I did it! Officially a PhD Candidate!

The past few weeks months have been the most stressful times of my academic career. On November 16th, I successfully defended my original proposal in front of my preliminary committee and officially became a PhD candidate!!! I was looking forward to this day all through the summer and fall. I submitted my written proposal a month before my oral defense date and received feedback from my committee about the experiments proposed and the validity of my hypothesis. I am extremely grateful for each and every one of my preliminary committee members for taking the time to review my proposal and for providing their valuable feedback and criticism. This entire process helped me grow as a scientist and helped me think and write critically. I am also grateful for my family and friends who took the time to review my proposal, attended my practice talks, and provided useful comments.

As mentioned in my previous post, our graduate program requires us to pick a topic outside our main research area and develop an NIH-style original proposal related to the chosen topic. I chose to study the role of Myeloid-Derived Suppressor Cells (MDSCs) in Type 1 Diabetes (T1D). MDSCs are a heterogeneous population of immune cells that suppress or down-regulate the effector T cell responses in various immune microenvironments. In tumor microenvironments, T cells help kill the tumor cells and prevent the tumor cells from growing. However, MDSCs suppress these T cells and prevent them from killing the tumor cells thereby causing the cancer cells to proliferate. An autoimmune microenvrionment is opposite to the tumor microenvironment. In T1D, the T cells become autoreactive i.e., the T cells start killing the innocent insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. This leads to reduced insulin production and increased glucose in the bloodstream in the body. Insulin is an important hormone that helps in the transfer of glucose molecules into the cells that can then serve as the energy source for the cells and tissues. The destruction of the pancreatic beta cells therefore leads to an imbalance in the glucose homeostasis in the body. In such a microenvironment, we require MDSCs to suppress the T cells and prevent them from destroying the beta cells in the pancreas. The first question to ask here is, are MDSCs induced during T1D? The answer is yes. It was shown in 2014 that T1D patients have an increased MDSC induction in their peripheral blood. As to the best of my knowledge, this is the ONLY study that focusses on the native (body’s own) MDSCs during T1D. However, not much is known about the MDSCs and the different subpopulations of these cells that exists that are responsible for interacting with T cells in the pancreas. MDSC subsets and their mechanism of action are dependent on the specific tissue or the site of inflammation. Understanding the role of MDSCs in T1D and the specific MDSC subsets involved in T1D lead to several questions. I chose to investigate a few in my proposal:

  1. If MDSCs are induced in T1D patients, why are they unable to suppress the T cell responses in the pancreas? i.e., Are MDSCs defective during T1D?
  2. What are the specific subsets of MDSCs induced during T1D that are specific to the pancreatic microenvironment? MDSCs are incredibly heterogeneous and can exhibit several phenotypic and molecular states. These subsets are unique to the local tissue microenvironment.
  3. What is an MDSC-specific immune regulatory molecule and its corresponding pathway implicated in T1D that may contribute to disease pathogenesis? 

Without going into the details of each question posed, I proposed several experiments and techniques ranging from single-cell RNA sequencing analysis of the MDSC populations in the pancreas to generating MDSC-specific conditional gene knockout experiments in mice to answer these key questions. There were a few flaws in my experiments that were brought up during the presentation and I tried to address them to the best of my ability by proposing alternative approaches. Overall, my committee members were impressed with the breadth of background knowledge and experiments presented. The most important factor was to develop a hypothesis-driven proposal with a solid premise to back my hypothesis. The presentation didn’t feel one-sided and eventually developed into a curiosity-driven discussion.

Transitioning from a PhD student to a PhD candidate is a backbreaking process. Perhaps it is meant to be this way. Even though I felt numb for a few hours after the conclusion of my presentation, I could feel the academic apocalypse building up in a cloud over my head already. Here’s hoping for more successes and vital experiences in the future!

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Religion, science, and believing.

I don’t usually talk about my personal views on this blog. However, this topic is something that I have contemplated for a while now and think is fair to be open about. I am still learning and evaluating my outlook on approaching this subject. Below are some bits revolving around the themes of religion and personal belief systems that were hidden away in my drafts folder for a long time. I have decided to publish all of them together. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this topic in the future, but here’s a start.

***

Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow grad student about religion and his personal beliefs. Most academics shy away from this discussion in a professional (and sometimes even in a personal) setting. It is considered uncommon or rude to talk about it and people keep it to themselves. It is often acknowledged that as scientists, “we do science for science’s sake”, or that “a person’s religious beliefs has no place in his/her scientific pursuits.” This is something that has always boggled my mind. As a biologist and an atheist, I have confidence in my work/study because the underlying laws of biological systems are established and follow a set of proven scientific principles. For example, when we design an antibacterial drug against a particular strain of resistent bacteria, we know for a fact that the bacteria has mutated (or evolved) and therefore the old drug doesn’t work anymore. Similarly, we use mouse, worm, and other animal models for testing compounds in vivo because we have evidence to prove that humans are genetically related to other animals through a common evolutionary ancestor. Therefore, we can study the effects of the drugs in other animals before testing them to humans. The empirical evidence that exists as the basis of our research is inherently acknowledged to be the underlying force that drives scientific research. Now, how can someone who does similar work in a laboratory setting have a completely contradictory viewpoint in his/her private life? How can someone believe in a book (or many books) that preaches blatant falsehoods about our understanding of the universe and at the same time come to work every day and do science with a conscious mind? For me, science is deeply woven into our personal lives. No, I cannot pretend that science does not affect my personal views about the world. Similarly, my conscious will never let me pretend like my personal views have no affect on my scientific work.

***

One of the most common arguments that I have come across during such discussion is that people often say “I don’t believe in *everything* that this book says. I only believe in a few things that are important for my moral framework.” This is complete BS and hypocritical. One cannot disregard a particular theory written in a book (for example, “the earth is 6000 years old”, or, “when humans die we come back as another life form on earth”), and at the same time believe in another theory written in the same book. One can’t pick and choose what you want to accept and reject from a book, and then claim the book to guide one’s moral framework.

And then there is an argument that science is not perfect and that not everything published in all of the scientific literature is true. This is absolutely correct. This is why science is constantly changing – because our understanding of the world is constantly changing. This is why scientific literature constantly undergoes modifications and updates to accommodate our latest understanding of the world and the universe.

This is not the same with religious texts. These texts were written hundreds and thousands of years ago and are obsolete in this day and age. These texts were written to accommodate the worldview of an ancient time period. They are not relevant to the 21st century and we certainly do not have to submit to these texts in order to live within a moral framework of society. As of 2017, we have discovered around 8.7 million species on earth and can estimate a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. We have achieved things that were once considered unfathomable by humankind. Why do we have to be stuck in the ancient past and live by some 12th century law in order to be considered as “good humans”? Of course, religious texts provide interesting insight into various philosophical questions that one can ponder over. However, they do very little to the understanding and practice of science in this day and age.

It is also often argued that we need religion to understand morality and differentiate between good and evil. Religion does not equal morality. One does not have to be a good human just to please an invisible supreme being or to go to heaven. Altruism and kindness can exist on their own.

***

Talking about scientists with personal religious beliefs, I remember a wonderful conversation between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss many years ago. I can’t help but bring up a part of their conversation while thinking about this topic –

Krauss: I’ve had people write to me and say “I’m a medical doctor and I don’t believe in evolution.”

Dawkins: That’s a disgrace. I’m not supposed to say that, especially in this country (referring to the US) because one’s private beliefs are supposed to be irrelevant. But I would walk out of a doctor’s office and not consult him anymore if I heard that he said that. Because what that doctor is saying is that he’s a scientific ignoramus and a fool.

Krauss: In fact, in that regard, it is interesting to me at the same time how people can hold beliefs which are incompatible with other beliefs they have. And in some sense, everyone is a scientist and they just don’t realize they are, and yet in the time of crisis, that’s when.. (breaks). The example I gave is when George Bush was president, he said intelligent design must be taught alongside evolution so the kids will know what the debate is all about. And it wasn’t a stupid statement at priori, it was ignorant because he didn’t realize that there’s no debate. And that’s fine. I don’t mean ignorant in a pejorative sense, I just mean he wasn’t aware.

Dawkins: Ignorance is no crime.. you just don’t want to consult a doctor who’s ignorant.

Krauss: What amazed me is that in the same administration, when the avian flu was going to be a problem and mutating to humans, president Bush said “We’ve got to find how long it takes before the avian flu will mutate into humans.” And what amazed me is that no one in the administration – not a single person said “It’s been designed to kill us, forget about it.”

Dawkins: That’s a very good point. This kind of split-brain business which you’ve been referring to, the most glaring example I know, is more in your field (referring to Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics) than mine. I was told by a professor of Astronomy at Oxford, about a colleague of his who’s an astronomer and an astrophysicist, who writes learned papers – mathematical papers, published in astronomical journals, assuming that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. But he privately believes that the universe is only 6000 years old. How can a man like that hold down a job in a university as an astrophysicist? And yet, we are told “Well, it’s his private beliefs, you mustn’t interfere with this man’s private beliefs as long as he writes competent papers in astronomical journals”.

Krauss: Well, I mean, as long as he doesn’t teach his private beliefs.

Dawkins: Well, let’s hypothetically suppose that he teaches absolutely correctly – that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. How could you want to take a class from a man who teaches one thing and believes in something that is so many orders of magnitude different?

***

About believing in science.

My advisor once pointed out not to use the word ‘believe’ when someone said “I believe that..” during a lab meeting presentation. Back then, I didn’t understand what was wrong in saying we “believed” in something. I now understand. As scientists, we evaluate something on the basis of observation, experiment, and evidence. The evidence is dependent on the observations made and experiments performed. Therefore, something is either likely or unlikely to occur. It is either more probable or less probable. We don’t have to believe in evolution or the big bang theory. We accept the evidence that supports them. Believing in evolution or not doesn’t make it true. The evidence for evolution suggests that it is true. Belief is not a part of rational enquiry. Belief relies on faith and not on evidence.

Does arginase mediate immune suppression in the brain?

This week I want to talk about an interesting enzyme: Arginase-I (Arg1) and its metabolic pathway in an immune microenvironment. Arg1 is a cytosolic protein that is involved in the urea cycle. Specifically, it catalyzes the hydrolysis of L-arginine to L-ornithine and urea. It has been shown that the expression of Arg1 by macrophages has an important role in tumor growth. Macrophages that are recruited into the tumor microenvironment (tumor associated macrophages) express high levels of Arg1 resulting in the depletion of arginine – an essential nutrient required for T cell metabolism. Cytotoxic T cells, therefore, can no longer function and inhibit the tumor cells from proliferating. Arg1 is implicated in several inflammatory diseases as well as in autoimmunity. Arg1 plays a significant role in mediating immune suppression and blocking its metabolism is a novel strategy in preventing tumor growth and other inflammation-related conditions.

T cell suppression by MDSC
Myeloid-Derived Suppressor Cell suppresses cytotoxic T cell function through Arg1 metabolism. (IFNγ, IL-4, and IL-13 are cytokines that induced MDSC activation)

One hypothesis is that the immune suppressive cells in other immune microenvironments in the body must be similar to the Myeloid-Derived Suppressor Cells (MDSCs) that induce T cell suppression in the cancer microenvironment. The question is, do such immunosuppressive cells express increased levels of Arg1 and act through the Arg1 metabolic pathway? Since I am interested in the brain and neurodegeneration, this hypothesis can be extended to the brain immune microenvironment. Microglial cells in the brain also upregulate Arg1 and are neuroprotective in nature (in a healthy brain). These cells are the resident macrophages of the central nervous system and function by phagocytosing cell debris and toxic misfolded proteins (that eventually form aggregates and lead to neuronal death as seen in Alzheimer’s disease) out of the brain environment. The question now is – do the microglial cells exhibit immunosuppressive behavior by altering their Arg1 metabolism?

Kan et al., 2015, recently showed that CD11c positive microglial cells are immunosuppressive in the CVN-AD mouse model and that immune suppression is caused due to the deprivation of arginine (increased levels of extracellular Arg1 causing decreased levels of total brain arginine). What isn’t explicitly mentioned in this study is that arginine is also the substrate for nitric oxide synthase (NOS) that makes nitric oxide (NO) in an alternate L-arginine metabolic pathway. L-arginine is a substrate for both Arg1 and NOS. The Arg1 pathway polarizes the macrophages to M2 phenotype and the NOS pathway polarizes the macrophages to the M1 phenotype (Rath et al., 2014). The current model of microglial activation in the CNS is limited to these two polarized states, where, the M1 microglia are neurotoxic and the M2 microglia are neuroprotective. Arg1 is upregulated in microglia in the healthy brain and aids in phagocytosis of misfolded proteins and other cell debris. The classical microglial activation is through the M2 phenotype wherein the induced nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) is upregulated thereby accelerating inflammation in the brain (neuroinflammation is one of the hallmark characteristics of several neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Traumatic Brain Injury, etc).

M1 and M2 microglia
The current model of microglial activation is limited to the Arg1-mediated M1 and iNOS-mediated M2 polarized states.

So, if an immunosuppressive cell exists in the brain, is it possible that the immune suppression is regulated through the M2 activation and that M1 activation is absent? In other words, L-arginine is metabolized through the Arg1 pathway and not through the NOS pathway. Other questions to consider: MDSCs upregulate both Arg1 and iNOS – so how does that fit into the two-state polarization model? How does iNOS modulate MDSC activity? We know that increased NO expression by MDSCs increases T cell suppression in the tumor microenvironment. Currently, both Arg1 and iNOS inhibitors are being developed to block the immune suppressive activity of MDSCs in the cancer microenvironment. However, understanding immunosuppression in the brain is still a long way to go and the idea is not widely accepted within the neurobiology community (my understanding from the currently available literature or published studies). Investigating this mechanism in the brain will be useful in developing potential therapeutic strategies for treating neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration.

References:

  • Kan MJ, Lee JE, Wilson JG, et al. Arginine Deprivation and Immune Suppression in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2015;35(15):5969-5982. DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4668-14.2015.
  • Rath M, Müller I, et al. Metabolism via arginase or nitric oxide synthase: two competing arginine pathways in macrophages. Front. Immunol., 27 October 2014. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2014.00532

[Almost] one year milestone – my first advisory committee meeting

Advisory committee meetings are held once every year (or twice every year, if the student or the committee chooses to do so) to asses the progress of a grad student’s PhD thesis. The meeting involves a written report that is to be submitted to the committee a week prior to the meeting and an oral presentation on the D-Day. During the presentation, the validity of the research work is thoroughly discussed along with the future direction(s) of the project(s) being undertaken. The advisory committee meetings are extremely important for the successful advancement and completion of a thesis – it is where brutal yet honest feedback is conveyed. We as grad students are forced to think critically of our work and defend our hypotheses as well as our results.

My first advisory committee meeting was an intense two-hour long session on a rather dull Tuesday afternoon. As I explained the premise of my work and my goals for the next year, my committee members brought up important questions that I had not previously ever considered. All the members of my committee, including my advisor, were supportive and encouraging. I learned some valuable lessons from the entire experience and got some great feedback from everyone. Some interesting and important points highlighted in my feedback assessment were –

  • Think carefully about how to present data and set up an argument in my presentation.
  • Work on clearly identifying the premise that sets the stage for my hypotheses.
  • Be critical about my data.
  • Continue to read literature: more reading, and reading more critically.
  • Focus on developing more robust immunological assays to answer the questions in my aims.
  • Interact more with colleagues on campus and at other schools to learn and get insight into techniques and relevant assays (wrt understanding what works and what doesn’t).
  • Explaining the experiments in detail before delving into my results (every assay is unique and has a question to be answered).
  • Think about how I want to present the previous studies done in the field that are relevant to my questions.
  • My hypotheses should be provided with a context (what is the data in support or against my hypotheses?)

These were just some of the significant parts of the feedback that I received. Now it’s time to put these into action and definitely work on continuing to build on my project more confidently. More later.

It’s brain awareness week!

Hello all!  I wanted to take a few minutes to write something for the brain awareness week. This is important to me because my research focusses on understanding the role of the immune system in the brain. For a very long time, the brain was thought to be an “immune privileged” organ i.e., it was thought that the brain is protected from all the peripheral insults and that it is “divorced” from the rest of the body. In 2015, it was shown that there exists certain lymphatic vessels that connect the CNS to the rest of the body (1). The lymphatic system carries immune cells through a network of vessels and tissues; it connects the bloodstream and tissues in order to remove dead cells and other debris. The discovery of the new “glymphatic system” has opened new avenues to study the connection between the brain and the rest of the body. This is especially helpful in understanding the role of the peripheral immune system on the CNS during infections, injury, and other disease insults.

glymphatic system
Old lymphatic system (left) and newly discovered lymphatic system in the CNS (right). Source: University of Virginia Health System

My work focusses on a specific cell type in the brain known as microglia which are are the resident macrophages of the CNS (they eat up and clear out the bad stuff in the brain like dead cells and mis-folded proteins). Microglia are the only known immune cells of the brain. Compared to all that’s known about the cells of our body’s immune system (B cells, T cells, NK cells, neutrophils, basophils, Treg cells, MDSCs, TH1, TH2, and many many more with several subtypes of each cell), it is safe to say that cells of the CNS are poorly understood. My efforts are focussed towards understanding the role of microglial cells in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Diseases (AD) , Parkinson’s Disease (PD), Multiple Sclerosis (MS), etcetera. These diseases are characterized by mis-folded proteins that aggregate in the different regions of the brain tissues causing the neurons to degenerate and eventually die. The microglial cells in these disorders play a major role in disease progression by regulating many pathways involved in cell-cell communication, cell survival, and cell death. This is a relatively new and an exciting area of study with many missing links and questions to be answered. I will try my best to keep this space alive with updates and stories! In the meantime, here’s a fun read on Leonardo da Vinci’s contributions to neuroscience: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223600021214

And here’s a 1504-1506 drawing of the human brain by da Vinci:

Leonardo da Vinci's contributions to neuroscience
In the upper figure, the three ventricles are labeled imprensiva (anterior ventricle, corresponding to the paired lateral ventricles), senso comune (third ventricle), and memoria (posterior or fourth ventricle). Below the ventricles, seven pairs of cranial nerves are shown. The lower figure shows a human head in an exploded view, with the skull raised over the brain and from the head. Source: 

Sources:

  1. Louveau A, et al. Structural and functional features of central nervous system lymphatic vessels. Nature. 2015;523(7560):337–341. doi: 10.1038/nature14432.

Thoughts on lab rotations

The thing with first-year rotations in a Ph.D. program is that anxiety starts kicking in somewhere along the way when you consciously identify the lab that you want to join and want to get started right away. Having realized that this is going to be a long journey and rushing into things may not help, I am now gaining patience and perspective, and hope to make the most of the remaining time of my first year.

Rotations are a great way to learn about a lab and get involved in the nitty-gritty of research. I was warned at the beginning by a few seniors that I would either love a lab or reject it within the first few weeks of the rotation. Mind you – this has nothing to do with the science pursued in the lab (one wouldn’t decide to rotate in a lab if they didn’t find the research interesting in the first place). This is more about getting comfortable with the way a lab functions and deciding if the environment is a good fit for you. An eight-week lab rotation is really like an eight-week long interview with a potential PI and the lab! It is essential to identify the kind of relationship you foresee having with your advisor for the next couple of years (and beyond). This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of a rotation for me, next to the research work. A good mentor-mentee relationship can go a long way and can be extremely beneficial to one’s academic/professional career. I prefer having an open channel of communication with my mentor and learn as much as possible from him/her.

Not all graduate programs require laboratory rotations. Many departments or programs accept or reject students simply based on their application and/or an interview. In the UK for example, students are recruited to work on specific projects and grants as a part of their Ph.D. for the time period of around 3 years. This may not benefit the candidates who wish to propose their own ideas and develop their own thesis based on their individual research interests. In the US, for most graduate programs in the life sciences (mainly biology and chemistry), the average time for graduation is around 5-6 years. I believe that the freedom and independence of this system trump the short graduation time of the other systems. Although I am certain that both sides have their set of merits and demerits, at the end of the day, the journey is unique to each one of us and what we make of the experience matters the most.

Chasing cancer cells

Glioblastoma_-_MR_sagittal_with_contrast
Glioblastoma (astrocytoma) WHO grade IV – MRI sagittal view, post contrast. 15-year-old boy. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is one of the most invasive forms of malignant brain tumors. By the time the tumor is removed from a region in the brain, the cancer cells rapidly metastasize and spread throughout the brain. Common treatment procedures such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy are not completely effective due to the aggressive nature of the tumor invasion. Therefore, many treatments also target the migratory properties of the tumor cells. Several proteins (focal adhesion kinase, paxillin, vinculin) are over-expressed in the extracellular matrix of the tumor microenvironment and help the GBM cells proliferate through the brain tissues. A treatment approach is to target these proteins and hopefully prevent -or at least reduce- the tumor cell invasion.

Studying this type of a cancer model is tricky. Most of the work that has been done in the traditional 2-dimensional cell culture environment cannot be translated into the 3-dimensional environment of the brain. We need a system that mimics the brain to realistically model the tumor cell growth and migration. As a part of my third rotation, I have been investigating the migration characteristics of GBM cells in tissue-engineered, 3-dimensional cell culture matrices that mimic the brain environment. The cells are grown in a collagen matrix containing components of the brain extracellular matrix (hyaluronan, astrocytes, etcetera) and the tumor cell migration is studied by tracking the focal adhesion proteins. However, this is not easy. Cancer cells have shown to modify their migratory patterns based on the physical conditions of the tumor microenvironment (Herrera-Perrez et al. 2015 Tissue Engineering Part A). This makes it more difficult to target the adhesion receptors to ultimately inhibit tumor invasion. It is also challenging to prevent the disruption of the cross-talk between the targeted receptor protein and other important signaling molecules during evaluation of the treatment procedures. Overall, new innovative strategies are required that focus on the diversity and adaptability of tumor cell invasion and migration.