More NMDA but less excitotoxicity? Now possible

Many researchers have wanted to enhance NMDA receptor signals to treat disorders such as schizophrenia. But at the same time, they need to avoid killing neurons with “excitotoxicity”, which comes from excess calcium entering the Read more

Update on pancreatic cancer: images and clinical trial

In 2018, Winship magazine had a feature story on pancreatic cancer. Our team developed an illustration that we hoped could convey the tumors’ complex structure, which contributes to making them difficult to treat. Oncologist Bassel El-Rayes described how the tumors recruit other cells to form a protective shell. "If you look at a tumor from the pancreas, you will see small nests of cells embedded in scar tissue," he says. "The cancer uses this scar Read more

New animal model for elimination of latent TB

An animal model could help researchers develop shorter courses of treatment for latent Read more

Cancer

Emory Microbiome Research Center inaugural symposium

Interest in bacteria and other creatures living on and inside us keeps climbing. On August 15 and 16, scientists from a wide array of disciplines will gather for the Emory Microbiome Research Center inaugural symposium.

On the first day, Lab Land is looking forward to hearing from several of the speakers, touching on topics stretching from insects/agricultural pathogens to neurodegenerative disease. The second day is a hands on workshop organized by instructor Anna Knight on sorting through microbiome data. The symposium will be at WHSCAB (Woodruff Health Sciences Center Auditorium). Registration before August 2 is encouraged!

Many of the projects that we highlighted four years ago, when Emory held its first microbiome symposium, have continued and gathered momentum. Guest keynotes are from Rodney Newberry from WUSTL and Gary Wu from Penn.

 

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B cells off the rails early in lupus

New research on the autoimmune disease systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) provides hints to the origins of the puzzling disorder. The results are published in Nature Immunology.

In people with SLE, their B cells – part of the immune system – are abnormally activated. That makes them produce antibodies that react against their own tissues, causing a variety of symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes and kidney problems.

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine could discern that in people with SLE, signals driving expansion and activation are present at an earlier stage of B cell differentiation than previously appreciated. They identified patterns of gene activity that could be used as biomarkers for disease development.

Activation can be observed at an early stage of B cell differentiation: resting naive cells (pink ellipse). Adapted from Jenks et al Immunity (2018).

“Our data indicate a disease signature across all cell subsets, and importantly on mature resting B cells, suggesting that such cells may have been exposed to disease-inducing signals,” the authors write.

The paper reflects a collaboration between the laboratories of Jeremy Boss, PhD, chairman of microbiology and immunology, and Ignacio (Iñaki) Sanz, MD, head of the division of rheumatology in the Department of Medicine. Sanz, recipient of the 2019 Lupus Insight Prize from the Lupus Research Alliance, is director of the Lowance Center for Human Immunology and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. The first author is Christopher Scharer, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology.

The researchers studied blood samples from 9 African American women with SLE and 12 healthy controls. They first sorted the B cells into subsets, and then looked at the DNA in the women’s B cells, analyzing the patterns of gene activity. Sanz’s team had previously observed that people with SLE have an expansion of “activated naïve” and DN2 B cells, especially during flares, periods when their symptoms are worse. Read more

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I3 Venture awards info

Emory is full of fledgling biomedical proto-companies. Some of them are actual corporations with employees, while others are ideas that need a push to get them to that point. Along with the companies highlighted by the Emory Biotech Consulting Club, Dean Sukhatme’s recent announcement of five I3 Venture research awards gives more examples of early stage research projects with commercial potential.

This is the third round of the I3 awards; the first two were Wow! (basic discovery) and Synergy II/Nexus (promoting interdisciplinary collaboration). For the five Venture awards, the Dean’s office is providing a total of $100,000. The companies will then use the momentum to seek larger amounts of funding from various sources. Lab Land is still collecting information on the projects:

 

Faculty Name Technology Relevant links
Ray Dingledine + Thota Ganesh Pyrefin EP2 receptor antagonists vs epilepsy, pain, inflammation New class of potential drugs inhibits inflammation in brain
Mark Goodman, W. Robert Taylor Microbial Medical PET imaging agent for detection of bacterial infections Spoonful of sugar helps infection detection
Carlos Moreno + Christian Larsen ResonanceDx Miniaturized rapid creatinine test for point of care use  
Edmund Waller + Taofeek Owonikoko Cambium Oncology Enhancing responsiveness of pancreatic cancer to immunotherapy The Company’s lead compound was effective in animal studies for pancreatic cancer, melanoma, leukemia and lymphoma.
Chunhui Xu TK High-throughput screening for antiarrhythmic drugs using cardiomyocytes Fetal alcohol toxicity – in a dish // Cardiac ‘disease in a dish’ models advance arrhythmia research
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Repurposing a transplant drug for bone growth

The transplant immunosuppressant drug FK506, also known as tacrolimus or Prograf, can stimulate bone formation in both cell culture and animal models. This info comes from orthopedics researcher Nick Willett, PhD and colleagues, published in International Journal of Molecular Sciences (open access).

Nick Willett, PhD

The results suggest that FK506 might be repurposed as a “stand-alone” replacement for recombinant BMP-2 (bone morphogenic protein 2). That product has been a huge commercial success for Medtronic, in the context of spinal fusion surgeries, although controversial because of cost and side effects.

BMP-2 is more potent gram for gram, but FK506 still may offer some opportunities in local delivery. From Sangadala et al (2019)

One of Willett’s co-authors is orthopedics chair Scott Boden, MD, whose lab previously developed a system to search for drugs that could enhance BMP-2. Previously, other researchers had observed that FK506 can enhance the action of BMP-2 – this makes sense because FK506’s target protein is a regulator of the BMP pathway. Willett’s team used FK506 on its own, delivered in a collagen sponge.

“That is the big finding here, that it has the potential to be used on its own without any BMP-2,” he says.

The sponge is a possible mechanism for getting the drug to tissues without having too many systemic effects. Willett’s lab is now working on refining delivery, dosing and toxicity, he says.

Willett, based at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, is in the Department of Orthopedics and the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. He and Sree Sangadala, PhD (first author of the IJMS paper) currently have a grant from National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences on this project.

 

 

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Sifting through signs of inflammation to analyze causes of Crohn’s disease

When studying Crohn’s disease – an inflammatory disorder of the gastrointestinal tract, a challenge is separating out potential causes from the flood of systemic inflammation inherent in the condition. Researchers led by Subra Kugathasan, MD recently published an analysis that digs under signs of inflammation, in an effort to assess possible causes.

Graduate student Hari Somineni, in Kugathasan’s lab, teamed up with Emory and Georgia Tech geneticists for a sophisticated approach that may have found some gold nuggets in the inflammatory gravel. The results were published in the journal Gastroenterology.

In studying Crohn’s disease, Emory + Georgia Tech researchers may have found some gold nuggets in the inflammatory gravel.

The group looked at DNA methylation in blood samples from pediatric patients with Crohn’s disease, both at diagnosis and after treatment and follow-up. The information came from blood samples from 164 children with Crohn’s disease and 74 controls, as part of the RISK study, which is supported by the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation and Kugathasan leads.

DNA methylation is a dynamic process that can influence molecular phenotypes of complex diseases by turning the gene(s) on or off. The researchers observed that disrupted methylation patterns at the time of diagnosis in pediatric Crohn’s disease patients returned to those resembling controls following treatment of inflammation

“Our study emphasized how important it is to do longitudinal profiling – to look at the patients before and after treatment, rather than just taking a cross section,” Somineni says.

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Sensitive to (transplant) rejection

An experimental screening method, developed by Emory and Georgia Tech scientists, aims to detect immune rejection of a transplanted organ earlier and without a biopsy needle.

The technology is based on nanoparticles that detect granzyme B enzymes produced by killer T cells. When the T cells are active, they slice up the nanoparticles, generating a fluorescent signal that is detectable in urine. The results from a mouse skin graft model were published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, from Gabe Kwong’s lab at GT and Andrew Adams’ at Emory. More extensive story here.

Co-first authors Quoc Mac and Dave Mathews

Adams is also developing technologies for imaging transplant rejection via immunoPET, with Georgia Tech’s Phil Santangelo.

 

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Bird flu shuffle probes viral compatibility

When influenza viruses that infect birds and humans meet in the same cell, they can shuffle their genomes and produce new strains that might have pandemic potential. Think of this process, called reassortment, as viruses having sex.

In the last several years, public health officials have been monitoring two varieties of bird flu viruses with alarming properties: H7N9 and H5N8. Scientists at Emory have been probing the factors that limit reassortment between these strains and a well-known strain (H3N2) that has been dominating the last few flu seasons in the United States.

Helen Branswell has an article in STAT this week, explaining that H5N8 actually emerged from reassortment  involving much-feared-but-not-damaging-to-humans-so-far H5N1:

Several years ago, these viruses effectively splintered, with some dumping their N1 neuraminidase — a gene that produces a key protein found on the surface of flu viruses — and replacing it with another. The process is called reassortment, and, in this case, it resulted in the emergence of a lot of new pairings over a fairly short period of time.

The most common and most dangerous viruses to emerge — for birds at least — have been H5N6 and H5N8 viruses. Both are highly pathogenic, meaning they kill domestic poultry.

“The H5N1 virus has not gone away. It’s just changed into different versions of itself,” explained influenza expert Malik Peiris, a professor of virology at the University of Hong Kong.

From the Emory study, the good news is that “packaging signals” on the H5 and H7 viral RNA genomes are often incompatible with the H3N2 viruses. That means it could be difficult for segments of the genome from the bird viruses to get wrapped up with the human viruses. But mix and match still occurred at a low level, particularly with H5N8. Read more

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How intestinal bacteria affect bone formation

Helpful intestinal bacteria may stimulate bone formation via butyrate, according to a recent paper in Immunity. Butyrate increases bone formation through its regulation of T cells, Emory researchers report.

The finding adds to evidence for beneficial effects of butyrate and other SCFA (short chain fatty acid) metabolites, which are produced by bacterial fermentation of fiber in the intestines.

Roberto Pacifici and colleagues had observed that probiotic supplements protected female mice from the loss of bone density occurring after ovary removal, a simulation of the hormonal changes of menopause. Probiotic bacteria could also stimulate bone formation in mice with intact ovaries, the researchers found.

The new Immunity paper shows how this effect is produced. The probiotic bacteria do not make butyrate themselves, but they encourage the growth of other Clostridum bacteria that do produce butyrate. Read more

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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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