Scintillon Associate Professor Brian Lawson

Associate Professor Brian Lawson, Ph.D.

Antiretroviral therapy currently on the market is highly effective in the treatment of HIV, lowering viral loads and inhibiting disease progression; the problem is that these drugs do not affect dormant HIV hidden in host immune cells and, over time, are associated with significant toxicity. Therefore, how do we completely eliminate HIV, active and latent, from an infected person?

One exciting approach to achieve that goal is the use of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy, which gained broad recognition as a new treatment modality for certain blood cancers. CAR T cells are derived from a patient’s own cells, and are engineered to identify and kill specific target cells. These T cells are especially suited to finding and killing cells that express very low levels of target proteins. Moreover, their self-sustaining nature and ability to traffic and surveil virtually the entire host are highly beneficial aspects for controlling a chronic systemic pathogen such as HIV. Indeed, in recent unrelated cancer trials, functional CAR T cells were documented in many purported HIV sanctuary sites, including the central nervous system, the digestive tract, genital tracts, secondary lymphoid tissues, etc. CAR T cells can safely stay in humans for a surprising length of time (>16 years), and thus could be excellent and safe platforms to act as long-term anti-viral sentinels.

Read more
1 reaction Share

SURE Program 2022

"It's a wrap!" - Scintillon's summer high school student research program excites young minds and comes to an end for 2022.

Every year, Scintillon’s research faculty perform exciting biomedical research pushing for a cure of many major disease conditions, including neuroscience, immunology, virology, and aging-associated diseases. Towards these ends, the faculty has to secure new grants and new philanthropy to resource these efforts. In addition to these difficult challenges, every summer the faculty also joins together and donates a significant amount of their time and effort to teach and host a growing number of very highly motivated local San Diego high school students in Scintillon’s research laboratories for an intensive 4-week training program. The small number of high school students accepted into the highly-competitive program are some of the highest performing students in the entire county, and past alumni of the program have, not surprisingly, gone on to attend elite universities, including Dartmouth, Johns-Hopkins, Stanford, and Yale. This year’s SUmmer REsearch (SURE) program had its highest number of applicants to date—twice as many as last year. While that is great news for the program, we at Scintillon had to use every possible resource at our young Institute to accept and serve this class of 2022, the largest class in our 5-year program’s history. It wasn’t easy!

Read more
1 reaction Share

This protein can help us think. Or it can shred our cells.

San Diego – A new study reveals that a protein long known to play a role in communication between cells in the brain is also capable of obliterating cells if left unchecked because of its penchant for twisting and puncturing the cell membranes.

The protein — known as complexin — if left alone is so toxic it can shred cells. Yet, in the brain, a suite of controls makes sure the protein plays nice and helps neurons communicate by aiding in the release of neurotransmitters.

The findings are published Feb. 7 in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. "We argue that’s the most interesting membrane fusion event in our bodies, because it’s the one that underlies this conversation. It controls remembering and forgetting. It is everything," says Ed Chapman, professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "Yet to this day, nobody knows just how the proteins involved in this process really work."

In trying to better understand these proteins Chapman's lab and their collaborators discovered the surprising power of complexin. They found that it dramatically bends and reorders membranes. Live videos show the protein pinching off small bubbles of membrane while simultaneously poking holes in them.  Ultrahigh-resolution 3D images produced by the laboratories of Dorit Hanein and Niels Volkmann at the Scintillon Institute in San Diego also revealed, directly through Cryo-EM imaging, that complexin induces the formation of twisting curlicues of broken-apart membranes.

Read more
1 reaction Share

International Conference on Three-dimensional Cryo-EM Image Analysis

The 4th International Conference on Three-dimensional Cryo-EM Image Analysis will be held March 9-12, 2022, at Granlibakken Conference Center, Lake Tahoe, California. The 2022 conference builds on our successful previous events on the same theme in 2014, 2016 and 2018. This year the conference is organized by Scintillon Professors Dorit Hanein and Niels Volkmann.

The goal of this series of meetings is for technical discussions of state-of-the-art image analysis approaches and algorithm developments to tackle challenging biological problems and to identify current limitations in the field. We have recruited an outstanding panel of speakers with topics at the 2022 meeting to include: tomography and high resolution subtomogram averaging, conformational variability, deep learning, model-based refinement, and automation.  In addition, there will be a dedicated session for selected poster talks.  All sessions will focus on interactive discussions with plenty of time for questions. The preliminary program and registration details can be found at

Dorit Hanein, CHAIR & Steven Ludtke, Co-CHAIR
ORGANIZING COMMITTEE: Masahide Kikkawa,  Jose Maria Carazo, Scott Stagg, Niels Volkmann, Ed Egelman

1 reaction Share

Recent advances in structural biology research by Scintillon researchers

Left: high-resolution density;  Top: atomic model of interface; Right: conserved footprint on actin; Center phylogenetic tree of myosin.

Rapid tool for cell nanoarchitecture integrity assessment

Detailed three-dimensional contextual information of molecular processes is often necessary to understand these processes well enough to develop efficient drug-targeting and disease intervention strategies in all medical fields. We developed a tool that significantly accelerates studies providing such information (Gaietta et al., 2021 Journal of Structural Biology).

Structural basis of aE-catenin–F-actin catch bond behavior

A better understanding of how cell-cell contacts are maintained or broken is essential for unraveling the detailed mechanism of cancer progression. For example, cells need to detach to become metastatic and need to maintain contacts within a tumor. Our study significantly deepened our understanding of how cell-cell contacts work and thus potentially opens new opportunities for medical intervention in cancer progression (Xu et al., 2020 eLife).

The actomyosin interface contains an evolutionary conserved core and an ancillary interface involved in specificity

The knowledge obtained in our study has direct impact on drug-targeting strategies for malaria by telling researchers which regions of the interface are promising targets for disrupting the function of the malaria proteins while, at the same time, minimizing the potential of disrupting human protein interaction, thus preventing potential side effects (Robert-Paganin et al., 2021 Nature Communications).

Read more
1 reaction Share