice. This was a massive undertaking, which required solving various technical challenges and running a large number of parallel experiments. T. gondii has around eight thousand genes, so the researchers performed pooled experiments, with each mouse getting infected by many different mutants—but not so many as to overwhelm the mouse. This meant that the researchers needed a way to more closely monitor the trajectories of mutants in the mouse. They needed to track the lineages of parasites that carried the same mutation over time, as this would allow them to see how different replicate lineages of a particular mutant performed.

“This is an outstanding resource,” says Lourido. “The results of the screen reveal such a broader spectrum of ways in which the parasites are interacting with hosts, and enrich our perception of the parasites’ abilities and vulnerabilities.”
The researchers added barcodes to the CRISPR tools that inactivated a gene of interest in the parasite. When they harvested the parasites’ descendants, the barcode would identify the lineage, distinguishing replicate parasites that had been mutated in the same way. This allowed the researchers to use a population-based analytical approach to rule out false results and decrease experimental noise. Then they could draw conclusions about how well each lineage did. Lineage tracing allowed them to map how different populations of parasites traveled throughout the host’s body, and whether some populations grew better in one organ versus another.

The researchers found 237 genes that contribute to the parasite’s fitness more in a live host than in cell culture. Many of these were not previously known to be important for the parasite’s fitness. The genes identified in the current screen are active in different parts of the parasite, and affect diverse aspects of its interactions with a host. The researchers also found instances in which parasite fitness in a live host increased when a gene was inactivated; these genes may be, for example, related to signals that the host immune system uses to detect the parasites. Next, the researchers followed up on several of the fitness-improving genes that stuck out as of particular interest.

Genes that make the difference in a live host

One gene that stuck out was GTP cyclohydrolase I (GCH), which codes for an enzyme involved in the production of the essential nutrient folate. Apicomplexans rely on folate, and so the researchers wanted to understand GCH’s role in securing it for the parasite. Cell culture media contains high levels of folate, and in this nutrient-rich environment, GCH is not essential. However, in a live mouse, the parasite must both scavenge folate and synthesize it using the metabolic pathway containing GCH. Lourido and Giuliano uncovered new details of how that pathway works.

Although previously GCH’s role was not fully understood, the importance of folate for apicomplexans is a well-known vulnerability that has been used to design anti-parasitic therapies. The anti-folate drug pyrimethamine was commonly used to treat malaria, but many parasites have developed resistance to it.

Some drug-resistant apicomplexans have increased the number of GCH gene copies that they have, suggesting that they may be using GCH-mediated folate synthesis to overcome pyrimethamine. The researchers found that combining a GCH inhibitor with pyrimethamine increased the efficacy of the drug against the parasites. The GCH inhibitor was also effective on its own. Unfortunately, the currently available GCH inhibitor targets mammalian as well as parasitic folate pathways, and so is not safe for use in animals. Giuliano and colleagues are working on developing a GCH inhibitor that is parasite-specific as a possible therapy.

“There was an entire half of the folate metabolism pathway that previously looked like it wasn’t important for parasites, simply because people add so much folate to cell culture media,” Giuliano says. “This is a good example of what can be missed in cell culture experiments, and what’s particularly exciting is that the finding has led us to a new drug candidate.”

Another gene of interest was RASP1. The researchers determined that RASP1 is not involved in initial infection attempts, but is needed if the parasites fail and need to mount a second attempt. They found that RASP1 is needed to reload an organelle of the parasites called a rhoptry that the parasites use to breach and reprogram host cells. Without RASP1, the parasites could only deploy one set of rhoptries, and so could only attempt one invasion.

Identifying the function of RASP1 in infection also demonstrated the importance of studying how parasites interact with different cell types. In cell culture, researchers typically culture parasites in fibroblasts, a connective tissue cell. The researchers found that parasites could invade fibroblasts with or without RASP1, suggesting that this cell type is easy for them to invade. However, when the parasites tried to invade macrophages, an immune cell, those without RASP1 often failed, suggesting that macrophages present the parasites with more of a challenge, requiring multiple attempts. The screen uncovered other probable cell-type specific pathways, which would not have been found using only model cell types in a dish.

The screen also highlighted a previously unnamed gene that the researchers are calling GRA72. Previous studies suggested that this gene plays a role in the vacuole or protective envelope that the parasite forms around itself. The Lourido lab researchers confirmed this, and discovered additional details of how the absence of GRA72 disrupts the parasite vacuole.

A rich resource for the future

Lourido, Giuliano, and colleagues hope that their findings will provide new insights into parasite biology and, especially in the case of GCH, lead to new therapies. They intend to continue pulling from the treasure trove of results—their screen identified many other genes of interest that require follow-up—to learn more about apicomplexan parasites and their interactions with mammalian hosts. Lourido says that other researchers in his lab have already used the results of the screen to guide them towards relevant genes and pathways in their own projects.

“This is an outstanding resource,” says Lourido, who is also an associate professor of biology at MIT. “The results of the screen reveal such a broader spectrum of ways in which the parasites are interacting with hosts, and enrich our perception of the parasites’ abilities and vulnerabilities.”

“Vaults” within germ cells offer more than safekeeping

Ribonucleoprotein (RNP) granules are believed to preserve maternal mRNA within eggs and developing embryos. The Lehman Lab reveals that a specific type of RNP granule also plays an active role in translating the mRNA that is crucial for specifying germ cells.

Shafaq Zia | Whitehead Institute
July 2, 2024

Maternal messenger RNAs (mRNAs), located within the cytoplasm of an immature egg, are crucial for jump starting development. Following fertilization, these mRNAs are passed onto the zygote, the first newly formed cell. Having been read from the maternal DNA genetic code, they serve as the sole templates for protein production essential for early development until the zygote’s own genes become active and take over.

Many maternal mRNAs are stored in ribonucleoprotein (RNP) granules, which are a type of membrane-less compartments, or condensates, within eggs and developing embryos. These granules are believed to preserve the mRNA in a “paused” state until the encoded proteins are needed for specific developmental processes upon fertilization of the egg cell. Then, certain developmental signals kick in to instruct the RNP granules to release the stored mRNA so the instructions can be translated into a functional protein.

One type of RNP granules called germ granules is found in embryo germplasm, a cytoplasmic region that gives rise to germ cells, which become the eggs or sperms of adult flies. Whitehead Institute Director Ruth Lehmann studies how germ cells form and transmit their genetic information across generations. Her lab is particularly interested in understanding how germ granules in embryos localize and regulate maternal mRNAs.

Now, Lehmann, along with graduate student Ruoyu Chen and colleagues, has uncovered that the role of germ granules in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) extends beyond safeguarding maternal mRNAs. Their findings, published in the journal Nature Cell Biology on July 4, demonstrate that germ granules also play an active role in translating, or making into protein, a specific maternal mRNA, called nanos, crucial for specifying germ cells and the abdomen of the organism.

“Traditionally, scientists have thought of RNP granules as a dead zone for translation,” says Chen. “But through high-resolution imaging, we’ve challenged this notion and shown that the surface of these granules is actually a platform for translation of nanos mRNA.”

RNP granules act as vaults

Within a developing embryo, various fate-determining proteins dictate whether a cell will become a muscle, nerve, or skin cell in a fully-formed body. Nanos, a gene with conserved function in Drosophila and humans, guides the production of Nanos protein which instructs cells to develop into germline. Mutations in the nanos gene cause sterility in animals.

During early embryonic development, Nanos protein also helps establish the body plan of the fruit fly embryo — it specifies the posterior end or abdominal region, and guides the ordered development of tissues along the length of the body, from head to tail. In embryos with impaired Nanos function, the consequences are fatal.

“When Nanos protein isn’t functioning properly, the fruit fly embryos are really short,” says Chen. “This is because the embryo has no abdomen, which is basically half of its body. Nanos also has a second function that is conserved from flies to humans. This function is very local and instructs the cells with lots of Nanos to become germ cells. ”

Given Nanos’ vital role, embryos must safeguard instructions for its production until the embryo reaches a specific stage of development, when it is time to define the posterior region. Previous work has indicated that germ granules in the germplasm and germ cells can act like vaults, shielding the nanos mRNA from degradation or premature translation.

However, while the mRNA instructions for building the protein are distributed throughout the embryo, Nanos protein is found only in regions where germ granules reside. The mRNA does not get translated elsewhere in the embryo because of a regulatory protein called Smaug, named after the golden dragon depicted in J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. Smaug binds to a non-protein coding segment of the mRNA known as the 3’ untranslated region (3’ UTR), extending beyond the protein-coding sequence, effectively suppressing the translation process.

For Lehmann, Chen, and their colleagues, this hinted at an intriguing relationship between nanos mRNA and germ granules. Are the granules essential for translating nanos mRNA into a functional protein? And if they are, is their role primarily to serve as a safekeeping place to evade repression by Smaug or do they actively facilitate the translation of nanos mRNA too?

To answer these questions, the researchers combined high-resolution imaging with a technique called the SunTag system to directly visualize the translation of nanos mRNA within Drosophila germ granules at the single-molecule level.

Unlike green fluorescent protein tagging, where a single fluorescent molecule is used, the SunTag system allows scientists to recruit multiple GFP copies for an amplified signal. First, a small protein tag, known as the SunTag, is fused with the protein-producing region of the nanos mRNA. As the mRNA instructions undergo translation, GFP molecules stick to the newly synthesized SunTag-Nanos protein, resulting in a bright fluorescent signal. Overlying this translation signal with fluorescent probes specifically labeling the mRNA then allows researchers to precisely visualize and track when and where the translation process is taking place.

“Using this system, we’ve discovered that when nanos mRNA is translated, it protrudes slightly from the surface of the granules like snakes peeking out of a box,” says Chen. “But they can’t fully emerge; a part of their sequence, specifically their “back” end, the 3’ UTR, remains tucked inside the granules. When the RNA is not translated, like during oogenesis, the tip coils back and is hidden inside the granule.”

With their high-resolution SunTag imaging technique, Lehmann, Chen and their colleagues have directly added to the work of other researchers with similar observations: mRNAs in the process of translation are in an extended configuration, while the 5’UTR curls back to the 3’UTR when the mRNAs are repressed.

Flipping on nanos translation

Then, the researchers went on to take a closer look at how these granules help initiate translation, while Smaug is able to inhibit the same nanos mRNA molecules from being translated in other areas of the embryo. They hypothesized that the untranslated region (UTR) of nanos mRNA, which remains concealed within the granules, might be playing a pivotal role in the translation process by localizing the mRNA instructions within germ cell granules. This localization, they speculated, protects the mRNA from Smaug’s inhibitory actions and facilitates Nanos protein production, so the posterior region can develop properly.

However, counter-intuitive to a simple protection model, they found that rather than being depleted, Smaug is enriched within germ granules, indicating that additional mechanisms within the RNP granule must counteract Smaug’s inhibitory effects. To explore this, the researchers turned to another regulatory protein called Oskar, which is known to interact with Smaug.

Discovered by Lehmann in a 1986 study, and named after a character in the German novel The Tin Drum, the oskar gene in Drosophila is known to help with the development of the posterior region. Later research has revealed that, during the development of oocytes, Oskar acts as a scaffold protein by initiating the formation of germ granules in germ cells and directing mRNA molecules, including nanos, towards the granules.

To gain a deeper understanding of Oskar’s full role in translational regulation in germ granules and its interaction with Smaug, the researchers engineered a modified version of Oskar protein. This altered Oskar protein retained its ability to initiate the formation of germ granules and localize nanos mRNA within them. However, Smaug no longer localized to the germ granules assembled by this altered Oskar.

The researchers then studied whether the mutant protein had any effect on nanos mRNA translation. In the germ cells with this mutant version of Oskar, the researchers saw a significant reduction in the translation of nanos mRNA. These findings, combined, suggested that Oskar regulates nanos translation in fruit fly embryos by recruiting Smaug to the granules and then counteracting its repression of translation.

“Condensates composed of RNAs and proteins are found in the cytoplasm of pretty much every cell and are thought to mediate mRNA storage or transport,” says Lehmann, who is also a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But our results provide new insights into condensate biology by suggesting that condensates can be also used to specifically translate stored mRNAs.”

Indeed, in the oocyte, the germ granules are silent and only become activated when the egg is fertilized.

“This suggests that there might also be other ‘on and off switches’ governing translation within condensates during early development,” adds Lehmann. “How this is achieved and whether we could engineer this to happen at will in these and other granules is a question for the future.”

She’s fighting to stop the brain disease that killed her mother before it gets her

Jonathan Weissman is the senior author on a recent study on silencing a prion protein's expression. Prions cause devastating neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia, Huntington's, Parkinson's, and Lou Gehrig's disease. Silencing genes represents a step towards a therapeutic model for treating these diseases in humans.

Karen Weintraub | USA TODAY
June 27, 2024

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. ‒ Sonia Vallabh watched helplessly as her 51-year-old mother rapidly descended into dementia and died. It didn’t take long for Vallabh to realize she was destined for the same rare genetic fate.

Vallabh and her husband did what anyone would want to do in their situation: They decided to fight.

Armed with little more than incredible intellect and determination they set out to conquer her destiny.

A dozen years later, they’ve taken a major step in that direction, finding a way to shut off enough genetic signals to hold off the disease.

And in the process of trying to rescue Vallabh, they may save many, many others as well.

In a paper published Thursday in the prestigious journal Science, Vallabh and her husband, Eric Minikel, and their co-authors offer a way to disrupt brain diseases like the one that killed her mother.

The same approach should also work against diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease and even Alzheimer’s, which result from the accumulation of toxic proteins. If it works as well as they think, it could also be useful against a vast array of other diseases that can be treated by shutting off genes.

“It doesn’t have to be the brain. It could be the muscles. It could be the kidneys. It could be really anywhere in the body where we have not easily been able to do these things before,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a cardiologist and geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, who wasn’t involved in the research but wrote a perspective accompanying the paper.

So far, they’ve proven it only in mice.

“The data are good as far as they go,” Vallabh said this week from her office at the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she has worked since getting a Ph.D. at Harvard. She had already gotten a law degree from the university, but she and Minikel, then a transportation planner, both pursued biology degrees after her mother’s death. Now, they work together at the Broad.

“We’re far from this being a drug,” Vallabh said. “There’s always, always reason for caution. Sadly, everything is always more likely to fail than succeed.

“But there is justifiable reason for optimism.”

A terrible disease

The disease that killed Vallabh’s mother was one of a group of conditions called prion diseases. These include mad cow disease, which affects mostly cattle, scrapie, which affects sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which kills about 350 Americans a year ‒ most within months of their first symptom.

These diseases are triggered when the prion protein found in all normal brains starts misfolding for some reason, as yet unknown.

“Prion disease can strike anybody,” Vallabh said, noting the 1 in 6,000 risk to the general population.

Though prion diseases are, in some cases, contagious, a federal study earlier this year concluded that chronic wasting disease, found in deer, elk and moose, is very unlikely to pass to people who eat the meat of sick animals.

In Vallabh’s case, the cause is genetic. Vallabh discovered after her mother’s death that she carries the same variant of the same gene that caused her mother’s disease, meaning she will certainly develop it.

The only question is when.

“The age of onset is extremely unpredictable,” Vallabh said. “Your parent’s age of onset doesn’t actually predict anything.”

How the gene-editing tool works

Vallabh and Minikel approached colleagues at the Whitehead Institute a biomedical research institute next to the Broad. They asked to collaborate on a new gene-editing approach to turn off Vallabh’s disease gene. The technique developed by Whitehead scientists is called CHARM (for Coupled Histone tail Autoinhibition Release of Methyltransferase).

While previous gene-editing tools have been described as scissors or erasers, Musunuru described CHARM as volume control, allowing scientists to tune a gene up or down. It has three advantages over previous strategies, he said.

The device is tiny, so it fits easily inside the virus needed to deliver it. Other gene-editing tools, like CRISPR, are bigger, which means they need to be broken into pieces and much more of the virus is needed to deliver those pieces to the brain, risking a dangerous immune reaction.

CHARM, Musunuru said, is “easier to deliver to hard-to-deliver spaces like the brain.”

At least in the mouse, it also seems to have reached throughout the brain, making the desired genetic change without other, unwanted ones, Musunuru said.

And finally, the research team figured out a way to turn the gene editor off after its work was done. “If it’s sticking around, there’s the potential for genetic mischief,” Musunuru said.

One shot on goal

While researchers, including Vallabh, continue to work to perfect an approach, the clock for Vallabh and others is ticking.

Right now there’s no viable treatment and if it takes too long to develop one, Vallabh will miss her window. Once the disease process starts, like a runaway train, it’ll be much harder to stop than it would be to just shut the gene off in the first place.

The more prion protein in the brain, the more likely it is to misfold. And the more likely it is for the disease to spread, a process that co-opts the natural form of the protein and converts it to the toxic form.

That’s why getting rid of as much of it as possible makes sense, said Jonathan Weissman, the senior author of the study, who leads a Whitehead lab.

“The biology is really clear. The need (for a cure) is so compelling,” Weissman said.

Every cell in the brain has the gene for making the prion protein. By silencing even 50% of those genes, Weissman figures he can prevent the disease. In mice, CHARM silenced up to 80% to 90%.

“We’ve figured out what to deliver. Now we have to figure out how to deliver it,” he said.

Another of the paper’s co-authors, the Broad’s Ben Deverman, published a study late last year showing he could deliver a gene-therapy-carrying virus throughout the brain. Others are developing other viral delivery systems.

Vallabh and Minikel have hedged their bets, helping to develop a so-called antisense oligonucleotide, or ASO, which uses another path for stopping the gene from making the prion protein.

The ASO, which is in early trials in people by a company called Ionis Pharmaceuticals, requires regular treatment rather than the one-and-done of gene therapy. Recruitment for that trial had to be paused in April because the number of would-be volunteers outstripped the available slots.

Vallabh isn’t ready yet to start any treatment yet herself.

“She has one shot on goal,” Musunuru said. “At some point, she’ll have to decide what’s the best strategy.”

In the meantime, the clock Vallabh can’t see continues to tick toward the onset.

She and Minikel stay exceedingly busy with their research along with their daughter, almost 7, and 4-year-old son ‒ both born via IVF and preimplantation genetic testing to ensure they wouldn’t inherit her genetic curse. (They were super lucky, Vallabh notes, to be living in Massachusetts where IVF is at least “approachable” financially.)

“There is a mountain ahead of us,” Vallabh said of the path to a cure. “There’s still a lot of hurdles, there’s still a lot to figure out.”

CHARMed collaboration creates a potent therapy candidate for fatal prion diseases

A new gene-silencing tool shows promise as a future therapy against prion diseases and paves the way for new approaches to treating disease.

Greta Friar | Whitehead Institute
June 27, 2024

Drug development is typically slow: The pipeline from basic research discoveries that provide the basis for a new drug to clinical trials and then production of a widely available medicine can take decades. But decades can feel impossibly far off to someone who currently has a fatal disease. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard Senior Group Leader Sonia Vallabh is acutely aware of that race against time, because the topic of her research is a neurodegenerative and ultimately fatal disease — fatal familial insomnia, a type of prion disease — that she will almost certainly develop as she ages.

Vallabh and her husband, Eric Minikel, switched careers and became researchers after they learned that Vallabh carries a disease-causing version of the prion protein gene and that there is no effective therapy for fatal prion diseases. The two now run a lab at the Broad Institute, where they are working to develop drugs that can prevent and treat these diseases, and their deadline for success is not based on grant cycles or academic expectations but on the ticking time bomb in Vallabh’s genetic code.

That is why Vallabh was excited to discover, when she entered into a collaboration with Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research member Jonathan Weissman, that Weissman’s group likes to work at full throttle. In less than two years, Weissman, Vallabh, and their collaborators have developed a set of molecular tools called CHARMs that can turn off disease-causing genes such as the prion protein gene — as well as, potentially, genes coding for many other proteins implicated in neurodegenerative and other diseases — and they are refining those tools to be good candidates for use in human patients. Although the tools still have many hurdles to pass before the researchers will know if they work as therapeutics, the team is encouraged by the speed with which they have developed the technology thus far.

“The spirit of the collaboration since the beginning has been that there was no waiting on formality,” Vallabh says. “As soon as we realized our mutual excitement to do this, everything was off to the races.”

Co-corresponding authors Weissman and Vallabh and co-first authors Edwin Neumann, a graduate student in Weissman’s lab, and Tessa Bertozzi, a postdoc in Weissman’s lab, describe CHARM — which stands for Coupled Histone tail for Autoinhibition Release of Methyltransferase — in a paper published today in the journal Science.

“With the Whitehead and Broad Institutes right next door to each other, I don’t think there’s any better place than this for a group of motivated people to move quickly and flexibly in the pursuit of academic science and medical technology,” says Weissman, who is also a professor of biology at MIT and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. “CHARMs are an elegant solution to the problem of silencing disease genes, and they have the potential to have an important position in the future of genetic medicines.”

To treat a genetic disease, target the gene

Prion disease, which leads to swift neurodegeneration and death, is caused by the presence of misshapen versions of the prion protein. These cause a cascade effect in the brain: the faulty prion proteins deform other proteins, and together these proteins not only stop functioning properly but also form toxic aggregates that kill neurons. The most famous type of prion disease, known colloquially as mad cow disease, is infectious, but other forms of prion disease can occur spontaneously or be caused by faulty prion protein genes.

Most conventional drugs work by targeting a protein. CHARMs, however, work further upstream, turning off the gene that codes for the faulty protein so that the protein never gets made in the first place. CHARMs do this by epigenetic editing, in which a chemical tag gets added to DNA in order to turn off or silence a target gene. Unlike gene editing, epigenetic editing does not modify the underlying DNA — the gene itself remains intact. However, like gene editing, epigenetic editing is stable, meaning that a gene switched off by CHARM should remain off. This would mean patients would only have to take CHARM once, as opposed to protein-targeting medications that must be taken regularly as the cells’ protein levels replenish.

Research in animals suggests that the prion protein isn’t necessary in a healthy adult, and that in cases of disease, removing the protein improves or even eliminates disease symptoms. In a person who hasn’t yet developed symptoms, removing the protein should prevent disease altogether. In other words, epigenetic editing could be an effective approach for treating genetic diseases such as inherited prion diseases. The challenge is creating a new type of therapy.

Fortunately, the team had a good template for CHARM: a research tool called CRISPRoff that Weissman’s group previously developed for silencing genes. CRISPRoff uses building blocks from CRISPR gene editing technology, including the guide protein Cas9 that directs the tool to the target gene. CRISPRoff silences the targeted gene by adding methyl groups, chemical tags that prevent the gene from being transcribed, or read into RNA, and so from being expressed as protein. When the researchers tested CRISPRoff’s ability to silence the prion protein gene, they found that it was effective and stable.

Several of its properties, though, prevented CRISPRoff from being a good candidate for a therapy. The researchers’ goal was to create a tool based on CRISPRoff that was just as potent but also safe for use in humans, small enough to deliver to the brain, and designed to minimize the risk of silencing the wrong genes or causing side effects.

From research tool to drug candidate

Led by Neumann and Bertozzi, the researchers began engineering and applying their new epigenome editor. The first problem that they had to tackle was size, because the editor needs to be small enough to be packaged and delivered to specific cells in the body. Delivering genes into the human brain is challenging; many clinical trials have used adeno-associated viruses (AAVs) as gene-delivery vehicles, but these are small and can only contain a small amount of genetic code. CRISPRoff is way too big; the code for Cas9 alone takes up most of the available space.

The Weissman lab researchers decided to replace Cas9 with a much smaller zinc finger protein (ZFP). Like Cas9, ZFPs can serve as guide proteins to direct the tool to a target site in DNA. ZFPs are also common in human cells, meaning they are less likely to trigger an immune response against themselves than the bacterial Cas9.

Next, the researchers had to design the part of the tool that would silence the prion protein gene. At first, they used part of a methyltransferase, a molecule that adds methyl groups to DNA, called DNMT3A. However, in the particular configuration needed for the tool, the molecule was toxic to the cell. The researchers focused on a different solution: Instead of delivering outside DNMT3A as part of the therapy, the tool is able to recruit the cell’s own DNMT3A to the prion protein gene. This freed up precious space inside of the AAV vector and prevented toxicity.

The researchers also needed to activate DNMT3A. In the cell, DNMT3A is usually inactive until it interacts with certain partner molecules. This default inactivity prevents accidental methylation of genes that need to remain turned on. Neumann came up with an ingenious way around this by combining sections of DNMT3A’s partner molecules and connecting these to ZFPs that bring them to the prion protein gene. When the cell’s DNMT3A comes across this combination of parts, it activates, silencing the gene.

“From the perspectives of both toxicity and size, it made sense to recruit the machinery that the cell already has; it was a much simpler, more elegant solution,” Neumann says. “Cells are already using methyltransferases all of the time, and we’re essentially just tricking them into turning off a gene that they would normally leave turned on.”

Testing in mice showed that ZFP-guided CHARMs could eliminate more than 80 percent of the prion protein in the brain, while previous research has shown that as little as 21 percent elimination can improve symptoms.

Once the researchers knew that they had a potent gene silencer, they turned to the problem of off-target effects. The genetic code for a CHARM that gets delivered to a cell will keep producing copies of the CHARM indefinitely. However, after the prion protein gene is switched off, there is no benefit to this, only more time for side effects to develop, so they tweaked the tool so that after it turns off the prion protein gene, it then turns itself off.

Meanwhile, a complementary project from Broad Institute scientist and collaborator Benjamin Deverman’s lab, focused on brain-wide gene delivery and published in Science on May 17, has brought the CHARM technology one step closer to being ready for clinical trials. Although naturally occurring types of AAV have been used for gene therapy in humans before, they do not enter the adult brain efficiently, making it impossible to treat a whole-brain disease like prion disease. Tackling the delivery problem, Deverman’s group has designed an AAV vector that can get into the brain more efficiently by leveraging a pathway that naturally shuttles iron into the brain. Engineered vectors like this one make a therapy like CHARM one step closer to reality.

Thanks to these creative solutions, the researchers now have a highly effective epigenetic editor that is small enough to deliver to the brain, and that appears in cell culture and animal testing to have low toxicity and limited off-target effects.

“It’s been a privilege to be part of this; it’s pretty rare to go from basic research to therapeutic application in such a short amount of time,” Bertozzi says. “I think the key was forming a collaboration that took advantage of the Weissman lab’s tool-building experience, the Vallabh and Minikel lab’s deep knowledge of the disease, and the Deverman lab’s expertise in gene delivery.”

Looking ahead

With the major elements of the CHARM technology solved, the team is now fine-tuning their tool to make it more effective, safer, and easier to produce at scale, as will be necessary for clinical trials. They have already made the tool modular, so that its various pieces can be swapped out and future CHARMs won’t have to be programmed from scratch. CHARMs are also currently being tested as therapeutics in mice.

The path from basic research to clinical trials is a long and winding one, and the researchers know that CHARMs still have a way to go before they might become a viable medical option for people with prion diseases, including Vallabh, or other diseases with similar genetic components. However, with a strong therapy design and promising laboratory results in hand, the researchers have good reason to be hopeful. They continue to work at full throttle, intent on developing their technology so that it can save patients’ lives not someday, but as soon as possible.

With programmable pixels, novel sensor improves imaging of neural activity

New camera chip design allows for optimizing each pixel’s timing to maximize signal to noise ratio when tracking real-time visual indicator of neural voltage, described in a new paper from a team in the Wilson Lab published in Nature Communications.

David Orenstein | The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory
June 7, 2024
New technique reveals how gene transcription is coordinated in cells

By capturing short-lived RNA molecules, scientists can map relationships between genes and the regulatory elements that control them.

Anne Trafton | MIT News
June 5, 2024

The human genome contains about 23,000 genes, but only a fraction of those genes are turned on inside a cell at any given time. The complex network of regulatory elements that controls gene expression includes regions of the genome called enhancers, which are often located far from the genes that they regulate.

This distance can make it difficult to map the complex interactions between genes and enhancers. To overcome that, MIT researchers have invented a new technique that allows them to observe the timing of gene and enhancer activation in a cell. When a gene is turned on around the same time as a particular enhancer, it strongly suggests the enhancer is controlling that gene.

Learning more about which enhancers control which genes, in different types of cells, could help researchers identify potential drug targets for genetic disorders. Genomic studies have identified mutations in many non-protein-coding regions that are linked to a variety of diseases. Could these be unknown enhancers?

“When people start using genetic technology to identify regions of chromosomes that have disease information, most of those sites don’t correspond to genes. We suspect they correspond to these enhancers, which can be quite distant from a promoter, so it’s very important to be able to identify these enhancers,” says Phillip Sharp, an MIT Institute Professor Emeritus and member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Sharp is the senior author of the new study, which appears today in Nature. MIT Research Assistant D.B. Jay Mahat is the lead author of the paper.

Hunting for eRNA

Less than 2 percent of the human genome consists of protein-coding genes. The rest of the genome includes many elements that control when and how those genes are expressed. Enhancers, which are thought to turn genes on by coming into physical contact with gene promoter regions through transiently forming a complex, were discovered about 45 years ago.

More recently, in 2010, researchers discovered that these enhancers are transcribed into RNA molecules, known as enhancer RNA or eRNA. Scientists suspect that this transcription occurs when the enhancers are actively interacting with their target genes. This raised the possibility that measuring eRNA transcription levels could help researchers determine when an enhancer is active, as well as which genes it’s targeting.

“That information is extraordinarily important in understanding how development occurs, and in understanding how cancers change their regulatory programs and activate processes that lead to de-differentiation and metastatic growth,” Mahat says.

However, this kind of mapping has proven difficult to perform because eRNA is produced in very small quantities and does not last long in the cell. Additionally, eRNA lacks a modification known as a poly-A tail, which is the “hook” that most techniques use to pull RNA out of a cell.

One way to capture eRNA is to add a nucleotide to cells that halts transcription when incorporated into RNA. These nucleotides also contain a tag called biotin that can be used to fish the RNA out of a cell. However, this current technique only works on large pools of cells and doesn’t give information about individual cells.

While brainstorming ideas for new ways to capture eRNA, Mahat and Sharp considered using click chemistry, a technique that can be used to join two molecules together if they are each tagged with “click handles” that can react together.

The researchers designed nucleotides labeled with one click handle, and once these nucleotides are incorporated into growing eRNA strands, the strands can be fished out with a tag containing the complementary handle. This allowed the researchers to capture eRNA and then purify, amplify, and sequence it. Some RNA is lost at each step, but Mahat estimates that they can successfully pull out about 10 percent of the eRNA from a given cell.

Using this technique, the researchers obtained a snapshot of the enhancers and genes that are being actively transcribed at a given time in a cell.

“You want to be able to determine, in every cell, the activation of transcription from regulatory elements and from their corresponding gene. And this has to be done in a single cell because that’s where you can detect synchrony or asynchrony between regulatory elements and genes,” Mahat says.

Timing of gene expression

Demonstrating their technique in mouse embryonic stem cells, the researchers found that they could calculate approximately when a particular region starts to be transcribed, based on the length of the RNA strand and the speed of the polymerase (the enzyme responsible for transcription) — that is, how far the polymerase transcribes per second. This allowed them to determine which genes and enhancers were being transcribed around the same time.

The researchers used this approach to determine the timing of the expression of cell cycle genes in more detail than has previously been possible. They were also able to confirm several sets of known gene-enhancer pairs and generated a list of about 50,000 possible enhancer-gene pairs that they can now try to verify.

Learning which enhancers control which genes would prove valuable in developing new treatments for diseases with a genetic basis. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first gene therapy treatment for sickle cell anemia, which works by interfering with an enhancer that results in activation of a fetal globin gene, reducing the production of sickled blood cells.

The MIT team is now applying this approach to other types of cells, with a focus on autoimmune diseases. Working with researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, they are exploring immune cell mutations that have been linked to lupus, many of which are found in non-coding regions of the genome.

“It’s not clear which genes are affected by these mutations, so we are beginning to tease apart the genes these putative enhancers might be regulating, and in what cell types these enhancers are active,” Mahat says. “This is a tool for creating gene-to-enhancer maps, which are fundamental in understanding the biology, and also a foundation for understanding disease.”

The findings of this study also offer evidence for a theory that Sharp has recently developed, along with MIT professors Richard Young and Arup Chakraborty, that gene transcription is controlled by membraneless droplets known as condensates. These condensates are made of large clusters of enzymes and RNA, which Sharp suggests may include eRNA produced at enhancer sites.

“We picture that the communication between an enhancer and a promoter is a condensate-type, transient structure, and RNA is part of that. This is an important piece of work in building the understanding of how RNAs from enhancers could be active,” he says.

The research was funded by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the Emerald Foundation Postdoctoral Transition Award.

Microscope system sharpens scientists’ view of neural circuit connections

To study plasticity in the brain, neuroscientists seek to track it at high resolution across whole cells, which is challenging in part because brain tissue is notorious for scattering light and making images fuzzy. A newly described technology described in a paper in Scientific Reports improves the clarity and speed of using two-photon microscopy to image synapses in the live brain. The paper was co-authored by Elly Nedivi, the William R. (1964) and Linda R. Young Professor of Neuroscience in the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Biology.

David Orenstein | The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory
June 4, 2024
“Rosetta Stone” of cell signaling could expedite precision cancer medicine

An atlas of human protein kinases enables scientists to map cell signaling pathways with unprecedented speed and detail. Michael Yaffe, the David H. Koch Professor of Science at MIT, the director of the MIT Center for Precision Cancer Medicine, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and a senior author of the new study published in Nature, is hoping to apply the comprehensive atlas of enzymes that regulate a wide variety of cellular activities to individual patients’ tumors to learn more about how the signaling states differ in cancer cancer, which could reveal new

Megan Scudellari | Koch Institute
June 3, 2024

A newly complete database of human protein kinases and their preferred binding sites provides a powerful new platform to investigate cell signaling pathways.

Culminating 25 years of research, MIT, Harvard University, and Yale University scientists and collaborators have unveiled a comprehensive atlas of human tyrosine kinases — enzymes that regulate a wide variety of cellular activities — and their binding sites.

The addition of tyrosine kinases to a previously published dataset from the same group now completes a free, publicly available atlas of all human kinases and their specific binding sites on proteins, which together orchestrate fundamental cell processes such as growth, cell division, and metabolism.

Now, researchers can use data from mass spectrometry, a common laboratory technique, to identify the kinases involved in normal and dysregulated cell signaling in human tissue, such as during inflammation or cancer progression.

“I am most excited about being able to apply this to individual patients’ tumors and learn about the signaling states of cancer and heterogeneity of that signaling,” says Michael Yaffe, who is the David H. Koch Professor of Science at MIT, the director of the MIT Center for Precision Cancer Medicine, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and a senior author of the new study. “This could reveal new druggable targets or novel combination therapies.”

The study, published in Nature, is the product of a long-standing collaboration with senior authors Lewis Cantley at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Benjamin Turk at Yale School of Medicine, and Jared Johnson at Weill Cornell Medical College.

The paper’s lead authors are Tomer Yaron-Barir at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and MIT’s Brian Joughin, with contributions from Kontstantin Krismer, Mina Takegami, and Pau Creixell.

Kinase kingdom

Human cells are governed by a network of diverse protein kinases that alter the properties of other proteins by adding or removing chemical compounds called phosphate groups. Phosphate groups are small but powerful: When attached to proteins, they can turn proteins on or off, or even dramatically change their function. Identifying which of the almost 400 human kinases phosphorylate a specific protein at a particular site on the protein was traditionally a lengthy, laborious process.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, the Cantley laboratory developed a method using a library of small peptides to identify the optimal amino acid sequence — called a motif, similar to a scannable barcode — that a kinase targets on its substrate proteins for the addition of a phosphate group. Over the ensuing years, Yaffe, Turk, and Johnson, all of whom spent time as postdocs in the Cantley lab, made seminal advancements in the technique, increasing its throughput, accuracy, and utility.

Johnson led a massive experimental effort exposing batches of kinases to these peptide libraries and observed which kinases phosphorylated which subsets of peptides. In a corresponding Nature paper published in January 2023, the team mapped more than 300 serine/threonine kinases, the other main type of protein kinase, to their motifs. In the current paper, they complete the human “kinome” by successfully mapping 93 tyrosine kinases to their corresponding motifs.

Next, by creating and using advanced computational tools, Yaron-Barir, Krismer, Joughin, Takegami, and Yaffe tested whether the results were predictive of real proteins, and whether the results might reveal unknown signaling events in normal and cancer cells. By analyzing phosphoproteomic data from mass spectrometry to reveal phosphorylation patterns in cells, their atlas accurately predicted tyrosine kinase activity in previously studied cell signaling pathways.

For example, using recently published phosphoproteomic data of human lung cancer cells treated with two targeted drugs, the atlas identified that treatment with erlotinib, a known inhibitor of the protein EGFR, downregulated sites matching a motif for EGFR. Treatment with afatinib, a known HER2 inhibitor, downregulated sites matching the HER2 motif. Unexpectedly, afatinib treatment also upregulated the motif for the tyrosine kinase MET, a finding that helps explain patient data linking MET activity to afatinib drug resistance.

Actionable results

There are two key ways researchers can use the new atlas. First, for a protein of interest that is being phosphorylated, the atlas can be used to narrow down hundreds of kinases to a short list of candidates likely to be involved. “The predictions that come from using this will still need to be validated experimentally, but it’s a huge step forward in making clear predictions that can be tested,” says Yaffe.

Second, the atlas makes phosphoproteomic data more useful and actionable. In the past, researchers might gather phosphoproteomic data from a tissue sample, but it was difficult to know what that data was saying or how to best use it to guide next steps in research. Now, that data can be used to predict which kinases are upregulated or downregulated and therefore which cellular signaling pathways are active or not.

“We now have a new tool now to interpret those large datasets, a Rosetta Stone for phosphoproteomics,” says Yaffe. “It is going to be particularly helpful for turning this type of disease data into actionable items.”

In the context of cancer, phosophoproteomic data from a patient’s tumor biopsy could be used to help doctors quickly identify which kinases and cell signaling pathways are involved in cancer expansion or drug resistance, then use that knowledge to target those pathways with appropriate drug therapy or combination therapy.

Yaffe’s lab and their colleagues at the National Institutes of Health are now using the atlas to seek out new insights into difficult cancers, including appendiceal cancer and neuroendocrine tumors. While many cancers have been shown to have a strong genetic component, such as the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 in breast cancer, other cancers are not associated with any known genetic cause. “We’re using this atlas to interrogate these tumors that don’t seem to have a clear genetic driver to see if we can identify kinases that are driving cancer progression,” he says.

Biological insights

In addition to completing the human kinase atlas, the team made two biological discoveries in their recent study. First, they identified three main classes of phosphorylation motifs, or barcodes, for tyrosine kinases. The first class is motifs that map to multiple kinases, suggesting that numerous signaling pathways converge to phosphorylate a protein boasting that motif. The second class is motifs with a one-to-one match between motif and kinase, in which only a specific kinase will activate a protein with that motif. This came as a partial surprise, as tyrosine kinases have been thought to have minimal specificity by some in the field.

The final class includes motifs for which there is no clear match to one of the 78 classical tyrosine kinases. This class includes motifs that match to 15 atypical tyrosine kinases known to also phosphorylate serine or threonine residues. “This means that there’s a subset of kinases that we didn’t recognize that are actually playing an important role,” says Yaffe. It also indicates there may be other mechanisms besides motifs alone that affect how a kinase interacts with a protein.

The team also discovered that tyrosine kinase motifs are tightly conserved between humans and the worm species C. elegans, despite the species being separated by more than 600 million years of evolution. In other words, a worm kinase and its human homologue are phosphorylating essentially the same motif. That sequence preservation suggests that tyrosine kinases are highly critical to signaling pathways in all multicellular organisms, and any small change would be harmful to an organism.

The research was funded by the Charles and Marjorie Holloway Foundation, the MIT Center for Precision Cancer Medicine, the Koch Institute Frontier Research Program via L. Scott Ritterbush, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the National Institutes of Health, Cancer Research UK, the Brain Tumour Charity, and the Koch Institute Support (core) grant from the National Cancer Institute.

New findings activate a better understanding of Rett syndrome’s causes

Rett syndrome is caused by mutations to the gene MECP2, which is highly expressed in the brain and appears to play important roles in maintaining healthy neurons. Researchers led by Rudolf Jaenisch have used cutting-edge techniques to create an epigenome map of MECP2, which may help guide future research on the disease.

Greta Friar | Whitehead Institute
April 25, 2024
Ragon faculty finds intricate functions of Resident Tissue Macrophages (RTM’s) extend beyond immune defense

The lab of Ragon Institute faculty @hernandezmsilva published a review in Science Immunology regarding resident tissue macrophages (RTMs), shedding light on these cells’ multifaceted roles.

April 15, 2024