March for Science ATL: photos

Emory scientists and supporters of science were out in substantial numbers Saturday at the March for Science Atlanta in Candler Park. March organizers, many of whom came from the Emory research community, say they want to continue their advocacy momentum and community-building after the event’s Read more

How race + TBI experience affect views of informed consent

The upcoming HBO movie of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds us that biomedical research has a complex legacy, when it comes to informed consent and people of color. A paper from Emory investigators touches on related issues important for conduct of clinical research Read more

Fecal transplant replants microbial garden

Emory physicians explain how FMT (fecal microbiota transplant) restores microbial balance when someone’s internal garden has been Read more

Heart

Strength tests for platelets

Bleeding disorders could one day be diagnosed by putting platelets through strength tests, researchers have proposed.

Biomedical engineers from Emory and Georgia Tech have devised a microfluidic testing ground where platelets can demonstrate their strength by squeezing two protein dots together. Imagine rows and rows of strength testing machines from a carnival, but very tiny. Platelets are capable of exerting forces that are several times larger, in relation to their size, in comparison with muscle cells.

After a blood clot forms, it contracts, promoting wound closure and restoration of normal blood flow. This process can be deficient in a variety of blood clotting disorders. Previously, it was difficult to measure individual platelet’s contributions to contraction, because clots’ various components got in the way.

The prototype diagnostic tools are described in Nature Materials.

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Top: platelets exert their strength. Bottom left: red = platelets, green = fibrinogen dots. Bottom right: size of actual device.

“We discovered that platelets from some patients with bleeding disorders are ‘wimpier’ than platelets from healthy people,” says Wilbur Lam, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “Our device may function as a new physics-based method to test for bleeding disorders, complementary to current methods.”

The first author of the paper is instructor David Myers, PhD. Lam is also a physician in the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Collaborators at North Carolina State University led by Ashley Brown, PhD, contributed to testing the device.

The scientists infer how strong or wimpy someone’s platelets are by measuring how far the protein dots move, taking a picture of the rows of dots, and then analyzing the picture on a computer. The dots are made of fibrinogen, a sticky protein that is the precursor for fibrin, which forms a mesh of insoluble strands in a blood clot.

In addition to detecting problems with platelet contraction in patients with known inherited disorders such as Wiskott Aldrich syndrome, Myers, Lam and colleagues could also see differences in some patients who had bleeding symptoms, but who performed normally on standard diagnostic tests. Read more

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Cardiac ‘disease in a dish’ models advance arrhythmia research

New research illustrates how “disease in a dish” stem cell technology can advance cardiology.

Scientists led by Chunhui Xu, PhD derived cardiac muscle cells from a teenaged boy with an inherited heart arrhythmia, and used them to study how his cells respond to drugs. They did this not through a cardiac biopsy, but by converting some of the boy’s skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, and then into cardiac muscle cells.

Xu, director of the Cardiomyocyte Stem Cell Lab in Emory’s Department of Pediatrics, says this approach has been helpful in the study of other inherited arrhythmias and cardiomyopathies (example: 2011 Nature paper on long QT syndrome). In addition, Xu says, human-derived cardiac muscle cells could be used for toxicology testing for new drugs, since the molecules that regulate human cardiac muscle cells functions are distinct from those in animal models.

The findings were published on September 7 in Disease Models & Mechanisms.

The boy who provided the cells has CPVT (catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia), as do some of his relatives. CPVT, which occurs in about 1 in 10,000 people, is a major cause of sudden cardiac death in people younger than 40.

CPVT_arrhythmia smaller

In the patient whose cells are described in the paper, the drug flecainide could suppress arrhythmias that would otherwise appear during exercise. Electrocardiography from Preininger et al, Disease Models & Mechanisms (2016) via Creative Commons.

Arrhythmias in CPVT are almost exclusively brought on by activities that generate high levels of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline: heavy exertion, sports or emotional stress. Thus, affected individuals need to take medication regularly and usually should avoid competitive sports. The boy in the study also had an implanted cardiac defibrillator.

CPVT is generally treatable with beta-blockers, but about 25 percent of patients – including the boy in the study — are inadequately protected from arrhythmias by beta-blockers. Taking the drug flecainide, also used to treat atrial fibrillation, provides him an additional level of control.

Xu and her colleagues could duplicate those effects with his cardiac muscle cells in culture, by observing the ability of the drugs to suppress aberrant “calcium sparks.”

“We were able to recapitulate in a petri dish what we had seen in the patient,” says co-author Peter Fischbach, MD, chief academic officer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Sibley Heart Center and associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “The hope is that in the future, we will be able to do that in reverse order.” Read more

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Aging, CVD risk factors and progenitor cells

Cardiologists Ibhar Al Mheid, Arshed Quyyumi and colleagues from Emory’s Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute recently published a paper that weaves together insights from past research on circulating progenitor cells. They tease apart the influences of age and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors on these cells, whose regenerative capacity has made them the target of much investigation. From this research, one can infer that the circulatory system has a limited regenerative capacity, and stress upon the system earlier in life depletes it later.

Circulating progenitor cells are rare cells in the blood that can become white or red blood cells, as well as endothelial cells, which line blood vessels and repair them when damaged by cardiovascular disease. Quyyumi and his colleagues have sought to deliver progenitor cells, derived from the patient’s own bone marrow, to the heart – or less invasively, spur them out of the bone marrow with drugs. Read more

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Stay out, stray stem cells

Despite the hubbub about pluripotent stem cells’ potential applications, when it comes time to introduce products into patients, the stem cells are actually impurities that need to be removed.

That’s because this type of stem cell is capable of becoming teratomas – tumors — when transplanted. For quality control, researchers want to figure out how to ensure that the stem-cell-derived cardiac muscle or neural progenitor or pancreas cells (or whatever) are as pure as possible. Put simply, they want the end product, not the source cells.

Stem cell expert Chunhui Xu (also featured in our post last week about microgravity) has teamed up with biomedical engineers Ximei Qian and Shuming Nie to develop an extremely sensitive technique for detecting stray stem cells.PowerPoint Presentation

The technique, described in Biomaterials, uses gold nanoparticles and Raman scattering, a technology previously developed by Qian and Nie for cancer cell detection (2007 Nature Biotech paper, 2011 Cancer Research paper on circulating tumor cells). In this case, the gold nanoparticles are conjugated with antibodies against SSEA-5 or TRA-1-60, proteins that are found on the surfaces of stem cells. Read more

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Microgravity means more cardiac muscle cells

Cardiac muscle cells derived from stem cells could eventually be used to treat heart diseases in children or adults, reshaping hearts with congenital defects or repairing damaged tissue.

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Cardiomyocytes produced with the help of simulated microgravity. Red represents the cardiac muscle marker troponin, and green is cadherin, which helps cells stick to each other. Blue = cell nuclei. From Jha et al SciRep (2016).

Using the right growth factors and conditions, it is possible to direct pluripotent stem cells into becoming cardiac muscle cells, which form spheres that beat spontaneously. Researchers led by Chunhui Xu, PhD, director of the Cardiomyocyte Stem Cell Laboratory in Emory’s Department of Pediatrics, are figuring out how to grow lots of these muscle cells and keep them healthy and adaptable.

As part of this effort, Xu and her team discovered that growing stem cells under “simulated microgravity” for a few days stimulates the production of cardiac muscle cells, several times more effectively than regular conditions. The results were published on Friday, Aug. 5 in Scientific Reports. The first author of the paper is postdoctoral fellow Rajneesh Jha, PhD. Read more

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Focal adhesions in Technicolor

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Mouse embryonic fibroblasts forming focal adhesions

Congratulations to Alejandra Valdivia, PhD, winner of the Best Image contest held as part of the Emory Postdoctoral Research Symposium, which takes place next week (Thursday, May 19). She is in Alejandra San Martin’s lab, studying NADPH oxidase enzymes and how they regulate cell migration.

Valdivia submitted this image of mouse embryonic fibroblasts forming focal adhesions, points of contact of the cell with the extracellular matrix. Focal adhesions allow the cells to adhere and migrate.

Explanation: Red is for paxillin, a protein concentrated in focal adhesions. Green is phalloidin, a toxin from mushrooms that binds one type of the cytoskeletal protein actin, seen here as stress fibers. Blue is DNA, showing the cells’ nuclei.

 

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Football metabolomics

Following on the recent announcement of the Atlanta Hawks training center, here’s a Nov. 2015 research paper from Emory’s sports cardiologist Jonathan Kim, published in Annals of Sports Medicine and Research.

Jonathan Kim, MD

Kim and colleagues from Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute studied blood samples from 15 freshman football players at Georgia Tech before and after their first competitive season. The researchers had the help of metabolomics expert Dean Jones. Kim has also previously studied blood pressure risk factors in college football players.

On average, football players’ resting heart rate went down significantly (72 to 61 beats per minute), but there were no significant changes in body mass index or blood pressure. The research team observed changes in players’ amino acid metabolism, which they attribute to muscle buildup.

This finding may seem obvious, but imagine what a larger, more detailed analysis could do: start to replace locker room myths and marketing aimed at bodybuilders with science. This was a small, preliminary study, and the authors note they were not able to assess diet or nutritional supplementation. Read more

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Food deserts and cardiovascular risk

Heval Mohamed Kelli, MD got some attention at the American College of Cardiology meeting over the weekend with his work on food deserts — low-income areas distant from access to healthy food.

As Medscape summarized the results: “Atlantans living in disadvantaged areas where the nearest supermarket was a mile or more away were more likely to have hypertension or hyperlipidemia, smoke, be obese, and have higher levels of systemic inflammatory markers and stiffer arteries.”

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Kelli at Clarkston Health Clinic, which Emory doctors helped establish in 2015. Clarkston is considered a “food desert”.

For more on Kelli’s journey from Syrian refugee to Clarkston, GA teenager to Emory cardiology researcher, check out this feature in Emory Magazine.

His research was conducted through the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute, using information on 712 community participants from the META-Health study and 709 Emory/Georgia Tech employees from the Predictive Health study.

Three possibilities for further investigation:

*Income, education, race and geography are intertwined. “Whether lack of access to healthy foods, low income, or low education is driving these processes needs to be further studied,” Kelli and colleagues concluded.

*For detailed maps of food deserts, not just in Atlanta and/or determined using different criteria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes it possible.

*This Atlantic article makes the point that “when it comes to nutrition access, the focus should be on poverty, not grocery-store location.” You can lead people to the supermarket (or build one close to where they live), but you can’t make them eat a Mediterranean diet. Studies from Los Angeles showed that obesity increased more in some neighborhoods, even despite a ban on new fast food restaurants.

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When cardiac risk biomarkers will become really useful (and save money?)

The news is awash in studies of cholesterol-lowering statins and a much-anticipated (and expensive) class of drugs called PCSK9 inhibitors. Clinical trials show that now-generic (and cheap) statins reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, although some patients report they can’t tolerate them. The data is still to come showing whether PCSK9 inhibitors have the same risk-lowering effect, as opposed to their effects on LDL cholesterol, which are robust.

When /if doctors have to start deciding who should take drugs that cost thousands of dollars a year and who shouldn’t, biomarkers may come in handy. How about a panel of markers like the one studied by Emory cardiologist Arshed Quyyumi, MD and colleagues?

At the recent American College of Cardiology meeting in Chicago, research fellow Salim Hayek, MD reported on a five-marker panel and how it could predict the risk of cardiovascular events (that is: death, heart attack, hospitalization for heart failure) in a group of patients who underwent cardiac catheterization at Emory hospitals.

The five biomarkers are: C-reactive protein (CRP, measures inflammation), suPAR (soluble urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor or suPAR, predicts kidney disease), fibrin degradation products (FDP: blood coagulation), heat-shock protein-70 (HSP70, cellular stress) and troponin (hs-TnI, cardiac muscle damage). Data on three of these were published in 2013.

The Emory team keeps adding more biomarkers, and the ability of the accumulated information to add to what doctors can figure out easily — the Framingham score and its successors — becomes stronger.

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ACC 2016: Stem cell study sees improved heart failure outcomes

Patients with heart failure who received an experimental stem cell therapy experienced a reduced rate of death, hospitalization and unplanned clinic visits over the next year compared to a placebo group, according to results presented Monday at the American College of Cardiology meeting in Chicago.

The results of the ixCELL-DCM study were published online Monday by The Lancet. It was reportedly the largest cell therapy study done in patients with heart failure so far (58 treated vs 51 placebo).

Emory University School of Medicine investigators led by Arshed Quyyumi, MD, and their patients participated in the study, and Emory was one of the largest enrolling sites. Lead authors were Timothy Henry, MD of Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles and Amit Patel, MD of the University of Utah.

“For the first time, a clinical trial has shown that administration of a cellular therapeutic results in an improvement in cardiac outcomes based on a prespecified analysis,” an editorial accompanying the paper in The Lancet says.

This study, which was sponsored by Vericel Corporation, was phase II, meaning that a larger phase III study will be needed before FDA approval. Read more

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