Quinn Eastman

Default daydreaming linked to Alzheimer’s amyloid

Cut the daydreaming, and you can lessen the neurodegenerative burden on your brain? Surprising new research suggests that how we use our brains may influence which parts of the brain are most vulnerable to amyloid-beta (Aβ), which forms plaques in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease.

Lary Walker, PhD, has been investigating why amyloid accumulation seems to lead to Alzheimer's in humans but not non-human primates

In the June issue of Nature Neuroscience, Yerkes National Primate Research Center scientist Lary Walker and Mathias Jucker from the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research in Tübingen, Germany summarize intriguing recent research on regional brain activity and Aβ accumulation.

Neuroscientists have described a set of interconnected brain regions called the “default mode network,” which appear to be activated during activities such as introspection, memory retrieval, daydreaming and imagination. When a person engages in an externally directed task, such as reading, playing a musical instrument, or solving puzzles, activity in the default network decreases.

The Nature Neuroscience paper, from David Holtzman and colleagues at Washington University St. Louis, suggests prolonged metabolic activation of the default-mode network in mice can render that system vulnerable to Aβ by accelerating Aβ deposition and plaque growth.

This line of research turns the “use it or lose it” idea upside-down. Use the default network too much, and the effect may be harmful. Walker and Jucker suggest why education, for example, appears to head off Alzheimer’s in epidemiological studies: by getting the brain involved in non-default/externally directed mode activity.

This idea has additional consequences that can be tested in the clinic. For example, by increasing metabolism in default-mode regions of the brain, prolonged wakefulness caused by sleep disorders might increase Aβ burden.

Walker and Jucker conclude: “Meanwhile, perhaps the best strategy for lessening soluble Aβ in the default mode network may be simply to work diligently, play hard and sleep well.”

 

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 2 Comments

Low vitamin D in people with HIV: links to heart risk, immune function

In people with HIV, low vitamin D levels have been linked to thicker carotid arteries as well as a weaker comeback for the immune system after starting antiretroviral therapy.

These results, published online recently in the journal Antiviral Therapy, are the first to confirm an association between low vitamin D levels and a measure of higher cardiovascular risk in people with HIV. They also suggest that the benefits of vitamin D supplementation for people with HIV should be evaluated in a clinical trial.

Allison Ross, MD, is an infectious disease specialist in the Department of Pediatrics and the Emory-Children's Pediatric Research Center.

The advent of effective antiretroviral therapy against HIV has dramatically improved life expectancies for people with HIV over the last 15 years. The presence of HIV is known to perturb cardiovascular health, even in the absence of an active infection. Since vitamin D levels are known to have an impact on the immune system and cardiovascular disease risk, that drove infectious disease specialist Allison Ross and her colleagues to probe these connections in people living with HIV. The results were also described on the Web sites AidsMeds and NAM/AidsMap.

Ross studied a group of HIV-positive people enrolled in Case Western Reserve University’s HIV clinic in Cleveland. Colleagues from Emory and Case Western were co-authors.

They tested vitamin D levels, immune function and heart health in 149 HIV-positive people and a matched group of 34 HIV-negative people. Vitamin D levels were significantly lower in the HIV-positive group, even when controlling for known factors that affect vitamin D.

The researchers looked at how much the immune system was able to come back after starting retroviral therapy. This involves comparing someone’s lowest ever CD4 T cell count from the current CD4 count. They found that people with the poorest level of immune restoration were the most likely to have the lowest level of vitamin D. In addition, people with the lowest vitamin D levels were more than 10 times as likely to have thickening of the carotid arteries, as measured by ultrasound.

Inflammation can be a driving factor for heart disease, but in the study, low vitamin D was not linked to higher levels of inflammation markers. Additional research could determine whether those who are starting antiretroviral therapy would see better immune recovery if they took a vitamin D supplement.

Researchers at Emory have been investigating several aspects of low Vitamin D levels and their impact on health, including a connection with Parkinson’s disease. Endocrinologist Vin Tangpricha notes that Emory studies are looking at vitamin D in the context of tuberculosis, sepsis, sickle cell disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis and pain sensitivity.

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What cancer researchers can learn from fruit fly genetics

What can scientists studying cancer biology learn from fruit flies?

Quite a lot, it turns out.  At a time when large projects such as the Cancer Genome Atlas seek to define the changes in DNA that drive cancer formation, it is helpful to have the insight gained from other arenas, such as fruit flies, to make sense of the mountains of data.

Drosophila melanogaster has been an important model organism for genetics because the flies are easy to care for, reproduce rapidly, and have an easily manipulated genome. This NCI newsletter article describes how some investigators have used Drosophila to find genes involved in metastasis.

Emory cell biologist Ken Moberg says that he and postdoctoral fellow Melissa Gilbert crafted a Drosophila-based strategy to identify growth-regulating genes that previous researchers may have missed. Their approach allowed them to begin defining the function of a gene that is often mutated in lung cancer. The results are published online in Developmental Cell.

Part of the developing fly larva, stained with an antibody against Myopic. Groups of cells lacking Myopic, which lack green color, tend to divide more rapidly.

Moberg writes:

Many screens have been carried out in flies looking for single gene lesions that drive tissue overgrowth. But a fundamental lesson from years of cancer research is that many, and perhaps most, cancer-causing mutations also drive compensatory apoptosis, and blocking this apoptosis is absolutely required for cancer outgrowth.

We reasoned that this class of ‘conditional’ growth suppressor genes had been missed in prior screens, so we designed an approach to look for them. The basic pathways of apoptosis are fairly well conserved in flies, so it’s fairly straight forward to do this.

Explanatory note: apoptosis is basically a form of cellular suicide, which can arise when signals within the cell clash; one set of proteins says “grow, grow” and another says “brake, brake,” with deadly results.

Gilbert identified the fruit fly gene Myopic as one of these conditional growth regulators. She used a system where mutations in Myopic drive some of the cells in the fly’s developing eye to grow out more – but only when apoptosis is disabled.

Gilbert showed that Myopic is part of a group of genes in flies, making up the Hippo pathway, which regulates how large a developing organ will become. This pathway was largely defined in flies, then tested in humans, Moberg says. The functions of the genes in this pathway have been maintained so faithfully that in some cases, the human versions can substitute for the fly versions.

Myopic’s ortholog (ie different species, similar sequence and function) is the gene His-domain protein tyrosine phosphatase, or HD-PTP for short. This gene is located on part of the human genome that is deleted in more than 90 percent of both small cell and non-small cell lung cancers, and is also deleted in renal cancer cells.

How HD-PTP, when it is intact, controls the growth of cells in the human lung or kidney is not known. Gilbert and Moberg’s findings suggest that HD-PTP may function through a mechanism that is similar to Myopic’s functions in the fly.

Besides clarifying what Myopic does in the fly, their paper essentially creates a map for scientists studying HD-PTP’s involvement in lung cancer, for example, to probe and validate.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer 1 Comment

Nitrite: from cured meat to protected heart

Nitrite may be best known as a food additive used in cured meats such as hot dogs, but medical researchers are studying how it could treat several conditions, including preventing damage to the heart after a heart attack.

Leaders in the nitrite field are meeting May 11 -13, 2011 at Emory Conference Center in Atlanta. One of the lead organizers is David Lefer, PhD, professor of surgery at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Cardiothoracic Research Laboratory. Lefer discusses the beneficial effects of nitrite in the video below. More information about the meeting is available here.

Scientists think supplying a pulse of nitrite can reduce injury to heart tissue coming from the interruption of blood flow. Several clinical trials are now investigating nitrite as a therapy for conditions such as heart attack, ruptured aneurysm, sickle cell pain crisis and cardiac arrest.

Nitrite acts as the body’s reserve for nitric oxide, which turns on chemical pathways that relax blood vessels. Delivering nitric oxide directly into the body is expensive and hard to control. Unlike nitric oxide, whose lifetime in the body is a few seconds, nitrite is stable and stored in the body’s tissues and can be delivered in a variety of ways. It is converted into nitric oxide under conditions when the body needs it: lack of blood or oxygen. In addition, sodium nitrite has been used as part of a cyanide antidote kit. This means that safety data on large doses of nitrite in critically ill people is available.

In a 2005 paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Lefer and colleagues showed that nitrite can reduce damage to the hearts of mice after a simulated heart attack. More recently, assistant professor John Calvert and Lefer have shown that internally generated and stored nitrite is an important way that exercise protects the heart from a heart attack.

Some blood pressure studies underway in Europe have participants consume large amounts of beet juice as their source of nitrate, which is then converted to nitrite in the body.

A wave of public concern about nitrite and its relative nitrate in the 1970s focused on their presence in cured meats and their ability to form nitrosamines, which can be carcinogenic. Subsequent investigation showed that actually, most of the nitrite and nitrate in the average adult’s diet come from vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, and that antioxidants such as vitamin C can prevent nitrosamine formation.

Nathan Bryan, a speaker at the conference from UT-Houston, was featured in a recent television news story about herbal supplements designed to boost nitrite in the body.

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Brain enhancement: can and should we do it?

The Emory Center for Ethics and Emory’s Neuroscience Graduate Program recently co-hosted a symposium discussing the ethics of brain-enhancing technologies, both electronic and pharmacological.

Georgia Tech biomedical engineer Steve Potter explained his work harnessing the behavior of neurons grown on a grid of electrodes. The neurons, isolated from rats, produce bursts of electrical signals in various patterns, which can be “tuned” by the inputs they receive.

“The cells want to form circuits and wire themselves up,” he said.

As for future opportunities, he cited the technique of deep brain stimulation as well as clinical trials in progress, including one testing technology developed by the company Neuropace that monitors the brain’s electrical activity for the purpose of suppressing epileptic seizures. Similar technology is being developed to help control prosthetic limbs and could also promote recovery from brain injury or stroke, he said. Eventually, electrical stimulation that is not modulated according to feedback from the brain will be seen as an overly blunt instrument, even “barbaric,” he said.

Mike Kuhar, a neuroscientist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, introduced the topic of cognitive enhancers or “smart drugs.” He described one particular class of proposed cognitive enhancers, called ampakines, which appear to improve functioning on certain tasks without stimulating signals throughout the brain. Kuhar questioned whether “smart drugs” pose unique challenges, compared to other types of drugs. From a pharmacology perspective, he said there is less distinction between therapy and enhancement, compared to a perspective imposed by regulators or insurance companies. He described three basic concerns: safety (avoiding toxicity or unacceptable side effects), freedom (lack of coercion from governments or employers) and fairness.

“Every drug has side effects,” he said. “There has to be a balance between the benefits versus the risks, and regulation plays an important role in that.”

He identified antidepressants and treatments for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder or the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease as already raising similar issues. The FDA has designated mild cognitive impairment associated with aging as an open area for pharmaceutical development, he noted.

James Hughes, a sociologist from Trinity College and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, welcomed new technologies that he said could not only treat disease, but also enhance human capabilities and address social challenges such as criminal rehabilitation. However, he did identify potential “Ulysses problems”, where users of new technologies would need to exercise control and judgment.

In contrast, historian and Judaic scholar Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, from Arizona State University, decried an “overly mechanistic and not culturally-based understanding of what it means to be human.” She described transhumanism as a utopian extension of 19th century utilitarianism as expounded by thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham.

“Is the brain simply a computational machine?” she asked.

The use of military metaphors – such as “the war on cancer” – in the context of mental illness creates the false impression that everything is correctable or even perfectable, she said.

Emory neuroscience program director Yoland Smith said he wants ethics to become a strong component of Emory’s neuroscience program, with similar discussions and debates to come in future years.

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Talent in the pipeline

The Pipeline program, an initiative led by Emory medical students to improve college readiness and promote health career interest among Atlanta high school students, held graduation ceremonies Wednesday night at Emory University School of Medicine.

Graduating seniors and their mentors. All 19 seniors have at least one college acceptance, reports Pipeline co-founder Zwade Marshall.

Leaders at South Atlanta School of Health and Medical Sciences credit Pipeline with sparking interest in health science careers and bolstering attendance and academic performance.

“We see more leadership, not just in class but in the whole building,” says Edward Anderson, a teacher who coordinates the program. “Students are picking up the torch and running with it. I believe they will be future leaders and have a great impact.”

Sophomores, juniors, and seniors have access to a distinct curriculum with a classroom component, one-on-one mentoring by Emory undergraduates, and hands-on demonstrations. Sophomores explore infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS. Juniors study neuroscience. And seniors—who get help with college application coaching—focus on cardiology and community outreach, culminating in a health fair that they organize at their school.

Pipeline is run by Emory student volunteers with the support of the School of Medicine Office of Multicultural Medical Student Affairs, the Office of University-Community Partnerships, and the Emory Center for Science Education.

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Links between autism and epilepsy

An article in the April 2011 issue of Nature Medicine highlights the mechanistic overlap between autism and epilepsy.

By studying how rare genetic conditions known to coincide with both epilepsy and autism—such as Rett syndrome, fragile X syndrome and tuberous sclerosis—unfold at an early age, neuroscientists are finding that both disorders may alter some of the same neural receptors, signaling molecules and proteins involved in the development of brain cell synapses.

Gary Bassell, PhD

Emory cell biologist Gary Bassell and his colleagues have been taking exactly this approach. Recently they published a paper in Journal of Neuroscience, showing that the protein missing in fragile X syndrome, FMRP, regulates expression of an ion channel linked to epilepsy. This could provide a partial explanation for the link between fragile X syndrome and epilepsy.

The Nature Medicine article also mentions a drug strategy, targeting the mTOR pathway, which Bassell’s group has been exploring with fragile X syndrome.

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HIV vaccine design: always a moving target

HIV presents a challenge to vaccine design because it is always changing. If doctors vaccinate people against one variety of virus, will the antibodies they produce stop the virus that they later encounter?

A recently published report on an experimental HIV vaccine’s limited effectiveness in human volunteers illustrates this ongoing puzzle in the HIV vaccine field.

Paul Spearman, now chief research officer for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and vice chair for research for Emory’s Department of Pediatrics, began overseeing the study when he was at Vanderbilt. The report is in the April 15 issue of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Paul Spearman, MD

The vaccine was designed to elicit both antibody and T cell responses against HIV and in particular, to generate broadly neutralizing antibodies. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Volunteers who received the vaccine made antibodies that could neutralize the virus in the vaccine, but not related viruses thought to be like what participants in a larger study might encounter.

“High levels of neutralizing antibodies can be raised against HIV, while at the same time, breadth of neutralization has never yet been achieved in a vaccine,” Spearman says. “The essential problem is that the antibodies raised have a narrow specificity, while the virus is extremely variable. In contrast, about 20% of HIV-infected individuals will demonstrate neutralization breadth.”

Last year, scientists demonstrated a method for identifying these broadly neutralizing antibodies in HIV-infected individuals. However, having a vaccine hit that target reliably is still elusive.

Spearman reports that he is in charge of a new trial that will be boosting the same individuals that participated in the previous trial with HIV protein from a clade C virus, starting later this year. Clade C is the predominant HIV subtype in southern Africa, while clade B, used in the published trial, is the predominant subtype in North America and Western Europe.

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Indispensable cilia

Cilia are tiny hair-like structures on the outside of cells. Your memory of cilia may extend back to biology class, when you saw a picture of a paramecium or lung tissues, where cilia keep surfaces free of dirt and mucus.

Ciliated cells in the human oviduct

In the last few years, scientists have been learning more about cilia’s many roles in the body. Nearly all mammalian cells have cilia, and they are thought to act more like antennae, sending and receiving signals. Defects in cilia have been connected to lung, heart, kidney and eye diseases. Accordingly, Emory’s 15th BCMB training grant symposium focuses on cilia, beginning Thursday evening with a keynote talk by Susan Dutcher from Washington University, St. Louis and extending all day Friday.

At Emory, cell biologist Winfield Sale’s laboratory uses the model system of the alga Chlamydomonas to study dynein, a molecular motor that drives the functions of cilia. In addition, geneticist Tamara Caspary’s laboratory is studying how defects in cilia can lead to altered embryonic development. Ping Chen’s group has been examining cilia in the context of inner ear development.

This week’s program is sponsored by Emory’s graduate program in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology, the Departments of Cell Biology, Biochemistry, Pharmacology, Biology, Microbiology and Immunology, Physics, the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences and the Woodruff Health Sciences Center.

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A milestone in treating hemophilia

Hematologist Pete Lollar has devoted his career to developing treatments for hemophilia A, which is caused by a lack of blood clotting factor VIII. Lollar is a professor of pediatrics in Emory School of Medicine and director of hemostasis research at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Last week, Lollar was honored by Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer for setting in motion research that has progressed to a phase III clinical trial of a new product, OBI-1, a special form of factor VIII.

John "Pete" Lollar, MD

Along with this milestone came a dramatic story, described by OTT’s assistant director Cale Lennon. The first patient to enroll in the clinical trial did so in November 2010 because of what appeared to be acquired hemophilia, which led to severe uncontrolled hemorrhaging. As a result of treatment with OBI-1, developed by Lollar and his research team at Emory, the patient’s bleeding was brought under control and it saved his life. He was treated at Indiana Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center in Indianapolis.

Acquired hemophilia is a challenge for doctors to deal with because it is such a surprise. Unlike people with inherited hemophilia, those with acquired hemophilia do not have a personal or family history of bleeding episodes. Their immune systems are somehow provoked into making antibodies against their own clotting factor VIII. These antibodies also appear over time in about 30 percent of patients with inherited hemophilia who take standard clotting factors.

OBI-1, a special form of clotting factor VIII, is less of a red flag to the immune system. This allows treatment of patients who cannot benefit from standard clotting factor VIII, because of the presence of auto-antibodies.

Emory originally licensed OBI-1 to Octagen Corporation, a “homegrown” startup company founded in 1997. Octagen sublicensed the OBI-1 technology to a French biotechnology firm, Ipsen Biopharm in 1998. Over the next decade, Octagen and Ipsen pursued preclinical and initial clinical studies and completed a phase II clinical trial in 2006. Ipsen purchased the OBI-1 program outright in May 2008.

In January 2010, Ipsen developed a partnership agreement with Inspiration Biopharmaceuticals, which was founded by two businessmen whose children have hemophilia. Under the agreement’s terms, Inspiration licensed OBI-1 from Ipsen and is responsible for its clinical development, regulatory approval and commercialization.

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