How cellular proteins control cancer spread

New finding may help focus the search for anti-cancer drugs

A new insight into cell signals that control cancer growth and migration could help in the search for effective anti-cancer drugs. A team of researchers has revealed key biochemical processes that advance our understanding of colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer among Canadians.

Using the CMCF beamline at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan, scientists from McGill University and Osaka University in Japan were able to unlock the behavior of an enzyme involved in the spread of cancer cells. The team found that there is a delicate interaction between the enzyme, PRL3, and another protein that moves magnesium in and out of cells. This interaction is crucial to colorectal cancer growth.

A new insight into cell signals that control cancer growth and migration could help in the search for effective anti-cancer drugs. A team of researchers has revealed key biochemical processes that advance our understanding of colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer among Canadians.

Using the CMCF beamline at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan, scientists from McGill University and Osaka University in Japan were able to unlock the behavior of an enzyme involved in the spread of cancer cells. The team found that there is a delicate interaction between the enzyme, PRL3, and another protein that moves magnesium in and out of cells. This interaction is crucial to colorectal cancer growth.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Members of the Gehring research laboratory discussing the results of a protein purification.

Conserving Rita Letendre’s famous artworks

Research undertaken at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan was key to understanding how to conserve experimental oil paintings by Rita Letendre, one of Canada’s most respected living abstract artists.

The work done at the CLS was part of a collaborative research project between the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) that came out of a recent retrospective Rita Letendre: Fire & Light at the AGO. During close examination, Meaghan Monaghan, paintings conservator from the Michael and Sonja Koerner Centre for Conservation, observed that several of Letendre’s oil paintings from the fifties and sixties had suffered significant degradation, most prominently, uneven gloss and patchiness, snowy crystalline structures coating the surface known as efflorescence, and cracking and lifting of the paint in several areas.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Rita Letendre. Victoire [Victory], 1961. Oil on canvas, Overall: 202.6 × 268 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Jessie and Percy Waxer, 1974, donated by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1988. © Rita Letendre L74.8.

Converting emissions into valuable fuel

Researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to improve their technique to convert CO2 into ethanol, a valuable chemical that can be used in a variety of industrial applications. Ethanol is also an attractive alternative fuel.

Ethanol has been proven to reduce emissions when compared to gasoline, but the renewable fuel is most often made of corn and wheat so there is a strong interest in non-food production methods. By capturing and converting carbon emissions to ethanol, the fuel’s environmental benefits could be multiplied.

The research team led by Prof. Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto focused on producing chemicals through CO2 conversion—such as ethanol, ethylene and methane—helping to transform harmful greenhouse gases into useful products. The group aims to produce the target chemicals, in this case ethanol, with high outputs and minimal energy inputs.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Xue Wang installing a membrane electrode assembly MEA cell for testing the performance of the N-CCu catalyst in CO2RR.

Promising new drug carrier could improve bone repair and cancer treatments

Researchers from Western University and the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics, Chinese Academy of Sciences used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to explore a promising drug carrier that could be used to deliver cancer treatments and therapeutics for severe injuries.

Their work advances drug carrier technology to make the carrier more compatible with our bodies. This allows the drug carrier to deliver the desired treatment precisely to a tumor, or to allow a slower release of the medicine. In a new paper published in The Royal Society of Chemistry, the team investigated using calcium phosphate as a potential drug carrier. Their approach uses phosphate from the biomolecule that stores and transports energy in our cells, which allows the carrier to be more compatible with the human body. Using this drug delivery system solves the limitations of other carriers, including biocompatibility and toxicity. Their carrier is highly compatible with our biological system, allowing for a better response while also being non-toxic.

“Calcium phosphate is an important biomaterial in bones and teeth. If you can use this material as a drug carrier then you don’t need to worry about what happens after it is done with delivery,” said Tsun-Kong (TK) Sham, Professor of Chemistry at Western University.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: TK Sham, a Professor of Chemistry at Western University, using beamlines at the CLS.

Helping to neutralise greenhouse gases

Researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to create an affordable and efficient electrocatalyst that can transform CO2 into valuable chemicals. The result could help businesses as well as the environment.

Electrocatalysts help to collect CO2 pollution and efficiently convert it into more valuable carbon monoxide gas, which is an important product used in industrial applications. Carbon monoxide gas could also help the environment by allowing renewable fuels and chemicals to be manufactured more readily.

The end goal would be to try to neutralize the greenhouse gases that worsen climate change.

Precious metals are often used in electrocatalysts, but a team of scientists from Canada and China set out to find a less expensive alternative that would not compromise performance. In a new paper, the stability and energy efficiency of the team’s novel electrocatalyst offered promising results.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image : Schematic of an electrochemistry CO2-to-CO reduction reaction.

Helping our immune systems bypass antibiotic resistance

Over 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant diseases and this figure could increase to 10 million per year by 2050, according to a 2019 report.

As the search continues for new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections, a group of researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to address the problem from a different direction, by trying to weaken the ability of bacteria to develop resistance in the first place.

“The goal is to knock the bacterial cells down in terms of their resistance,” said Dr. Anthony Clarke, Professor and Dean of Science at Wilfrid Laurier University and adjunct professor at the University of Guelph. “We haven’t been successful over the last 30 years in finding new classes of antibiotics so, in the short term, we’re trying to weaken the cells so our own immune system can take over to fight infection.”

The target for his team’s work is peptidoglycan, which gives bacterial cell walls their rigidity. “Think of it as building a brick wall around the bacteria’s cells,” said Clarke. Since peptidoglycan can be broken down by lysozyme, an enzyme that exists in human immune systems, bacteria have developed strategies that block these enzymes by modifying their peptidoglycan, thereby “cementing the bricks in place,” and resisting our defences.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Dr. Clarke inspecting flasks of bacterial cultures in a student laboratory.

A highly promising sustainable battery for electric vehicles

McGill University researchers show that affordable materials could prove key for improving the batteries used in electric vehicles. The breakthrough was analyzed and confirmed with the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan. The research was funded by NSERC and supported by Hydro-Quebec.

As we move to greener technologies, the need for affordable, safe and powerful batteries is increasing constantly.

Battery-powered electric vehicles, for example, have much higher safety standards than our phones, and to travel the long distances required in Canada, lighter weight, high-energy capacity batteries make a world of difference.

Current rechargeable batteries tend to use expensive non-abundant metals, like cobalt, that carry an environmental and human rights toll under the poor labour conditions in mines in Africa. All are barriers to wider adoption.

The battery’s cathode, or positive electrode, is one of the best candidates for Li-ion battery improvement. “Cathodes represent 40 per cent of the cost of the batteries that we are using in our phones right now. They are absolutely crucial to improve battery performance and reduce dependency on cobalt,” says Rasool.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image : Lithium ion silicate nanocrystals coated in a conducting polymer known as PEDOT enhance battery performance even after 50 cycles, paving the way for high energy density cathodes.

Protecting chickens from heart disease

The health and welfare of broiler chickens may improve thanks to University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher Andrew Olkowski and colleagues.

More chickens are raised worldwide than any other livestock animal, so improving their health outcomes would have a big impact.

The broiler chickens that are raised for meat were genetically selected to grow extremely fast, but they often suffer from heart diseases. Heart pump failure is a major health and welfare issue for the broiler chicken industry worldwide. Globally, economic losses associated with heart failure problems in broiler chickens amount to more than $1 billion annually.  

To understand why fast-growing broiler chickens suffer from heart problems, Olkowski and collaborators compared them with their slower-growing broiler counterparts, which have a much lower risk of heart failure, and with Leghorn chickens, which are resistant to heart failure.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: University of Saskatchewan researcher Andrew Olkowski. 

Discovery could lead to stronger dental fillings…and less time at the dentist

An international team of researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to discover how to create stronger dental fillings. This is great news for the estimated 96 per cent of Canadians who will have to contend with at least one cavity during their adult lives.

For the first time, an international group of researchers led by Professor Owen Addison from King’s College London has been able to close a gap in the knowledge of photo-activated resin-based composites, commonly used in medical and dental applications.

In a recent paper published in Nature Communications, the team from Alberta, the United Kingdom, Norway and the United States described how they saw inside the resin matrix and gained insight into how filler particles interact with it during setting and influence the dental filling materials.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image : Prof. Owen Addison (right) with co-author Dr. Dan Romanyk, from the University of Alberta, at the MidIR beamline at the CLS, which they used for their experiment.

Human waste could help combat global food insecurity

Researchers from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan have proven it is possible to create nitrogen-rich fertilizer by combining the solid and liquid components of human waste. The discovery, published recently in the journal Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, has the potential to increase agriculture yields in developing countries and reduce contamination of groundwater caused by nitrogen runoff. 

Special separating toilets that were developed through the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge have helped solve long-standing sanitation problems in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. However, the methods used to dispose of the two outputs failed to capture a key nutrient that local fields were starving for: nitrogen.

Cornell researchers Leilah Krounbi, a former PhD student, now at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and Johannes Lehmann, senior author and professor of soil and crop sciences, wondered whether it might be possible to close the waste stream loop by recycling nitrogen from the urine, which was otherwise being lost to runoff.  While other researchers have engineered adsorbers using high-tech ingredients such as carbon nanotubes or activated carbons, Lehmann and his team wanted to know if they could do so with decidedly low-tech materials like human feces. Adsorbers are materials whose surfaces can capture and hold gas or liquids.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: The researchers used the SGM beamline at the CLS to see how the chemistry in the nitrogen changed as it adsorbed ammonia and how well their material could make nitrogen available to plants if it was used as a fertilizer.  

Developing microbeam radiation therapy for inoperable cancer

An innovative radiation treatment that could one day be a valuable addition to conventional radiation therapy for inoperable brain and spinal tumors is a step closer, thanks to new research led by University of Saskatchewan (USask) researchers at the Canadian Light Source (CLS).

Microbeam radiation therapy (MRT) uses very high dose, synchrotron-generated X-ray beams—narrower than a human hair—to blast tumours with radiation while sparing healthy tissue. The idea is that MRT would deliver an additional dose of radiation to a tumor after maximum conventional radiation therapy has been tried, thereby providing patients with another treatment that could extend their lives. 

But the longstanding questions have been: What is the optimal X-ray energy range of the MRT radiation dose that will both penetrate the thickness of the human body and still spare the healthy cells? How can the extremely high radiation doses be delivered and measured with the accuracy necessary for human treatment?

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image : Farley Chicilo at the Canadian Light Source.

Preventing hospital-acquired pneumonia

Researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to identify a previously unrecognized family of enzymes that put us at risk for deadly diseases.

Klebsiella pneumoniae is responsible for a variety of hospital-acquired infections such as pneumonia and sepsis. The bacterium has become increasingly resistant to antibiotics, making it a focus of interest for health care professionals and researchers.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Chris Whitfield has been working on polysaccharides like LPS throughout his career.

Visualising the bionanomachines that create potent antibiotics

… and other modern drugs.

Researchers from McGill University and Yale University used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to make a discovery that could help design future therapeutic drugs. The research team studied how mega-enzymes, known as nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPSs), create potent antibiotics, immunosuppressants and other modern drugs.

In a paper featured on the cover of the May 2020 issue of Nature Chemical Biology, the team reports how they were able to visualize an NRPSs’ mechanical system using the CMCF beamline at the CLS.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Associate Professor Schmeing in the lab

Mapping metals in feathers

Synchrotron technique promising for tracing metals in nature

University of Saskatchewan (USask) and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)  researchers have mapped metals in bird feathers, a technique that could help make environmental monitoring less destructive.

In a recent paper published in X-ray Spectrometry, researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron at USask to examine the level and distribution of zinc in feathers from birds that were fed high-zinc diets.

“The same technique could be applied to toxic metals like mercury, even at low concentrations,” says Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist Fardausi Akhter. “You could just take a feather from the bird and be able to show if it was exposed to toxic metals present in the environment.”

Akhter, a toxicologist interested in applying synchrotron techniques to environmental questions, first started working on this project with Graham Fairhurst, a USask avian ecophysiologist, when they were both working as postdocs supervised by Catherine Soos. Soos is a wildlife health specialist and research scientist at ECCC, and adjunct professor at USask (Department of Veterinary Pathology, Western College of Veterinary Medicine), whose research focuses on investigating impacts of large-scale environmental changes on wildlife health. Her team often uses feathers as tools to evaluate exposure to toxic metals, and impacts of exposure on health of wild birds.  

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Part of the research team at CLS (left to right): Fardausi (Shathi) Akhter, Jamille McLeod (ECCC), Bruce Pauli (ECCC), Peter Blanchard (CLS), Landon McPhee (ECCC), and Catherine Soos (ECCC)

Helping to protect California farms from drought

Researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to look at where carbon ends up in soil and are contributing to an effort to mitigate the effects of drought for California farmers.

Samantha Ying and Michael Schaefer, both from the Department of Environmental Sciences at University of California (UC) Riverside, are part of a team set on untangling the mystery of a practice upon which farmers have relied for centuries to reduce water use—cover crops. Cover crops are an ancient practice whereby a crop is planted for the sole purpose of fertilizing the soil, not for consumption. It is known that increased organic carbon in soil resulting from the use of cover crops “turns the soil into a sponge that holds water,” explained Ying. “But how does this work? We really don’t know what’s happening to the carbon and soil.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Researcher Samantha Ying loading samples at our SGM beamline.

Helping to grow more food in Africa

University of Saskatchewan scientists help farmers in West Africa improve crops.

Derek Peak and Abimfoluwa Olaleye are using Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan (Usask) to help farmers in Nigeria and the Republic of Benin to grow vegetables less expensively and more sustainably. The USask researchers and their team recently published a paper in Soil Systems that explores the effects of an innovative farming practice, fertilizer microdosing, on two vegetable systems in both countries.

“The overall idea was to scale up good, innovative ideas to solve food security problems in the regions,” says Peak. “We combine agricultural studies out in the field with socio-economic studies and development work.” Olaleye’s interest in the project is both scientific and personal. “Anything agriculture always gets my interest, it’s something I’m passionate about. And helping people is a big bonus. My dad was a farmer back in Nigeria, so I picked up on that,” he says.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Abimfoluwa Olaleye (right) and Taylor Procyshen, a graduate student who helped with the project, working in the laboratory together.