Poop substitute effective vs C. diff

Everyone is intimately familiar with the material necessary for FMT, but its microbial components vary with the individual donor, diet and Read more

Report on first Omicron case detected in GA

The first Omicron case detected in Georgia probably became infected during a visit to Cape Town, South Read more

Poop substitute effective vs C. diff

A pill derived from human feces can effectively ward off Clostridium difficile diarrhea, according to the results of a clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Pathologist Colleen Kraft and Emory patients contributed to the Phase III, 182 patient study, which was sponsored by Seres Therapeutics. Kraft is associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital and 2022 president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology.

Colleen Kraft, MD

Seres’ pill is an alternative to fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), a treatment for C.difficile that is both well-established and difficult to standardize. Everyone is intimately familiar with the material necessary for FMT, but its microbial components vary with the individual donor, diet and time. That presents some inconsistency and risk that has delayed FDA approval for the procedure.

Moving toward an “off the shelf” product, Seres takes stool from prescreened donors and treats the material with ethanol, killing some microbes and leaving behind bacterial spores that can compete for intestinal real estate with C. difficile. A previous study of Seres’ pill was unsuccessful, inspiring the headline “Sham poo washes out.” More information about the newer study and the company’s plans are in this Science article.

C. difficile colonization sometimes occurs after antibiotics deplete healthier forms of intestinal bacteria. Kraft and colleagues at Emory have been investigating whether FMT can prevent colonization by antibiotic-resistant bacteria in kidney transplant patients, who have (deliberately) dampened immune systems and need to take antibiotics.

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Report on first Omicron case detected in GA

The first Omicron case detected in Georgia through SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance probably became infected during a visit to Cape Town, South Africa, according to a recent case report in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The patient was a woman in her 30s, who was fully vaccinated with Pfizer/BioNTech twice, then a booster in October 2021 – about six weeks before becoming sick. She had a negative PCR test shortly before traveling back to Georgia but developed symptoms around the time of her return flight.

The woman was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the end of November, a few days after her return to Georgia — just after Omicron was declared a Variant of Concern by the WHO.

This single case report is not representative of the overall severity of Omicron, which is generating a large number of infections, burdening hospitals in Georgia and elsewhere. The patient experienced muscle aches, nausea, fatigue and cough, but did not have a fever or shortness of breath and did not require hospitalization.

A view of Cape Town’s Table Mountain

The lead authors of the case report were Marybeth Sexton, chief quality officer for the Emory Clinic, and infectious disease specialist Jesse Waggoner. The senior author was viral geneticist Anne Piantadosi.

The authors note: “Identifying this case required eliciting an appropriate travel history and being able to identify and perform sequencing for COVID patients in the community, since the patient had mild symptoms and did not seek clinical care.”

To speed detection of SARS-CoV-2 variants such as Omicron, the case report contains information about how to customize the “Spike SNP” PCR assay to give results within a few hours, rather than waiting for full viral sequencing taking 72 hours.

With the help of virologist Mehul Suthar’s lab, the authors were also able to report that the patient developed high levels of antiviral antibodies capable of neutralizing the Omicron variant. Currently available booster shots can elicit measurable antiviral antibody activity (see our recent post Thrice is nice), but actual Omicron infection generates way more.

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Diabetic foot ulcers: cell types identified that may contribute to healing

Diabetic foot ulcerations — open sores or wounds that refuse to heal – affect more than 15 percent of people with diabetes and result in thousands of lower extremity amputations per year in the United States.

To gain a better understanding of diabetic foot ulcers’ biology, a team of researchers at Emory and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston compared cells taken from patients with ulcers that healed to those taken from patients whose ulcers failed to heal, as well as to cells taken from intact forearm skin in patients with and without diabetes.

The team identified a subpopulation of fibroblasts enriched in the foot ulcers that healed, pointing to potential interventions. The results were published in Nature Communications on January 10.

“In this study, we present a comprehensive single cell map of the diabetic foot ulcer microenvironment,” says Manoj Bhasin, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and biomedical informatics at Emory University School of Medicine, who is co-corresponding author of the study. “To our knowledge, we are the first to identify a unique subpopulation of fibroblasts that are significantly enriched in diabetic foot ulcers that are destined to heal.”

Various cell types, including endothelial cells, fibroblasts, keratinocytes and immune cells, were known to play an important role in wound healing processes. Yet diabetic foot ulcerations’ failure to heal and high associated mortality remain poorly understood.

“Our data suggests that specific fibroblast subtypes are key players in healing these ulcers and targeting these cells could be one therapeutic option,” says co-corresponding author Aristidis Veves, DSc, MD, director of the Rongxiang Xu, MD, Center for Regenerative Therapeutics and research director of the Joslin-Beth Israel Deaconess Foot Center. “While further testing is needed, our data set will be a valuable resource for diabetes, dermatology and wound healing research and can serve as the baseline for designing experiments for the assessment of therapeutic interventions.”

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Booster COVID-19 vaccine vs Omicron: thrice is nice

A third dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine is necessary to give someone robust neutralizing antibody activity against the Omicron variant, according to data from Emory researchers posted on the preprint server Biorxiv.

The findings support public health efforts to promote booster vaccination as a measure to fight Omicron, which is currently overwhelming hospitals around the world. They also explain why more breakthrough infections are occurring with the Omicron variant in people who have been vaccinated twice, and are in line with what other investigators have observed.

Compared with the 2020 Wuhan strain, the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV2 has more than 30 mutations in the viral spike protein, which is the primary target of neutralizing antibodies generated by vaccination. 

“Our findings highlight the need for a third dose to maintain an effective antibody response for neutralizing the Omicron variant,” says lead author Mehul Suthar, a virologist based at Emory Vaccine Center and Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Vaccinated individuals who develop breakthrough Omicron infections are likely to experience less severe symptoms, and it is possible for Omicron to infect people even after receiving a booster, Suthar notes. Still, a majority of patients now coming into hospitals continue to be those who are unvaccinated.

In the preprint, Emory researchers tested blood samples from people who participated in Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine studies in the laboratory for their ability to smother SARS-CoV-2 variants in culture. The preprint does not include clinical outcomes from infection, and also does not cover other aspects of vaccine-induced antiviral immunity, such as T cells.

In people who were vaccinated twice with mRNA vaccines, either Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna, none showed measurable neutralizing antibody activity against Omicron six months after vaccination. But 90 percent displayed some neutralizing activity against Omicron a few weeks after a third dose.

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Intestinal bacteria modulate metabolism: link to obesity

The bacteria inside our guts are fine-tuning our metabolism, depending on our diet, and new research suggests how they accomplish it. Emory researchers have identified an obesity-promoting chemical produced by intestinal bacteria. The chemical, called delta-valerobetaine, suppresses the liver’s capacity to oxidize fatty acids.

The findings were recently published in Nature Metabolism.

“The discovery of delta-valerobetaine gives a potential angle on how to manipulate our gut bacteria or our diets for health benefits,” says co-senior author Andrew Neish, MD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

“We now have a molecular mechanism that provides a starting point to understand our microbiome as a link between our diet and our body composition,” says Dean Jones, PhD, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and co-senior author of the paper.

Gut bacteria produce delta-velerobetaine, which suppresses the liver’s capacity to oxidize fatty acids

The bacterial metabolite delta-valerobetaine was identified by comparing the livers of conventionally housed mice with those in germ-free mice, which are born in sterile conditions and sequestered in a special facility. Delta-valerobetaine was only present in conventionally housed mice.

In addition, the authors showed that people who are obese or have liver disease tend to have higher levels of delta-valerobetaine in their blood. People with BMI > 30 had levels that were about 40 percent higher. Delta-valerobetaine decreases the liver’s ability to burn fat during fasting periods. Over time, the enhanced fat accumulation may contribute to obesity.

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Two items relevant to long COVID

One of the tricky issues in studying in long COVID is: how widely do researchers cast their net? Initial reports acknowledged that people who were hospitalized and in intensive care may take a while to get back on their feet. But the number of people who had SARS-CoV-2 infections and were NOT hospitalized, yet experienced lingering symptoms, may be greater.

A recent report from the United Kingdom, published in PLOS Medicine, studied more than 270,000 people using electronic health records. This research found that more than a third of patients had one or more features of long COVID three to six months after COVID-19 diagnosis.

That would be consistent with recently published findings from Emory, which surveyed 290 people from a telemedicine program: Emory Healthcare’s Virtual Outpatient Management Clinic. Almost 40 percent reported persistent symptoms. However, none of the individual symptoms, such as fatigue, mental fog or difficulty breathing, were reported at a rate of more than about 20 percent.

With this survey, Emory investigators were trying to capture the larger number of people out there who were recovering from COVID-19, without selecting for people who are especially miserable (to put it bluntly). Initial symptom severity predicted the likelihood of long-term symptoms, but there were outliers from this trend. This was a cross-sectional but not longitudinal study. One intriguing finding was that people with hypertension were less likely to experience persistent COVID symptoms, which may have to do with ACE inhibitors, common anti-hypertension drugs.

The second item reports data on autoantibodies from a long COVID cohort at Emory, from immunologists Ignacio Sanz and Eun-Hyung Lee. Autoantibodies are a feature of autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and their presence in long COVID may explain persistent symptoms such as fatigue, skin rash and joint pain.

Several research groups have shown that autoantibodies can result from the intense inflammation of COVID-19 (examples outside Emory here, here), which breaks down the guardrails that normally constrain immune cells from attacking the body itself. But a key question is: how long does that deranged state last? And do autoantibodies correlate with persistent symptoms? This preprint (Evidence of Persisting Autoreactivity in Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection)– not yet published in a peer review journal — represents the first data on this topic collected from the post-COVID clinics at Emory. More to come on this topic.

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All your environmental chemicals belong in the exposome

Emory researchers recently described a “contact tracing” system for environmental chemical exposures, published in Nature Communications. The apparent metabolic breakdown products of common drugs — antidepressants, blood thinners and beta-blockers – can be detected in clinical samples. Many of those breakdown products are uncharted territory, in terms of chemical analysis, and the Emory researchers’ system will help them map it.

But what about all the environmental chemicals that are out there, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), once widely used in electrical infrastructure, and pesticides such as DDT? PCB exposure has been connected with increased rates of cancer and harm to wildlife.

Xin Hu, PhD

A companion paper from the same group, also in Nature Communications, focuses more on techniques for detecting those contaminants. It lays out a standard workflow for processing samples for large-scale studies of the human exposome – all the influences from the environment as well as foods, drugs and other domestic products.

“What we aimed for was a simple method that is affordable and can be adopted by any laboratory to study as many chemicals as possible,” says lead author Xin Hu, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. “We know that most of the contaminants have a small effect size, which means large-scale studies on tens of thousands of people are needed to understand the health effect of those contaminants and their link to rare but devastating diseases, like cancer.  A simple analytical method will allow us to combine efforts from different laboratories and studies, and eventually measure tens of thousands of chemicals on tens of thousands of people.”

Part of what the researchers needed to do is to test and optimize methods for studying each type of environmental chemical, using a technique called GC-HRMS (gas chromatography-high resolution mass spectrometry). Previous studies on PCBs and DDT use that technique, but the Emory team wanted to develop a standard low-volume approach that would avoid multiple processing steps, which can lead to loss of material, variable recovery, and the potential for contamination.

The researchers used their approach to analyze samples from human plasma, lung, thyroid and stool. They also showed that they could identify new chemicals in clinical samples. An advantage of the new method over traditional approaches is that the database retains information of unidentified chemicals that can be readily accessed for future characterization, Hu says.

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Signature of success for an HIV vaccine?

Efforts to produce a vaccine against HIV/AIDS have been sustained for more than a decade by a single, modest success: the RV144 clinical trial in Thailand, whose results were reported in 2009.

Now Emory, Harvard and Case Western Reserve scientists have identified a gene activity signature that may explain why the vaccine regimen in the RV144 study was protective in some individuals, while other HIV vaccine studies were not successful.

The researchers think that this signature, observed in immune cells in the blood after vaccination, could be used to design future vaccines that will have a better chance of providing protection against HIV infection.

“We may not need to take ‘shots in the dark’, when testing vaccine platforms or adjuvants for efficacy,” says senior author Rafick-Pierre Sekaly, PhD. “Instead, we can now identify adjuvants and/or vaccine regimens which more potently induce the activation of this signature.”

Rafick-Pierre Sekaly, PhD

The results, published this week in Nature Immunology, also contain hints on a contributing factor explaining why a recent HIV vaccine study conducted in South Africa (HVTN702) did not show a protective effect. HVTN702 was designed as a follow-up to RV144, but multiple parameters were different between the Thai and South African vaccine studies, such as the demographics of the participants, the adjuvant used, and the levels and varieties of HIV circulating.

“Our findings highlight one potential mechanism which may have contributed to the muted efficacy of HVTN702,” says Sekaly, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

This mechanism involves the choice of adjuvant, a vaccine additive that enhances immune responses. While RV144 used the adjuvant alum (aluminum hydroxide), HVTN702 used the oil-based adjuvant MF59, also found in some influenza vaccines, to stimulate higher antibody production.

“There are multiple ways that a vaccine can promote protection and some of these do not involve antibodies,” Sekaly says. “Since MF59 failed to potently induce the gene signature we found to be associated with protection, this signature could guide us to mechanisms distinct from antibodies which could trigger protection from HIV-1.”

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Molecular picture of how antiviral drug molnupiravir works

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany have generated a structure showing how the antiviral drug molnupiravir drug works.

Molnupiravir was originally discovered by Emory’s non-profit drug development company DRIVE, and is now being developed by Merck. The drug, previously known as EIDD-2801, can be provided as a pill in an outpatient setting – potentially a step up in ease of distribution and convenience.

Molnupiravir is currently in clinical trials for non-hospitalized people with COVID-19 and at least one risk factor; results are expected later in the fall of 2021. Merck also recently began a prevention study for adults who live with a currently infected person. Previous small-scale studies conducted by Merck’s partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics showed that the drug is safe and can reduce viral levels to undetectable in non-hospitalized people within five days.

The structure shows how the active form of molnupiravir interacts with the enzyme that makes new copies of the SARS-CoV-2 genome (RNA-dependent RNA polymerase). Incorporation of the active form of the drug into the RNA genome leads to mutations – so many that the virus can’t generate enough accurate copies of itself. Molnupiravir is likely to work in a similar way when deployed against other viruses such as influenza.

The cryo EM (cryo-electron microscopy) structure comes from Patrick Cramer’s group in Göttingen, along with chemists at the University of Würzburg, and was published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. Last year, Cramer’s group also generated a structure of the replicating viral RNA polymerase. The video below comes courtesy of the Max Planck Institute and Cramer’s lab.

The animation shows how the RNA-like building blocks of molnupiravir (M, yellow) form atypical pairings with adenine (A) and guanine (G) in the viral RNA. This leads to mutations in the viral RNA, interfering with efficient replication of SARS-CoV-2.
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Straight to the heart: direct reprogramming creates cardiac “tissue” in mice

Bypassing stem cells, Emory scientists can now create engineered heart tissue by directly reprogramming connective tissue cells in mice. The findings could provide new avenues for a quest many cardiologists have pursued: repairing the damaged heart like patching a roof. 

The results were published in Nature Biomedical Engineering

“This is the first study demonstrating direct tissue reprogramming from single adult cells from the body,” says senior author Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

The research could potentially provide therapeutic options for millions of people with heart failure or other conditions. If heart muscle is damaged by a heart attack, the damaged or dead cells do not regenerate. Other scientists have shown they can create human heart tissue from induced pluripotent stem cells (example), but the Emory team showed that it is possible to avoid stem cells and the technologies required to create them, such as viruses. 

“Direct reprogramming into tissues that contain multiple cell types has not previously been reported, and it could open new pathways in the regenerative medicine field,” Yoon says. “It could serve as a platform for cell-based therapy by avoiding the problems of current stem cell-based approaches, and for disease modeling and drug development.”

First author Jaeyeaon Cho, PhD – currently at Yonsei University

Yoon is also part of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. First author Jaeyeaon Cho, PhD was a post-doctoral fellow at Emory and is currently a research assistant professor at Yonsei University College of Medicine in South Korea. Emory faculty members Rebecca Levit, MD and Hee Cheol Cho, PhD are co-authors on the paper.

Applying a combination of growth factors, regulatory microRNA and vitamins, the Emory researchers could create tissue that contains cardiac muscle, along with blood vessels containing endothelial cells and smooth muscle cells, and fibroblasts. In culture, the four cell types weave themselves together, bypassing any need to build heart tissue from separate components.

When transplanted onto the damaged heart of a mouse after a simulated heart attack, cells from the engineered tissue can migrate into the host heart, and improve its functioning. 

“In some previous studies, when a tissue patch composed of engineered cells and supportive biomaterials was transplanted to the damaged heart, there was little or no migration of cells from the patch to the host heart,” Yoon says.

From Cho et al. Nature Biomed Eng (2021). Migration of rCVT (reprogrammed cardiovascular tissue) into the host heart, 2 weeks after implantation. The white lines outline the heart muscle wall; only the implanted tissue fluoresces green, because of green fluorescent protein.

The critical elements of the direct reprogramming approach are microRNAs, which are “master keys” that control several genes at once. The researchers discovered the potential of one microRNA fortuitously; a pilot study examined the effect of applying several microRNAs active in the heart to fibroblasts. Unexpectedly, one of them generated endothelial cell and smooth muscle along with cardiac muscle cells.

The Emory researchers say that their engineered tissue does not exactly mimic natural heart tissue. The cardiac muscle cells do spontaneously contract, but they display immature characteristics. But after transplantation, the engrafted cells mature and integrate into the host heart. Over 16 weeks, the engrafted cells become indistinguishable from the host cardiac muscle cells. The researchers checked whether their transplanted tissue induced cardiac arrhythmias in the mice – a danger when introducing immature cells into the damaged heart — and they did not.

Yoon says it took almost 9 years to complete the project; an important next step is to test direct reprogramming with human cells.

This work was supported by grants from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (R01HL150877, R61HL 154116, R01HL125391) and a American Heart Association Transformative Project Award.

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