Research Roundup: Basic research gets financial boost from major grants

Basic biomedical research efforts in San Diego received a significant financial boost and acknowledgement this week in the form of major grants to The Scripps Research Institute and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research.

The Burnham award of $97.9 million over six years allows the institute to become one of four small-molecule screening and discovery centers in the nation funded by the National Institute of Health. Small molecules have proven to be extremely important to understanding the biological functions at the molecular, cellular, and animal-test level. Researchers must systematically screen tens or hundreds of thousands of small molecules to find a successful match between a chemical and its target.

Looking ahead

An international team led by a researcher at the Shiley Eye Center/UCSD School of Medicine has discovered the first gene related to age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in adults over the age of 60.

The study describes a link between “dry” AMD (the most common form of AMD) and a molecule that alerts the immune system to the presence of viral infections (suspected of causing AMD). A genetic variant associated with low activity of this molecule receptor appears to offer protection against dry AMD, perhaps by suppressing cell death in the retina. The study, published in the online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Cell death

Programmed cell death (PCD) is an important mechanism in body growth and maintenance that allows superfluous, infected, or damaged cells to be removed by a regulated intracellular process. What was known about cell death has just been turned on its head by researchers at The Scripps Research Institute who report nearly tripled the number of proteins known to be involved in this critical process. The findings, published in the journal Cell, have shot down a long-held idea about the life cycle of proteins, while at the same time opening the door for potential new drug discoveries.

On air quality

Chemists at UC San Diego have measured for the first time the impact that smoke from ships cruising at sea and generating electricity in port can have on the air quality of coastal cities. Smoke pollution from ships burning high-sulfur fuel can be substantial, on some days accounting for nearly one-half of the fine, sulfur-rich particulate matter in the air known to be hazardous to human health.

The findings have particular significance for the state of California, which will require, beginning July 2009, that all tankers, cargo, and cruise ships sailing into a California port switch to more expensive, cleaner-burning fuels when they come within 24 miles of the coast. The UCSD study appears in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.