Mother's milk is OK, even for the in-between babies

“Stop feeding him milk right away – just to be safe” was not what a new mother wanted to hear. The call came several days after Tamara Caspary gave birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. She and husband David Katz were in the period of wonder and panic, both recovering and figuring out how to care for them. “A nurse called to ask how my son was doing,” says Caspary, a developmental Read more

Focus on mitochondria in schizophrenia research

Despite advances in genomics in recent years, schizophrenia remains one of the most complex challenges of both genetics and neuroscience. The chromosomal abnormality 22q11 deletion syndrome, also known as DiGeorge syndrome, offers a way in, since it is one of the strongest genetic risk factors for schizophrenia. Out of dozens of genes within the 22q11 deletion, several encode proteins found in mitochondria. A team of Emory scientists, led by cell biologist Victor Faundez, recently analyzed Read more

Fetal alcohol cardiac toxicity - in a dish

Alcohol-induced cardiac toxicity is usually studied in animal models; a cell-culture based approach could make it easier to study possible interventions more Read more

Mother’s milk is OK, even for the in-between babies

“Stop feeding him milk right away – just to be safe” was not what a new mother wanted to hear. The call came several days after Tamara Caspary gave birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. She and husband David Katz were in the period of wonder and panic, both recovering and figuring out how to care for them.

“A nurse called to ask how my son was doing,” says Caspary, a developmental biologist in Emory’s Department of Human Genetics. “She started asking about vomiting and other specific symptoms.”

Her son had tested positive by newborn screening for a rare disorder called galactosemia. Galactosemia is an inherited disease that results from inability to metabolize galactose, a component of human milk and cow-milk-based formula. If a baby with “classic” galactosemia continues to drink milk, the baby may quickly develop symptoms such as jaundice, vomiting and diarrhea, progressing to liver disease and other serious complications that can lead to infant death. If a newborn has classic galactosemia, it is critical for the baby to stop drinking milk and switch to a low-galactose formula, such as soy-based formula, as soon as possible.

Caspary and Katz, a cell biologist, learned several days later that their son did not have classic galactosemia but instead had inherited Duarte galactosemia, a milder, more common form of the metabolic disorder, affecting more than 1 in 5,000 children in the United States. But there was still a looming question.

“We needed to figure out what to feed the baby!” Katz exclaimed, recalling their confusion years later.

The looming question was: what to feed the baby?

Their pediatrician didn’t know what to recommend. Galactosemia, in whatever form, is rare enough in the US that most pediatricians don’t develop experience with it. There was no uniform standard of care, and state-level guidelines for children with Duarte galactosemia varied widely, from no dietary restrictions to banning all milk products for the first year. Some of the limited research available at the time suggested that affected children might experience developmental problems as they grew up. Read more

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Focus on mitochondria in schizophrenia research

Despite advances in genomics in recent years, schizophrenia remains one of the most complex challenges of both genetics and neuroscience. The chromosomal abnormality 22q11 deletion syndrome, also known as DiGeorge syndrome, offers a way in, since it is one of the strongest genetic risk factors for schizophrenia.

Out of dozens of genes within the 22q11 deletion, several encode proteins found in mitochondria. A team of Emory scientists, led by cell biologist Victor Faundez, recently analyzed the network of proteins found in human cells, both from individuals affected by 22q11 deletion syndrome and their healthy relatives.

The results are published in Journal of Neuroscience. Note: this is a sprawling paper, involving both proteomics (courtesy of Nick Seyfried, whose Emory epithet is “wizard”) and mutant Drosophila fruit flies. There are four co-first authors: Avanti Gokhale, Cortnie Hartwig, Amanda Freeman and Julia Bassell.

Victor Faundez, PhD

Mitochondrial proteins are important for keeping cells fueled up and in metabolic balance, but how does altering them affect the brain in a way that leads to schizophrenia? That’s the overall question: how do changes in the miniature power plants within the cell affect synapses, the junctions between cells?

The scientists were focusing on one particular mitochondrial protein, SLC25A1, whose corresponding gene is in the 22q11 deletion. Faundez says that SCL25A1 has been largely ignored by other scientists studying 22q11.

“We think SLC25A1 exerts a powerful influence on the neurodevelopmental phenotypes in 22q11,” he says. “Our main focus forward is going to be the function that mitochondria play in synapse biology.” Read more

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Fetal alcohol cardiac toxicity – in a dish

Alcohol exposure is known to perturb fetal heart development; half of all children with fetal alcohol syndrome have congenital heart defects, such as arrhythmias or structural abnormalities. Chunhui Xu and colleagues recently published a paper in Toxicological Scienceson how human cardiac muscle cells, derived from iPS (induced pluripotent stem cells), can be used as a model for studying the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol-induced cardiac toxicity is usually studied in animal models, but human cells are different, and a cell-culture based approach could make it easier to study the effects of alcohol and possible interventions more easily.

Red shows toxic effects of alcohol on iPS-derived cardiomyocytes

Xu and her colleagues observed that high levels of alcohol damaged cardiac muscle cells and put them under oxidative stress. But even at relatively low concentrations of alcohol, the researchers also saw perturbations in cells’ electrical activity and the ability to contract, which reasonably matches the effects of alcohol on human heart development. The lowest level tested was 17 millimolar – the legal limit for driving in most states (0.08% blood alcohol content). Read more

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Fighting cancer with combinatorial imagination

In his undergraduate days, Winship Cancer Institute dermatologist and cancer researcher Jack Arbiser was an organic chemist. That may be why he recognized an organic synthesis reagent based on the metal palladium as a potential anti-cancer drug.

We’re talking about Tris-DBA-palladium. Arbiser and colleagues showed in a 2008 Clinical Cancer Research paper that this deep purple stuff (see photo) is active against melanoma, and since then, against other types of cancer such as pancreatic cancer, multiple myeloma, and CLL leukemia.

Tris-DBA-PD has a deep purple color. The palladium atoms can be seen in the diagram as two blue balls at the center. From Wikipedia.

Since it’s used in organic synthesis, you might expect Tris-DBA-palladium not to be very soluble in water. A new paper in Scientific Reports demonstrates that this issue can be addressed by hooking up the reagent to nanoparticles made of hyaluronic acid, which targets tumor cells. They are effective against melanoma in mice, the paper shows.

“We have already demonstrated that Tris DBA palladium by itself has activity against melanoma in mice,” Arbiser writes (in his VA grant summary). “However, we believe that we can make Tris DBA palladium into an even more powerful drug by adding it to nanoparticles that are guided to the tumor.”

In an email to Lab Land, Arbiser says he arrived at Tris-DBA-palladium by using his chemist’s imagination, in a “your chocolate landed in my peanut butter” kind of way.

“I got the idea for looking at this compound because it is a complex of Pd with a curcumin-like structure, and I figured it might have the characteristics of platinum and curcumin together,” he says. Read more

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Sifting through signs of inflammation to analyze causes of Crohn’s disease

When studying Crohn’s disease – an inflammatory disorder of the gastrointestinal tract, a challenge is separating out potential causes from the flood of systemic inflammation inherent in the condition. Researchers led by Subra Kugathasan, MD recently published an analysis that digs under signs of inflammation, in an effort to assess possible causes.

Graduate student Hari Somineni, in Kugathasan’s lab, teamed up with Emory and Georgia Tech geneticists for a sophisticated approach that may have found some gold nuggets in the inflammatory gravel. The results were published in the journal Gastroenterology.

In studying Crohn’s disease, Emory + Georgia Tech researchers may have found some gold nuggets in the inflammatory gravel.

The group looked at DNA methylation in blood samples from pediatric patients with Crohn’s disease, both at diagnosis and after treatment and follow-up. The information came from blood samples from 164 children with Crohn’s disease and 74 controls, as part of the RISK study, which is supported by the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation and Kugathasan leads.

DNA methylation is a dynamic process that can influence molecular phenotypes of complex diseases by turning the gene(s) on or off. The researchers observed that disrupted methylation patterns at the time of diagnosis in pediatric Crohn’s disease patients returned to those resembling controls following treatment of inflammation

“Our study emphasized how important it is to do longitudinal profiling – to look at the patients before and after treatment, rather than just taking a cross section,” Somineni says.

Read more

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Predict the future of critical care in #STATMadness

Emory is participating in STAT Madness, a “March Madness” style bracket competition featuring biomedical research advances instead of basketball teams. Universities or research institutes nominate their champions, research papers that were published the previous year. It’s like “Battle of the Bands.” Whoever gets the loudest — or most numerous — cheers wins.

Please check out all 64 entries, follow the 2019 STAT Madness bracket and vote here:
https://www.statnews.com/feature/stat-madness/bracket/

Emory’s entry for 2019:
It’s like the “precogs” who predict crime in the movie Minority Report, but for sepsis, the deadly response to infection. Shamim Nemati and colleagues have been exploring ways to analyze vital signs in ICU patients and predict sepsis, hours before clinical staff might otherwise notice.

As landmark clinical studies have documented, every hour of delay in giving someone with sepsis antibiotics increases their risk of mortality. So detecting sepsis as early as possible could save thousands of lives. Many hospitals have developed “sniffer” systems that monitor patients for sepsis, but this algorithm tries to spot problems way before they become apparent.

As published in 2018 in Critical Care Medicine, the algorithm can predict sepsis onset—with some false alarms—four, eight, even 12 hours ahead of time. No algorithm is going to be perfect, but it was better than any other previous sepsis predictor. The technology is headed for additional testing and evaluation at several medical centers, as part of a project supported by the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

You can fill out a whole bracket or you can just vote for Emory. The contest will last several rounds. The first round began on Monday, March 4, and lasts until the end of the week. Before 10 am Eastern time Monday morning, there were already more than 5,000 brackets entered!

If Emory advances, then people will be able to continue voting for us starting on Friday. Emory’s first opponent is a regional rival, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. We are on the upper left side of the bracket.

STAT News is a Boston-based news organization covering biomedical research, pharma and biotech. If you feel like it, please share on social media using the hashtag #statmadness.

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Sensitive to (transplant) rejection

An experimental screening method, developed by Emory and Georgia Tech scientists, aims to detect immune rejection of a transplanted organ earlier and without a biopsy needle.

The technology is based on nanoparticles that detect granzyme B enzymes produced by killer T cells. When the T cells are active, they slice up the nanoparticles, generating a fluorescent signal that is detectable in urine. The results from a mouse skin graft model were published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, from Gabe Kwong’s lab at GT and Andrew Adams’ at Emory. More extensive story here.

Co-first authors Quoc Mac and Dave Mathews

Adams is also developing technologies for imaging transplant rejection via immunoPET, with Georgia Tech’s Phil Santangelo.

 

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CAPTCHA some cancer cells

Humans are good at deciphering complex images, compared to computers. Until recently, internet users often needed to verify that they were human by completing a CAPTCHA security check. A familiar variety asked the user to check all the boxes that contain a car, or a street sign.

If we asked random people off the street to look at pathology slides and “quick, check all the boxes that contain tumor cells,” what would happen? The accuracy, compared to a trained pathologist, wouldn’t be very good.

Not as easy as labeling which boxes contain street signs!

This challenge of expertise – crowdsourcing and pathology are not immediately compatible – is what Lee Cooper and colleagues sought to overcome in a recent paper published in Bioinformatics. So they put together something they called “structured crowdsourcing.”

“We are interested in describing how the immune system behaves in breast cancers, and so we built an artificial intelligence system to look at pathology slides and identify the tissue components,” Cooper says.

His group was particularly interested in the aggressive form of breast cancer: triple negative. They used pathology slide images from the Cancer Genome Atlas, a National Cancer Institute resource. The goal was to mark up the slides and label which sections contained tumor, stroma, white blood cells, dead cells etc.

They used social media to recruit 25 volunteers — medical students and pathologists from around the world (Egypt, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Syria, USA). Participants underwent training and used Slack to communicate and learn about how to classify images. They collaborated using the Digital Slide Archive, a tool developed at Emory. Read more

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Bird flu shuffle probes viral compatibility

When influenza viruses that infect birds and humans meet in the same cell, they can shuffle their genomes and produce new strains that might have pandemic potential. Think of this process, called reassortment, as viruses having sex.

In the last several years, public health officials have been monitoring two varieties of bird flu viruses with alarming properties: H7N9 and H5N8. Scientists at Emory have been probing the factors that limit reassortment between these strains and a well-known strain (H3N2) that has been dominating the last few flu seasons in the United States.

Helen Branswell has an article in STAT this week, explaining that H5N8 actually emerged from reassortment  involving much-feared-but-not-damaging-to-humans-so-far H5N1:

Several years ago, these viruses effectively splintered, with some dumping their N1 neuraminidase — a gene that produces a key protein found on the surface of flu viruses — and replacing it with another. The process is called reassortment, and, in this case, it resulted in the emergence of a lot of new pairings over a fairly short period of time.

The most common and most dangerous viruses to emerge — for birds at least — have been H5N6 and H5N8 viruses. Both are highly pathogenic, meaning they kill domestic poultry.

“The H5N1 virus has not gone away. It’s just changed into different versions of itself,” explained influenza expert Malik Peiris, a professor of virology at the University of Hong Kong.

From the Emory study, the good news is that “packaging signals” on the H5 and H7 viral RNA genomes are often incompatible with the H3N2 viruses. That means it could be difficult for segments of the genome from the bird viruses to get wrapped up with the human viruses. But mix and match still occurred at a low level, particularly with H5N8. Read more

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A life consumed by sleep

Nothing he tried had worked. For Sigurjon Jakobsson, the trip to Atlanta with his family was a last-ditch effort to wake up. He had struggled with sleeping excessively for several years before coming from Iceland to see a visionary neurologist, who might have answers.

In high school, Sigurjon was a decathlete competing as part of Iceland’s national sports team. But at the age of 16, an increasing need for sleep began to encroach upon his life. Sigurjon needed several alarm clocks to get out of bed and was frequently late to school or his job at a construction company. He often slept more than 16 hours in a day.

Sigurjon feeling awake (Atlanta, summer 2018)

When Sigurjon describes his experiences, they sound like depression, although his mood and lack of motivation appear more a consequence of his insatiable desire to sleep. He quit sports. He dropped out of college and became isolated and lost touch with close friends.

“Your will to do things just kinda dies,” he says. “And then you’re always trying and trying again. It just gets worse. You kinda die inside from being tired all the time.”

At the recommendation of a neurologist in Iceland, Sigurjon’s family sought out David Rye, who is known internationally for his research on idiopathic hypersomnia, a poorly understood sleep disorder. Read more

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