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

ACC 2016: Elevated troponin linked to mental stress ischemia

Some people with heart disease experience a restriction of blood flow to the heart in response to psychological stress. Usually silent (not painful), the temporary restriction in blood flow, called ischemia, is an indicator of greater mortality risk.

Cardiologists at Emory University School of Medicine have discovered that people in this group tend to have higher levels of troponin — a protein whose increased presence in the blood that is a sign of recent damage or stress to the heart muscle– all the time, independently of whether they are experiencing stress or chest pain at that moment.

The results were presented Sunday by cardiology research fellow Muhammad Hammadah, MD at the American College of Cardiology meeting in Chicago, as part of the Young Investigator Awards competition. Hammadah works with Arshed Quyyumi, MD, and Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, and colleagues at the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute.

“Elevated troponin levels in patients with coronary artery disease may be a sign that they are experiencing repeated ischemic events in everyday life, with either psychological or physical triggers,” Hammadah says.

Doctors test for troponin in the blood to tell whether someone has recently had a heart attack. But the levels seen in this study were lower than those used to diagnose a heart attack: less than a standard cutoff of 26 picograms per milliliter, in a range that only a high-sensitivity test for troponin could detect.

In a separate study, Emory investigators have shown that elevated troponin levels (especially: more than 10 pg/mL)  predict mortality risk over the next few years in patients undergoing cardiac catheterization, even in those without apparent coronary artery disease.

There is already a lot of information available for doctors about the significance of elevated troponin. It has even been detected at elevated levels after strenuous exercise in healthy individuals. One recent study suggested that low levels of troponin could be used to rule out heart attack for patients in the emergency department.

More information about the mental stress ischemia study: Read more

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Rare inherited musculoskeletal disorder illustrates broader themes

More than fifteen years ago, Emory geneticist William Wilcox was a visiting professor in Montevideo, Uruguay. There he worked with local doctors, led by Roberto Quadrelli, to study a family whose male members appeared to have an X-linked inherited disorder involving heart disease and musculoskeletal deformities.

In March 2016, Wilcox and his colleagues reported in Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics that they had identified the genetic mutation responsible for the disorder, called “Uruguay syndrome.” His former postdoc Yuan Xue, now a lab director at Fulgent Diagnostics and a course instructor in Emory’s genetics counseling program, was the lead author.

Wilcox_William_Genetics_22

William Wilcox, MD, PhD

“It took many years and advances in technology to move the molecular definition from localization on the X chromosome to a specific mutation,” Wilcox says.

Still, with current DNA sequencing technology, this kind of investigation and genetic discovery takes place all the time. Why focus on this particular paper or family?

*This gene is a big tent — Mutations in FHL1, the gene that is mutated in the Uruguayan family, are responsible for several types of inherited muscle disorders, which differ depending on the precise mutation. In 2013, an international workshop summarized current knowledge on this family of diseases.

Some forms of FHL1 mutation are more severe, such as reducing body myopathy, which can have early childhood onset leading to respiratory failure. Other forms are less severe. While some men in the Uruguayan family died early from heart disease, the man who Wilcox helped treat is now teaching high school and his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is stable on a beta blocker.

“Studying a sample of his muscle proved that we had the right gene and some of what the mutation does,” Wilcox says.

*Studying rare mutations can lead to blockbuster drugs – The discovery of potent yet expensive cholesterol-lowering PCSK9 inhibitors, which grew out of the study of familial hypercholesterolemia, is a prominent example.

FHL1 regulates muscle growth by interacting with several other proteins. Probing its function may yield insights with implications for the treatment of muscular dystrophies and possibly for athletes. As NPR’s Jon Hamilton explains, the development of myostatin inhibitors, intended to help people with muscle-wasting diseases, has led to concern about them becoming the next generation of performance-enhancing drugs. Read more

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Oxidative stress ain’t about free radicals, it’s about sulfur

This recent paper in Circulation, from Arshed Quyyumi and colleagues at the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute, can be seen as a culmination of, even vindication for,  Dean Jones’ ideas about redox biology.

Let’s back up a bit. Fruit juices, herbal teas, yogurts, even cookies are advertised as containing antioxidants, which could potentially fight aging. This goes back to Denham Harman and the free radical theory of aging. [I attempted to explain this several years ago in Emory Medicine.]

We now know that free radicals, in the form of reactive oxygen species, can sometimes be good, even essential for life. So antioxidants that soak up free radicals to relieve you of oxidative stress: that doesn’t seem to work.

Dean Jones, who is director of Emory’s Clinical Biomarkers laboratory, has been an advocate for a different way of looking at oxidative stress. That is, instead of seeing cells as big bags of redox-sensitive chemicals, look at cellular compartments. Look at particular antioxidant proteins and sulfur-containing antioxidant molecules such as glutathione and cysteine.

That’s what the Circulation paper does. Mining the Emory Cardiovascular Biobank, Quyyumi’s team shows that patients with coronary artery disease have a risk of mortality that is connected to the ratio of glutathione to cystine (the oxidized form of the amino acid cysteine).

How this ratio might fit in with other biomarkers of cardiovascular risk (such as CRP, suPAR, PCSK9, more complicated combinations and gene expression profiles, even more links here) and be implemented clinically are still unfolding.

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Ancient protein flexibility may drive ‘new’ functions

A mechanism by which stress hormones inhibit the immune system, which appeared to be relatively new in evolution, may actually be hundreds of millions of years old.

A protein called the glucocorticoid receptor or GR, which responds to the stress hormone cortisol, can take on two different forms to bind DNA: one for activating gene activity, and one for repressing it. In a paper published Dec. 28 in PNAS, scientists show how evolutionary fine-tuning has obscured the origin of GR’s ability to adopt different shapes.

“What this highlights is how proteins that end up evolving new functions had those capacities, because of their flexibility, at the beginning of their evolutionary history,” says lead author Eric Ortlund, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine.

GR is part of a family of steroid receptor proteins that control cells’ responses to hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and aldosterone. Our genomes contain separate genes encoding each one. Scientists think that this family evolved by gene duplication, branch by branch, from a single ancestor present in primitive vertebrates. Read more

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Emory labs on LabTV

This summer, video producers from the web site LabTV came to two laboratories at Emory. We are pleased to highlight the first crop of documentary-style videos.

LabTV features hundreds of young researchers from universities and institutes around the United States, who tell the public about themselves and their research. The videos include childhood photos and explanations from the scientists about what they do and what motivates them. Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 9.14.51 AM

The two Emory labs are: Malu Tansey’s lab in the Department of Physiology, which studies the intersection of neuroscience and immunology, focusing on neurodegenerative disease, and Mike Davis’ lab in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, which is developing regenerative approaches and technologies for heart disease in adults and children. Read more

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CV cell therapy: bridge between nurse and building block

In the field of cell therapy for cardiovascular diseases, researchers see two main ways that the cells can provide benefits:

*As building blocks – actually replacing dead cells in damaged tissues

*As nurses — supplying growth factors and other supportive signals, but not becoming part of damaged tissues

Tension between these two roles arises partly from the source of the cells.

Many clinical trials have used bone marrow-derived cells, and the benefits here appear to come mostly from the “paracrine” nurse function. A more ambitious approach is to use progenitor-type cells, which may have to come from iPS cells or cardiac stem cells isolated via biopsy-like procedures. These cells may have a better chance of actually becoming part of the damaged tissue’s muscles or blood vessels, but they are more difficult to obtain and engineer.

A related concern: available evidence suggests introduced cells – no matter if they are primarily serving as nurses or building blocks — don’t survive or even stay in their target tissue for long.

Transplanted cells were labeled with a red dye, while a perfused green dye shows the extent of functional blood vessels. Blue is DAPI, staining nuclear DNA. Yellow arrows indicate where red cells appear to contribute to blood vessels.

Transplanted cells were labeled with a red dye, while a perfused green dye shows the extent of functional blood vessels. Blue is DAPI, staining nuclear DNA. Yellow arrows indicate where red cells appear to contribute to green blood vessels. Courtesy of Sangho Lee.

Stem cell biologist Young-sup Yoon and colleagues recently published a paper in Biomaterials in which the authors use chitosan, a gel-like carbohydrate material obtained by processing crustacean shells, to aid in cell retention and survival. Ravi Bellamkonda’s lab at Georgia Tech contributed to the paper.

More refinement of these approaches are necessary before clinical use,  but it illustrates how engineered mixtures of progenitor cells and supportive materials are becoming increasingly sophisticated and complicated.

The chitosan gel resembles the alginate material used to encapsulate cells by the Taylor lab. Yoon’s team was testing efficacy in a hindlimb ischemia model, in which a mouse’s leg is deprived of blood. This situation is analogous to peripheral artery disease, and the readout of success is the ability of experimental treatments to regrow capillaries in the damaged leg.

The current paper builds a bridge between the nurse and building block approaches, because the researchers mix two complementary types of cells: an angiogenic one derived from bone marrow cells that expands existing blood vessels, and a vasculogenic one derived from embryonic stem cells that drives formation of new blood vessels. Note: embryonic stem cells were of mouse origin, not human. Read more

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There will be microparticles (in stored blood)

More than 9 million people donate blood in the United States every year, according to the American Red Cross. Current guidelines say that blood can be stored for up to six weeks before use.

What happens to red blood cells while they are in storage, which transfusion experts call the “storage lesion”? Multiple studies have shown that older blood may have sub-optimal benefits for patients receiving a transfusion. The reasons include: depletion of the messenger molecule nitric oxide, lysis of red blood cells and alterations in the remaining cells’ stiffness.

To that list, we could add the accumulation of microparticles, tiny membrane-clothed bags that contain proteins and RNA, which have effects on blood vessels and the immune system upon transfusion. Note: microparticles are similar to exosomes but larger – the dividing line for size is about 100 nanometers. Both are much smaller than red blood cells.

EUH blood bank director John Roback recently gave a talk on the blood storage issue, and afterwards, cardiologist Charles Searles and research fellow Adam Mitchell were discussing their work on microparticles that come from red blood cells (RBCs). They have been examining the effects RBC-derived microparticles have on endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, and on immune cells’ stickiness.Red blood cell microparticles280

Mitchell mentioned that he had some striking electron microscope images of microparticles and some of the particles looked like worms. With the aim of maintaining Lab Land’s “Cool Image” feature, I resolved to obtain a few of his photos, and Mitchell generously provided several.

“Those worms definitely had me mesmerized for a while,” he says.

In his talk, Roback described some of the metabolomics research he has been pursuing with Dean Jones. Instead of focusing only on how long blood should be stored, Roback’s team is examining how much differences between donors may affect donated blood’s capacity to retain its freshness. Read more

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Trio with Emory roots probing PTSD-hypertension links

This grant announcement from the American Heart Association caught Lab Land’s eye. All three of the scientists involved in this project, examining the connections between hypertension, inflammation and the sympathetic nervous system in PTSD, have Emory connections:

*Kerry Ressler, previously Emory Psychiatry/HHMI-supported/Yerkes-based lab/Grady Trauma Project, who moved this summer to Harvard’s McLean Hospital

Related finding that emerged from the Grady Trauma Project: Blood pressure drugs linked with lower PTSD symptoms

*Paul Marvar, who worked with both David Harrison and Kerry Ressler at Emory, and is now at George Washington University

Related item on Marvar’s work: Immune cells required for stress-induced rise in blood pressure in animals

*Jeanie Park, kidney specialist who is here now! The grant is exploring the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system, regulation of blood pressure and PTSD.

2015 TV interview with Park on her chronic kidney disease research

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Deliver, but not to the liver

The potential of a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference has long enticed biotechnology researchers. It’s used routinely in the laboratory to shut down specific genes in cells. Still, the challenge of delivery has held back RNA-based drugs in treating human disease.

RNA is unstable and cumbersome, and just getting it into the body without having it break down is difficult. One that hurdle is met, there is another: the vast majority of the drug is taken up by the liver. Many current RNA-based approaches turn this apparent bug into a strength, because they seek to treat liver diseases. See these articles in The Scientist and in Technology Review for more.

But what if you need to deliver RNA somewhere besides the liver?

Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo’s lab at Emory/Georgia Tech, working with Katherine Ferrara’s group at UC Davis, has developed technology to broaden the liver-dominant properties of RNA-based drugs.

Hanjoong Jo, PhD

The results were recently published in ACS Nano. The researchers show they can selectively target an anti-microRNA agent to inflamed blood vessels in mice while avoiding other tissues.

“We have solved a major obstacle of using anti-miRNA as a therapeutic by being able to do a targeted delivery to only inflamed endothelial cells while all other tissues examined, including liver, lung, kidney, blood cells, spleen, etc showed no detectable side-effects,” Jo says. Read more

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Regenerative Engineering & Medicine highlights

Last week on Friday, Lab Land attended the annual Regenerative Engineering & Medicine center get-together to hear about progress in this exciting area.

During his talk, Tony Kim of Georgia Tech mentioned a topic that Rose Eveleth recently explored in The Atlantic: why aren’t doctors using amazing “nanorobots” yet? Or as Kim put it, citing a recent review, “So many papers and so few drugs.”

[A summary: scaling up is difficult, testing pharmacokinetics, toxicity and efficacy is difficult, and so is satisfying the FDA.]

The talks Friday emerged from REM seed grants; many paired an Emory medical researcher with a Georgia Tech biomedical engineer. All of these projects take on challenges in delivering regenerative therapies: getting cells or engineered particles to the right place in the body.

For example, cardiologist W. Robert Taylor discussed the hurdles his team had encountered in scaling up his cells-in-capsules therapies for cardiovascular diseases to pigs, in collaboration with Luke Brewster. The pre-pig phase of this research is discussed in more detail here and here. Read more

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