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1.  Biocoder: A programming language for standardizing and automating biology protocols 
Background
Published descriptions of biology protocols are often ambiguous and incomplete, making them difficult to replicate in other laboratories. However, there is increasing benefit to formalizing the descriptions of protocols, as laboratory automation systems (such as microfluidic chips) are becoming increasingly capable of executing them. Our goal in this paper is to improve both the reproducibility and automation of biology experiments by using a programming language to express the precise series of steps taken.
Results
We have developed BioCoder, a C++ library that enables biologists to express the exact steps needed to execute a protocol. In addition to being suitable for automation, BioCoder converts the code into a readable, English-language description for use by biologists. We have implemented over 65 protocols in BioCoder; the most complex of these was successfully executed by a biologist in the laboratory using BioCoder as the only reference. We argue that BioCoder exposes and resolves ambiguities in existing protocols, and could provide the software foundations for future automation platforms. BioCoder is freely available for download at http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/india/projects/biocoder/.
Conclusions
BioCoder represents the first practical programming system for standardizing and automating biology protocols. Our vision is to change the way that experimental methods are communicated: rather than publishing a written account of the protocols used, researchers will simply publish the code. Our experience suggests that this practice is tractable and offers many benefits. We invite other researchers to leverage BioCoder to improve the precision and completeness of their protocols, and also to adapt and extend BioCoder to new domains.
doi:10.1186/1754-1611-4-13
PMCID: PMC2989930  PMID: 21059251
2.  Chronic Antidiabetic Sulfonylureas In Vivo: Reversible Effects on Mouse Pancreatic β-Cells 
PLoS Medicine  2008;5(10):e206.
Background
Pancreatic β-cell ATP-sensitive potassium (KATP) channels are critical links between nutrient metabolism and insulin secretion. In humans, reduced or absent β-cell KATP channel activity resulting from loss-of-function KATP mutations induces insulin hypersecretion. Mice with reduced KATP channel activity also demonstrate hyperinsulinism, but mice with complete loss of KATP channels (KATP knockout mice) show an unexpected insulin undersecretory phenotype. Therefore we have proposed an “inverse U” hypothesis to explain the response to enhanced excitability, in which excessive hyperexcitability drives β-cells to insulin secretory failure without cell death. Many patients with type 2 diabetes treated with antidiabetic sulfonylureas (which inhibit KATP activity and thereby enhance insulin secretion) show long-term insulin secretory failure, which we further suggest might reflect a similar progression.
Methods and Findings
To test the above hypotheses, and to mechanistically investigate the consequences of prolonged hyperexcitability in vivo, we used a novel approach of implanting mice with slow-release sulfonylurea (glibenclamide) pellets, to chronically inhibit β-cell KATP channels. Glibenclamide-implanted wild-type mice became progressively and consistently diabetic, with significantly (p < 0.05) reduced insulin secretion in response to glucose. After 1 wk of treatment, these mice were as glucose intolerant as adult KATP knockout mice, and reduction of secretory capacity in freshly isolated islets from implanted animals was as significant (p < 0.05) as those from KATP knockout animals. However, secretory capacity was fully restored in islets from sulfonylurea-treated mice within hours of drug washout and in vivo within 1 mo after glibenclamide treatment was terminated. Pancreatic immunostaining showed normal islet size and α-/β-cell distribution within the islet, and TUNEL staining showed no evidence of apoptosis.
Conclusions
These results demonstrate that chronic glibenclamide treatment in vivo causes loss of insulin secretory capacity due to β-cell hyperexcitability, but also reveal rapid reversibility of this secretory failure, arguing against β-cell apoptosis or other cell death induced by sulfonylureas. These in vivo studies may help to explain why patients with type 2 diabetes can show long-term secondary failure to secrete insulin in response to sulfonylureas, but experience restoration of insulin secretion after a drug resting period, without permanent damage to β-cells. This finding suggests that novel treatment regimens may succeed in prolonging pharmacological therapies in susceptible individuals.
In a mouse study aiming to understand why long-term treatment for type 2 diabetes with sulfonylureas eventually fails, Colin Nichols and Maria Remedi suggest that slow restoration of insulin secretion may be possible after a drug-resting period.
Editors' Summary
Background.
Diabetes is an increasingly common chronic disease characterized by high blood sugar (glucose) levels. In normal people, blood sugar levels are controlled by the hormone insulin. Insulin is released by β-cells in the pancreas when blood glucose levels rise after eating (glucose is produced by the digestion of food). In fasting people, membrane proteins called ATP-sensitive potassium (KATP) channels keep the β-cell in a “hyperpolarized” state in which they do not secrete insulin. After a meal, glucose enters the β-cell where its chemical breakdown converts ADP into ATP (the molecule that provides the energy that drives cellular processes). The increased ratio of ATP to ADP closes the KATP channels, “depolarizes” the β-cells, and allows the entry of calcium ions, which trigger insulin release. The released insulin then “instructs” insulin-responsive muscle and fat cells to take up glucose from the bloodstream. In type 2 diabetes, the commonest type of diabetes, the muscle and fat cells gradually become nonresponsive to insulin and consequently blood glucose levels rise. Over time, this hyperglycemia increases the risk of heart attacks, kidney failure, and other life-threatening complications. On average, people with diabetes die 5–10 y younger than people without diabetes.
Why Was This Study Done?
People with type 2 diabetes are often initially treated with drugs called sulfonylureas (for example, glibenclamide). Sulfonylureas help to reduce blood glucose levels by inhibiting (in effect, closing) the KATP channels, which enhances insulin secretion. Unfortunately, after patients have been treated for several years with sulfonylureas, their β-cells often stop secreting insulin and the patients then have to inject insulin to control their blood sugar levels. The mechanism by which chronic sulfonylurea treatment affects β-cell behavior is poorly understood, which means that it is hard to improve this antidiabetes treatment. Mice that have been genetically altered so that they have no KATP channels (KATP knockout mice) also rapidly lose their ability to secrete insulin, although they secrete unusually large amounts at birth. This suggests that permanent membrane depolarization (β-cell hyperexcitability) may cause insulin secretory failure. In this study, the researchers investigate whether this mechanism might be responsible for sulfonylurea-induced loss of insulin secretion.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers implanted slowly releasing pellets of glibenclamide into wild-type mice and then monitored their blood glucose levels and glucose tolerance (the speed of glucose removal from the blood after a glucose “meal”) for up to 128 d; the pellets released drug for 90 d. The glibenclamide-implanted mice progressively developed diabetes, lost the ability to secrete insulin in response to glucose and, after 1 wk of treatment, were as glucose intolerant as adult KATP knockout mice. Compared to freshly isolated β-cells from untreated wild-type mice, glucose-stimulated insulin secretion by β-cells isolated from glibenclamide-treated wild-type mice and from KATP knockout mice was reduced to a similar degree. However, the secretory capacity of β-cells isolated from the glibenclamide-treated wild-type mice was restored to normal within hours of drug washout and was normal in β-cells isolated from treated mice 1 mo after exhaustion of the slow-release pellets. Consistent with this result, there was no obvious β-cell death in the glibenclamide-treated mice.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Although findings from animal studies do not always reflect what happens in people, these findings suggest that insulin secretion might sometimes fail in people who take sulfonylureas for a long time, because these drugs cause β-cell hyperexcitability. The finding that the secretory failure caused by sulfonylurea treatment is reversible is important because it suggests that short-acting sulfonylureas might be re-evaluated to see whether they could delay sulfonylurea-induced failure of the insulin secretory response by providing the pancreatic β-cells with periods when they are not depolarized. This finding (and the absence of β-cells death in the glibenclamide-treated mice) also suggests that there may be a way to reverse the loss of the insulin secretory response in patients who have taken sulfonylureas for a long time. Both approaches could help patients with diabetes delay or even avoid the need for insulin injections.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050206.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Renstrom and colleagues
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia provides information for patients about diabetes (in English and Spanish)
The US National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse provides information on all aspects of diabetes (in English and Spanish)
The International Diabetes Federation also provides comprehensive information about diabetes
Wikipedia has pages on KATP channels and on sulfonylurea drugs (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050206
PMCID: PMC2573909  PMID: 18959471
3.  Dichotomy in the definition of prescriptive information suggests both prescribed data and prescribed algorithms: biosemiotics applications in genomic systems 
The fields of molecular biology and computer science have cooperated over recent years to create a synergy between the cybernetic and biosemiotic relationship found in cellular genomics to that of information and language found in computational systems. Biological information frequently manifests its "meaning" through instruction or actual production of formal bio-function. Such information is called Prescriptive Information (PI). PI programs organize and execute a prescribed set of choices. Closer examination of this term in cellular systems has led to a dichotomy in its definition suggesting both prescribed data and prescribed algorithms are constituents of PI. This paper looks at this dichotomy as expressed in both the genetic code and in the central dogma of protein synthesis. An example of a genetic algorithm is modeled after the ribosome, and an examination of the protein synthesis process is used to differentiate PI data from PI algorithms.
doi:10.1186/1742-4682-9-8
PMCID: PMC3319427  PMID: 22413926
Prescriptive Information (PI); Functional Information; algorithm; processing; language; ribosome; biocybernetics; biosemiosis; semantic information; control; regulation; automata; Frame Shift Mutation
4.  Inflammation, Insulin Resistance, and Diabetes—Mendelian Randomization Using CRP Haplotypes Points Upstream 
PLoS Medicine  2008;5(8):e155.
Background
Raised C-reactive protein (CRP) is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. According to the Mendelian randomization method, the association is likely to be causal if genetic variants that affect CRP level are associated with markers of diabetes development and diabetes. Our objective was to examine the nature of the association between CRP phenotype and diabetes development using CRP haplotypes as instrumental variables.
Methods and Findings
We genotyped three tagging SNPs (CRP + 2302G > A; CRP + 1444T > C; CRP + 4899T > G) in the CRP gene and measured serum CRP in 5,274 men and women at mean ages 49 and 61 y (Whitehall II Study). Homeostasis model assessment-insulin resistance (HOMA-IR) and hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) were measured at age 61 y. Diabetes was ascertained by glucose tolerance test and self-report. Common major haplotypes were strongly associated with serum CRP levels, but unrelated to obesity, blood pressure, and socioeconomic position, which may confound the association between CRP and diabetes risk. Serum CRP was associated with these potential confounding factors. After adjustment for age and sex, baseline serum CRP was associated with incident diabetes (hazard ratio = 1.39 [95% confidence interval 1.29–1.51], HOMA-IR, and HbA1c, but the associations were considerably attenuated on adjustment for potential confounding factors. In contrast, CRP haplotypes were not associated with HOMA-IR or HbA1c (p = 0.52–0.92). The associations of CRP with HOMA-IR and HbA1c were all null when examined using instrumental variables analysis, with genetic variants as the instrument for serum CRP. Instrumental variables estimates differed from the directly observed associations (p = 0.007–0.11). Pooled analysis of CRP haplotypes and diabetes in Whitehall II and Northwick Park Heart Study II produced null findings (p = 0.25–0.88). Analyses based on the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium (1,923 diabetes cases, 2,932 controls) using three SNPs in tight linkage disequilibrium with our tagging SNPs also demonstrated null associations.
Conclusions
Observed associations between serum CRP and insulin resistance, glycemia, and diabetes are likely to be noncausal. Inflammation may play a causal role via upstream effectors rather than the downstream marker CRP.
Using a Mendelian randomization approach, Eric Brunner and colleagues show that the associations between serum C-reactive protein and insulin resistance, glycemia, and diabetes are likely to be noncausal.
Editors' Summary
Background.
Diabetes—a common, long-term (chronic) disease that causes heart, kidney, nerve, and eye problems and shortens life expectancy—is characterized by high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. In people without diabetes, blood sugar levels are controlled by the hormone insulin. Insulin is released by the pancreas after eating and “instructs” insulin-responsive muscle and fat cells to take up the glucose from the bloodstream that is produced by the digestion of food. In the early stages of type 2 diabetes (the commonest type of diabetes), the muscle and fat cells become nonresponsive to insulin (a condition called insulin resistance), and blood sugar levels increase. The pancreas responds by making more insulin—people with insulin resistance have high blood levels of both insulin and glucose. Eventually, however, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas start to malfunction, insulin secretion decreases, and frank diabetes develops.
Why Was This Study Done?
Globally, about 200 million people have diabetes, but experts believe this number will double by 2030. Ways to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes are, therefore, urgently needed. One major risk factor for insulin resistance and diabetes is being overweight. According to one theory, increased body fat causes mild, chronic tissue inflammation, which leads to insulin resistance. Consistent with this idea, people with higher than normal amounts of the inflammatory protein C-reactive protein (CRP) in their blood have a high risk of developing diabetes. If inflammation does cause diabetes, then drugs that inhibit CRP might prevent diabetes. However, simply measuring CRP and determining whether the people with high levels develop diabetes cannot prove that CRP causes diabetes. Those people with high blood levels of CRP might have other unknown factors in common (confounding factors) that are the real causes of diabetes. In this study, the researchers use “Mendelian randomization” to examine whether increased blood CRP causes diabetes. Some variants of CRP (the gene that encodes CRP) increase the amount of CRP in the blood. Because these variants are inherited randomly, there is no likelihood of confounding factors, and an association between these variants and the development of insulin resistance and diabetes indicates, therefore, that increased CRP levels cause diabetes.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers measured blood CRP levels in more than 5,000 people enrolled in the Whitehall II study, which is investigating factors that affect disease development. They also used the “homeostasis model assessment-insulin resistance” (HOMA-IR) method to estimate insulin sensitivity from blood glucose and insulin measurements, and measured levels of hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c, hemoglobin with sugar attached—a measure of long-term blood sugar control) in these people. Finally, they looked at three “single polynucleotide polymorphisms” (SNPs, single nucleotide changes in a gene's DNA sequence; combinations of SNPs that are inherited as a block are called haplotypes) in CRP in each study participant. Common haplotypes of CRP were related to blood serum CRP levels and, as previously reported, increased blood CRP levels were associated with diabetes and with HOMA-IR and HbA1c values indicative of insulin resistance and poor blood sugar control, respectively. By contrast, CRP haplotypes were not related to HOMA-IR or HbA1c values. Similarly, pooled analysis of CRP haplotypes and diabetes in Whitehall II and another large study on health determinants (the Northwick Park Heart Study II) showed no association between CRP variants and diabetes risk. Finally, data from the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium also showed no association between CRP haplotypes and diabetes risk.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Together, these findings suggest that increased blood CRP levels are not responsible for the development of insulin resistance or diabetes, at least in European populations. It may be that there is a causal relationship between CRP levels and diabetes risk in other ethnic populations—further Mendelian randomization studies are needed to discover whether this is the case. For now, though, these findings suggest that drugs targeted against CRP are unlikely to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes. However, they do not discount the possibility that proteins involved earlier in the inflammatory process might cause diabetes and might thus represent good drug targets for diabetes prevention.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050155.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Bernard Keavney
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia provides information about diabetes and about C-reactive protein (in English and Spanish)
US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases provides patient information on all aspects of diabetes, including information on insulin resistance (in English and Spanish)
The International Diabetes Federation provides information about diabetes, including information on the global diabetes epidemic
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information for the public and professionals on all aspects of diabetes (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has a page on Mendelian randomization (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050155
PMCID: PMC2504484  PMID: 18700811
5.  Gefitinib-Induced Killing of NSCLC Cell Lines Expressing Mutant EGFR Requires BIM and Can Be Enhanced by BH3 Mimetics 
PLoS Medicine  2007;4(10):e316.
Background
The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) plays a critical role in the control of cellular proliferation, differentiation, and survival. Abnormalities in EGF-EGFR signaling, such as mutations that render the EGFR hyperactive or cause overexpression of the wild-type receptor, have been found in a broad range of cancers, including carcinomas of the lung, breast, and colon. EGFR inhibitors such as gefitinib have proven successful in the treatment of certain cancers, particularly non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs) harboring activating mutations within the EGFR gene, but the molecular mechanisms leading to tumor regression remain unknown. Therefore, we wished to delineate these mechanisms.
Methods and Findings
We performed biochemical and genetic studies to investigate the mechanisms by which inhibitors of EGFR tyrosine kinase activity, such as gefitinib, inhibit the growth of human NSCLCs. We found that gefitinib triggered intrinsic (also called “mitochondrial”) apoptosis signaling, involving the activation of BAX and mitochondrial release of cytochrome c, ultimately unleashing the caspase cascade. Gefitinib caused a rapid increase in the level of the proapoptotic BH3-only protein BIM (also called BCL2-like 11) through both transcriptional and post-translational mechanisms. Experiments with pharmacological inhibitors indicated that blockade of MEK–ERK1/2 (mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase–extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase 1/2) signaling, but not blockade of PI3K (phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase), JNK (c-Jun N-terminal kinase or mitogen-activated protein kinase 8), or AKT (protein kinase B), was critical for BIM activation. Using RNA interference, we demonstrated that BIM is essential for gefitinib-induced killing of NSCLC cells. Moreover, we found that gefitinib-induced apoptosis is enhanced by addition of the BH3 mimetic ABT-737.
Conclusions
Inhibitors of the EGFR tyrosine kinase have proven useful in the therapy of certain cancers, in particular NSCLCs possessing activating mutations in the EGFR kinase domain, but the mechanisms of tumor cell killing are still unclear. In this paper, we demonstrate that activation of the proapoptotic BH3-only protein BIM is essential for tumor cell killing and that shutdown of the EGFR–MEK–ERK signaling cascade is critical for BIM activation. Moreover, we demonstrate that addition of a BH3 mimetic significantly enhances killing of NSCLC cells by the EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor gefitinib. It appears likely that this approach represents a paradigm shared by many, and perhaps all, oncogenic tyrosine kinases and suggests a powerful new strategy for cancer therapy.
Andreas Strasser and colleagues demonstrate that activation of the proapoptotic BH3-only protein BIM is essential for tumor cell killing and that shutdown of the EGFR−MEK−ERK signaling cascade is critical for BIM activation.
Editors' Summary
Background.
Normally, cell division (which produces new cells) and cell death are finely balanced to keep the human body in good working order. But sometimes cells acquire changes (mutations) in their genetic material that allow them to divide uncontrollably to form cancers—life-threatening, disorganized masses of cells. One protein with a critical role in cell division that is often mutated in tumors is the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). In normal cells, protein messengers bind to EGFR and activate its tyrosine kinase. This enzyme then adds phosphate groups to tyrosine (an amino acid) in proteins that form part of signaling cascades (for example, the MEK–ERK signaling cascade) that tell the cell to divide. In cancers that have mutations in EGFR, signaling is overactive so the cancer cells divide much more than they should. Some non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC, the commonest type of lung cancer), for example, have activating mutations within the EGFR tyrosine kinase. Treatment with EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) such as gefitinib and erlotinib induces the cells in these tumors to stop growing and die. This cell death causes tumor shrinkage (regression) and increases the life expectancy of patients with this type of NSCLC.
Why Was This Study Done?
Unfortunately, treatment with TKIs rarely cures NSCLC, so it would be useful to find a way to augment the effect that TKIs have on cancer cells. To do this, the molecular mechanisms that cause cancer-cell death and tumor regression in response to these drugs need to be fully understood. In this study, the researchers have used a combination of biochemical and genetic approaches to investigate how gefitinib kills NSCLC cells with mutated EGFR.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers first measured the sensitivity of NSCLC cell lines (tumor cells that grow indefinitely in dishes) to gefitinib-induced apoptosis. Gefitinib caused extensive apoptosis in two cell lines expressing mutant EGFR but not in one expressing normal EGFR. Next, they investigated the mechanism of gefitinib-induced apoptosis in the most sensitive cell line (H3255). Apoptosis is activated via two major pathways. Hallmarks of the “intrinsic” pathway include activation of a protein called BAX and cytochrome c release from subcellular compartments known as mitochondria. Gefitinib treatment induced both these events in H3255 cells. BAX (a proapoptotic member of the BCL-2 family of proteins) is activated when proapoptotic BH3-only BCL-2 proteins (for example, BIM; “BH3-only” describes the structure of these proteins) bind to antiapoptotic BCL2 proteins. Gefitinib treatment rapidly increased BIM activity in H3255 and HCC827 cells (but not in gefitinib-resistant cells) by increasing the production of BIM protein and the removal of phosphate groups from it, which increases BIM activity. Pharmacological blockade of the MEK–ERK signaling cascade, but not of other EGFR signaling cascades, also caused the accumulation of BIM. By contrast, blocking BIM expression using a technique called RNA interference reduced gefitinib-induced apoptosis. Finally, a combination of gefitinib and a BH3-mimicking compound called ABT-737 (which, like BIM, binds to antiapoptotic BCL-2 proteins) caused more apoptosis than gefitinib alone.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings (and those reported by Gong et al. and Costa et al.) indicate that activation of the proapoptotic BH3-only protein BIM is essential for gefitinib-induced killing of NSCLC cells that carry EGFR tyrosine kinase mutations. They also show that inhibition of the EGFR–MEK–ERK signaling cascade by gefitinib is essential for BIM activation. Because these findings come from studies on NSCLC cell lines, they need confirming in freshly isolated tumor cells and in tumors growing in people. However, the demonstration that a compound that mimics BH3 action enhances gefitinib-induced killing of NSCLC cells suggests that combinations of TKIs and drugs that affect the intrinsic pathway of apoptosis activation might provide a powerful strategy for treating cancers in which tyrosine kinase mutations drive tumor growth.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040316.
A perspective by Ingo Mellinghoff discusses this article and two related research articles
Wikipedia pages on epidermal growth factor receptor, apoptosis, and BCL2 proteins (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
CancerQuest provides information on all aspects of cancer from Emory University (in several languages)
US National Cancer Institute information for patients and professionals on lung cancer (in English and Spanish)
Information for patients from Cancer Research UK on lung cancer including information on treatment with TKIs
Information for patients from Cancerbackup on erlotinib and gefitinib
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040316
PMCID: PMC2043013  PMID: 17973573
6.  Metabolic Signatures of Adiposity in Young Adults: Mendelian Randomization Analysis and Effects of Weight Change 
PLoS Medicine  2014;11(12):e1001765.
In this study, Wurtz and colleagues investigated to what extent elevated body mass index (BMI) within the normal weight range has causal influences on the detailed systemic metabolite profile in early adulthood using Mendelian randomization analysis.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Background
Increased adiposity is linked with higher risk for cardiometabolic diseases. We aimed to determine to what extent elevated body mass index (BMI) within the normal weight range has causal effects on the detailed systemic metabolite profile in early adulthood.
Methods and Findings
We used Mendelian randomization to estimate causal effects of BMI on 82 metabolic measures in 12,664 adolescents and young adults from four population-based cohorts in Finland (mean age 26 y, range 16–39 y; 51% women; mean ± standard deviation BMI 24±4 kg/m2). Circulating metabolites were quantified by high-throughput nuclear magnetic resonance metabolomics and biochemical assays. In cross-sectional analyses, elevated BMI was adversely associated with cardiometabolic risk markers throughout the systemic metabolite profile, including lipoprotein subclasses, fatty acid composition, amino acids, inflammatory markers, and various hormones (p<0.0005 for 68 measures). Metabolite associations with BMI were generally stronger for men than for women (median 136%, interquartile range 125%–183%). A gene score for predisposition to elevated BMI, composed of 32 established genetic correlates, was used as the instrument to assess causality. Causal effects of elevated BMI closely matched observational estimates (correspondence 87%±3%; R2 = 0.89), suggesting causative influences of adiposity on the levels of numerous metabolites (p<0.0005 for 24 measures), including lipoprotein lipid subclasses and particle size, branched-chain and aromatic amino acids, and inflammation-related glycoprotein acetyls. Causal analyses of certain metabolites and potential sex differences warrant stronger statistical power. Metabolite changes associated with change in BMI during 6 y of follow-up were examined for 1,488 individuals. Change in BMI was accompanied by widespread metabolite changes, which had an association pattern similar to that of the cross-sectional observations, yet with greater metabolic effects (correspondence 160%±2%; R2 = 0.92).
Conclusions
Mendelian randomization indicates causal adverse effects of increased adiposity with multiple cardiometabolic risk markers across the metabolite profile in adolescents and young adults within the non-obese weight range. Consistent with the causal influences of adiposity, weight changes were paralleled by extensive metabolic changes, suggesting a broadly modifiable systemic metabolite profile in early adulthood.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Background
Adiposity—having excessive body fat—is a growing global threat to public health. Body mass index (BMI, calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared) is a coarse indicator of excess body weight, but the measure is useful in large population studies. Compared to people with a lean body weight (a BMI of 18.5–24.9 kg/m2), individuals with higher BMI have an elevated risk of developing life-shortening cardiometabolic diseases—cardiovascular diseases that affect the heart and/or the blood vessels (for example, heart failure and stroke) and metabolic diseases that affect the cellular chemical reactions that sustain life (for example, diabetes). People become unhealthily fat by consuming food and drink that contains more energy (calories) than they need for their daily activities. So adiposity can be prevented and reversed by eating less and exercising more.
Why Was This Study Done?
Epidemiological studies, which record the patterns of risk factors and disease in populations, suggest that the illness and death associated with excess body weight is partly attributable to abnormalities in how individuals with high adiposity metabolize carbohydrates and fats, leading to higher blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Further, adiposity is also associated with many other deviations in the metabolic profile than these commonly measured risk factors. However, epidemiological studies cannot prove that adiposity causes specific changes in a person's systemic (overall) metabolic profile because individuals with high BMI may share other characteristics (confounding factors) that are the actual causes of both adiposity and metabolic abnormalities. Moreover, having a change in some aspect of metabolism could also lead to adiposity, rather than vice versa (reverse causation). Importantly, if there is a causal effect of adiposity on cardiometabolic risk factor levels, it might be possible to prevent the progression towards cardiometabolic diseases by weight loss. Here, the researchers use “Mendelian randomization” to examine whether increased BMI within the normal and overweight range is causally influencing the metabolic risk factors from many biological pathways during early adulthood. Because gene variants are inherited randomly, they are not prone to confounding and are free from reverse causation. Several gene variants are known to lead to modestly increased BMI. Thus, an investigation of the associations between these gene variants and risk factors across the systemic metabolite profile in a population of healthy individuals can indicate whether higher BMI is causally related to known and novel metabolic risk factors and higher cardiometabolic disease risk.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers measured the BMI of 12,664 adolescents and young adults (average BMI 24.7 kg/m2) living in Finland and the blood levels of 82 metabolites in these young individuals at a single time point. Statistical analysis of these data indicated that elevated BMI was adversely associated with numerous cardiometabolic risk factors. For example, elevated BMI was associated with raised levels of low-density lipoprotein, “bad” cholesterol that increases cardiovascular disease risk. Next, the researchers used a gene score for predisposition to increased BMI, composed of 32 gene variants correlated with increased BMI, as an “instrumental variable” to assess whether adiposity causes metabolite abnormalities. The effects on the systemic metabolite profile of a 1-kg/m2 increment in BMI due to genetic predisposition closely matched the effects of an observed 1-kg/m2 increment in adulthood BMI on the metabolic profile. That is, higher levels of adiposity had causal effects on the levels of numerous blood-based metabolic risk factors, including higher levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglyceride-carrying lipoproteins, protein markers of chronic inflammation and adverse liver function, impaired insulin sensitivity, and elevated concentrations of several amino acids that have recently been linked with the risk for developing diabetes. Elevated BMI also causally led to lower levels of certain high-density lipoprotein lipids in the blood, a marker for the risk of future cardiovascular disease. Finally, an examination of the metabolic changes associated with changes in BMI in 1,488 young adults after a period of six years showed that those metabolic measures that were most strongly associated with BMI at a single time point likewise displayed the highest responsiveness to weight change over time.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that increased adiposity has causal adverse effects on multiple cardiometabolic risk markers in non-obese young adults beyond the effects on cholesterol and blood sugar. Like all Mendelian randomization studies, the reliability of the causal association reported here depends on several assumptions made by the researchers. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that increased adiposity has causal adverse effects on multiple cardiometabolic risk markers in non-obese young adults. Importantly, the results of both the causal effect analyses and the longitudinal study suggest that there is no threshold below which a BMI increase does not adversely affect the metabolic profile, and that a systemic metabolic profile linked with high cardiometabolic disease risk that becomes established during early adulthood can be reversed. Overall, these findings therefore highlight the importance of weight reduction as a key target for metabolic risk factor control among young adults.
Additional Information
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001765.
The Computational Medicine Research Team of the University of Oulu has a webpage that provides further information on metabolite profiling by high-throughput NMR metabolomics
The World Health Organization provides information on obesity (in several languages)
The Global Burden of Disease Study website provides the latest details about global obesity trends
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information about obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes (including some personal stories)
The American Heart Association provides information on all aspects of cardiovascular disease and diabetes and on keeping healthy; its website includes personal stories about heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on all aspects of overweight and obesity and information about heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
MedlinePlus provides links to other sources of information on heart disease, vascular disease, and obesity (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has a page on Mendelian randomization (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001765
PMCID: PMC4260795  PMID: 25490400
7.  BioCode: Two biologically compatible Algorithms for embedding data in non-coding and coding regions of DNA 
BMC Bioinformatics  2013;14:121.
Background
In recent times, the application of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has diversified with the emergence of fields such as DNA computing and DNA data embedding. DNA data embedding, also known as DNA watermarking or DNA steganography, aims to develop robust algorithms for encoding non-genetic information in DNA. Inherently DNA is a digital medium whereby the nucleotide bases act as digital symbols, a fact which underpins all bioinformatics techniques, and which also makes trivial information encoding using DNA straightforward. However, the situation is more complex in methods which aim at embedding information in the genomes of living organisms. DNA is susceptible to mutations, which act as a noisy channel from the point of view of information encoded using DNA. This means that the DNA data embedding field is closely related to digital communications. Moreover it is a particularly unique digital communications area, because important biological constraints must be observed by all methods. Many DNA data embedding algorithms have been presented to date, all of which operate in one of two regions: non-coding DNA (ncDNA) or protein-coding DNA (pcDNA).
Results
This paper proposes two novel DNA data embedding algorithms jointly called BioCode, which operate in ncDNA and pcDNA, respectively, and which comply fully with stricter biological restrictions. Existing methods comply with some elementary biological constraints, such as preserving protein translation in pcDNA. However there exist further biological restrictions which no DNA data embedding methods to date account for. Observing these constraints is key to increasing the biocompatibility and in turn, the robustness of information encoded in DNA.
Conclusion
The algorithms encode information in near optimal ways from a coding point of view, as we demonstrate by means of theoretical and empirical (in silico) analyses. Also, they are shown to encode information in a robust way, such that mutations have isolated effects. Furthermore, the preservation of codon statistics, while achieving a near-optimum embedding rate, implies that BioCode pcDNA is also a near-optimum first-order steganographic method.
doi:10.1186/1471-2105-14-121
PMCID: PMC3698116  PMID: 23570444
8.  Macrosomia and Hyperinsulinaemic Hypoglycaemia in Patients with Heterozygous Mutations in the HNF4A Gene 
PLoS Medicine  2007;4(4):e118.
Background
Macrosomia is associated with considerable neonatal and maternal morbidity. Factors that predict macrosomia are poorly understood. The increased rate of macrosomia in the offspring of pregnant women with diabetes and in congenital hyperinsulinaemia is mediated by increased foetal insulin secretion. We assessed the in utero and neonatal role of two key regulators of pancreatic insulin secretion by studying birthweight and the incidence of neonatal hypoglycaemia in patients with heterozygous mutations in the maturity-onset diabetes of the young (MODY) genes HNF4A (encoding HNF-4α) and HNF1A/TCF1 (encoding HNF-1α), and the effect of pancreatic deletion of Hnf4a on foetal and neonatal insulin secretion in mice.
Methods and Findings
We examined birthweight and hypoglycaemia in 108 patients from families with diabetes due to HNF4A mutations, and 134 patients from families with HNF1A mutations. Birthweight was increased by a median of 790 g in HNF4A-mutation carriers compared to non-mutation family members (p < 0.001); 56% (30/54) of HNF4A-mutation carriers were macrosomic compared with 13% (7/54) of non-mutation family members (p < 0.001). Transient hypoglycaemia was reported in 8/54 infants with heterozygous HNF4A mutations, but was reported in none of 54 non-mutation carriers (p = 0.003). There was documented hyperinsulinaemia in three cases. Birthweight and prevalence of neonatal hypoglycaemia were not increased in HNF1A-mutation carriers. Mice with pancreatic β-cell deletion of Hnf4a had hyperinsulinaemia in utero and hyperinsulinaemic hypoglycaemia at birth.
Conclusions
HNF4A mutations are associated with a considerable increase in birthweight and macrosomia, and are a novel cause of neonatal hypoglycaemia. This study establishes a key role for HNF4A in determining foetal birthweight, and uncovers an unanticipated feature of the natural history of HNF4A-deficient diabetes, with hyperinsulinaemia at birth evolving to decreased insulin secretion and diabetes later in life.
HNF4A mutations were found to be associated with a considerable increase in birthweight and macrosomia, and were a cause of neonatal hypoglycaemia.
Editors' Summary
Background.
MODY, or maturity-onset diabetes of the young, is a particular subtype of diabetes; only a few percent of people with diabetes are thought to have this subtype. The condition comes about as a result of a mutation in one of six genes. Generally, people with MODY have high glucose (sugar) levels in the blood, and the typical symptoms of diabetes, such as increased thirst and urination, typically develop when the person is below the age of 25 y. Two of the genes that are known to cause MODY are mutant forms of HNF4A and HNF1A. The proteins that are encoded by these two genes control insulin levels produced by the pancreas; when these genes are mutated, not enough insulin is produced. Without enough insulin to control blood sugar, levels rise, leading to the symptoms of diabetes. However, MODY can be managed by many of the same interventions as other types of diabetes, such as diet, exercise, drug treatments, and insulin injections.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although the evidence shows that individuals who carry mutations in HNF4A and HNF1A do not produce enough insulin and therefore have higher glucose levels in their blood, there were some tantalizing suggestions from mouse experiments that this might not be the whole story. Specifically, the researchers suspected that during embryonic development, mutations in HNF4A or HNF1A might actually cause higher insulin levels. Too much insulin during development of a fetus is known to cause it to gain weight, resulting in a baby that is larger than the average size for its age. Larger babies are risky for both the baby and the mother. The researchers doing this study wanted to understand more precisely what the links were between the forms of MODY caused by HNF4A and HNF1A mutations, and birth-weight and blood-sugar levels.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
In this study, the researchers examined 15 families in which some family members had MODY caused by a mutation in HNF4A. They compared the birthweight for family members carrying the mutation (54 people) against the birthweight for those who did not (54 people). A similar comparison was done for 38 families in which some members had a different form of MODY, this time caused by a mutation in HNF1A. The results showed that the birthweight of family members who carried a mutation in HNF4A was, on average, 790 g higher than the birthweight of family members who didn't carry the mutation. Low blood-sugar levels at birth were also more common in people carrying the HNF4A mutation as compared to people who did not. However, the HNF1A mutation did not seem to be associated with greater birthweight or low blood-sugar levels at birth. Finally, in order to understand these findings further, the researchers created embryonic mice carrying mutations in the mouse equivalent of HNF4A. These embryos produced more insulin than normal mouse embryos and, after birth, were more likely to have low blood-sugar levels.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that there is a link between mutations in HNF4A, but not in HNF1A, and increased birthweight. The increase found in this study is quite substantial (a median weight of 4,660 g in the affected babies; a birthweight of more than 4,000 g is generally considered large). The results suggest that in human embryos with a mutated form of HNF4A, too much insulin is produced during development, causing faster growth and a higher chance of the baby being born with low blood-sugar levels. This is an unexpected finding, because later in life the HNF4A mutation causes lower insulin levels. Therefore, the biochemical pathways causing this type of MODY seem to be quite complicated, and further research will need to be done to fully understand them. Crucially, the research also suggests that pregnant women carrying HNF4A mutations should be closely followed to check their baby's growth and minimize the chance of complications. Doctors and families should also consider doing a genetic test for HNF4A if a baby has low blood-sugar levels and if there is a family history of diabetes; this would increase the chance of diagnosing MODY early.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed 0040118.
In a related Perspective in PLoS Medicine, Benjamin Glaser discusses causes of type 2 diabetes mellitus in the context of this study's findings
The US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has pages of information on different types of diabetes
Wikipedia has an entry on Maturity Onset Diabetes of the Young (MODY) (note that Wikipedia is an internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit)
Diabetes Research Department, Peninsula Medical School, Exeter, UK provides information for patients and doctors on genetic types of diabetes; the website is maintained by the research group carrying out this study
Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on diabetes and pregnancy
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040118
PMCID: PMC1845156  PMID: 17407387
9.  A Prevalent Variant in PPP1R3A Impairs Glycogen Synthesis and Reduces Muscle Glycogen Content in Humans and Mice 
PLoS Medicine  2008;5(1):e27.
Background
Stored glycogen is an important source of energy for skeletal muscle. Human genetic disorders primarily affecting skeletal muscle glycogen turnover are well-recognised, but rare. We previously reported that a frameshift/premature stop mutation in PPP1R3A, the gene encoding RGL, a key regulator of muscle glycogen metabolism, was present in 1.36% of participants from a population of white individuals in the UK. However, the functional implications of the mutation were not known. The objective of this study was to characterise the molecular and physiological consequences of this genetic variant.
Methods and Findings
In this study we found a similar prevalence of the variant in an independent UK white population of 744 participants (1.46%) and, using in vivo 13C magnetic resonance spectroscopy studies, demonstrate that human carriers (n = 6) of the variant have low basal (65% lower, p = 0.002) and postprandial muscle glycogen levels. Mice engineered to express the equivalent mutation had similarly decreased muscle glycogen levels (40% lower in heterozygous knock-in mice, p < 0.05). In muscle tissue from these mice, failure of the truncated mutant to bind glycogen and colocalize with glycogen synthase (GS) decreased GS and increased glycogen phosphorylase activity states, which account for the decreased glycogen content.
Conclusions
Thus, PPP1R3A C1984ΔAG (stop codon 668) is, to our knowledge, the first prevalent mutation described that directly impairs glycogen synthesis and decreases glycogen levels in human skeletal muscle. The fact that it is present in ∼1 in 70 UK whites increases the potential biomedical relevance of these observations.
Stephen O'Rahilly and colleagues describe the effect of a mutation inPPP1R3A, present in 1.36% of participants from one UK population, that directly impairs glycogen synthesis and decreases glycogen levels in human skeletal muscle.
Editors' Summary
Background.
The human body gets the energy it needs for day-to-day living from food in a process called metabolism. However, not all the energy released by metabolism is used immediately. Some is stored in skeletal muscles as glycogen, a glucose polymer that is used during high intensity exercise. After eating, chemicals in the digestive system release glucose (a type of sugar) from food into the bloodstream where it triggers insulin release from the pancreas. Insulin instructs muscle, liver and fat cells to remove glucose from the bloodstream to keep the amount of sugar in the blood at a safe level. The cells use the glucose immediately as fuel or convert it into glycogen or fat for storage. Glycogen turnover (the depletion and replacement of glycogen stores) is tightly controlled by glycogen synthase and glycogen phosphorylase, enzymes that make and destroy glycogen, respectively. A third enzyme called protein phosphatase 1 promotes net glycogen synthesis by activating glycogen synthase and inactivating glycogen phosphorylase. The activity of protein phosphatase 1 is regulated by a family of “targeting subunits.” In muscle, one of these targeting subunits, called RGL, facilitates protein phosphatase 1 action on glycogen synthase and glycogen phosphorylase.
Why Was This Study Done?
Several known human genetic disorders affect the breakdown of muscle glycogen but few genetic changes (mutations) have been found that decrease the synthesis of muscle glycogen. Researchers are interested in discovering mutations that affect glycogen turnover and other aspects of metabolism because some of these may be involved in the development of diabetes, an important metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar levels. In this study, the researchers have investigated how a recently identified mutation in PPP1R3A, the gene that encodes RGL, affects glycogen synthesis. This mutation—PPP1R3A FS—was previously found in 1.36% of a UK white population. It causes the production of a short version of RGL that lacks the part of the molecule that tethers RGL to a cellular structure called the sarcoplasmic reticulum but leaves its glycogen binding domain intact.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
To confirm that PPP1R3A FS is a common mutation in the UK white population, the researchers sequenced the gene in 744 healthy adults enrolled in the Oxford Biobank (which hopes to uncover metabolically important genetic variations by monitoring the health of a large number of 30- to 50-year-old people from whom DNA has been collected). 1.46% of these people had the PPP1R3A FS mutation. To examine glycogen storage in carriers of the mutation, the researchers used a technique called in vivo 13C magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Basal muscle glycogen levels and those reached after a meal were lower in these individuals than in people without the mutation but their blood sugar and insulin levels were normal. Finally, to examine how the mutation reduces muscle glycogen, the researchers made mice carrying the PPP1R3A FS mutation. Like the human carriers, these mice had less glycogen than normal in their muscles. Unexpectedly, in biochemical experiments the truncated RGL protein made by the mutant mice did not bind to glycogen or co-localize with glycogen synthase. This lack of binding decreased the activity of glycogen synthase and increased the activity of glycogen phosphorylase, thus decreasing muscle glycogen.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings identify the PPP1R3A FS mutation as the first prevalent mutation known to impair glycogen synthesis and to decrease glycogen levels in human skeletal muscles. They also confirm that this mutation is very common in UK whites. Although these human carriers do not report any exercise intolerance, detailed studies are needed to test whether the mutation has any effect on skeletal muscle performance. In addition, suggest the researchers, the mutation might be involved in the development of type 2 diabetes. Impaired insulin-stimulated glycogen synthesis, which is a feature of insulin-resistant muscle and liver cells, is thought to be a key event in the development of type 2 diabetes. Although some previous results indicate that the PPP1R3A FS mutations can sometimes predispose people to develop insulin resistance, only a large population-based study in multiple ethnic groups will reveal whether the PPP1R3A FS mutation has an important impact on the development of type 2 diabetes.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050027.
Wikipedia has pages on metabolism and on glycogen (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia provides information about diabetes (in English and Spanish)
The UK Biobank is looking for genetic variations among human populations that are associated with metabolic and other disorders
Web sites are available with brief descriptions of the research programs of Stephen O'Rahilly and Anna DePaoli-Roach
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050027
PMCID: PMC2214798  PMID: 18232732
10.  The Layer-Oriented Approach to Declarative Languages for Biological Modeling 
PLoS Computational Biology  2012;8(5):e1002521.
We present a new approach to modeling languages for computational biology, which we call the layer-oriented approach. The approach stems from the observation that many diverse biological phenomena are described using a small set of mathematical formalisms (e.g. differential equations), while at the same time different domains and subdomains of computational biology require that models are structured according to the accepted terminology and classification of that domain. Our approach uses distinct semantic layers to represent the domain-specific biological concepts and the underlying mathematical formalisms. Additional functionality can be transparently added to the language by adding more layers. This approach is specifically concerned with declarative languages, and throughout the paper we note some of the limitations inherent to declarative approaches. The layer-oriented approach is a way to specify explicitly how high-level biological modeling concepts are mapped to a computational representation, while abstracting away details of particular programming languages and simulation environments. To illustrate this process, we define an example language for describing models of ionic currents, and use a general mathematical notation for semantic transformations to show how to generate model simulation code for various simulation environments. We use the example language to describe a Purkinje neuron model and demonstrate how the layer-oriented approach can be used for solving several practical issues of computational neuroscience model development. We discuss the advantages and limitations of the approach in comparison with other modeling language efforts in the domain of computational biology and outline some principles for extensible, flexible modeling language design. We conclude by describing in detail the semantic transformations defined for our language.
Author Summary
The pursuit for understanding of neural function by computational modeling has produced a variety of software tools, with each tool targeting specific audiences and often requiring input in its own distinct language. Consequently, comprehending and communicating neuroscience models is a difficult and time-consuming task. In this paper we suggest a new approach towards designing biological modeling languages, which we call the layer-oriented approach. The approach stems from the observation that diverse biological phenomena are described using a small set of mathematical formalisms (e.g. differential equations), which are structured according to some biological principles. Our proposal is illustrated by means of a computer language for describing computational models of ionic currents. The language consists of rules for expressing mathematical equations as well as rules to organize these equations according to the specific terminology used by neuroscientists. The layer-oriented approach offers two chief advantages. First, it allows the flexible use of mathematical equations to represent many different kinds of biological models. Second, it restricts the language within a framework of biological concepts so that existing modeling software can be reused. The goal of the layer-oriented approach is to help define appropriate notations for computational biology while enabling interoperability of software for biological modeling.
doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002521
PMCID: PMC3355071  PMID: 22615554
11.  Global Transcript Profiles of Fat in Monozygotic Twins Discordant for BMI: Pathways behind Acquired Obesity  
PLoS Medicine  2008;5(3):e51.
Background
The acquired component of complex traits is difficult to dissect in humans. Obesity represents such a trait, in which the metabolic and molecular consequences emerge from complex interactions of genes and environment. With the substantial morbidity associated with obesity, a deeper understanding of the concurrent metabolic changes is of considerable importance. The goal of this study was to investigate this important acquired component and expose obesity-induced changes in biological pathways in an identical genetic background.
Methods and Findings
We used a special study design of “clonal controls,” rare monozygotic twins discordant for obesity identified through a national registry of 2,453 young, healthy twin pairs. A total of 14 pairs were studied (eight male, six female; white), with a mean ± standard deviation (SD) age 25.8 ± 1.4 y and a body mass index (BMI) difference 5.2 ± 1.8 kg/m2. Sequence analyses of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in subcutaneous fat and peripheral leukocytes revealed no aberrant heteroplasmy between the co-twins. However, mtDNA copy number was reduced by 47% in the obese co-twin's fat. In addition, novel pathway analyses of the adipose tissue transcription profiles exposed significant down-regulation of mitochondrial branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) catabolism (p < 0.0001). In line with this finding, serum levels of insulin secretion-enhancing BCAAs were increased in obese male co-twins (9% increase, p = 0.025). Lending clinical relevance to the findings, in both sexes the observed aberrations in mitochondrial amino acid metabolism pathways in fat correlated closely with liver fat accumulation, insulin resistance, and hyperinsulinemia, early aberrations of acquired obesity in these healthy young adults.
Conclusions
Our findings emphasize a substantial role of mitochondrial energy- and amino acid metabolism in obesity and development of insulin resistance.
Leena Peltonen and colleagues uncover the metabolic changes that result from obesity through an analysis of genetically identical twin pairs in which one was obese and the other was not.
Editors' Summary
Background.
Around the world, the proportion of people who are obese (people with an unhealthy amount of body fat) is increasing. In the US, for example, 1 adult in 7 was obese in the mid 1970s. That is, their body mass index (BMI)—their weight in kilograms divided by their height in meters squared—was more than 30. Nowadays, 1 US adult in 3 has a BMI this high and, by 2025, it is predicted that 1 in 2 will be obese. This obesity epidemic is being driven by lifestyle changes that encourage the over-consumption of energy-rich foods and discourage regular physical activity. The resultant energy imbalance leads to weight gain (the excess energy is stored as body fat or adipose tissue) and also triggers numerous metabolic changes, alterations in the chemical processes that convert food into the energy and various substances needed to support life. These obesity-related metabolic changes increase a person's risk of developing adverse health conditions such as diabetes, a condition in which dangerously high levels of sugar from food accumulate in the blood.
Why Was This Study Done?
The changes in human fat in obesity have not been completely understood, although the abnormal metabolism of adipose tissue is increasingly seen as playing a critical part in excessive weight gain. It has been very difficult to decipher which molecular and metabolic changes associated with obesity are the result of becoming obese, and which might contribute towards the acquisition of obesity in humans in the first place. To discover more about the influence of environment on obesity-induced metabolic changes, the researchers in this study have investigated these changes in pairs of genetically identical twins.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers recruited 14 pairs of genetically identical Finnish twins born between 1975 and 1979 who were “obesity discordant”—that is, one twin of each pair had a BMI of about 25 (not obese); the other had a BMI of about 30 (obese). The researchers took fat and blood samples from each twin, determined the insulin sensitivity of each, and measured the body composition and various fat stores of each. They found that the obese twins had more subcutaneous, intra-abdominal, and liver fat and were less insulin sensitive than the non-obese twins. Insulin sensitivity correlated with the amount of liver fat. Analysis of gene expression in the fat samples showed that 19 gene pathways (mainly inflammatory pathways) were expressed more strongly (up-regulated) in the obese twins than the non-obese twins, whereas seven pathways were down-regulated. The most highly down-regulated pathway was a mitochondrial pathway involved in amino acid breakdown, but mitochondrial energy metabolism pathways were also down-regulated. Finally, mitochondrial DNA copy number in fat was reduced in the obese twins by nearly half, a novel observation that could partly account for the obesity-induced metabolic defects of these individuals.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These and other findings identify several pathways that are involved in the development of obesity and insulin resistance. In particular, they suggest that changes in mitochondrial energy production pathways and in mitochondrial amino acid metabolism pathways could play important roles in the development of obesity and of insulin resistance and in the accumulation of liver fat even in young obese people. The study design involving identical twins has here produced some evidence for aberrations in molecules critical for acquired obesity. The results suggest that careful management of obesity by lifestyle changes has the potential to correct the obesity-related metabolic changes in fat that would otherwise lead to diabetes and other adverse health conditions in obese individuals. In addition, they suggest that the development of therapies designed to correct mitochondrial metabolism might help to reduce the illnesses associated with obesity.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050051.
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia has pages on obesity and diabetes (in English and Spanish)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on all aspects of obesity (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service's health Web site (NHS Direct) provides information about obesity
The International Obesity Taskforce provides information about preventing obesity and on diabetes and obesity
The UK Foods Standards Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture provide online tools and useful advice about healthy eating for adults and children
Information is available for patients and carers from the US National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse on diabetes, including information on insulin resistance
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050051
PMCID: PMC2265758  PMID: 18336063
12.  Mutations in a Novel, Cryptic Exon of the Luteinizing Hormone/Chorionic Gonadotropin Receptor Gene Cause Male Pseudohermaphroditism 
PLoS Medicine  2008;5(4):e88.
Background
Male pseudohermaphroditism, or Leydig cell hypoplasia (LCH), is an autosomal recessive disorder in individuals with a 46,XY karyotype, characterized by a predominantly female phenotype, a blind-ending vagina, absence of breast development, primary amenorrhea, and the presence of testicular structures. It is caused by mutations in the luteinizing hormone/chorionic gonadotropin receptor gene (LHCGR), which impair either LH/CG binding or signal transduction. However, molecular analysis has revealed that the LHCGR is apparently normal in about 50% of patients with the full clinical phenotype of LCH. We therefore searched the LHCGR for novel genomic elements causative for LCH.
Methods and Findings
In the present study we have identified a novel, primate-specific bona fide exon (exon 6A) within the LHCGR gene. It displays composite characteristics of an internal/terminal exon and possesses stop codons triggering nonsense-mediated mRNA decay (NMD) in LHCGR. Transcripts including exon 6A are physiologically highly expressed in human testes and granulosa cells, and result in an intracellular, truncated LHCGR protein of 209 amino acids. We sequenced exon 6A in 16 patients with unexplained LCH and detected mutations in three patients. Functional studies revealed a dramatic increase in the expression of the mutated internal exon 6A transcripts, indicating aberrant NMD. These altered ratios of LHCGR transcripts result in the generation of predominantly nonfunctional LHCGR isoforms, thereby preventing proper expression and functioning.
Conclusions
The identification and characterization of this novel exon not only identifies a new regulatory element within the genomic organization of LHCGR, but also points toward a complex network of receptor regulation, including events at the transcriptional level. These findings add to the molecular diagnostic tools for LCH and extend our understanding of the endocrine regulation of sexual differentiation.
Joerg Gromoll and colleagues describe the identification and characterization of a novel exon that appears to be a new regulatory element within the luteinizing hormone/chorionic gonadotropin receptor gene of three individuals with Leydig cell hypoplasia.
Editors' Summary
Background.
A person's sex is determined by their complement of X and Y (sex) chromosomes. Someone who has two X chromosomes is genetically female and usually has ovaries and female external sex organs. Someone who has an X and a Y chromosome is genetically male and has testes and male external sex organs. Sometimes, though, the development of the reproductive organs proceeds abnormally, resulting in a person with an “intersex” condition whose chromosomes, gonads (ovaries or testes), and external sex organs do not correspond. Leydig cell hypoplasia (LCH; also called male pseudohermaphroditism or a disorder of sex development) is an XY female intersex condition. People with this inherited condition develop testes but also have a vagina (which is not connected to a womb), and they do not develop breasts or have periods. This mixture of sexual characteristics arises because the Leydig cells in the testes are underdeveloped. Leydig cells normally secrete testosterone, the hormone that promotes the development and maintenance of male sex characteristics. Before birth, chorionic gonadotropin (CG; a hormone made by the placenta) stimulates Leydig cell development and testosterone production; after birth, luteinizing hormone (LH), which is made by the pituitary gland, stimulates testosterone production. Both hormones bind to the LH/CG receptor, a protein on the surface of Leydig cells. In LCH, this receptor either does not bind CG and LH or fails to tell the Leydig cells to make testosterone.
Why Was This Study Done?
The gene that encodes the LH/CG receptor is called LHCGR. Several mutations (genetic changes) that inactivate the LC/CG receptor have been identified in people with LCH. However, the LHCGR gene is apparently normal in 50% of people with this intersex condition. In this study, the researchers examine the LHCGR gene in detail to try to find the underlying genetic defect in these individuals.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used several molecular biology techniques to identify a new exon—exon 6A—within the human LHCGR gene. (Exons are DNA sequences that contain the information for making proteins; introns are DNA sequences that interrupt the coding sequence of a gene. Both introns and exons are transcribed into messenger RNA [mRNA] and the exons are then “spliced” together to make the mature mRNA, which is translated into protein.) The researchers identify several differently spliced LHCGR mRNA transcripts that contain exon 6A—a terminal exon 6A mRNA that contains exons 1–6 and exon 6A, and two internal exon 6A mRNAs that also contain exons 7–11. The researchers report that human testes express high levels of the terminal exon 6A transcript, which is translated into a short version of LHCGR protein that remains within the cell (full-length LHCGR moves to the cell surface). By contrast, testes contain low levels of the internal exon 6A mRNAs. This is because exon 6A contains two premature stop codons (DNA sequences that mark the end of a protein), which trigger “nonsense-mediated decay” (NMD), a cellular surveillance mechanism that regulates protein synthesis by degrading mRNAs that contain internal stop codons. When the researchers screened 16 people with LCH but without known mutations in the LHCGR gene, three had mutations in exon 6A. Laboratory experiments show that these mutations greatly increased the amounts of the internal exon 6A transcripts present in cells and interfered with the cells' normal response to chorionic gonadotropin.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings identify a new, functional exon in the LHCGR gene and show that mutations in this exon cause some cases of LCH. This is the first time that a human disease has been associated with mutations in an exon that is a target for NMD. In addition, these findings provide important insights into how the LHCGR is regulated. The researchers speculate that a complex network that involves the exon 6A-containing transcripts and NMD normally tightly regulates the production of functional LHCGR already at the transcriptional level. When mutations are present in exon 6A, they suggest, NMD is the predominant pathway for all the exon 6A-containing transcripts, thereby drastically decreasing the amount of functional LHCGR.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050088.
The MedlinePlus Encyclopedia has a page on intersex conditions (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has pages on intersexuality and on the LH/CG receptor (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The Intersex Society of North America provides information and support for the parents of children with intersex conditions
The Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group also provides some general information about intersex conditions, including information about LCH and other XY female conditions (in several languages)
Sequence-Structure-Function-Analysis (SSFA), run by a group of researchers in Germany (Leibniz-Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie; Humboldt-Universitätzu Berlin), is a database dealing the sequence, structure, and function of glycoprotein hormone receptors
Glycoprotein-hormone Receptors Information System (GRIS), from Université Libre de Bruxelles and Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Biologie Humaine et Moléculaire, is a database giving structural information on the LHCGR
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050088
PMCID: PMC2323302  PMID: 18433292
13.  Genetics of Ischaemic Stroke among Persons of Non-European Descent: A Meta-Analysis of Eight Genes Involving ∼ 32,500 Individuals 
PLoS Medicine  2007;4(4):e131.
Background
Ischaemic stroke in persons of European descent has a genetic basis, but whether the stroke-susceptibility alleles, the strength of any association, and the extent of their attributable risks are the same in persons of non-European descent remains unanswered. Whether ethnicity itself has a relevant or substantial contribution on those effect estimates is controversial. Comparative analyses between the ethnic groups may allow general conclusions to be drawn about polygenic disorders.
Methods and Findings
We performed a literature-based systematic review of genetic association studies in stroke in persons of non-European descent. Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were determined for each gene–disease association using fixed and random effect models. We further performed a comparative genetic analysis across the different ethnic groups (including persons of European descent derived from our previous meta-analysis) to determine if genetic risks varied by ethnicity. Following a review of 500 manuscripts, eight candidate gene variants were analysed among 32,431 individuals (12,883 cases and 19,548 controls), comprising mainly Chinese, Japanese, and Korean individuals. Of the eight candidate genes studied, three were associated with ischaemic stroke: the angiotensin I converting enzyme (ACE) insertion/deletion (I/D) polymorphism with a mean OR of 1.90 (95% CI 1.23–2.93) in the Chinese and 1.74 (95% CI 0.88–3.42) in the Japanese; the summary OR for the C677T variant of 5,10-methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) was 1.18 (95% CI 0.90–1.56) in Chinese and 1.34 (95% CI 0.87–2.06) in Koreans; and the pooled OR for the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene was 2.18 (95% CI 1.52–3.13) in Chinese and 1.51 (95% CI 0.93–2.45) in Japanese. Comparing the commonly investigated stroke genes among the Asian groups against studies in persons of European descent, we found an absence of any substantial qualitative or quantitative interaction for ORs by ethnicity. However, the number of individuals recruited per study in the studies of persons of non-European descent was significantly smaller compared to studies of persons of European descent, despite a similar number of studies conducted per gene.
Conclusions
These data suggest that genetic associations studied to date for ischaemic stroke among persons of non-European descent are similar to those for persons of European descent. Claims of differences in genetic effects among different ethnic populations for complex disorders such as stroke may be overstated. However, due to the limited number of gene variants evaluated, the relatively smaller number of individuals included in the meta-analyses of persons of non-European descent in stroke, and the possibility of publication bias, the existence of allele variants with differential effects by ethnicity cannot be excluded.
This meta-analysis found that genetic associations so far studied for ischemic stroke among non-Europeans are similar to those found for persons of European descent.
Editors' Summary
Background.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted, either because a blood vessel supplying the brain becomes blocked or because one ruptures. Strokes are a substantial cause of death and disability worldwide, with most of the burden affecting people living in developed countries. Most strokes fall into a category termed ischemic stroke. This type is caused by blockages in the blood vessels supplying the brain, which can happen when there is a buildup of fatty deposits or clots within the blood vessels. Many of the risk factors for this particular type of stroke are affected by an individual's behavior, including for example smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, inactivity, and so on. In addition, variations in an individual's genetic makeup might affect his or her chance of having a stroke. Previous research studies have shown that variants in many different genes are likely to be involved in determining the overall risk of having a stroke, each variant contributing in a small way to the risk.
Why Was This Study Done?
The group performing this study had previously carried out a systematic review of existing research, looking specifically at the genetics of ischemic stroke among people of European origin (often called “Caucasians”). However, it was not obvious whether the genetic risk factors for stroke they found would be the same for people from a different ethnic background. Therefore the research group wanted to find out what the genetic risk factors were for stroke among people of non-European origin and to compare these findings with those of their previous systematic review. This research might help to find out whether the genetic risk factors for stroke were different in people from different parts of the world.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
As a starting point, these researchers wanted to find all the different studies that had already been carried out examining the effect of genetic risk factors on stroke among people of non-European origin. To do this, searches were carried out of electronic databases using a particular set of terms. All resulting studies that involved genetic research in people of non-European origin and in which strokes were confirmed by brain scanning were then evaluated in more detail. The findings of different studies were combined if at least three studies were available for the same genetic variant. Eventually 60 studies were found that looked at the association between eight specific gene variants and stroke. The only data that could be included in a combined analysis came from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean populations. Three of the eight gene variants were associated with an increased risk of stroke. Those three gene variants were ACE I/D (a variant in the gene coding for angiotensin 1-converting enzyme, which is involved in controlling blood pressure); a variant in MTHFR (which codes for the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, and which converts certain amino acids within cells); and a variant in the gene APOE, which codes for a protein that plays a role in breaking down fats. The researchers then compared their findings from this study with the findings of a previous systematic review they had carried out among people of European origin. Overall, each gene studied seemed to have a similar effect in the different populations, with the exception of APOE, which seemed to be associated with stroke in the Asian studies but not in the studies from people of non-European origin. The researchers also found that generally the Asian studies suggested a slightly greater effect of each gene variant than the studies in people of non-European origin did.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that, with the possible exception of APOE, similar gene variants play a role in determining stroke risk in people of European origin and Asian populations. Although generally the studies examined here suggested a slightly greater effect of these gene variants in Asian populations, this is not necessarily a real finding. This greater effect may just be due to small-study bias. Small-study bias describes the observation that small research studies are more likely to produce a false positive result than are large research studies. Therefore, future studies that examine the genetic basis of stroke should recruit much larger numbers of participants from populations made up of people of non-European origin than has previously been the case.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040131.
Health Encyclopedia entry on stroke from NHS Direct (UK National Health Service patient information)
Stroke Information page from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (provided by the US National Institutes of Health)
The Stroke Association, a UK charity funding this study
Information from the World Health Organization on the distribution and burden of stroke worldwide
The WHO has a world atlas of heart disease and stroke
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040131
PMCID: PMC1876409  PMID: 17455988
14.  Antigenic Fingerprinting of H5N1 Avian Influenza Using Convalescent Sera and Monoclonal Antibodies Reveals Potential Vaccine and Diagnostic Targets 
PLoS Medicine  2009;6(4):e1000049.
Using whole-genome-fragment phage display libraries, Hana Golding and colleagues identify the viral epitopes recognized by serum antibodies in humans who have recovered from infection with H5N1 avian influenza.
Background
Transmission of highly pathogenic avian H5N1 viruses from poultry to humans have raised fears of an impending influenza pandemic. Concerted efforts are underway to prepare effective vaccines and therapies including polyclonal or monoclonal antibodies against H5N1. Current efforts are hampered by the paucity of information on protective immune responses against avian influenza. Characterizing the B cell responses in convalescent individuals could help in the design of future vaccines and therapeutics.
Methods and Findings
To address this need, we generated whole-genome–fragment phage display libraries (GFPDL) expressing fragments of 15–350 amino acids covering all the proteins of A/Vietnam/1203/2004 (H5N1). These GFPDL were used to analyze neutralizing human monoclonal antibodies and sera of five individuals who had recovered from H5N1 infection. This approach led to the mapping of two broadly neutralizing human monoclonal antibodies with conformation-dependent epitopes. In H5N1 convalescent sera, we have identified several potentially protective H5N1-specific human antibody epitopes in H5 HA[(-10)-223], neuraminidase catalytic site, and M2 ectodomain. In addition, for the first time to our knowledge in humans, we identified strong reactivity against PB1-F2, a putative virulence factor, following H5N1 infection. Importantly, novel epitopes were identified, which were recognized by H5N1-convalescent sera but did not react with sera from control individuals (H5N1 naïve, H1N1 or H3N2 seropositive).
Conclusion
This is the first study, to our knowledge, describing the complete antibody repertoire following H5N1 infection. Collectively, these data will contribute to rational vaccine design and new H5N1-specific serodiagnostic surveillance tools.
Editors' Summary
Background
Every winter, millions of people catch influenza, a viral infection of the airways. Most recover quickly but seasonal influenza outbreaks (epidemics) kill about half a million people annually. These epidemics occur because small but frequent changes in the viral proteins (antigens) to which the human immune system responds mean that an immune response produced one year by infection or through vaccination provides only partial protection against influenza the next year. Influenza viruses also occasionally appear that contain major antigenic changes. Human populations have little or no immunity to such viruses (which often originate in animals or birds), so they can start deadly global epidemics (pandemics ). Worryingly, the last influenza pandemic occurred in 1968 and many experts fear that another pandemic is now overdue. The trigger for such a pandemic, they think, could be the avian (bird) H5N1 influenza virus, which first appeared in 1996 in a goose in China. The name indicates the types of two major influenza antigens present in the virus: H5N1 carries type 5 hemagglutinin and type 1 neuraminidase.
Why Was This Study Done?
H5N1 has caused about 400 confirmed cases of human influenza and more than 250 deaths in the past decade but it has not started a human pandemic because it cannot pass easily between people. However, it could possibly acquire this ability at any time, so it is a priority to develop both vaccines that will provide protection against a pandemic H5N1 viral strain, as well as antibody-based antiviral therapies for people not protected by vaccination (antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system that help to fight infections; people can sometimes be protected from infection by injecting them with pre-prepared antibodies). To do this, scientists need to know how the human immune system responds to the H5N1 virus. In particular, they need to know which parts of the virus the immune system can detect and make antibodies against. In this study, therefore, the researchers characterize the specific antibody responses found in people recovering from infection with H5N1.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers made several “genome-fragment phage display libraries”, collections of bacterial viruses (phages) engineered so that each phage makes one of many possible short pieces (polypeptides) of a nonphage protein. Such “libraries” can be used to investigate which fragments are recognized by antibodies from a given source. In this case, several libraries were made that contained fragments of the genome of the H5N1 strain responsible for an outbreak of human influenza in Vietnam in 2004–2005 (A/Vietnam/1203/2004). The researchers used these libraries to analyze the antibodies made by five Vietnamese people recovering from infection with A/Vietnam/1203/2004. H5N1 convalescent blood samples, the researchers report, contained antibodies that recognized small regions (“epitopes”) in several viral proteins, including hemagglutinin, neuraminidase, a structural protein called M2, and a viral protein called PB1-F2 that is partly responsible for the severity of H5N1 infections. Several of the novel epitopes identified were not recognized by antibodies in blood taken from people recovering from infection with other influenza viruses. The researchers also used their phage display libraries to analyze two neutralizing human monoclonal antibodies generated from patients infected with A/Vietnam/1203/2004 (neutralizing antibodies protect mice against normally lethal challenge with H5N1; monoclonal antibodies are generated in the laboratory by creating continuously growing cell lines that produce a single type of antibody). Importantly, both of the neutralizing monoclonal antibodies recognized “noncontinuous conformation-dependent epitopes”—protein sequences that are not adjacent to one another in the polypeptide sequence of the protein, but that lie close together in space because of the way the protein is folded up.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Although some aspects of the antibody repertoire produced in people exposed to the H5N1 influenza virus may have been missed in this analysis, these findings provide important and detailed new information about how the human immune system responds to infection with this virus. In particular, they show that people recovering from H5N1 infection make a diverse range of antibodies against several viral proteins for at least six months and identify specific parts of H5N1 that may be particularly good at stimulating a protective immune response. This information can now be used to help design vaccines against H5N1 and antibody-based therapies for the treatment of H5N1 infections, and to develop new tools for monitoring outbreaks of avian influenza in human populations.
Additional Information
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000049.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Malik Peiris
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information for about influenza for patients and professionals, including specific information on avian and pandemic influenza (in several languages)
The World Health Organization provides information on influenza (in several languages) and on H5N1 avian influenza (in several languages), and a global timeline about H5N1 avian influenza infection in birds and people
The UK Health Protection Agency provides information on avian, pandemic, and epidemic (seasonal) influenza
MedlinePlus provides a list of links to other information about influenza and bird flu (in English and Spanish)
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000049
PMCID: PMC2661249  PMID: 19381279
15.  TXNIP Regulates Peripheral Glucose Metabolism in Humans  
PLoS Medicine  2007;4(5):e158.
Background
Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) is characterized by defects in insulin secretion and action. Impaired glucose uptake in skeletal muscle is believed to be one of the earliest features in the natural history of T2DM, although underlying mechanisms remain obscure.
Methods and Findings
We combined human insulin/glucose clamp physiological studies with genome-wide expression profiling to identify thioredoxin interacting protein (TXNIP) as a gene whose expression is powerfully suppressed by insulin yet stimulated by glucose. In healthy individuals, its expression was inversely correlated to total body measures of glucose uptake. Forced expression of TXNIP in cultured adipocytes significantly reduced glucose uptake, while silencing with RNA interference in adipocytes and in skeletal muscle enhanced glucose uptake, confirming that the gene product is also a regulator of glucose uptake. TXNIP expression is consistently elevated in the muscle of prediabetics and diabetics, although in a panel of 4,450 Scandinavian individuals, we found no evidence for association between common genetic variation in the TXNIP gene and T2DM.
Conclusions
TXNIP regulates both insulin-dependent and insulin-independent pathways of glucose uptake in human skeletal muscle. Combined with recent studies that have implicated TXNIP in pancreatic β-cell glucose toxicity, our data suggest that TXNIP might play a key role in defective glucose homeostasis preceding overt T2DM.
Vamsi Mootha, Leif Groop, and colleagues report that TXNIP regulates insulin-dependent and -independent pathways of glucose uptake in human skeletal muscle and that its expression is elevated in individuals with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Editors' Summary
Background.
An epidemic of diabetes mellitus is threatening world health. 246 million people (6% of the world's population) already have diabetes and it is estimated that within 20 years, 380 million people will have this chronic disease, most of them in developing countries. Diabetes is characterized by high blood sugar (glucose) levels. It arises when the pancreas does not make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes) or when the body responds poorly to insulin (type 2 diabetes). Insulin, which is released in response to high blood glucose levels, instructs muscle, fat, and liver cells to take glucose (a product of food digestion) out of the bloodstream; cells use glucose as a fuel. Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90% of all cases of diabetes, is characterized by impaired glucose uptake by target tissues in response to insulin (this “insulin resistance” is one of the first signs of type 2 diabetes) and inappropriate glucose release from liver cells. Over time, the pancreas may also make less insulin. These changes result in poor glucose homeostasis (inadequate control of blood sugar levels), which can cause life-threatening complications such as kidney failure and heart attacks.
Why Was This Study Done?
If the world diabetes epidemic is to be halted, researchers need a better understanding of glucose homeostasis and need to identify which parts of this complex control system go awry in type 2 diabetes. This information might suggest ways to prevent type 2 diabetes developing in the first place and might reveal targets for drugs that could slow or reverse the disease process. In this study, the researchers have used multiple approaches to identify a new mediator of glucose homeostasis and to investigate whether this mediator is causally involved in the development of type 2 diabetes.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers took small muscle samples from people who did not have diabetes before and after increasing their blood insulin levels and used a technique called “microarray expression profiling” to identify genes whose expression was induced or suppressed by insulin. One of the latter genes was thioredoxin interacting protein (TXNIP), a gene whose expression is strongly induced by glucose yet suppressed by insulin. They next used previously published microarray expression data to show that TXNIP expression was consistently higher in the muscles of patients with diabetes or prediabetes (a condition in which blood glucose levels are slightly raised) than in normal individuals. The researchers then examined whether TXNIP expression was correlated with glucose uptake, again using previously published data. In people with no diabetes and those with prediabetes, as glucose uptake rates increased, TXNIP expression decreased but this inverse correlation was missing in people with diabetes. Finally, by manipulating TXNIP expression levels in insulin-responsive cells grown in the laboratory, the researchers found that TXNIP overexpression reduced basal and insulin-stimulated glucose uptake but that reduced TXNIP expression had the opposite effect.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These results provide strong evidence that TXNIP is a regulator of glucose homeostasis in people. Specifically, the researchers propose that TXNIP regulates glucose uptake in the periphery of the human body by acting as a glucose- and insulin-sensitive switch. They also suggest how it might be involved in the development of type 2 diabetes. Early in the disease process, a small insulin deficiency or slightly raised blood sugar levels would increase TXNIP expression in muscles and suppress glucose uptake by these cells. Initially, the pancreas would compensate for this by producing more insulin, but this compensation would eventually fail, allowing blood sugar levels to rise sufficiently to increase TXNIP expression in the pancreas. Previously published results suggest that this would induce the loss of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, thus further reducing insulin production and glucose uptake in the periphery and, ultimately, resulting in type 2 diabetes. Although there are many unanswered questions about the exact role of TXNIP in glucose homeostasis, these results help to explain many of the changes in glucose control that occur early in the development of diabetes. Furthermore, they suggest that interventions designed to modulate the activity of TXNIP might break the vicious cycle that eventually leads to type 2 diabetes.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040158.
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia has pages on diabetes
The US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has information for patients on diabetes
Information on diabetes is available for patients and professionals from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The American Diabetes Association provides information on diabetes for patients
International Diabetes Federation has information on diabetes and a recent press release on the global diabetes epidemic
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040158
PMCID: PMC1858708  PMID: 17472435
16.  The Emergence of Environmental Homeostasis in Complex Ecosystems 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(5):e1003050.
The Earth, with its core-driven magnetic field, convective mantle, mobile lid tectonics, oceans of liquid water, dynamic climate and abundant life is arguably the most complex system in the known universe. This system has exhibited stability in the sense of, bar a number of notable exceptions, surface temperature remaining within the bounds required for liquid water and so a significant biosphere. Explanations for this range from anthropic principles in which the Earth was essentially lucky, to homeostatic Gaia in which the abiotic and biotic components of the Earth system self-organise into homeostatic states that are robust to a wide range of external perturbations. Here we present results from a conceptual model that demonstrates the emergence of homeostasis as a consequence of the feedback loop operating between life and its environment. Formulating the model in terms of Gaussian processes allows the development of novel computational methods in order to provide solutions. We find that the stability of this system will typically increase then remain constant with an increase in biological diversity and that the number of attractors within the phase space exponentially increases with the number of environmental variables while the probability of the system being in an attractor that lies within prescribed boundaries decreases approximately linearly. We argue that the cybernetic concept of rein control provides insights into how this model system, and potentially any system that is comprised of biological to environmental feedback loops, self-organises into homeostatic states.
Author Summary
Life on Earth is perhaps greater than three and a half billion years old and it would appear that once it started it never stopped. During this period a number of dramatic shocks and drivers have affected the Earth. These include the impacts of massive asteroids, runaway climate change and increases in brightness of the Sun. Has life on Earth simply been lucky in withstanding such perturbations? Are there any self-regulating or homeostatic processes operating in the Earth system that would reduce the severity of such perturbations? If such planetary processes exist, to what extent are they the result of the actions of life? In this study, we show how the regulation of environmental conditions can emerge as a consequence of life's effects. If life is both affected by and affects it environment, then this coupled system can self-organise into a robust control system that was first described during the early cybernetics movement around the middle of the twentieth century. Our findings are in principle applicable to a wide range of real world systems - from microbial mats to aquatic ecosystems up to and including the entire biosphere.
doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003050
PMCID: PMC3656095  PMID: 23696719
17.  Event Rates, Hospital Utilization, and Costs Associated with Major Complications of Diabetes: A Multicountry Comparative Analysis 
PLoS Medicine  2010;7(2):e1000236.
Philip Clarke and colleagues examined patient-level data for over 11,000 participants with type 2 diabetes from 20 countries and find that major complications of diabetes significantly increased hospital use and costs across settings.
Background
Diabetes imposes a substantial burden globally in terms of premature mortality, morbidity, and health care costs. Estimates of economic outcomes associated with diabetes are essential inputs to policy analyses aimed at prevention and treatment of diabetes. Our objective was to estimate and compare event rates, hospital utilization, and costs associated with major diabetes-related complications in high-, middle-, and low-income countries.
Methods and Findings
Incidence and history of diabetes-related complications, hospital admissions, and length of stay were recorded in 11,140 patients with type 2 diabetes participating in the Action in Diabetes and Vascular Disease (ADVANCE) study (mean age at entry 66 y). The probability of hospital utilization and number of days in hospital for major events associated with coronary disease, cerebrovascular disease, congestive heart failure, peripheral vascular disease, and nephropathy were estimated for three regions (Asia, Eastern Europe, and Established Market Economies) using multiple regression analysis. The resulting estimates of days spent in hospital were multiplied by regional estimates of the costs per hospital bed-day from the World Health Organization to compute annual acute and long-term costs associated with the different types of complications. To assist, comparability, costs are reported in international dollars (Int$), which represent a hypothetical currency that allows for the same quantities of goods or services to be purchased regardless of country, standardized on purchasing power in the United States. A cost calculator accompanying this paper enables the estimation of costs for individual countries and translation of these costs into local currency units. The probability of attending a hospital following an event was highest for heart failure (93%–96% across regions) and lowest for nephropathy (15%–26%). The average numbers of days in hospital given at least one admission were greatest for stroke (17–32 d across region) and heart failure (16–31 d) and lowest for nephropathy (12–23 d). Considering regional differences, probabilities of hospitalization were lowest in Asia and highest in Established Market Economies; on the other hand, lengths of stay were highest in Asia and lowest in Established Market Economies. Overall estimated annual hospital costs for patients with none of the specified events or event histories ranged from Int$76 in Asia to Int$296 in Established Market Economies. All complications included in this analysis led to significant increases in hospital costs; coronary events, cerebrovascular events, and heart failure were the most costly, at more than Int$1,800, Int$3,000, and Int$4,000 in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Established Market Economies, respectively.
Conclusions
Major complications of diabetes significantly increase hospital use and costs across various settings and are likely to impose a high economic burden on health care systems.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Background
Worldwide, nearly 250 million people have diabetes, and this number is increasing rapidly. Diabetes is characterized by dangerous amounts of sugar (glucose) in the blood. Blood sugar levels are normally controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Blood sugar control fails in people with diabetes because they make no insulin (type 1 diabetes) or, more commonly, because the fat and muscle cells that usually respond to insulin by removing excess sugar from the blood have become insulin insensitive (type 2 diabetes). Type 2 diabetes can be prevented and controlled by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. It can also be treated with drugs that help the pancreas make more insulin or that increase insulin sensitivity. Major long-term complications of diabetes include kidney failure and an increased risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and problems with the blood vessels in the arms and legs. Because of these complications, the life expectancy of people with diabetes is about ten years shorter than that of people without diabetes.
Why Was This Study Done?
Diabetes imposes considerable demands on health care systems but little is known about the direct medical costs associated with treating this chronic disease in low- and middle-income countries where more than three-quarters of affected people live. In particular, although estimates have been made of the overall resources devoted to the treatment of diabetes, very little is known about how the different long-term complications of diabetes contribute to health care costs in different countries. Public-health experts and governments need this information to help them design effective and sustainable policies for the prevention and treatment of diabetes. In this study, the researchers estimate the resource use associated with diabetes-related complications in three economic regions using information collected in the Action in Diabetes and Vascular Disease (ADVANCE) study. This multinational clinical trial is investigating how drugs that control blood pressure and blood sugar levels affect the long-term complications of diabetes.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers recorded diabetes-related complications, hospital admissions for these complications, and length of hospital stays in 11,140 patients with severe diabetes from 20 countries who participated in the ADVANCE study. They used “multiple regression analysis” to estimate the number of days spent in hospital for diabetes-related complications in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Established Market Economies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and several Western European countries). Finally, they calculated the economic costs of each complication using regional estimates of the costs per bed-day from the World Health Organization's CHOICE project (CHOosing Interventions that are Cost Effective). Nearly everyone in the study who developed heart failure attended a hospital, but only 15%–26% of people attended a hospital for kidney problems. The chances of hospitalization for any complication were lowest in Asia and highest in the Established Market Economies; conversely, lengths of stay were longest in Asia and shortest in the Established Market Economies. Finally, the estimated annual hospital costs for patients who had a coronary event, stroke, or heart failure were more than Int$1,800, Int$3,000, and Int$4,000 in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Established Market Economies, respectively (the international dollar, Int$, is a hypothetical currency that has the same purchasing power in all countries), compared to Int$76, Int$156, and Int$296 for patients who experienced none of these events.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Because the ADVANCE trial had strict entry criteria, the findings of this study may not be generalizable to the broader population of people with diabetes. Nevertheless, given the lack of information about the costs associated with diabetes-related complications in low- and middle-income countries, these findings provide important new information about the patterns of hospital resource use and costs in these countries. Specifically, these findings show that the major complications of diabetes greatly increase hospital use and costs in all three economic regions considered and impose a high economic burden on health care systems that is likely to increase as the diabetes epidemic develops. Importantly, these findings should help policy makers anticipate the future health care costs associated with diabetes and should help them evaluate which therapies aimed at preventing diabetes-related complications will reduce these costs most effectively.
Additional Information
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000236.
The International Diabetes Federation provides information about all aspects of diabetes
The US National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse provides detailed information about diabetes for patients, health care professionals, and the general public (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service also provides information for patients and caregivers about type 2 diabetes (in several languages)
Information about the ADVANCE study is available
The World Health Organization's CHOICE Web site provides information about the analysis of the cost effectiveness of health care interventions
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000236
PMCID: PMC2826379  PMID: 20186272
18.  A Novel Tumor-Promoting Function Residing in the 5′ Non-coding Region of vascular endothelial growth factor mRNA 
PLoS Medicine  2008;5(5):e94.
Background
Vascular endothelial growth factor-A (VEGF) is one of the key regulators of tumor development, hence it is considered to be an important therapeutic target for cancer treatment. However, clinical trials have suggested that anti-VEGF monotherapy was less effective than standard chemotherapy. On the basis of the evidence, we hypothesized that vegf mRNA may have unrecognized function(s) in cancer cells.
Methods and Findings
Knockdown of VEGF with vegf-targeting small-interfering (si) RNAs increased susceptibility of human colon cancer cell line (HCT116) to apoptosis caused with 5-fluorouracil, etoposide, or doxorubicin. Recombinant human VEGF165 did not completely inhibit this apoptosis. Conversely, overexpression of VEGF165 increased resistance to anti-cancer drug-induced apoptosis, while an anti-VEGF165-neutralizing antibody did not completely block the resistance. We prepared plasmids encoding full-length vegf mRNA with mutation of signal sequence, vegf mRNAs lacking untranslated regions (UTRs), or mutated 5′UTRs. Using these plasmids, we revealed that the 5′UTR of vegf mRNA possessed anti-apoptotic activity. The 5′UTR-mediated activity was not affected by a protein synthesis inhibitor, cycloheximide. We established HCT116 clones stably expressing either the vegf 5′UTR or the mutated 5′UTR. The clones expressing the 5′UTR, but not the mutated one, showed increased anchorage-independent growth in vitro and formed progressive tumors when implanted in athymic nude mice. Microarray and quantitative real-time PCR analyses indicated that the vegf 5′UTR-expressing tumors had up-regulated anti-apoptotic genes, multidrug-resistant genes, and growth-promoting genes, while pro-apoptotic genes were down-regulated. Notably, expression of signal transducers and activators of transcription 1 (STAT1) was markedly repressed in the 5′UTR-expressing tumors, resulting in down-regulation of a STAT1-responsive cluster of genes (43 genes). As a result, the tumors did not respond to interferon (IFN)α therapy at all. We showed that stable silencing of endogenous vegf mRNA in HCT116 cells enhanced both STAT1 expression and IFNα responses.
Conclusions
These findings suggest that cancer cells have a survival system that is regulated by vegf mRNA and imply that both vegf mRNA and its protein may synergistically promote the malignancy of tumor cells. Therefore, combination of anti-vegf transcript strategies, such as siRNA-based gene silencing, with anti-VEGF antibody treatment may improve anti-cancer therapies that target VEGF.
Shigetada Teshima-Kondo and colleagues find that cancer cells have a survival system that is regulated by vegf mRNA and that vegf mRNA and its protein may synergistically promote the malignancy of tumor cells.
Editors' Summary
Background
Normally, throughout life, cell division (which produces new cells) and cell death are carefully balanced to keep the body in good working order. But sometimes cells acquire changes (mutations) in their genetic material that allow them to divide uncontrollably to form cancers—disorganized masses of cells. When a cancer is small, it uses the body's existing blood supply to get the oxygen and nutrients it needs for its growth and survival. But, when it gets bigger, it has to develop its own blood supply. This process is called angiogenesis. It involves the release by the cancer cells of proteins called growth factors that bind to other proteins (receptors) on the surface of endothelial cells (the cells lining blood vessels). The receptors then send signals into the endothelial cells that tell them to make new blood vessels. One important angiogenic growth factor is “vascular endothelial growth factor” (VEGF). Tumors that make large amounts of VEGF tend to be more abnormal and more aggressive than those that make less VEGF. In addition, high levels of VEGF in the blood are often associated with poor responses to chemotherapy, drug regimens designed to kill cancer cells.
Why Was This Study Done?
Because VEGF is a key regulator of tumor development, several anti-VEGF therapies—drugs that target VEGF and its receptors—have been developed. These therapies strongly suppress the growth of tumor cells in the laboratory and in animals but, when used alone, are no better at increasing the survival times of patients with cancer than standard chemotherapy. Scientists are now looking for an explanation for this disappointing result. Like all proteins, cells make VEGF by “transcribing” its DNA blueprint into an mRNA copy (vegf mRNA), the coding region of which is “translated” into the VEGF protein. Other, “noncoding” regions of vegf mRNA control when and where VEGF is made. Scientists have recently discovered that the noncoding regions of some mRNAs suppress tumor development. In this study, therefore, the researchers investigate whether vegf mRNA has an unrecognized function in tumor cells that could explain the disappointing clinical results of anti-VEGF therapeutics.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers first used a technique called small interfering (si) RNA knockdown to stop VEGF expression in human colon cancer cells growing in dishes. siRNAs are short RNAs that bind to and destroy specific mRNAs in cells, thereby preventing the translation of those mRNAs into proteins. The treatment of human colon cancer cells with vegf-targeting siRNAs made the cells more sensitive to chemotherapy-induced apoptosis (a type of cell death). This sensitivity was only partly reversed by adding VEGF to the cells. By contrast, cancer cells engineered to make more vegf mRNA had increased resistance to chemotherapy-induced apoptosis. Treatment of these cells with an antibody that inhibited VEGF function did not completely block this resistance. Together, these results suggest that both vegf mRNA and VEGF protein have anti-apoptotic effects. The researchers show that the anti-apoptotic activity of vegf mRNA requires a noncoding part of the mRNA called the 5′ UTR, and that whereas human colon cancer cells expressing this 5′ UTR form tumors in mice, cells expressing a mutated 5′ UTR do not. Finally, they report that the expression of several pro-apoptotic genes and of an anti-tumor pathway known as the interferon/STAT1 tumor suppression pathway is down-regulated in tumors that express the vegf 5′ UTR.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that some cancer cells have a survival system that is regulated by vegf mRNA and are the first to show that a 5′UTR of mRNA can promote tumor growth. They indicate that VEGF and its mRNA work together to promote their development and to increase their resistance to chemotherapy drugs. They suggest that combining therapies that prevent the production of vegf mRNA (for example, siRNA-based gene silencing) with therapies that block the function of VEGF might improve survival times for patients whose tumors overexpress VEGF.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050094.
This study is discussed further in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Hughes and Jones
The US National Cancer Institute provides information about all aspects of cancer, including information on angiogenesis, and on bevacizumab, an anti-VEGF therapeutic (in English and Spanish)
CancerQuest, from Emory University, provides information on all aspects of cancer, including angiogenesis (in several languages)
Cancer Research UK also provides basic information about what causes cancers and how they develop, grow, and spread, including information about angiogenesis
Wikipedia has pages on VEGF and on siRNA (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050094
PMCID: PMC2386836  PMID: 18494554
19.  BIM Mediates EGFR Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor-Induced Apoptosis in Lung Cancers with Oncogenic EGFR Mutations  
PLoS Medicine  2007;4(10):e315.
Background
Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutations are present in the majority of patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) responsive to the EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) gefitinib or erlotinib. These EGFR-dependent tumors eventually become TKI resistant, and the common secondary T790M mutation accounts for half the tumors with acquired resistance to gefitinib. However, the key proapoptotic proteins involved in TKI-induced cell death and other secondary mutations involved in resistance remain unclear. The objective of this study was to identify the mechanism of EGFR TKI-induced apoptosis and secondary resistant mutations that affect this process.
Methods and Findings
To study TKI-induced cell death and mechanisms of resistance, we used lung cancer cell lines (with or without EGFR mutations), Ba/F3 cells stably transfected with EGFR mutation constructs, and tumor samples from a gefitinib-resistant patient. Here we show that up-regulation of the BH3-only polypeptide BIM (also known as BCL2-like 11) correlated with gefitinib-induced apoptosis in gefitinib-sensitive EGFR-mutant lung cancer cells. The T790M mutation blocked gefitinib-induced up-regulation of BIM and apoptosis. This blockade was overcome by the irreversible TKI CL-387,785. Knockdown of BIM by small interfering RNA was able to attenuate apoptosis induced by EGFR TKIs. Furthermore, from a gefitinib-resistant patient carrying the activating L858R mutation, we identified a novel secondary resistant mutation, L747S in cis to the activating mutation, which attenuated the up-regulation of BIM and reduced apoptosis.
Conclusions
Our results provide evidence that BIM is involved in TKI-induced apoptosis in sensitive EGFR-mutant cells and that both attenuation of the up-regulation of BIM and resistance to gefitinib-induced apoptosis are seen in models that contain the common EGFR T790M and the novel L747S secondary resistance mutations. These findings also suggest that induction of BIM may have a role in the treatment of TKI-resistant tumors.
Susumu Kobayashi and colleagues provide evidence that the polypeptide BIM is involved in tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI)-induced apoptosis in sensitiveEGFR-mutant cells and suggest that induction of BIM may have a role in the treatment of TKI-resistant tumors.
Editors' Summary
Background.
Most cases of lung cancer—the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide—are “non-small cell lung cancer” (NSCLC). Many patients with NSCLC die within a year of their diagnosis, but recently, “targeted” therapies have increased the life expectancy of some of them. Like all cancers, NSCLC occurs when cells begin to divide uncontrollably because of changes (mutations) in their genes. Targeted therapies specifically attack these changes and, unlike standard chemotherapy drugs, kill cancer cells without damaging normal cells. The targeted drugs used to treat NSCLC are gefitinib and erlotinib, two epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs). In normal cells, messenger proteins bind to EGFR and activate its tyrosine kinase, an enzyme that sticks phosphate groups on tyrosine (an amino acid) in other proteins. These “phosphorylated” proteins then tell the cell to divide. In some NSCLCs, EGFR drives uncontrolled cell division because its tyrosine kinase is mutated and the cancer becomes dependent on or “addicted” to EGFR signaling for its survival. TKI treatment can dramatically shrink this subset of NSCLCs, most of which lack a specific part of EGFR (the gene that encodes EGFR) or have the amino acid leucine instead of arginine at position 858 (an L858R mutation) of EGFR.
Why Was This Study Done?
TKI-sensitive NSCLCs eventually become resistant to TKIs because they acquire additional (secondary) mutations. In half of these TKI-resistant tumors, the additional mutation is replacement of threonine by methionine at position 790 (T790M) in EGFR. However, the mutations responsible for the remaining cases of TKI resistance are not known. In addition, little is known about how TKIs induce cell death other than that they induce a type of cell death called apoptosis. A better understanding of how TKIs kill tumor cells and how secondary mutations block their effects could reveal ways to enhance their action and improve the outcome for patients with NSCLC. In this study, the researchers have studied the mechanism of TKI-induced cell death and of resistance to TKIs.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers first measured the ability of gefitinib to cause apoptosis (genetically programmed cell death) in NSCLC cell lines (tumor cells adapted to grow indefinitely in dishes) that had the EGFR deletion, the L858R mutation, or normal EGFR. Gefitinib caused apoptosis only in cell lines with altered EGFR. Then they asked whether a proapoptotic protein called BIM (a member of the BCL2 family of pro- and antiapoptotic proteins) is involved in TKI-induced cell death—BIM is known to be involved in this process in leukemia (blood cancer) cells. Gefitinib treatment increased the expression of BIM in TKI-sensitive NSCLC cell lines and reduced the phosphorylation of BIM (which makes BIM more active). By contrast, blocking BIM expression using a technique called RNA interference reduced TKI-induced apoptosis in TKI-sensitive NSCLC cells. Furthermore, introduction of the T790M resistance mutation into these cells blocked gefitinib-induced up-regulation of BIM and apoptosis. Finally, the researchers identified a new TKI resistance mutation (L747S, substitution of serine for leucine at position 747) in a patient whose TKI-sensitive NSCLC had become resistant to gefitinib, and showed that this resistance mutation also reduced TKI-induced apoptosis in cells growing in dishes by interfering with BIM up-regulation.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings (and those reported by Gong et al. and Cragg et al.) show that BIM is required for TKI-induced apoptosis in EGFR mutant NSCLC cells. They also show that mutations that make TKI-sensitive cells resistant to these drugs reduce TKI-induced apoptosis by preventing the upregulation of BIM. These results were obtained by examining the behavior of established cell lines growing in dishes and need to be confirmed in cells freshly isolated from tumors and in tumors themselves. However, they suggest that the efficacy of TKIs could be increased by finding ways to increase BIM expression or to activate other proteins involved in apoptosis Such approaches might be particularly beneficial for patients with NSCLC whose initially TKI-sensitive tumors have acquired mutations that make them resistant to TKIs.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040315.
Ingo Mellinghoff discusses this paper and two related ones in a perspective article
US National Cancer Institute information for patients and professionals on lung cancer (in English and Spanish)
Information for patients from Cancer Research UK on lung cancer, including information on treatment with TKIs
CancerQuest information on all aspects of cancer from Emory University (in several languages)
Wikipedia pages on apoptosis, epidermal growth factor receptor, and BCL2 proteins (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
Information for patients from Cancerbackup on erlotinib and gefitinib
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040315
PMCID: PMC2043012  PMID: 17973572
20.  Functional Information: Towards Synthesis of Biosemiotics and Cybernetics 
Entropy (Basel, Switzerland)  2010;12(5):1050-1070.
Biosemiotics and cybernetics are closely related, yet they are separated by the boundary between life and non-life: biosemiotics is focused on living organisms, whereas cybernetics is applied mostly to non-living artificial devices. However, both classes of systems are agents that perform functions necessary for reaching their goals. I propose to shift the focus of biosemiotics from living organisms to agents in general, which all belong to a pragmasphere or functional universe. Agents should be considered in the context of their hierarchy and origin because their semiosis can be inherited or induced by higher-level agents. To preserve and disseminate their functions, agents use functional information - a set of signs that encode and control their functions. It includes stable memory signs, transient messengers, and natural signs. The origin and evolution of functional information is discussed in terms of transitions between vegetative, animal, and social levels of semiosis, defined by Kull. Vegetative semiosis differs substantially from higher levels of semiosis, because signs are recognized and interpreted via direct code-based matching and are not associated with ideal representations of objects. Thus, I consider a separate classification of signs at the vegetative level that includes proto-icons, proto-indexes, and proto-symbols. Animal and social semiosis are based on classification, and modeling of objects, which represent the knowledge of agents about their body (Innenwelt) and environment (Umwelt).
doi:10.3390/e12051050
PMCID: PMC3285384  PMID: 22368439
functional information; biosemiotics; cybernetics; evolution; agent; origin of life; Umwelt; learning; biological complexity; biological signal processing
21.  Parallel Evolution of the Genetic Code in Arthropod Mitochondrial Genomes 
PLoS Biology  2006;4(5):e127.
The genetic code provides the translation table necessary to transform the information contained in DNA into the language of proteins. In this table, a correspondence between each codon and each amino acid is established: tRNA is the main adaptor that links the two. Although the genetic code is nearly universal, several variants of this code have been described in a wide range of nuclear and organellar systems, especially in metazoan mitochondria. These variants are generally found by searching for conserved positions that consistently code for a specific alternative amino acid in a new species. We have devised an accurate computational method to automate these comparisons, and have tested it with 626 metazoan mitochondrial genomes. Our results indicate that several arthropods have a new genetic code and translate the codon AGG as lysine instead of serine (as in the invertebrate mitochondrial genetic code) or arginine (as in the standard genetic code). We have investigated the evolution of the genetic code in the arthropods and found several events of parallel evolution in which the AGG codon was reassigned between serine and lysine. Our analyses also revealed correlated evolution between the arthropod genetic codes and the tRNA-Lys/-Ser, which show specific point mutations at the anticodons. These rather simple mutations, together with a low usage of the AGG codon, might explain the recurrence of the AGG reassignments.
The authors find evidence for parallel evolution of an alternate genetic code in arthropod mitochondria (AGG is translated into lysine rather than serine), and correlated co-evolution of the tRNA-Lys/Ser anticodons.
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040127
PMCID: PMC1440934  PMID: 16620150
22.  Mendelian Randomization Study of B-Type Natriuretic Peptide and Type 2 Diabetes: Evidence of Causal Association from Population Studies 
PLoS Medicine  2011;8(10):e1001112.
Using mendelian randomization, Roman Pfister and colleagues demonstrate a potentially causal link between low levels of B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP), a hormone released by damaged hearts, and the development of type 2 diabetes.
Background
Genetic and epidemiological evidence suggests an inverse association between B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) levels in blood and risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D), but the prospective association of BNP with T2D is uncertain, and it is unclear whether the association is confounded.
Methods and Findings
We analysed the association between levels of the N-terminal fragment of pro-BNP (NT-pro-BNP) in blood and risk of incident T2D in a prospective case-cohort study and genotyped the variant rs198389 within the BNP locus in three T2D case-control studies. We combined our results with existing data in a meta-analysis of 11 case-control studies. Using a Mendelian randomization approach, we compared the observed association between rs198389 and T2D to that expected from the NT-pro-BNP level to T2D association and the NT-pro-BNP difference per C allele of rs198389. In participants of our case-cohort study who were free of T2D and cardiovascular disease at baseline, we observed a 21% (95% CI 3%–36%) decreased risk of incident T2D per one standard deviation (SD) higher log-transformed NT-pro-BNP levels in analysis adjusted for age, sex, body mass index, systolic blood pressure, smoking, family history of T2D, history of hypertension, and levels of triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The association between rs198389 and T2D observed in case-control studies (odds ratio = 0.94 per C allele, 95% CI 0.91–0.97) was similar to that expected (0.96, 0.93–0.98) based on the pooled estimate for the log-NT-pro-BNP level to T2D association derived from a meta-analysis of our study and published data (hazard ratio = 0.82 per SD, 0.74–0.90) and the difference in NT-pro-BNP levels (0.22 SD, 0.15–0.29) per C allele of rs198389. No significant associations were observed between the rs198389 genotype and potential confounders.
Conclusions
Our results provide evidence for a potential causal role of the BNP system in the aetiology of T2D. Further studies are needed to investigate the mechanisms underlying this association and possibilities for preventive interventions.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Background
Worldwide, nearly 250 million people have diabetes, and this number is increasing rapidly. Diabetes is characterized by dangerous amounts of sugar (glucose) in the blood. Blood sugar levels are normally controlled by insulin, a hormone that the pancreas releases after meals (digestion of food produces glucose). In people with type 2 diabetes (the most common form of diabetes), blood sugar control fails because the fat and muscle cells that usually respond to insulin by removing sugar from the blood become insulin resistant. Type 2 diabetes can be controlled with diet and exercise, and with drugs that help the pancreas make more insulin or that make cells more sensitive to insulin. The long-term complications of diabetes, which include kidney failure and an increased risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart disease and stroke, reduce the life expectancy of people with diabetes by about 10 years compared to people without diabetes.
Why Was This Study Done?
Because the causes of type 2 diabetes are poorly understood, it is hard to devise ways to prevent the condition. Recently, B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP, a hormone released by damaged hearts) has been implicated in type 2 diabetes development in cross-sectional studies (investigations in which data are collected at a single time point from a population to look for associations between an illness and potential risk factors). Although these studies suggest that high levels of BNP may protect against type 2 diabetes, they cannot prove a causal link between BNP levels and diabetes because the study participants with low BNP levels may share some another unknown factor (a confounding factor) that is the real cause of both diabetes and altered BNP levels. Here, the researchers use an approach called “Mendelian randomization” to examine whether reduced BNP levels contribute to causing type 2 diabetes. It is known that a common genetic variant (rs198389) within the genome region that encodes BNP is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Because gene variants are inherited randomly, they are not subject to confounding. So, by investigating the association between BNP gene variants that alter NT-pro-BNP (a molecule created when BNP is being produced) levels and the development of type 2 diabetes, the researchers can discover whether BNP is causally involved in this chronic condition.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed the association between blood levels of NT-pro-BNP at baseline in 440 participants of the EPIC-Norfolk study (a prospective population-based study of lifestyle factors and the risk of chronic diseases) who subsequently developed diabetes and in 740 participants who did not develop diabetes. In this prospective case-cohort study, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes was associated with lower NT-pro-BNP levels. They also genotyped (sequenced) rs198389 in the participants of three case-control studies of type 2 diabetes (studies in which potential risk factors for type 2 diabetes were examined in people with type 2 diabetes and matched controls living in the East of England), and combined these results with those of eight similar published case-control studies. Finally, the researchers showed that the association between rs198389 and type 2 diabetes measured in the case-control studies was similar to the expected association calculated from the association between NT-pro-BNP level and type 2 diabetes obtained from the prospective case-cohort study and the association between rs198389 and BNP levels obtained from the EPIC-Norfolk study and other published studies.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The results of this Mendelian randomization study provide evidence for a causal, protective role of the BNP hormone system in the development of type 2 diabetes. That is, these findings suggest that low levels of BNP are partly responsible for the development of type 2 diabetes. Because the participants in all the individual studies included in this analysis were of European descent, these findings may not be generalizable to other ethnicities. Moreover, they provide no explanation of how alterations in the BNP hormone system might affect the development of type 2 diabetes. Nevertheless, the demonstration of a causal link between the BNP hormone system and type 2 diabetes suggests that BNP may be a potential target for interventions designed to prevent type 2 diabetes, particularly since the feasibility of altering BNP levels with drugs has already been proven in patients with cardiovascular disease.
Additional Information
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001112.
The International Diabetes Federation provides information about all aspects of diabetes
The US National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse provides detailed information about diabetes for patients, health-care professionals, and the general public (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Choices website also provides information for patients and carers about type 2 diabetes and includes people's stories about diabetes
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources and advice about diabetes (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has pages on BNP and on Mendelian randomization (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The charity Healthtalkonline has interviews with people about their experiences of diabetes; the charity Diabetes UK has a further selection of stories from people with diabetes
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001112
PMCID: PMC3201934  PMID: 22039354
23.  Hierarchical amino acid utilization and its influence on fermentation dynamics: rifamycin B fermentation using Amycolatopsis mediterranei S699, a case study 
Background
Industrial fermentation typically uses complex nitrogen substrates which consist of mixture of amino acids. The uptake of amino acids is known to be mediated by several amino acid transporters with certain preferences. However, models to predict this preferential uptake are not available. We present the stoichiometry for the utilization of amino acids as a sole carbon and nitrogen substrate or along with glucose as an additional carbon source. In the former case, the excess nitrogen provided by the amino acids is excreted by the organism in the form of ammonia. We have developed a cybernetic model to predict the sequence and kinetics of uptake of amino acids. The model is based on the assumption that the growth on a specific substrate is dependent on key enzyme(s) responsible for the uptake and assimilation of the substrates. These enzymes may be regulated by mechanisms of nitrogen catabolite repression. The model hypothesizes that the organism is an optimal strategist and invests resources for the uptake of a substrate that are proportional to the returns.
Results
Stoichiometric coefficients and kinetic parameters of the model were estimated experimentally for Amycolatopsis mediterranei S699, a rifamycin B overproducer. The model was then used to predict the uptake kinetics in a medium containing cas amino acids. In contrast to the other amino acids, the uptake of proline was not affected by the carbon or nitrogen catabolite repression in this strain. The model accurately predicted simultaneous uptake of amino acids at low cas concentrations and sequential uptake at high cas concentrations. The simulated profile of the key enzymes implies the presence of specific transporters for small groups of amino acids.
Conclusion
The work demonstrates utility of the cybernetic model in predicting the sequence and kinetics of amino acid uptake in a case study involving Amycolatopsis mediterranei, an industrially important organism. This work also throws some light on amino acid transporters and their regulation in A. mediterranei .Further, cybernetic model based experimental strategy unravels formation and utilization of ammonia as well as its inhibitory role during amino acid uptake. Our results have implications for model based optimization and monitoring of other industrial fermentation processes involving complex nitrogen substrate.
doi:10.1186/1475-2859-5-32
PMCID: PMC1665455  PMID: 17081297
24.  Cognitive-Neural Effects of Brush Writing of Chinese Characters: Cortical Excitation of Theta Rhythm 
Chinese calligraphy has been scientifically investigated within the contexts and principles of psychology, cognitive science, and the cognitive neuroscience. On the basis of vast amount of research in the last 30 years, we have developed a cybernetic theory of handwriting and calligraphy to account for the intricate interactions of several psychological dimensions involved in the dynamic act of graphic production. Central to this system of writing are the role of sensory, bio-, cognitive, and neurofeedback mechanisms for the initiation, guidance, and regulation of the writing motions vis-a-vis visual-geometric variations of Chinese characters. This experiment provided the first evidence of cortical excitation in EEG theta wave as a neural hub that integrates information coming from changes in the practitioner's body, emotions, and cognition. In addition, it has also confirmed neurofeedback as an essential component of the cybernetic theory of handwriting and calligraphy.
doi:10.1155/2013/975190
PMCID: PMC3600314  PMID: 23533532
25.  Complexity in Non-Pharmacological Caregiving Activities at the End of Life: An International Qualitative Study 
PLoS Medicine  2012;9(2):e1001173.
In a qualitative study reported by Olav Lindqvist and colleagues, the range of nonpharmacological caregiving activities used in the last days of a patient's life are described.
Background
In late-stage palliative cancer care, relief of distress and optimized well-being become primary treatment goals. Great strides have been made in improving and researching pharmacological treatments for symptom relief; however, little systematic knowledge exists about the range of non-pharmacological caregiving activities (NPCAs) staff use in the last days of a patient's life.
Methods and Findings
Within a European Commission Seventh Framework Programme project to optimize research and clinical care in the last days of life for patients with cancer, OPCARE9, we used a free-listing technique to identify the variety of NPCAs performed in the last days of life. Palliative care staff at 16 units in nine countries listed in detail NPCAs they performed over several weeks. In total, 914 statements were analyzed in relation to (a) the character of the statement and (b) the recipient of the NPCA. A substantial portion of NPCAs addressed bodily care and contact with patients and family members, with refraining from bodily care also described as a purposeful caregiving activity. Several forms for communication were described; information and advice was at one end of a continuum, and communicating through nonverbal presence and bodily contact at the other. Rituals surrounding death and dying included not only spiritual/religious issues, but also more subtle existential, legal, and professional rituals. An unexpected and hitherto under-researched area of focus was on creating an aesthetic, safe, and pleasing environment, both at home and in institutional care settings.
Conclusions
Based on these data, we argue that palliative care in the last days of life is multifaceted, with physical, psychological, social, spiritual, and existential care interwoven in caregiving activities. Providing for fundamental human needs close to death appears complex and sophisticated; it is necessary to better distinguish nuances in such caregiving to acknowledge, respect, and further develop end-of-life care.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Background
End-of-life care is a major public health issue, yet despite the inevitability of death, issues related to death and dying are often taboo, and, if mentioned, are often referred to as “palliative care.” There are detailed definitions of palliative care, but in essence, the purpose of palliative care is to relieve any suffering in patients who are dying from progressive illness and to provide the best possible quality of life for both the patient and his or her family. In order to achieve this aim, both pharmacological and non-pharmacological management is necessary, with the latter taking a central role. Recently, a European Commission Seventh Framework Programme project, OPCARE9, aimed to improve the care of dying patients in Europe and beyond by optimizing research and clinical care for patients with cancer in the last days of their life, especially regarding well-being and comfort as death becomes imminent.
Why Was This Study Done?
There is now a growing literature base in non-pharmacological management at the end of an individual's life, particularly in relation to psychological, ethical, and communication issues as well as family-focused and culturally appropriate care. Despite this progress, there is currently little systematic knowledge in how health workers use such non-pharmacological approaches in their efforts to maximize well-being and comfort in patients experiencing their very last days of life. Therefore, in order to advance knowledge in this important clinical area, in this study the researchers reviewed and identified the variety of non-pharmacological caregiving activities performed by different professionals in the last days and hours of life for patients with cancer (and their families) in palliative care settings in the countries that participated in OPCARE9.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers modified an anthropological approach to collect relevant information in participating European countries—Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK—and Argentina and New Zealand. Staff in palliative care settings generated a list of non-pharmacological caregiving activities after discussion about which interventions and activities they carried out with patients and families during the last days of life. This preliminary list of statements was added to if staff performed a new activity when in contact with patients or the patients' family during the last days of life. The researchers then used computer-assisted qualitative data analysis to code the statements.
Using this methodology, the researchers analyzed 914 statements of caregiving activities from 16 different facilities in nine countries. The greatest number of activities described some type of caregiving for an individual carried out through contact with his or her body, such as attending to diverse bodily needs (such as cleaning and moisturizing) while maintaining comfort and dignity. Listening, talking with, and understanding (particularly between professionals and the family) was the next most frequent activity, followed by creating an esthetical, safe, and pleasing environment for the dying person and his or her family, and necessary “backstage” activities, such as organizing paperwork or care plans. Other common activities included observing and assessing, which were often described as being carried out simultaneously with other interventions; just being present (described as increasingly important close to death); performing rituals surrounding death and dying (usually directed to families); guiding and facilitating (encompassing support in a compassionate manner); and finally, giving oral and written information and advice (usually to families).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that providing for fundamental human needs close to death is complex and sophisticated but ultimately integrated into a common theme of caregiving. This study also identifies a number of areas needing further investigation, such as enhancing the sensory and general environment for the patient and family. Finally, this study suggests that developing a greater level of detail, such as improved terminology for end-of-life care, would enhance appreciation of the nuances and complexity present in non-pharmacological care provision during the last days of life, with potential benefit for clinical practice, teaching, and research.
Additional Information
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001173.
The OPCARE9 website details more information about this end-of-life care initiative
The World Health Organization website defines palliative care, and Wikipedia gives more information (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
NHS Choices also provides information about end-of-life care
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001173
PMCID: PMC3279347  PMID: 22347815

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