Circadian rhythms go both ways: in and from retina

Removal of Bmal1 accelerates the deterioration of vision that comes with Read more

Genomics plus human intelligence

The power of gene sequencing to solve puzzles when combined with human Read more

'Master key' microRNA has links to both ASD and schizophrenia

Recent studies of complex brain disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have identified a few "master keys," risk genes that sit at the center of a network of genes important for brain function. Researchers at Emory and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have created mice partially lacking one of those master keys, called MIR-137, and have used them to identify an angle on potential treatments for ASD. The results were published this Read more

Immunology

Clues to lupus’s autoimmune origins in precursor cells

In the autoimmune disease systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE, the immune system produces antibodies against parts of the body itself. How cells that produce those antibodies escape the normal “checks and balances” has been unclear, but recent research from Emory University School of Medicine provides information about a missing link.

Investigators led by Ignacio (Iñaki) Sanz, MD, studied blood samples from 90 people living with SLE, focusing on a particular type of B cells. These “DN2” B cells are relatively scarce in healthy people but substantially increased in people with SLE.

The results were published in the journal Immunity.

People with lupus can experience a variety of symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes and kidney problems. Levels of the DN2 cells were higher in people with more severe disease or kidney problems. DN2 B cells are thought to be “extra-follicular,” which means they are outside the B cell follicles, regions of the lymph nodes where B cells are activated in an immune response.

“Overall, our model is that a lot of lupus auto-antibodies come from a continuous churning out of new responses,” says postdoctoral fellow Scott Jenks, PhD, co-first author of the paper. “There is good evidence that DN2 cells are part of the early B cell activation pathway happening outside B cells’ normal homes in lymph nodes.”

Previous research at Emory has shown that African American women have significantly higher rates of lupus than white women. In the current study, the researchers observed that the frequency of DN2 cells was greater in African American patients. Participants in the study were recruited by Emory, University of Rochester and Johns Hopkins. Read more

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MSCs: what’s in a name?

At a recent symposium of cellular therapies held by the Department of Pediatrics, we noticed something. Scientists do not have consistent language to talk about a type of cells called “mesenchymal stem cells” or “mesenchymal stromal cells.” Within the same symposium, some researchers used the first term, and others used the second.

Guest speaker Joanne Kurtzberg from Duke discussed the potential use of MSCs to treat autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, and hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. Exciting stuff, although the outcomes of the clinical studies underway are still uncertain. In these studies, the mesenchymal stromal cells (the language Kurtzberg used) are derived from umbilical cord blood, not adult tissues.

Nomenclature matters, because a recent editorial in Nature calls for the term “stem cell” not to be used for mesenchymal (whatever) cells. They are often isolated from bone marrow or fat. MSCs are thought have the potential to become cells such as fibroblasts, cartilage, bone and fat. But most of their therapeutic effects appear to come from the growth factors and RNA-containing exosomes they secrete, rather than their ability to directly replace cells in damaged tissues.

The Nature editorial argues that “wildly varying reports have helped MSCs to acquire a near-magical, all-things-to-all-people quality in the media and in the public mind,” and calls for better characterization of the cells and more rigor in clinical studies.

At Emory, gastroenterologist Subra Kugathasan talked about his experience with MSCs in inflammatory bowel diseases. Hematologist Edwin Horwitz discussed his past work with MSCs on osteogenesis imperfecta. And Georgia Tech-based biomedical engineer Krishnendu Roy pointed out the need to reduce costs and scale up, especially if MSCs start to be used at a higher volume.

Several of the speakers were supported by the Marcus Foundation, which has a long-established interest in autism, stroke, cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions.

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Mopping up immune troublemakers after transplant

Emory scientists have identified a way to stop troublemaker cells that are linked to immune rejection after kidney transplant. The finding could eventually allow transplant patients to keep their new kidneys for as long as possible, without the side effects that come from some current options for controlling immune rejection.

The results are published in Journal of Clinical Investigation.

The standard drugs used for many years, calcineurin inhibitors, show side effects on cardiovascular health and can even damage the kidneys over time. A newer FDA-approved medication called belatacept, developed in part at Emory, avoids these harmful effects but is less effective at stopping acute rejection immediately after the transplant. Belatacept is a “costimulation blocker” – it interferes with a signal some immune cells (T cells) need to proliferate and become activated.

Researchers led by Emory transplant surgeon Andrew Adams, MD, PhD suspected that long-lasting memory CD8+ T cells were resistant to belatacept’s effects.

“Our previous work identified that memory CD8+ T cells may be elevated in animals and human patients who go on to reject their transplanted organs while taking belatacept,” says Dave Mathews, an MD/PhD student who worked with Adams and is the first author of the paper.

The researchers identified a certain marker, CD122, which was present on memory CD8+ T cells and important for their activity. On T cells, CD122 acts as a receiving dish for two other secreted molecules, IL-2 and IL-15, generally thought of as inflammatory cytokines, or protein messengers that can encourage graft rejection. Read more

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Leaving out sugar makes a better antibody drug

There’s a bit of sugar attached to your billion-dollar biotech product. Omitting the sugar (fucose) can help the product work better, Emory immunologists think.

Fucosylation is the red triangle on this diagram of the carbohydrate modifications of antibodies. Adapted from KTC Shade + RM Anthony, Antibodies (2013) and used through Creative Commons license.

Many drugs now used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases are antibodies, originally derived from the immune system. A classic example of a “therapeutic antibody” is rituximab, a treatment for B cell malignancies that was FDA-approved in 1997. It has been responsible for billions of dollars in revenue for its maker, pharmaceutical giant Roche.

Researchers at Emory Vaccine Center previously observed that in a mouse model of chronic viral infection, a traffic jam inside the body limits how effective therapeutic antibodies can be. One of the ways these antibodies work is to grab onto malignant or inflammatory cells. One end of the antibody is supposed to bind the target cell, while another is a flag for other cells to eliminate the target cell. During a chronic viral infection, a mouse’s immune system is producing its own antibodies against the virus, which form complexes with viral proteins. These immune complexes prevented the injected antibodies from depleting their target cells.

In a recent Science Immunology paper, postdoc Andreas Wieland, Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed and colleagues showed that antibodies that lack fucosylation have an enhanced ability to get rid of their intended targets. Fucosylation is a type of sugar modification of the antibody. (It is the red triangle in the diagram, provided by Wieland.) When it is not present, then the “flag for removal” region of the antibody can interact more avidly with the Fc gamma receptor on immune cells. Thus, the introduced antibodies can compete more effectively with the antibodies being produced by the body already.

Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology 1 Comment

Probiotics for bone health study heads into clinic

Probiotic supplements can protect female mice from the loss of bone density that occurs after having their ovaries removed, researchers at Emory and Georgia State reported a couple years ago.

Roberto Pacifici, MD

This finding, published in Journal of Clinical Investigation, had clear implications for the treatment of osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. Prompted by external emails, Lab Land learned that the Emory investigators are now continuing their research in the clinic.

Endocrinologist/osteoimmunologist Roberto Pacifici and colleague Jessica Alvarez are conducting a double-blind study for women aged 50-65, using VSL3, a widely available and inexpensive dietary supplement. Participants would take the supplement or placebo for a year. More information is available here.

In mice, the loss of estrogen increases gut permeability, which allows bacterial products to activate immune cells in the intestine. In turn, immune cells release signals that break down bone. It appears that probiotics both tighten up the permeability of the gut and dampen inflammatory signals that drive the immune cells. Read more

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Where it hurts matters in the gut

What part of the intestine is problematic matters more than inflammatory bowel disease subtype (Crohn’s disease vs ulcerative colitis), when it comes to genetic activity signatures in pediatric IBD.

Suresh Venkateswaran and Subra Kugathasan in the lab

That’s the takeaway message for a recent paper in Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology (the PDF is open access) from gastroenterologist Subra Kugathasan and colleagues. His team has been studying risk factors in pediatric IBD that could predict whether a child will experience complications requiring surgery.

Kugathasan is professor of pediatrics and human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine and scientific director of the pediatric IBD program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. He is also director of the Children’s Center for Transplantation and Immune-mediated Disorders.

“This study has demonstrated that tissue samples from the ileum and rectum of CD patients show higher molecular level differences, whereas in tissue samples from two different patients with the same type of disease, the molecular differences are low,” Kugathasan says. “This was an important question to answer, since IBD can be localized to one area, and the treatment responses can vary and can be tailored to a localized area if this knowledge is well known.”

Research associate Suresh Venkateswaran, PhD, is the first author on the CMGH paper.

“We see that the differences are not connected to genomic variations,” he says. “Instead, they may be caused by non-genetic factors which are specific to each location and disease sub-type of the patient.”

These findings have implications for other study designs involving molecular profiling of IBD patients. The authors believe the findings will be important for future design of locally acting drugs.

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

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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

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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

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Duel of the inflammatory master regulators: insights for drug discovery

Anti-inflammatory drugs such as dexamethasone can have harmful side effects on the skin, bones and metabolism. Structural biology research from Emory University School of Medicine has implications for the long-standing quest to separate these drugs’ benefits from their side effects.

The findings were recently published in Nature Communications (open access).

Dexamethasone is a synthetic glucocorticoid hormone, used to treat conditions such as allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases and cancer. It mimics the action of the natural hormone cortisol. Both cortisol and synthetic hormones act by binding the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) protein.

The market for synthetic glucocorticoid hormones, oral and topical, is estimated at $10 billion. Examples include dexamethasone, prednisone, and hydrocortisone. Yet these drugs might not be approved today, given the array of known side effects.

GR can bind DNA in two modes. At some sites, it pairs up or “dimerizes” – turning genes on. At others, it binds one at a time, turning genes off. For GR-targeting drugs, the side effects are thought to come from turning on genes involved in processes such as metabolism and bone growth, while the desired anti-inflammatory effects result mainly from turning inflammatory and immune system genes off.

In their new paper, Eric Ortlund, PhD, and colleagues report that GR’s ability to directly bind DNA extends more broadly than previously appreciated. The first author is Will Hudson, PhD, previously a graduate student with Ortlund and now a postdoctoral fellow in Rafi Ahmed’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center.

GR was known to interfere with another important family of DNA-binding proteins, master regulators of inflammation, which are together called NFkB. Ortlund’s team found that GR can directly bind one at a time to many of the same stretches of DNA that NFkB interacts with.

“This type of interaction, where GR is acting one at a time – we think it’s druggable,” says Ortlund, who is associate professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine. Read more

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