Quinn Eastman

Complexity of NMDA receptor drug discovery target revealed

Know your target. Especially if your target is coming into focus for treating diseases such as schizophrenia and treatment-resistant depression.

NMDA receptors, critical for learning and memory, are sensors in the brain. Studying them in molecular detail is challenging, because they usually come in four parts, and the parts aren’t all the same.

Researchers at Emory have been probing one variety of NMDA receptor assembly found in the cerebellum, and also in the thalamus, a central gateway for sensory inputs, important for cognition, movement and sleep. This variety includes a subunit called GluN2C – together with two partners, GluN1 and GluN2A.

The results were published Thursday, June 28 in Neuron.

Outside of a living brain, NMDA receptor assemblies are typically studied with either two copies of GluN2C or two of GluN2A, but not with one of each, says senior author Stephen Traynelis, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine

“Our data suggest that GluN2C is rarely by itself,” Traynelis says. “It’s typically paired up with another GluN2 subunit. This means we really don’t know what the properties of the main NMDA receptor in the cerebellum or the thalamus are.”

Psychiatrists have become interested in GluN2C because it appears to decline in the brains of schizophrenia patients. Mice without adequate levels of GluN2C display abnormalities in learning, memory and sensory processing, which together resemble schizophrenia in humans. In addition, GluN2C appears to be important for the mechanism of ketamine, a drug being studied for its rapid anti-depressant effects.

Using drugs that are selective for particular combinations of NMDA receptor subunits, Traynelis’ laboratory showed that an assembly of GluN2A and GluN2C is the dominant form in the mouse cerebellum. When GluN2C is introduced into cortical neurons, it prefers to pair up with GluN2A, the researchers found. This raises the question, in regions such as the thalamus, of whether GluN2C also appears with a partner GluN2 subunit. They also observed that the GluN2A-GluN2C assembly has distinct electrochemical properties. Read more

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Measuring sleepiness: alternatives to five naps

In a 2015 episode of The Simpsons, Homer is diagnosed with narcolepsy. Overwhelming sleepiness at the nuclear power plant lands him in the hospital. Sampling his spinal fluid (ouch!), Homer’s chuckling, deep-voiced doctor quickly performs a test for hypocretin, a brain chemical important for staying awake and regulating REM sleep.

Reality check: testing for hypocretin takes time, and is not currently available in the United States. Let’s talk about how sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia are actually diagnosed: operationally, rather than biologically. The less flashy, but standard, way to assess patients is to ask them to take a series of five naps and see how fast they doze off, and how fast they go into REM sleep (the rapid eye movement dreaming phase).

This process, known as the Multiple Sleep Latency Test or MSLT, works pretty well for narcolepsy type 1, the more distinctive form of narcolepsy that includes cataplexy. And it’s hard to fake being sleepy enough to zonk out within a few minutes. But it has a bunch of problems, and dissatisfaction with the MSLT has been developing among sleep specialists for the last several years.

Lynn Marie Trotti, MD

At Emory, neurologists Lynn Marie Trotti and David Rye published an analysis of what I will call the “flip flop problem” in 2013, with others in the field following up more recently. The flip flop problem is: someone who takes the MSLT one day will frequently get another result if they take it again on a different day. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 1 Comment

‘Unbiased’ approaches to Alzheimer’s

In recent news stories about Alzheimer’s disease research, we noticed a word popping up: unbiased. Allan Levey, chair of Emory’s neurology department and head of Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, likes to use that word too. It’s key to a “back to the drawing board” shift taking place in the Alzheimer’s field.

Last week’s announcement of a link between herpes viruses and Alzheimer’s, which Emory researchers contributed to, was part of this shift. Keep in mind: the idea that viral infection contributes to Alzheimer’s has been around a long time, and the Neuron paper doesn’t nail down causality.  

Still, here’s an example quote from National Institute on Aging director Richard Hodes: “This is the first study to provide strong evidence based on unbiased approaches and large data sets that lends support to this line of inquiry.”

What is the bias that needs to be wrung out of the science? The “amyloid hypothesis” has dominated drug development for the last several years. Amyloid is a main constituent of the plaques that appear in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, so treatments that counteract amyloid’s accumulation should help, right? Unfortunately, antibodies against amyloid or inhibitors of enzymes that process it generally haven’t worked out in big clinical trials, although the possibility remains that they weren’t introduced early enough to have a decent effect. Read more

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Antibody production: an endurance sport

Antibodies defend us against infections, so they often get described as weapons. And the cells that produce them could be weapon factories?. To understand recent research from immunologist Jerry Boss’s lab, a more appropriate metaphor is the distinction between sprinting and long-distance running.

Graduate student Madeline Price in Boss’s lab has been investigating how antibody-producing cells use glucose – the simple sugar– and how the cells’ patterns of gene activity reflect that usage. Cells can use glycolysis, which is inefficient but fast, analogous to sprinting, or oxidative phosphorylation, generating much more energy overall, more like long distance running.

As Boss and Price point out:

Immunology + Molecular Pathogenesis graduate student Madeline Price

Glycolytic metabolism produces 2 molecules of ATP per molecule of glucose, while oxidative phosphorylation produces 36 molecules of ATP from the same starting glucose molecule. Where oxidative phosphorylation generates more energy from ATP, glycolysis generates metabolic intermediates that are also useful for rapid cellular proliferation.

In their recent paper in Cell Reports, they lay out what happens to B cells, which can go on to become antibody secreting cells (ASCs), after an initial encounter with bacteria. The B cells first proliferate and upregulate both glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation. However, upon differentiating, the cells shift their preference to oxidative phosphorylation. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Focus on antibiotic resistance at ASM Microbe 2018

We are excited that the ASM Microbe meeting will be at the Georgia World Congress Center from June 7 to June 11. If you are interested in antibiotic resistance, you can learn about how to detect it, how to (possibly) defeat it and how the bacteria fight back.

A host of Emory microbiologists are participating. In some cases, our scientists are presenting their unpublished data for discussion with their colleagues at other universities. Accordingly, we are not going to spill the beans on those results. However, please find below some examples of who’s talking and a bit of explanatory background. ASM Microbe abstracts are available online for posters, but not for some symposiums and plenary talks.

David Weiss labKlebsiella

Graduate student Jessie Wozniak is presenting her research on an isolate of Klebsiella that combines alarming properties. She will describe how the bacterial colonies behave (unappetizingly) like stretchy melted cheese in a “string test.”

June 9, 11 am to 1 pm, June 11, 11 am to 1 pm

Christine Dunham – toxin-antitoxin/persistence

Graduate student Sarah Anderson presenting her poster at ASM Microbe. She discussed a genetic connection between virulence switch and antibiotic resistance.

Dunham, a structural biologist, is giving a plenary talk June 11 on toxin-antitoxin pairs, which play a role in regulating bacterial persistence, a dormant state that facilitates antibiotic resistance. Two past papers from her lab.

Phil Rather labAcinetobacter baumannii

Rather’s lab recently published a Nature Microbiology paper on A. baumannii’s virulence/opacity switch. This type of bacteria is known for hospital-associated infections and for wound infections in military personnel. Poster talk by graduate student Sarah Anderson June 8. Read more

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Less mucus, more neutrophils: alternative view of CF

A conventional view of cystic fibrosis (CF) and its effects on the lungs is that it’s all about mucus. The inherited disease leads to an accumulation of mucus in the lungs, which appears to be connected with inflammation, susceptibility to infection and loss of lung capacity.

Immunologist Rabin Tirouvanziam has an alternative view, centered on neutrophils. They are a type of immune cell that is very numerous, yet often overlooked, he says.

Rabindra Tirouvanziam, PhD

A new paper, published in Journal of Leukocyte Biology, substantiates his ideas about cystic fibrosis and harnesses them for future diagnostic and therapeutic advances. Tirouvanziam is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Children’s Center. He and his colleagues have developed a system for studying neutrophil behavior in a specialized culture, a model of a cell layer in the lung.

Neutrophils behave differently in the diseased lung environment, compared with when they are in the blood. The culture system makes the neutrophils pass through a layer of lung cells, under the influence of lung fluids obtained from CF patients. The culture system opens up the opportunity of testing fluids from patients to mark disease progression, as well as drug discovery: looking for compounds that could deprogram the neutrophils. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Blue plate special: express delivery to the heart

The anti-arrhythmia drug amiodarone is often prescribed for control of atrial fibrillation, but can have toxic effects upon the lungs, eyes, thyroid and liver. Emory and Georgia Tech scientists have developed a method for delivering amiodarone directly to the heart in an extended release gel to reduce off-target effects.

The results were published in Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology.

The senior author is Rebecca Levit, MD, assistant professor of medicine (cardiology) at Emory University School of Medicine and adjunct in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. Graduate student Jose Garcia – part of co-author Andres Garcia’s lab at Georgia Tech — and Peter Campbell, MD are the first authors.

An amiodarone-containing gel was applied to the outside of the heart by a minimally invasive procedure. After a one-time delivery, the gel could reduce the duration of atrial fibrillation and the likelihood of its development for a month in a pig model. The researchers were also able to show that amiodarone did not have toxic effects on the pigs’ lungs.

As noted in the book Off-label prescribing – Justifying unapproved medicine, amiodarone is “one of the very few drugs approved by the FDA in modern times without rigorous randomized clinical trials.” Read more

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Inflammation in PD hits the gut

Several groups studying Parkinson’s have had a hunch – a gut feeling, even – that intestinal inflammation is involved in driving the disease. Now Emory researchers led by Malu Tansey, PhD have some evidence from patient samples to back it up, published in the journal Movement Disorders.

IMP graduate student Madelyn Houser

German pathologist Heiko Braak has been honored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research for his theory, originally published in 2003, proposing that disease pathology – marked by aggregation of the toxic protein alpha-synuclein — may begin in the gastrointestinal tract and migrate from there to the central nervous system. This proposal was both provocative and influential in the Parkinson’s disease (PD) field. And Tansey herself has long been interested in the role of microglia, the immune cells resident in the brain, in PD.

The first author of the new paper, Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis graduate student Madelyn Houser, notes that digestive problems such as constipation are frequently reported in PD patients. But what is the cause and what is effect? As neurologist Stewart Factor observed for a Emory Medicine article on PD’s non-motor symptoms: “A patient might tell me he’s had recurring constipation for 10 years, but he wouldn’t say anything to a neurologist about it until he starts having other symptoms.” Read more

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

Fermentation byproduct suppresses seizures in nerve agent poisoning

A compound found in trace amounts in alcoholic beverages is more effective at combating seizures in rats exposed to an organophosphate nerve agent than the current recommended treatment, according to new research published in eNeuro.

This work comes from Asheebo Rojas, Ray Dingledine and colleagues in Emory’s Department of Pharmacology. Just as an aside, we don’t know the nature of the recent alleged chemical attack in Syria, and the chemical used in the Emory experiments is not a “weaponized” nerve agent such as Sarin. Organophosphates were also widely used as insecticides, but their use has been declining.

Left untreated, organophosphate poisoning can lead to severe breathing and heart complications, because of the inhibition of acetylcholinesterase. It also causes seizures. Some patients are resistant to treatment with the anti-anxiety drug diazepam (Valium), a standard first-line treatment for such poisoning, and its effectiveness decreases the longer the seizure lasts.

The researchers compared the ability of two treatments — diazepam and the anesthetic urethane (ethyl carbamate), commonly formed in trace amounts during fermentation of beer and wine from the reaction of urea and ethanol — to interrupt seizures in rats exposed to the organophosphate diisopropyl fluorophosphate. The researchers found urethane to be more effective than diazepam, suppressing seizures for multiple days and accelerating recovery of weight lost while protecting the rats from cell loss in the hippocampus.

Urethane/ethyl carbamate is a carcinogen in animals, which led to concerns over its presence in alcoholic beverages in the 1980s. It was also used as a sedative for many years in Japan. The researchers did not observe any evidence of lung tumors in the urethane-treated animals seven months later, suggesting that the dose used in this study is not carcinogenic. The findings point to urethane or a derivative as a potential therapeutic for preventing organophosphate-triggered seizures from developing into epilepsy. Read more

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Post-anesthetic inertia in IH

A recent paper from neurologists Lynn Marie Trotti and Donald Bliwise, with anesthesiologist Paul Garcia, substantiates a phenomenon discussed anecdotally in the idiopathic hypersomnia (IH) community. Let’s call it “post-anesthetic inertia.” People with IH say that undergoing general anesthesia made their sleepiness or disrupted sleep-wake cycles worse, sometimes for days or weeks. This finding is intriguing because it points toward a trigger mechanism for IH. And it pushes anesthesiologists to take IH diagnoses into account when planning patient care, just as is already done for myotonic dystrophy.

Lab Land obtained some confirmation from a couple IHers. One woman had surgery a couple of months ago and felt like the anesthetic was still in her system for weeks and she still didn’t feel right. Another reported “severe insomnia for months and it felt like every body system was completely scrambled.”

Where does this all come from? People with IH getting together and telling their stories. Journalist Virginia Hughes described a moment at the 2014 patient-organized IH meeting in Atlanta in her article “Wake No More”:

Andy Jenkins, the neuroscientist who developed the spinal fluid test, gave an impressively entertaining lecture on GABA receptors. “Why do we have more GABA activity?” somebody asked. Nobody knows, said Jenkins. One idea is that it’s triggered by anesthesia. Lloyd [Johnson, a meeting organizer from Australia] asked the audience how many of them believed their hypersomnia was the result of anesthesia. About one-quarter of the hands went up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Jenkins said as he watched the sleepyheads* come alive.

The new paper, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, is more quantitative than that informal show of hands. In a way, it begins to question the basis for the term idiopathic hypersomnia, since idiopathic means “arising spontaneously or having no cause”. For some people surveyed in the paper, anesthesia was an exacerbating factor, if not the only factor.

Confusion or agitation post-anesthesia can happen in people who don’t have sleep disorders. What’s peculiar to the hypersomnolent group is how long sleepiness or disrupted sleep-wake cycles last — long after the anesthetic has left the body. The hypersomnolent group was mostly people with IH or narcolepsy type 2 (30 plus 15 out of 57). In the paper, people with restless legs syndrome were used as controls:

While patients in both groups were equally likely to report surgical complications and difficulty awakening from anesthesia, hypersomnolent patients were more likely to report worsened sleepiness (40% of the hypersomnolent group vs. 11% of the RLS group, p = 0.001) and worsening of their sleep disorder symptoms (40% of the hypersomnolent group vs. 9% of the RLS group, p = 0.0001).

Hypersomnolent patients who perceived their symptoms to worsen reported that symptoms had never returned to baseline in 66.7%, took months or years to return to baseline in 9.5%, and resolved in days to weeks in 23.8%.

Note: first author Vincent LaBarbera is now a neurology resident at Brown.

Mechanistic speculation

Several years ago, Emory researchers found that some IH patients appear to have a substance in their cerebrospinal fluid that acts similarly (but not quite the same) as a benzodiazepine drug. This still-mysterious substance enhances signaling by GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter.

Inhaled anesthetics such as sevoflurane, as well as the injected anesthetic propofol, act by enhancing GABA too. So when someone undergoes general anesthesia, their GABA receptors are being pushed hard for an extended period of time. GABA signaling has a kind of global “dimmer switch” function as well as working through specific circuits in the brain to bring on anesthesia.

GABA receptors are complex, but they usually adjust to pressure. It explains development of tolerance to benzodiazepine drugs. GABA receptors also modulate in response to alcohol or women’s menstrual cycles (certain derivatives of progesterone, so-called “neurosteroids,” act on them). What may be happening after anesthesia is that GABA receptors of people with IH have trouble adjusting back, or may overshoot, perhaps because their internal clocks are less resilient.

The Emory authors conclude:

Because the half-life of anesthetic agents is generally short, any prolonged worsening of sleepiness post-procedure cannot easily be attributed to immediate GABA-mediated effects. Whether the putative long-term changes in hypersomnolence that we are detecting in our patients’ reports may be related to changes in GABA-related neural circuitry caused by anesthetic neurotoxicity or other mechanisms remains to be determined.

A similar interaction, with reversed polarity, may be occurring in post-partum depression.

*Lab Land has been told that sleepyhead is not a fully accepted term in the IH community.

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