A computer-generated image of neurons inside a microscopic worm – digitally drawn by Albert William, research associate, Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI – is on the cover of the most recent issue of Molecular Interventions. The journal, published by The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), is among the most respected in the field of medical research.
The image shows a drawing of dopamine neurons in the small nematode Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). Dopamine neurons are the types of cells that die in Parkinson’s disease (PD), and the worm contains similar types of cells found in the human brain that allow scientist to utilize this animal for Parkinson’s disease research.
Editors selected William’s image to visually represent a journal article penned by Dr. Richard Nass, at Indiana University School of Medicine, and Drs. Kalpana Merchant and Timothy Ryan at Eli Lilly and Company, entitled: Caenorhabditis elegans in Parkinson’s Disease Drug Discovery: Addressing an Unmet Medical Need (December 2008 Volume 8, Issue 6).
Dr. Nass, who developed the first C. elegans PD model, generated genetically modified worms that produce a fluorescing protein inside these neurons that allow these cells to be visible in a living animal under a fluorescent dissecting scope. Dr. Nass’ lab utilizes these worms to identify the molecular mechanisms involved in PD-associated cell death, as well as novel therapeutic targets and drugs that may inhibit the neurodegeneration.
“The toxins we use to model Parkinson’s disease work very similarly in the worm as in humans,” explained Nass. “Because the worm is transparent, and because it shares about the same number and types of genes as in humans (approximately 20,000), we should be able to more quickly identify compounds that protect dopamine neurons from dying in the worm, and if they protect in the worm, they or a similar type of compounds may inhibit the cells from dying in the human’s brain.”
How William’s image landed on the ASPET journal cover is the story of a burgeoning collaboration between Informatics and the IU School of Medicine. William was tapped by Nass to create two digital animations of the C. elegans worm – one targeted at physicians and researchers, a second, less complex version aimed at educating the general public, particularly children via Web sites.
“This is a great collaboration between art and science,” said William. “Using digital animations that are scientifically accurate can be a great learning tool, and Dr. Nass’ vision is giving us the opportunity to demonstrate that effectiveness.”
The millimeter-long C. elegans worms are found worldwide living in soil, where they eat vegetable plant mass and bacteria. Three recent Nobel prizes have been awarded in connection with research using C. elegans worms. Still, the organism remains largely undervalued within the medical research community and the public at-large, and Nass predicts the digital visualizations will help introduce this important research technique to a wider audience.
“This has great potential to pay off at several levels,” said Nass. “Albert’s biology and media arts background make him uniquely qualified for this purpose. We also hope to generate additional funding for other, similar types of projects.”
William used Autodesk Maya and Adobe Photoshop software to develop the image and accompanying animation.
Additional information about Albert William’s medical animations is available here. Information about Richard Nass’ C. elegans research is available here.