The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

January 19, 2023

Look inside your bones

How humbling is it that we are still, even today, making basic discoveries about human anatomy? That’s a question we have to ask this week after the discovery by researchers at the University of Oxford that human and mouse bones contain lymphatic vessels, a special type of vasculature that connects our tissues to our bloodstream to clear waste and help regulate our immune response. Lymphatic vessels are known to be found throughout the body, but they were never thought to be inside our bones. It was only because the Oxford researchers combined genetics with a technique called high-resolution light-sheet imaging that they were able to see them. Once they knew they were there, they discovered how the lymphatic vessels in bone expand during certain types of stress, which drives bone regeneration, and how this process becomes impaired with age. This suggests potential new ways to stimulate bone regeneration, they write. Cell

Using AlphaFold to identify drug discovery hits

In a powerful demonstration of how much AI could speed drug discovery, Hong Kong and New York-based biotech company InSilico Medicine designed a potential liver cancer drug in under 30 days. They started with their PandaOmics platform, which identifies disease targets based on data from hundreds of thousands of papers, grants, and clinical trials. It identified the human protein CDK20 as a drug target for hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common form of liver cancer. Then they turned to Google DeepMind’s program AlphaFold, which gave them a 3D structure of the CDK20 molecule. Based on that structure, they designed drug-like compounds using another InSilico platform called Chemistry42, one of which showed promise in lab assays. Though it’s still a far journey from there to an effective, approved drug for people with liver cancer (and the clinical trials would likely take years and not benefit the same way from AI shortcuts), 30 days for something that historically might have taken years is remarkable. Chemical Science

The virus-brain complex

After recent reports connecting Epstein-Barr virus infections with multiple sclerosis later in life and concerns over the long-term cognitive impact of COVID-19, researchers at the National Institute of Aging in Bethesda, Maryland, conducted a massive search of two biobanks to see if there were any more associations. They found at least 22. Comparing 300,000 people in FinnGen, a national biobank in Finland, to 96,390 people of similar age from the UK Biobank, they discovered that some virus exposures were associated with an increased risk of neurodegeneration even up to 15 years after an infection. The good news? “As vaccines are currently available for some of the associated viruses, vaccination may be a way to reduce some risk of neurodegenerative disease,” they write. Neuron

Massive precision medicine project in Singapore

The Singapore National Precision Medicine Strategy is described in a perspective this week by experts affiliated with several institutions and government agencies there and abroad. This massive undertaking seeks to address the fact that while three-fifths of the world’s population is Asian, their ancestries tend to be underrepresented in genomic databases. Launched in 2017, the 10-year initiative aims to correct that by generating precision medicine data for up to one million people—not merely sequencing their genomes but integrating lifestyle, health, social, and environmental data. The new perspective lands as a sort of midterm report card on the progress of the massive project, which also seeks to define things like responsible use of precision medicine and address the social, ethical, legal, and regulatory barriers to its adoption. Nature Genetics

This molecule modulates food intake

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne, Germany have shown that a common chemical called uridine, which circulates in our bloodstream, mediates how we feel hunger. Its levels increase as we fast and decrease after we’ve had a meal, and that informs our appetite. The more food we eat, the more our uridine levels drop, and the less hungry we feel. Now the German researchers showed in a small intervention study involving 22 people given either oral uridine or a placebo before being set loose on a buffet that the chemical caused them to feel more hungry and eat more. The work shows that uridine, under the right conditions, could alter eating. All that makes it “a promising therapeutic target for treating general dysfunctions of human intake behavior,” the researchers write. Cell Reports Medicine

Mind over matter

Long-term traditional Tibetan Buddhist meditation could positively impact physical and mental health, according to a new study from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. Researchers studied the genetically sequenced bacterial RNA from the poop of 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Qiongke, Jiaqu, and Ezhi Temples in Tibet who practiced samatha and vipassana meditation for at least two hours daily for years—decades in most cases. Comparing their gut microbiota compositions to 19 of their neighboring residents, the researchers found the monks’ guts were enriched with flora associated with lower anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease, as well as enhanced immune function. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to assess the potential regulation of human gut microbiota by long-term (several years) deep meditation,” they write. General Psychiatry

All that’s green is not gold

For years, we’ve been hearing about the positive health benefits of urban green space, but a new study from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare in Kuopio, Finland, puts an intriguing new twist on that. Looking at 7,321 people from the Helsinki Capital Region Environmental Health Survey from 2015−2016, the study found the use of public green spaces is associated with lower psychotropic, antihypertensive, insomnia, and asthma medication use—a proxy for health—regardless of socioeconomic status. So even people with low incomes benefited from more frequent use of gardens, parks, forests, lakes, and moors. However, in a twist, they found that the benefit only came from visits to public spaces. Simply living in a more spacious house with a big yard surrounded by woods or in a house with a better view of green or blue space did not confer the same benefit—at least in this study. Occupational & Environmental Medicine