Biology

Virtual Biology Seminar Wrap-up: Worms for Fighting Rare Disease

Dr. Andy Golden from the National institute of Health shared his research on how small worms are used to understand and treat rare diseases in the human population.

The use of online platforms as a primary facet of education has led to an unexpected benefit of this new and, oddly enough, more flexible COVID era. Formerly, seminar presentations were mostly meant for in-person interactions, requiring either the audience or the presenter to travel, but now the great shift to virtual learning has bridged that great geographic obstacle. Researchers, like Dr. Andy Golden from the National Institute of Health (NIH), can still reach students and colleagues directly, and perhaps more conveniently, through the use of a virtual platform, a feat decidedly underutilized in the past. Since Dr. Golden and our own Dr. Lyczak both work with the same type of model organism, C. elegans, they would often see each other at these conferences. So, when Annabel Baldy, a family friend of Dr. Golden’s and sophomore here at Ursinus, suggested he contact Dr. Lyczak to set up a seminar, the connection was easily made. Lucky for us, “The worm community is incredibly friendly and helpful,” says Dr. Lyczak.

In his seminar, Dr. Golden spoke of his current research modeling rare human diseases in C. elegans. He works with the Undiagnosed Disease Program (UDP) at the NIH, where those suffering from long-standing illnesses undergo an intense screening process, meeting with experts from many different areas of expertise in order to reach a potential diagnosis. C. elegans are an essential part because researchers are able to mimic patient mutations in the worm genome using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing.

But how can a faceless worm be an adequate model for a disorder that affects the face? Dr. Golden says that orthologous genes are able to code for phenologs between these worms and humans. Meaning, a gene conserved in the genome of both organisms may cause, for example, craniofacial diseases in humans, but constipation and egg laying defectiveness in worms. Interestingly, treating the C. elegans for these phenotypes can lead to a treatment for the corresponding phenotype in humans as well. This is because, at the cellular level, the gene product is the same, the organisms just use it for different processes.

Research and funding regarding the identification and treatment of rare diseases is steadily growing, as so-called “rare disease” altogether affect approximately 10% of the US population. If this type of work interests you, internships for undergraduate students as well as post-baccalaureates are available at the NIH:

 

For Post-baccalaureate research: https://www.training.nih.gov/programs/postbac_irta

For Undergraduate research: https://www.training.nih.gov/programs/sip

 

In order to increase your chances of receiving an internship, Dr. Golden suggests doing your research about the research! Expressing a personal interest in a particular lab is a great way to stand out amongst a sea of applicants.

 

To watch the seminar and learn more about Dr. Golden’s research, click here.