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Dome - Breaking Barriers to Discovery

Dome October 2014

Breaking Barriers to Discovery

Date: October 6, 2014

Supported by a new school of medicine award, faculty members from varied fields combine expertise to advance innovative research.

Olena Riabinina and Christopher Potter
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Researchers Christopher Potter and Olena Riabinina of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine will study sensory activity in mosquito brains with help from researchers at the Malaria Research Institute in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Thanks to the new Discovery Fund Synergy Awards, Potter and Riabinina are among 16 research teams to cross disciplines in hopes of unveiling novel insights about human disease and biology.
Photo by Mike Ciesielski

Peering through a microscope in a lab at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Olena Riabinina dissects a female mosquito with a pair of tiny forceps. Floating in a clear fluid that prevents cell death, the insect’s severed head—namely, its brain—may hold fresh promise in the fight against malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that kills nearly 1 million people a year.

In the past, Riabinina, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Sensory Biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, may never have set foot in the Malaria Research Institute lab. Based in neuroscientist Christopher Potter’s lab, Riabinina typically studies fruit flies, while Malaria Research Institute investigators in the school of public health focus on mosquitos.

The new Discovery Fund Synergy Awards, however, have allowed 16 research teams, including Potter’s, to cross boundaries that have traditionally separated research labs and disciplines across Johns Hopkins. 

Thanks to an initiative of the newly formed Johns Hopkins Medicine Research Council, each 12-month grant provides approximately $100,000 toward multidisciplinary research projects led by school of medicine faculty, paving the way for otherwise unlikely breakthroughs in human disease and biology. The annual awards chart an innovative new direction for research while also fulfilling a goal of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Strategic Plan’s commitment to biomedical discovery.

Investigators “can make a quantum jump if they work with somebody who has complementary skills,” says Antony Rosen, the school of medicine’s vice dean for research. But in an era of shrinking research dollars, the financial incentive to collaborate across disciplines has to be there, he says. “The only reason to reach out naturally is if it is in their interest to do so. Grants are an extraordinary incentive.”

In its experimental spirit, the awards encourage researchers to take chances they might not otherwise consider. “This really gives you an opportunity to dream and try something new,” Rosen says. “Some of the ideas are going to be amazing and right, others will be partly right and others will be plain wrong.”

In July, Potter’s proposal, submitted in concert with Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena of the Malaria Research Institute, was selected from among 174 applications as one of 16 to receive an inaugural award. The proposal—to view sensory activity in the mosquito brain—lays the groundwork for a new field of basic research that targets the mosquito’s response to smells, heat and other stimuli. “We’re not going to get rid of mosquitos,” Potter says. “But we can try to get them to stop biting us.”

Potter and Riabinina will visually monitor neuronal activity in mosquito brains with genetic tools Potter developed to study the fruit fly’s sense of smell, including a method for mapping olfactory neurons in fruit flies that have been genetically modified to glow when exposed to light. He anticipates that the same tools can be used to reveal the process by which the female mosquito integrates sense of smell and the ability to detect carbon dioxide and human body temperatures to find its next blood meal.

“There must be something going on inside the mosquito brain that puts all of this information together to say, ‘Human here,’” says Potter of the species’ females, which transmit the malaria parasite when feeding on humans and other vertebrates to get the necessary protein for laying their eggs. (Male mosquitos don’t bite, sticking instead to flower nectar.)

By mapping these particular neurons, “We will be able to see for the first time how different senses are detected by the mosquito brain,” Potter says. “For example, it is currently unknown how mosquitos detect temperature. We might be able to examine directly which neurons are activated when a warm source is brought close to the mosquito head.” Once the sensory process has been pinpointed, investigators can begin to figure out how to turn off the mosquito’s penchant for human blood, Potter says.

Jacobs-Lorena’s lab offers a rich resource of technical expertise for Potter’s research team. In its quest to halt the growth of the malaria parasite in the mosquito’s gut, his lab continues to refine the painstaking process of breeding genetically modified, or transgenic, mosquitos. For Potter’s imaging project, the lab will breed and tend to mosquitos that carry the same artificial gene that the neuroscientist devised to observe sensory activity in fruit flies. “Our work is very complementary,” Jacobs-Lorena says. “Chris is an expert in neurobiology, and we are experts in engineering mosquitos.”

He sees the collaboration with Potter’s lab as a model for all future scientific exploration. “These days, no lab dominates in all technology, and progress can only be made by cooperation by one lab helping the other.”

Once Potter acquires a critical mass of transgenic mosquitos from Jacobs-Lorena’s lab, the project will return to the Department of Neuroscience and the Center for Sensory Biology. There, his team will examine the insect’s response to stimuli under a two-photon microscope, an exceptionally powerful instrument that can peer deep into the brain.

Potter predicts that scientists around the world will adapt the tools developed through his collaboration with Jacobs-Lorena for their own research purposes. “We’re on the frontier now of making transgenic mosquitos,” he says. “It’s getting easier and easier. We’ll soon see a lot more imaging of the brain that couldn’t have been done before.”

—Stephanie Shapiro

Read more about the strategic priority for biomedical discovery online at



The school of medicine is pleased to announce the recipients of the Discovery Fund Synergy Awards. These awards are designed to spark new, synergistic interactions between investigators and potentiate scientific achievements of the highest quality and impact. The following projects were awarded in the range of $100,000 each.

Discovery Fund Synergy Awards
July 1, 2014

  • Addressing medication regimen complexity in skilled home health care: Cynthia Boyd and Bruce Leff, school of medicine; Jennifer Wolff and Hadi Kharrazi, Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Contributions of the Lin28/let-7 axis to neuropathic pain: Michael Caterina and Mollie Meffert, school of medicine
  • How does Pyrazinamide, a key drug for the treatment of TB, work?: William Bishai and Brendan Cormack, school of medicine
  • Defining the epidemiology and feasibility of the HIV-infected deceased donor organ pool: Christine Durand, Andrew Redd, Dorry Segev and Aaron Tobian, school of medicine
  • A new paradigm for the development of clinically applicable diagnostic tools via imaging-based computational fluid dynamic modeling—prediction of left ventricular thrombus: Richard George, school of medicine; Rajat Mittal and Jung-Hee Seo, Whiting School of Engineering
  • V2.0 miRNA biomarker discovery for improved diagnostics: Marc Halushka, Akhilesh Pandey, Kenneth Witwer and Andrea Zachary, school of medicine
  • Modulation of synapses by estrogen examined with subcellular resolution in the intact brain: Gregory Ball, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; David Linden, school of medicine
  • Design, synthesis and characterization of glucose-triptolide conjugates as novel tumor-targeted anticancer agents: Jun Liu and Martin Pomper, school of medicine
  • Imaging sensory activity in the Anopheles gambiae mosquito brain: Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, Bloomberg School of Public Health; Christopher Potter, school of medicine
  • Metagenomic studies of microorganisms in benign prostatic hyperplasia: Angelo DeMarzo, Karen Sfanos and Srinivasan Yegnasubramanian, school of medicine
  • Left ventricular end diastolic pressure-guided volume management in dialysis patients: Josef Coresh, Bloomberg School of Public Health; Tariq Shafi and Harry Silber, school of medicine
  • A multidisciplinary approach toward Lyme Borreliosis: John Aucott, Kathleen Kortte, Martin Pomper and Mark Soloski, school of medicine
  • Sleep-disordered breathing and beta-amyloid in Down syndrome: George Capone, Abhay Moghekar and Mark Wu, school of medicine
  • A super-resolution study of the novel role of DNA replication in establishing asymmetric epigenetic information: Xin Chen, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; Jie Xiao, school of medicine
  • The evaluation of right-sided heart pathology and right ventricular systolic pressure in preeclamptic patients with severe features: Cynthia Argani, Robert Ehsanipoor, Jamie Murphy and Sammy Zakaria, school of medicine
  • Super-resolution imaging of protein-protein interactions in mammalian cells: Jie Xiao and Jin Zhang, school of medicine