Quinn Eastman

Super-cold technique = hot way to see enzyme structure

In the last decade, a revolution has been taking place in structural biology, the field in which scientists produce detailed maps of how enzymes and other machines in the cell work. That revolution is being driven by cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM for short), which is superseding X-ray crystallography as the main data-production technique and earned a chemistry Nobel in 2017.

Just before COVID-19 sent some Emory researchers home and drove others to pivot their work toward coronavirus, Lab Land had a chance to tour the cryo-EM facility and take photos, with the help of Puneet Juneja, director of the core. Juneja demonstrated how samples are prepared for data collection — see the series of photos below.

Someone coming into the facility in the Biochemistry Connector area will notice a sign telling visitors and those passing by to stay quiet (forgot to take a photo of that!). The facility has electrical shielding and temperature/humidity controls. Also two levels of cooling are required for samples, since they are flash-frozen or “vitrified” in liquid ethane, which is in turn cooled by liquid nitrogen. The cooling needs to happen quickly so that ice crystals do not form. The massive cryo-EM equipment rests on a vibration-reduction platform; no music and no loud conversation are allowed during data collection.

One of the first structures obtained in this relatively new facility was the structure of a viral RNA polymerase, the engine behind viral replication. It wasn’t a coronavirus enzyme – it was from RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).

Still, cryo-EM is a way to visualize exactly how drugs that inhibit the SARS-CoV-2 polymerase – such as remdesivir or Emory’s own EIDD-2801 – exert their effects. Chinese researchers recently published a cryo-EM structure of the SARS-CoV-2 polymerase with remdesivir in Science. Read more

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

Blog editor shift

This is partly a temporary good-bye and partly an introduction to Wayne Drash.

Wayne will be filling in for Quinn Eastman, who has been the main editor of Lab Land. Wayne is a capable writer. He spent 24 years at CNN, most recently within its health unit. He won an Emmy with Sanjay Gupta for a documentary about the separation surgery of two boys conjoined at the head.

Wayne plans to continue writing about biomedical research at Emory, both COVID-19-related and not. He and Quinn are particularly interested in the efforts of Emory physicians and immunologists to develop a convalescent plasma bank and serology testing, as well as the continued progress of the DRIVE antiviral. It has been inspiring to see the Emory research community rally against COVID-19, despite huge challenges. Read more

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Some types of intestinal bacteria protect the liver

Certain types of intestinal bacteria can help protect the liver from injuries such as alcohol or acetaminophen overdose, according to Emory scientists led by pathologist Andrew Neish and physiologist Dean Jones.

The research was published on March 25 in Cell Metabolism.

“The composition of the microbiota, because of natural variation, dysbiosis, or supplementation with probiotics, can strongly affect how the liver processes both toxins and pharmacological agents, and thus have clinical consequences on how individuals respond to such exogenous chemicals,” Neish says.

While pretreatment with bacteria is needed for the observed effect in acute liver injury, probiotics or small molecule substitutes may be useful in the treatment of chronic liver diseases, the authors suggest.

In mice, oral administration of Lactobacillus rhamnosus or LGG could protect against liver damage brought on by alcohol or acetaminophen. Several labs had already observed a beneficial effect from LGG against liver injury, but the Emory research establishes an additional mechanism.

The protection comes from a small molecule metabolite produced by the bacteria called 5-MIAA (5-methoxyindoleacetic acid), activating the mammalian transcription factor Nrf2. Other types of bacteria did not produce 5-MIAA or activate Nrf2. While LGG is also known to improve the barrier function of the gut and dampen inflammation, liver-specific depletion of Nrf2 prevented LGG’s beneficial effects, suggesting that this is the primary mechanism of action. Read more

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Targeting metastasis through metabolism

Research from Adam Marcus’ and Mala Shanmugam’s labs was published Tuesday in Nature Communications – months after we wrote an article for Winship Cancer Institute’s magazine about it. So here it is again!

At your last visit to the dentist, you may have been given a mouth rinse with the antiseptic chlorhexidine. Available over the counter, chlorhexidine is also washed over the skin to prepare someone for surgery. Winship researchers are now looking at chlorhexidine and its chemical relative alexidine for another purpose: stopping cancer metastasis.

While the researchers don’t envision using chlorhexidine mouthwash as an anti-cancer measure directly, their findings suggest ways to combine other drugs, already in clinical trials, in ways that could deplete the cells needed for metastasis.

When used as an antiseptic, chlorhexidine is basically a detergent that blasts bacteria apart, scientists think. As leads for potential anti-cancer agents, chlorhexidine and its relatives appear to have a different effect. They interfere with mitochondria, the miniature power plants in our cells. Cancer cells trying to metastasize and invade other tissues seem to need their mitochondria more—especially the cells that are leading the way. Read more

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Immunotherapy combo achieves reservoir shrinkage in HIV model

Stimulating immune cells with two cancer immunotherapies together can shrink the size of the viral “reservoir” in SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus)-infected nonhuman primates treated with antiviral drugs, Emory researchers and their colleagues have concluded. The reservoir includes immune cells that harbor virus despite potent antiviral drug treatment.

The findings, reported in Nature Medicine, have important implications for the quest to cure HIV because reservoir shrinkage has not been achieved consistently before. However, the combination treatment does not prevent or delay viral rebound once antiviral drugs are stopped. Finding an HIV cure is important because, although antiretroviral therapy can reduce the amount of circulating virus to undetectable levels, problematic issues remain such as social stigma in addition to the long-term toxicity and cost of antiretroviral drugs.

“It’s a glass-half-full situation,” says senior author Mirko Paiardini, PhD. “We concluded immune checkpoint blockade, even a very effective combination, is unlikely to achieve viral remission as a standalone treatment during antiretroviral therapy.”

He adds the approach may have greater potential if combined with other immune-stimulating agents. Or it could be deployed at a different point — when the immune system is engaged in fighting the virus, creating a target-rich environment. Other HIV/AIDS researchers have started to test those tactics, he says.

Paiardini is an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and a researcher at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The study performed in nonhuman primates, considered the best animal model for HIV studies, was carried out in collaboration with co-authors Shari Gordon and David Favre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and GlaxoSmithKline; Katharine Bar at the University of Pennsylvania; and Jake Estes at Oregon Health & Science University. Read more

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NINDS supporting Emory/UF work on myotonic dystrophy

A collaboration we wrote about back in 2017, between Emory cell biology chair Gary Bassell and University of Florida neurogeneticist Eric Wang, is taking off.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has awarded Bassell’s and Wang’s laboratories $2.2 million over five years to examine the neuronal function of Muscleblind-like proteins, which play key roles in myotonic dystrophy.

Gary Bassell and Eric Wang have been collaborating on myotonic dystrophy research

The classic symptom for myotonic dystrophy is having trouble releasing one’s grip on a doorknob, but it is a multi-system disorder, caused by expanded DNA triplet or quadruplet repeats. RNA from the expanded repeats is thought to bind and sequester Muscleblind-like proteins, leading to an impaired process of RNA splicing.

Bassell says the project is expected to clarify how Muscleblind-like proteins regulate RNA localization in neurons and also identify therapeutic targets. In recent years, the DM research community has been paying increasing attention to neurologic symptoms.

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Antios moving ahead with potential drug vs hepatitis B

Antios Therapeutics is moving ahead with Phase I clinical studies in Canada and Europe of an antiviral drug aimed at hepatitis B. Antios was formed in 2018 based on technology licensed from DRIVE, the non-profit drug development company owned by Emory.

Antios is developing ATI-2173, which was designed to direct a form of the drug clevudine to the liver. Pharmasset, formed by Emory scientists and later acquired by Gilead, was previously developing clevudine against hepatitis B. Pharmasset decided to stop clinical studies of clevudine in 2009 because of reports of drug-induced myopathy from South Korea. ATI-2173 is supposed to selectively deliver the drug to the liver, potentially eliminating off-target effects.

(DRIVE is also developing an drug with activity against influenza and the new coronavirus, but hepatitis B – with a weird partly double-stranded DNA genome— is quite different from both flu and coronaviruses. It does underline DRIVE’s experience with antivirals.)

Antios recently announced that the US Patent and Trademark Office has issued a notice of allowance for a patent covering ATI-2173. A full description is available from the World Intellectual Property Organization portal.

The patent is based on research carried out at Emory by Antios CEO and co-founder Abel De La Rosa, PhD, who was previously chief scientific officer at DRIVE and Emory Institute for Drug Development, and before that, an executive at Pharmasset. Read more

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Traynelis lead researcher on CureGRIN/Chan Zuckerberg award

Congratulations to the CureGRIN Foundation, which was recently awarded a capacity-building grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Rare as One Network. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is giving 30 patient advocacy groups such as CureGRIN $450,000 each over two years.

CureGRIN works closely with Emory pharmacologist Stephen Traynelis, who has been investigating rare genetic disorders affecting NMDA receptors, which play key roles in memory, learning and neuronal development. When NMDA receptor function is perturbed by mutations, symptoms appear in infancy or early childhood, usually including epilepsy and developmental delay.

For the grant, Traynelis is named as the lead researcher for the CureGRIN Foundation, with Tim Benke of Children’s Hospital Colorado as lead clinician. Traynelis is director of the Center for Functional Evaluation of Rare Variants, which hosted a gathering at Emory Conference Center that brought together several GRIN-oriented patient advocacy groups in September 2019.

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Neurodegeneration accelerated by intestinal bacteria?

An influential theory about the anatomical trajectory of Parkinson’s disease is getting a microbial boost. The idea, first proposed by neuroanatomist Heiko Braak in 2003, is that pathology and neurodegeneration start in the intestines and then travel to the brain. See this article in Scientific American for background.

Illustration showing neurons with Lewy bodies, depicted as small red spheres, which are deposits of aggregated proteins in brain cells

Timothy Sampson, in Emory’s Department of Physiology, was first author on a recent paper in eLife, which explores the idea that prion-like proteins produced by intestinal bacteria can accelerate the aggregation of similar proteins found in our cells. The findings suggest that interventions targeting intestinal bacteria could modulate neurodegeneration.

Sampson, a former Emory graduate student who did postdoctoral work in Sarkis Mazmaniam’s lab at Caltech, says he will continue the project here. He and his colleagues were looking at the interaction between a bacterial protein called Curli – involved in adhesion + biofilms — and the aggregation-prone mammalian protein alpha-synuclein, known as a main component of the Lewy body clumps seen in Parkinson’s. The experiments were in a mouse model of Parkinson’s neurodegeneration, in which human alpha-synuclein is overproduced.

Looking ahead, Sampson says he is interested in what signals from the microbiome may trigger, accelerate or slow synuclein aggregation. He’s also looking at where in the GI tract synuclein begins to aggregate, possibly facilitated by particular cells in the intestine, and whether the observations with alpha-synuclein hold true for other proteins such as amyloid-beta in Alzheimer’s.

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Mapping the cancer genome wilderness

A huge cancer genome project has highlighted how DNA that doesn’t code for proteins is still important for keeping our cells on track.

The Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes analyzed more than 2,600 tumors from 38 tissues, looking for causative mutations and patterns. Previous work had concentrated on the regions of the genome that code for proteins, but a significant proportion of cancer patients’ tumors don’t carry known “driver” (causative) mutations in protein-coding regions. So this project went out into what used to be called “junk DNA” or the “dark matter” of the genome.

Emory bioinformatics postdoc Matthew Reyna is the first author of one of 23 papers on the PCAWG project, published Feb. 5 in the Nature family of journals. His paper in Nature Communications looks at mutations in non-coding regions of the genome in tumors, analyzing which biological processes are affected.

Some of these were mutations in the promoters of genes encoding well-known cancer suppressors such as p53, but the project also identified new genes containing cancer-driving mutations. A promoter is the stretch of DNA that tells the cell “make RNA copies starting here”.

Reyna contributed to the project while he was at Princeton, working with Benjamin Raphael, and at Emory as well. More recently, he’s been investigating protein-protein interactions with Haian Fu, Andrey Ivanov and others as part of the Cancer Target Discovery and Development (CTD2) project.

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