Cancer metastasis: isolating invasive cells with a color change

At Winship Cancer Institute, Adam Marcus and Jessica Konen have developed a tool for probing how invasive cells are different, which could lead to new ways to fight cancer metastasis. In the video, check out how they track the behavior of apparently devious "leader cells".

Tools for illuminating brain function make their own light

Hey optogenetics fans, cut (or temporarily put aside) the fiber optic cable. Flexible tools allow the choice between activation by light or an external chemical.

Trio with Emory roots probing PTSD-hypertension links

All three of the scientists involved in this project (Ressler/Marvar/Park) have Emory connections

Cancer metastasis: isolating invasive cells with a color change

The capacity of cancer cells to spread throughout the body and invade new tissues – to become metastatic — makes them deadly. What makes metastatic cells different? Scientists at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have developed a technique for isolating individual cells that display invasive behavior out of a large group in culture by changing their color.

Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer Leave a comment

Tools for illuminating brain function make their own light

Optogenetics has taken neuroscience by storm in recent years because the technique allows scientists to study the brain conveniently in animals, activating or inhibiting selected groups of neurons at the flip of a switch.  Most often, scientists use a fiber optic cable to deliver light into the brain.

Researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech have developed tools that could allow neuroscientists to put aside the fiber optic cable, and use a glowing protein from coral as the light source instead.

Biomedical engineering student Jack Tung and neurosurgeon/neuroscientist Robert Gross, MD, PhD have dubbed these tools “inhibitory luminopsins” because they inhibit neuronal activity both in response to light and to a chemical supplied from outside.

A demonstration of the luminopsins’ capabilities was published September 24 in the journal Scientific Reports.  The authors show that these tools enabled them to modulate neuronal firing, both in culture and in vivo, and modify the behavior of live animals.

Tung and Gross are now using inhibitory luminopsins to study ways to halt or prevent seizure activity in animals.

“We think that this approach may be particularly useful for modeling treatments for generalized seizures and seizures that involve multiple areas of the brain,” Tung says. “We’re also working on making luminopsins responsive to seizure activity: turning on the light only when it is needed, in a closed-loop feedback controlled fashion.” More here. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Trio with Emory roots probing PTSD-hypertension links

This grant announcement from the American Heart Association caught Lab Land’s eye. All three of the scientists involved in this project, examining the connections between hypertension, inflammation and the sympathetic nervous system in PTSD, have Emory connections:

*Kerry Ressler, previously Emory Psychiatry/HHMI-supported/Yerkes-based lab/Grady Trauma Project, who moved this summer to Harvard’s McLean Hospital

Related finding that emerged from the Grady Trauma Project: Blood pressure drugs linked with lower PTSD symptoms

*Paul Marvar, who worked with both David Harrison and Kerry Ressler at Emory, and is now at George Washington University

Related item on Marvar’s work: Immune cells required for stress-induced rise in blood pressure in animals

*Jeanie Park, kidney specialist who is here now! The grant is exploring the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system, regulation of blood pressure and PTSD.

2015 TV interview with Park on her chronic kidney disease research

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Heart, Neuro Leave a comment

Insight into broken record genetic diseases

Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl records will recall how a scratch can cause the same sounds to repeat many times. A similar type of genetic glitch causes neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and several forms of spinocerebellar ataxia.

Huntington’s and the spinocerebellar ataxias are known as “polyglutamine” diseases. In each, the affected gene has a stretch where the same three DNA letters are repeated several times — more than usual. As a result, the protein encoded by the affected gene has a patch, where only the building block glutamine can be found, disrupting that protein’s usual functions in the body.

Geneticist Xiao-Jiang Li and colleagues recently published a paper in Cell Reports that may explain why more aggressive juvenile-onset forms of polyglutamine diseases have different symptoms and pathology. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

SUMO wrestling enzyme important in DNA repair

The DNA in our cells is constantly being damaged by heat, radiation and other environmental stresses, and the enzyme systems that repair DNA are critical for life. A particularly toxic form of damage is the covalent attachment of a protein to DNA, which can be triggered by radiation or by anticancer drugs.

Keith Wilkinson, PhD

Emory biochemist Keith Wilkinson and colleagues have a paper this week in the journal eLife probing how a yeast protein called Wss1 is involved in repairing DNA-protein crosslinks. The researchers show how Wss1 wrestles with a protein tag called SUMO on the site of the DNA damage, and how Wss1 and SUMO are involved in the cleanup process.

Three interesting things about this paper:

*The paper grew out of first author Maxim Balakirev’s sabbatical with Wilkinson at Emory. Balakirev’s home base is at the CEA (Alternative Energy and Atomic Energy Commission) in Grenoble, France.

* Since many cancer chemotherapy drugs induce protein-DNA cross links, an inhibitor of cross link repair could enhance those drugs’ effectiveness. On the other side of the coin, mutations in a human gene called Spartan, whose sequence looks similar to Wss1’s, cause premature aging and susceptibility to liver cancer. Whether the Spartan-encoded protein has the same biochemical activity as Wss1 is not yet clear.

*SUMO stands for “small ubiquitin-like modifier”. The eLife digest has an elegant explanation of what’s happening: Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer Leave a comment

The buzz of consciousness and how seizures disrupt it

These days, it sounds a bit old-fashioned to ask the question: “Where is consciousness located in the brain?” The prevailing thinking is that consciousness lives in the network, rather than in one particular place. Still, neuroscientists sometimes get an intriguing glimpse of a critical link in the network.

A recent paper in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior describes an epilepsy patient who had electrodes implanted within her brain at Emory University Hospital, because neurologists wanted to understand where her seizures were coming from and plan possible surgery. Medication had not controlled her seizures and previous surgery elsewhere had not either.


MRI showing electrode placement. Yellow outline indicates the location of the caudate and thalamus. Image from Leeman-Markowsi et al, Epilepsy & Behavior (2015).

During intracranial EEG monitoring, implanted electrodes detected a pattern of signals coming from one part of the thalamus, a central region of the brain. The pattern was present when the patient was conscious, and then stopped as soon as seizure activity made her lose awareness.

The pattern of signals had a characteristic frequency – around 35 times per second – so it helps to think of the signal as an auditory tone. Lead author Beth Leeman-Markowski, director of EUH’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at the time when the patient was evaluated, describes the signal as a “buzz.”

“That buzz has something to do with maintenance of consciousness,” she says. Read more

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The unsweetened option

Pediatric hepatologist Miriam Vos is starting a new study testing the effects of a low-sugar diet in children with NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). The study is supported by the Nutrition Science Initiative and conducted in a partnership with UCSD/Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego. See below for more on NUSI.

While there are no medications approved for NAFLD – a healthy diet and exercise are the standard of care — plenty of drugs are under development, as a recent article from Mitch Leslie in Science illustrates. As a reality check and benchmark, the NUSI study will address whether the low-tech intervention of altering diet can be effective.

Lab Land has delved into NAFLD and its increasing prevalence in previous posts. Plenty of correlational data shows that sugar intake is linked to NAFLD (a recent paper from the Framingham Heart Study), but Vos points out that there are no studies showing that reducing sugar is sufficient to drive improvement in the disease.

Diet is a challenge to examine in humans rigorously. In observational studies, investigators are always bumping up against the limits of memory and accurate reporting. In an interventional study with adults, it’s possible to provide them a completely defined menu for a short time in a closed environment, but that’s less practical for longer periods or with children.

The press release announcing the NUSI study says: half of the families will eat and drink what they normally do while the rest will be put on sugar-free meals and snacks, all of which will be provided for the participants and their families for eight weeks.

Miriam Vos, MD

I was curious about how this would work, especially for boys aged 11 to 16 (the participants in her study), so I asked Vos more about it for Lab Land.

“We try to provide them a diet that is otherwise similar to what the family is used to,” she says. “For example, if they’re accustomed to home-cooked meals, our team of nutritionists will work with them to find different recipes.” Read more

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Deliver, but not to the liver

The potential of a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference has long enticed biotechnology researchers. It’s used routinely in the laboratory to shut down specific genes in cells. Still, the challenge of delivery has held back RNA-based drugs in treating human disease.

RNA is unstable and cumbersome, and just getting it into the body without having it break down is difficult. One that hurdle is met, there is another: the vast majority of the drug is taken up by the liver. Many current RNA-based approaches turn this apparent bug into a strength, because they seek to treat liver diseases. See these articles in The Scientist and in Technology Review for more.

But what if you need to deliver RNA somewhere besides the liver?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo’s lab at Emory/Georgia Tech, working with Katherine Ferrara’s group at UC Davis, has developed technology to broaden the liver-dominant properties of RNA-based drugs.

Hanjoong Jo, PhD

The results were recently published in ACS Nano. The researchers show they can selectively target an anti-microRNA agent to inflamed blood vessels in mice while avoiding other tissues.

“We have solved a major obstacle of using anti-miRNA as a therapeutic by being able to do a targeted delivery to only inflamed endothelial cells while all other tissues examined, including liver, lung, kidney, blood cells, spleen, etc showed no detectable side-effects,” Jo says. Read more

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Progress on universal flu vaccine

Flu viruses are constantly mutating and every year the seasonal flu shot is updated to keep up with the viruses that are making people sick. Readers interested in the prospect of a “universal flu vaccine” may have noticed some experimental progress on that theme this week.

The reports build on findings some years ago from Emory Vaccine Center researchers led by Rafi Ahmed. Ahmed’s team had showed that people infected by the 2009 H1N1 flu strain developed broadly protective antibodies, and separately, so did volunteers immunized against the H5N1 avian flu virus.

Some background: the head region of the flu virus’s mushroom-like hemagglutinin protein is more variable, and more exposed to the immune system, while the stem/stalk region is less variable.

The underlying idea is: if someone’s immune system is exposed to flu viruses different enough than what it has seen before (like in the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and the H5N1 study), the antibodies to the stem region become more important and more prominent.

The NIAID team fused the flu hemagglutinin to ferritin to make nanoparticles

The NIAID team fused the flu hemagglutinin to ferritin, a platform for further protein engineering.

This week, what the researchers from NIAID (Nature Medicine) and Scripps/J&J (Science) showed is that experimental vaccines made from the stem region only can be broadly protective in several animal models. This required some protein engineering and reconstruction because chopping off the head of the hemagglutinin protein makes it fall apart.

Emory Vaccine Center’s Walter Orenstein, in comments for Genetic Experts News Service, wrote:

These are animal studies, so we are some way off for development and testing of a vaccine in humans. The technique is promising and a step in the right direction. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Adaptive mutation mechanism may drive some forms of antibiotic resistance

Evolutionary theory says mutations are blind and occur randomly. But in the controversial phenomenon of adaptive mutation, cells can peek under the blindfold, increasing their mutation rate in response to stress.

Scientists at Winship Cancer Institute, Emory University have observed that an apparent “back channel” for genetic information called retromutagenesis can encourage adaptive mutation to take place in bacteria.

The results were published Tuesday, August 25 in PLOS Genetics.

“This mechanism may explain how bacteria develop resistance to some types of antibiotics under selective pressure, as well as how mutations in cancer cells enable their growth or resistance to chemotherapy drugs,” says senior author Paul Doetsch, PhD.

Doetsch is professor of biochemistry, radiation oncology and hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and associate director of basic research at Winship Cancer Institute. The first author of the paper is Genetics and Molecular Biology graduate student Jordan Morreall, PhD, who defended his thesis in April.

Retromutagenesis resolves the puzzle: if cells aren’t growing because they’re under stress, which means their DNA isn’t being copied, how do the new mutants appear?

The answer: a mutation appears in the RNA first. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Uncategorized Leave a comment
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