Quinn Eastman

Microbiome critical for bone hormone action

Intestinal microbes are necessary for the actions of an important hormone regulating bone density, according to two papers from the Emory Microbiome Research Center. The papers represent a collaboration between Roberto Pacifici, MD and colleagues in the Department of Medicine and laboratory of Rheinallt Jones, PhD in the Department of Pediatrics.

Together, the results show how probiotics or nutritional supplementation could be used to modulate immune cell activity related to bone health. The two papers, published in Nature Communications and Journal of Clinical Investigation, are the first reports of a role for intestinal microbes in the mechanism of action of PTH (parathyroid hormone), Pacifici says.

PTH increases calcium levels in the blood and can either drive bone loss or bone formation, depending on how it is produced or administered. Continuous excessive production of PTH, or primary hyperparathyroidism, is a common endocrine cause of osteoporosis. Yet in another context, intermittent external PTH stimulates bone formation, and is an FDA-approved treatment for osteoporosis – also used off-label for fracture repair in athletes. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

More NMDA but less excitotoxicity? Now possible

Emory pharmacologists have discovered a new class of potential drugs that might allow them to have their cake and eat it too — with reference to NMDA receptors, important control sites in the brain for learning and memory.

Many researchers have wanted to enhance NMDA receptor signals to treat disorders such as schizophrenia. But at the same time, they need to avoid killing neurons with “excitotoxicity”, which comes from excess calcium entering the cell. Excitotoxicity is thought to be a major mechanism of cell death in stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Usually more sensitivity to NMDA activation and excess calcium go hand in hand. In a new Nature Chemical Biology paper, pharmacologist Stephen Traynelis and colleagues have identified a group of compounds that allow them to separate those two aspects of NMDA signaling.

These compounds appear to selectively decrease how much calcium (as opposed to sodium) flows through the NMDA ion channel. Traynelis says that the discovery opens up pharmacological possibilities for NMDA receptors similar to those for other receptor classes that are prominent drug targets, such as G-protein coupled receptors and acetylcholine receptors. With such receptors, the drugs are called “biased agonists” or “biased modulators” because they shift the balance of how the ion channel responds.

For NMDA receptors, how these newly identified compounds work on a molecular level needs to be explored, and could lead to the long-standing goal of NMDA-based neuroprotection for treatment of stroke/TBI, the authors note. Postdoc Riley Perszyk is first author, with cell biologist Gary Bassell and chemists Dennis Liotta and Lanny Liebeskind as co-authors.

Traynelis discussed this research in his Hodgkin Huxley Katz Prize Lecture to the Physiology 2019 conference in Scotland in December 2019 (the part about the new class of NMDA modulators starts at about 20 minutes).

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Update on pancreatic cancer: images and clinical trial

In 2018, Winship magazine had a feature story on pancreatic cancer. Our team developed an illustration that we hoped could convey the tumors’ complex structure, which contributes to making them difficult to treat. Oncologist Bassel El-Rayes described how the tumors recruit other cells to form a protective shell.

“If you look at a tumor from the pancreas, you will see small nests of cells embedded in scar tissue,” he says. “The cancer uses this scar tissue as a shield, to its own advantage.”

With El-Rayes and fellow oncologist Walid Shaib, Greg Lesinski’s lab recently published a paper in JCI Insight. The point of the paper was to look at how chemotherapy changes immune activity in the tumor microenvironment, but we also get vivid images giving us a glimpse of those nests. It helps to view these images as large as possible, so please check them out at the journal’s site, which has no paywall.

Regions stained green are tumor-rich; red regions are immune cell-rich, and blue regions are rich in stromal cells (stellate/fibroblast cells). The goal is to get immune cells to envelop the tumors more, like in square 8.

The 2018 magazine story also laid out some of Lesinski’s and El-Rayes’ ideas.

Based on his lab’s recent success in animal models, Lesinski thinks that combining an immunotherapy drug with agents that stop IL-6 could pry open pancreatic cancers’ protective shells. In those experiments, the combination resulted in fewer stellate cells and more T cells in the tumors. Fortunately, a couple of “off-the-shelf” options, drugs approved for rheumatoid arthritis, already exist for targeting IL-6, Lesinski says.

On that theme, we noticed that a clinical trial was posted on clinicaltrials.gov in December that implements those proposals: “Siltuximab and Spartalizumab in Patients With Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer”. El-Rayes is the principal investigator, and it is not yet recruiting. Siltuximab is an antibody against IL-6 and spartalizumab is a second generation PD-1 inhibitor.

Update: The XL888 + pembrolizumab study mentioned in the article is also moving along, presented by Mehmet Akce at the Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer Leave a comment

New animal model for elimination of latent TB

The significance of a recent Tulane/Yerkes study on eradicating latent tuberculosis in non-human primates may not be apparent at first glance. After all, it used the same antibiotic regimen (isoniazid + rifapentine) that is recommended by the CDC for human use.

But consider whether someone who was exposed to TB in childhood might still have it in their lungs somewhere. It’s difficult to know if treatments get rid of the bacteria completely.

“The antibiotic treatment we used for this study is a new, shorter regimen the CDC recommends for treating humans with latent tuberculosis, but we did not have direct evidence for whether it completely clears latent infection,” says Yerkes/Emory Vaccine Center researcher Jyothi Rengarajan, who was co-principal investigator along with Deepak Kaushal of Tulane. “Our experimental study in macaques showing almost complete sterilization of bacteria after treatment suggests this three-month regimen sterilizes humans as well.”

In an editorial in the same journal, CDC and Johns Hopkins experts call the results “dramatic” and say application of the drug regimen “could presage a major step forward in TB prevention and control.” Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Transplant research: immune control via Fc receptors on T cells

Emory transplant researchers have identified a control mechanism the immune system uses to tamp down chronic inflammation. The findings provide insight into how some people were able to stop taking immunosuppressive drugs after kidney transplant.

In addition, they may be important for a full understanding of how many drugs for cancer and autoimmune disorders (therapeutic antibodies) work. The results were published on January 14 in Immunity.

In a twist, scientists have known about the molecules involved for a long time. They’re Fc receptors. Usually, we can think of them acting like oven mitts that immune cells use to grab onto antibodies. Fc receptors bind the constant (unvarying) portions of antibodies, which are the same no matter what they’re directed against.

Mandy Ford, PhD and graduate student Anna Morris

The news here is that an inhibitory variety of Fc receptor – FcγRIIB — is found on CD8+ T cells, and is a way of squeezing off T cell activity. Dogma over the past few decades held that T cells do not express Fc receptors, although evidence for them doing so went back to the 1970s.

“Our data suggest that the physiologic relevance of this pathway is to allow for control of active, highly differentiated effector T cells in the setting of chronic inflammation in order to limit immune pathology,” says senior author Mandy Ford, PhD, scientific director of Emory Transplant Center.

The co-first authors of the paper are IMP graduate student Anna Morris and surgical resident Clara Farley. They and their colleagues probed the functions of FcγRIIB on T cells in mice, and also found that increased expression of FcγRIIB correlated with freedom from rejection following withdrawal from immunosuppression in a clinical trial of kidney transplant recipients. This data came from the CTOT09 study from the Clinical Trials in Organ Transplantation Consortium. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Probing visual memory at leisure

Emory Brain Health researchers have developed a computer program that passively assesses visual memory. An infrared eye tracker monitors eye movements, while the person being tested views a series of photos.

This approach, relatively unstrenuous for those whose memory is being assessed, is an alternative for the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. It detects degeneration of the regions of the brain that govern visual memory (entorhinal cortex/hippocampus), which are some of the earliest to deteriorate.

The approach was published in Learning and Memory last year, but bioinformatics chair Gari Clifford discussed the project at a recent talk, and we felt it deserved more attention. First author Rafi Haque is a MD/PhD student in the Neuroscience program, with neurology chair/Goizueta ADRC director Allan Levey as senior author.

Eye tracking of people with MCI and Alzheimer’s shows they spend less time checking the new or missing element in the critical region of the photo, compared with healthy controls. Adapted from Haque et al 2019.

The entire test takes around 4 minutes on a standard 24 inch monitor (a follow-up publication on an iPad version is in the pipeline). Photos are presented twice a few minutes apart, and the second time, part of the photo is missing or new – see diagram above. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Model of a sticky situation

Here’s an example of how 3D printing can be applied to pediatric cardiology. It’s also an example of how Georgia Tech, Emory and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta all work together.

Biomedical engineers used a modified form of gelatin to create a model of pulmonary arteries in newborn and adolescent patients with a complex (and serious) congenital heart defect: tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia. The model allowed the researchers to simulate surgical catheter-based intervention in vitro.

The results were recently published in Journal of the American Heart Association. Biomedical engineer Vahid Serpooshan and his lab collaborated with Sibley Heart Center pediatric cardiologist Holly Bauser-Heaton; both are part of the Children’s Heart Research and Outcomes Center.

“This is a patient-specific platform, created with state-of-the-art 3D bioprinting technology, allowing us to optimize various interventions,” Serpooshan says.

Model of an adolescent patient’s pulmonary arteries, created by 3D printing. From Tomov et al JAHA (2019) via Creative Commons

 

 

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Heart Leave a comment

Setting the goalposts for ALS clinical trials

In the fight against a relentless neurodegenerative disease such as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a critical question for research is: what is the definition of success?

Emory neurologists, with advice from other experts, have created a new disability rating scale for ALS. This is a set of questions patients or their caregivers answer to gauge how much ALS is eroding someone’s ability to manage daily life. The researchers think it can become a resource for testing new treatments for ALS in clinical trials.

The research used to develop the new rating scale was published on December 30 in JAMA Neurology. The rating scale itself will be available on the Emory ALS Center web site.

ALS’s attack on motor neurons makes it progressively more difficult to accomplish tasks such as household chores, daily hygiene, and eventually speaking and eating. Some patients live a year or two after diagnosis, some live ten.

Christina Fournier, MD

“If our goal in clinical trials is to have that decline happen more slowly, how we measure it matters,” says lead author Christina Fournier, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Emory University School of Medicine and co-director of Emory’s ALS Center.

Update: see Fournier’s comments to Medscape/Reuters Health here.

The current standard outcome measure is the ALSFRS-R (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Functional Rating Scale-Revised). While widely accepted in the field, the ALSFRS-R has some uneven aspects, or nonlinear weighting, which become problems when it is used to determine drug approval.

One example: a patient’s score will decline 3 points if they change from climbing stairs normally to holding a handrail, and will decline the same amount if they change from normal dressing and hygiene to being unable to dress or perform hygiene tasks without assistance. So 3 points can represent small or large changes in their lives. Also, the ALSFRS-R can change depending on symptom management, rather than underlying biology.

To put this in perspective, the most recent drug to be approved by the FDA (edaravone) displayed an effect size of 2.5 points – and the same drug faced resistance from European regulators. According to the Wall Street Journal, about 20 drugs are in clinical testing for ALS and 5 are in the late stages of development. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Powerful opioids + kids: bad combo

New research demonstrates the dangers of having powerful opioids such as fentanyl around children and adolescents. National Poison Data System reports show that many are ingesting the drugs unintentionally, but particularly concerning is a rise in the proportion of suspected suicides.

Among children, the proportion of opioid poisonings resulting in admission to a hospital critical care unit has increased since 2005, according to an analysis by Emory and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta doctors.

Megan Land, MD, Jocelyn Grunwell, MD, PhD and colleagues in the Division of Critical Care in the Department of Pediatrics conducted the research, which is published in the journal Clinical Toxicology.

In a December 20 broadcast, critical care fellow Land told NPR’s Rhitu Chatterjee about her encounter with a child with severe respiratory distress as a result of consuming a fentanyl patch. Grunwell has previous experience studying pediatric intensive care admissions procedures and poisonings.

Read more

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Shout out to Behind the Microscope podcast

For podcast listeners in the Emory biomedical research community, Behind the Microscope is a must-follow. It is produced by four students in Emory’s MD/PhD program: Carey Jansen, Joe Behnke, Michael Sayegh and Bejan Saeedi. They’re focused on career issues such as mentorship and grant strategy rather than the science itself (thus, complementary to Lab Land).

In their list of interviewees so far, they lean toward their fellow “double docs.” Since starting off in October, they’ve talked with Anita Corbett, Brian Robinson, Sean Stowell, Stefi Barbian and Steven Sloan (MD/PhDs underlined). Here are the Apple and Google podcast listings; episodes are also available on platforms such as Anchor.fm.

 

 

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